Our culture questions biblical authority, so, like Paul, we must adapt our hermeneutical approach to reach our neighbors.
Exhibit B: Peter and the Gentiles
Eight chapters later, Luke records a second message delivered by Peter, this time to a Gentile audience in Caesarea. Peter had been invited to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. We can’t begin to comprehend how difficult it was for Peter to step across the threshold of a Gentile home. In the awkward opening lines of his message, he freely admits this was his first time to do so. And this was approximately 10 years after the resurrection!
Best we can tell, this was the first evangelistic presentation made to an exclusively Gentile audience, in this case Cornelius’ close friends and relatives (Acts 10:24). After an introduction that must have offended every Gentile in the room, Peter dives into his message. Here it is.
”You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
”We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter doesn’t leverage “The Bible says” this time around. He doesn’t quote from the Jewish Scriptures. Whereas it made up about 25 percent of his message to the Jews, not so here, which is understandable. While Gentiles respected the Jewish Scriptures for their antiquity, they didn’t consider them authoritative. On the contrary, as Peter readily admits in his regretful introduction, Jews and Gentiles had as little to do with each other as possible. The Jewish Scriptures were given to the Jews. So Peter focuses almost exclusively on the well-known and thus verifiable events surrounding the life, death and, ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. Peter is clear; Jesus was more than a Jewish Messiah. The resurrection had implications beyond the nation of Israel. Jesus, Peter declared, was appointed by God to judge all the living and all the dead, both Jews and Gentiles.
Once his case was made, evidence presented, he adds:
“All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
When you read this closing statement in context, clearly Peter isn’t using this nonspecific reference to the prophets as a selling point. It reads as almost an afterthought. And he doesn’t bother to reference or quote a specific prophet. Assuming Cornelius and his family were not familiar with the Jewish prophets, it wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. Some argue this vague reference to prophets was actually for the benefit of the Jews who accompanied him to Cornelius’ home. This view certainly makes sense based on what happened next. No sooner had Peter gotten that last line out when:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
Notice who was most impressed:
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. (Acts 10:44-46)
This was, in fact, what the prophet Joel predicted. The Jews in the room put two and two together. There was no denying it. The Gentiles were in!
While Peter’s messages differ in their use of the Jewish Scriptures, both have as their central theme the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what mattered most. That’s still what matters most. This is why I’m absolutely convinced of the following: In the marketplace—not the church—in the public square, in the classroom, we must shift the debate away from whether the entire Bible is true and focus the debate on whether Jesus rose from the dead. That is the issue. And that is an event for which we have overwhelming evidence. And no, our evidence does not come from the Bible. Evidence for the resurrection comes from the eyewitness testimonies of Jesus’ first-century followers who documented not what they believed but what they saw. Later, these documents were collected and included in what would later be titled the Bible. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, you are mistaken.
Exhibit C: Paul and the Jews
The apostle Paul makes the clearest argument for adjusting one’s approach based on one’s audience. Read these familiar verses with that in mind.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Paul’s mission? “Win” ‘em and “save” ‘em.
His approach? Whatever it took to “win” ‘em and “save” ‘em.
Paul was not married to a method. He was completely sold out to a mission. Let this phrase rattle around in your mind for a few minutes:
“… so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Which means, Paul?
“All possible means.”
So, you may take one approach one day and a different approach a different day? Am I reading you right?
“All possible means.”
Is that really necessary? Doesn’t the Spirit do the work?
“All possible means.”
But isn’t it enough to preach the Word and let the seed fall where it may?
“All possible means.”
And why do you go to such lengths?
“… for the sake of the gospel.”
What if we just did that for a year? What if we opted for the “all possible means” approach? What if we decided to do whatever it takes?
That’s when the world changes.
If there was ever a first-century preacher who had the goods to leverage “the Bible says” and “the Scripture teaches,” it was Paul. As a Pharisee, he was trained in the Law. He studied under Gamaliel. We know from his letters that his intellect and reasoning abilities were second to none. His message recorded by Luke in Acts 13 is mind-blowing. Standing in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, surrounded by Jews, Paul begins his message with Israel’s migration from Egypt. From there he walks his audience through their own history right up to the era of King Saul and King David. But when he gets to David, he pivots:
“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” (Acts 13:23)