Preaching the First Principles in a Post-Christian World
We live in a similar world to Paul’s, a world full of idolatry, antagonistic to the idea of the one true God of Israel.
We live in a post-Christian world. More and more people identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. Even if someone claims to believe in some kind of higher spiritual power, many are functional atheists, having no semblance of a relationship with that higher power. Other people are turning away from Christianity to become “spiritual” or to embrace Eastern religion. Church attendance has been declining for decades, and our preaching efforts often prove fruitless.
How do we preach the first principles of the doctrine of God in such a post-Christian world? Mention the Bible, or the God of the Bible, Jesus, or quote Bible passages, and you’re met with blank stares. It can be a frustrating venture to try to tell people about our hope when we are met with the Biblically illiterate masses.
Thankfully, we have direction in Scripture to guide our efforts. The first-century world was not so different from ours. In Judea, there were plenty of Jews, but few of them understood their true Messiah and what the Hope of Israel means. Outside of Judea, most people knew nothing of Yahweh, the God of the Bible. But that did not stop the Lord Jesus Christ, who, having been raised from the dead, appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. He gave his new apostle the following commission:
Saul of Tarsus would be sent to the Gentiles, a people who did not know Yahweh. They were, as verse 18 says, “in darkness,” and Saul’s mission was to open their eyes just as his eyes were opened so that he might turn from the blinkered form of Judaism he formerly embraced.
When he went on his first missionary journey through the Gentile world, one of his first ports of call was the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. His first recorded speech, delivered to the Jews, however, was met with antagonism. Curiously, the eyes of the Jews were just as blind as the Gentiles. So Paul, as he was now known in Gentile lands, told the Jews “Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46). He then referred to his commission by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
We’ll come back to this quotation in a moment, but first think back to Saul’s conversion. He did begin preaching right away, but it quickly became obvious he was too green, and he was sent back to Tarsus for between three and nine years or more (Acts 9:26-28).
What do you suppose Paul did while he was back in his hometown for so many years? Jesus had given him an enormously difficult task: to preach the gospel message to a Biblically illiterate people steeped in all kinds of philosophies and idolatry.
I think there’s a clue as to what he was doing in his use of that quotation from Isaiah. The words are found in two places in the prophetic record—Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6. The passage in chapter 49 speaks of someone called “from the womb” (v. 1), as was the apostle Paul (Gal 1:15). The next verse (Isa 49:2) says “He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” pointing to Paul being a preacher to the Gentiles (Gal 1:16).
But it’s the passage in Isaiah 42 which is more significant for the Apostle Paul because it mentions the commission he had received on the road to Damascus: to open the blind eyes of the Gentiles and bring them out of darkness:
Paul had been taken by the hand (Acts 9:8) after being made blind so that he might see. And now he was going to pass on that experience to the Gentiles.
So, as we can tell from the quotes in Acts 13, both passages would have been very meaningful for Paul. That is especially so because of the wider context. Remember, he was to preach to a world full of idolatry. At this he was successful—“you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thess 1:9). And the prophecy of Isaiah would prove the backbone for his preaching because Isaiah 40-55 contains a series of polemics against idolatry. For instance, the next verse in Isaiah 42 says:
These chapters in Isaiah teach one of the most basic first principle doctrines of all—there is only one God, His name is Yahweh, and all other gods are the figments of people’s imaginations. What better passage of Scripture for Paul to pour over during his time in Tarsus? And we know he did study Isaiah because of the amount of time he spent quoting it in his epistles to the Gentile ecclesias, particularly in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians.
Along with Isaiah, there is one other main passage Paul must have studied while in Tarsus. It is a chapter in Deuteronomy that forms the background of Isaiah 44 and teaches about the folly of idols (vv. 9-10). Isaiah 44 begins with these words:
We have an echo here of chapter 49 with the mention of God’s servant being “formed from the womb.” And, while both passages apply initially to Israel, they also point forward to Paul as the Apostle of the Gentiles, just as the Jews would be witnesses to the God of Israel among the nations.
But it’s the nickname for Israel, Jeshurun (v. 2), which tells us that this passage is based on Deuteronomy. It is a name only found here in Isaiah 44, Deuteronomy 32:15, and 33:5.
Isaiah 44 contains symbolic language of preaching among the Gentiles before we come to the following:
These are some of those typical words of Isaiah outlining the basic doctrine of the oneness and incomparability of Yahweh. There is further evidence that it’s based on Deuteronomy 32 by using the word translated “God” in verse 8, which is not the normal word elohim but the much rarer eloah. This instance is the only time Isaiah uses this word in his prophecy, but the first two occurrences (and the only occurrences in the Pentateuch) are in Deuteronomy 32 (in bold below):
As you can see from these verses, Deuteronomy 32 is a polemic against idolatry (here, the idolatry Israel would fall into by flirting with the Gentile nations), forming a fitting background for Isaiah. In the chapter, God describes himself as a rock (vv. 4, 15, 18, 30-31), which Isaiah calls God in Isa. 44:8—“Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”
Deuteronomy 32:39 sums up the incomparability of Yahweh with: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me.” The key phrase “I am he” is used for God in several similar passages in Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 13; 46:4; 48:12. That same verse in Deuteronomy continues with the words “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal,” which accord with Isaiah 45:
Deuteronomy 32 also tells us that God is interested in all nations:
Since “the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,” we understand Yahweh is completely sovereign in all the earth. Ultimately, He is the God of the Gentiles, even though they didn’t know it.
When talking about the gospel going out to the Gentiles, Paul quoted verse 43 of the same chapter in Romans 15:10. However, he clearly used the Septuagint rendering, which reads, “Delight, O nations, with his people.”
Deuteronomy 32, therefore, forms the basis of Isaiah’s preaching about the unity of God and diatribes against idolatry. The chapter, along with Isaiah, are some of the stock passages Paul used in his preaching efforts to the Gentiles.
We live in a similar world to Paul’s, a world full of idolatry, antagonistic to the idea of the one true God of Israel. The idols we encounter differ from those in the first century. They are more subtle but just as potently capable of enslaving people to false religion, even those who subscribe to atheism. The example of Paul and his use of Isaiah and Deuteronomy 32 can guide us as we attempt to preach the gospel message in a world full of darkness.
In this series, we shall examine Paul’s example by focusing on his speech in a hotbed of worldly philosophy—Athens. There, we shall see Paul build bridges, establish common ground, and through the power of Scripture—even without quoting it to the Biblically illiterate—convince at least some of his listeners to turn from idols to serve the living and true God.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA