It has long been observed that Christians must always be “prepared to make a defense” as to why we have “a reason for the hope” of Christ (1 Pet 3:15). The high calling of God is a unique phenomenon (Eph 4:1; 1 Pet 4:4), so much so that those who are both antagonistic, and genuinely curious, of the Lord’s way will ask us questions. We must give them, in return, rational answers.
Before focusing attention on the Christian’s responsibility of knowing why there is hope, we must not overlook an implicit truth of this passage: confidence in the Lord and commitment to his doctrine are never to be divorced (Luke 6:46).
Peter instructs Christians to give a “reason” for their faith and hope. What does this mean? The corresponding word for “reason” is apologia and it has a legal background, meaning the argumentation employed as a “verbal defense” in a court hearing. From time to time, it will be demanded of Christians to defend their faith and explain why they live “differently” in contrast to the world. The apostles and early-inspired men of the first century likewise defended the Christian faith in two ways: (1) verbally (Acts 22:1; Phil 1:7, 16; 2 Tim 4:16) and (2) by means of literature (1 Cor 9:3).
The New Testament documents themselves often have a defensive purpose. One of the aspects of Luke’s two-volume work (Luke-Acts) is its defensive nature. By taking into account Paul’s judicial context in Rome, scholars have observed that Luke-Acts – as Paul’s defense brief – provides excellent testimony to the Greco-Roman world that the Lord’s way is a benefit to society and not a subversive politico-religious system as many claimed Christianity to be.
The apostle John’s Gospel and his first epistle are both defensive documents, responding to different challenges that the early church faced. The Gospel establishes the rationale for our hope on the Christ as Deity (John 20:30-31); meanwhile, 1 John refutes misconceptions of how to live godly in the face of the docetic-gnostic teachers who infiltrated the church (1 John 2:1).
The apostle’s use of apologia demonstrates that the field of Christian defense is centuries old. This word is, in fact, the basis for our modern word apologetics. Its incorporation by Christians from the legal setting, where it was a “legal speech for the defense” to be delivered before the judicial authorities and subsequently published, was therefore not a large leap (Acts 22:1; Phil 1:17). In fact, it partially explains the publishing of Luke-Acts, and fits well with trumped-up political hearings where Christians had to defend themselves verbally (cf. 6:10-15, 18:12-17, 22:1, etc.; Matt 10:19).
Besides biblical examples, from about 185-250 A.D. there was a series of apologies designed to “explain the origin, doctrine, and worship” (i.e. the historical basis) of the church to their contemporaries –antagonistic or supportive. The works of Justin (his Apologies, Dialogue with Trypho), Athenagoras (Apology, On the Resurrection), and Tertullian (Against Marcion, Prescription of Heretics) are usually thought of in this light.
Christian Apologetics was not, however, limited to the study of science, philosophy, and evolution and creationism. These are topics that consume Christian Apologetics today; however, in the early church apologetics was more a defense of why Christians live they way they live. This is not a criticism of contemporary apologetics, but a call to providing a rational defense of Christian ethics – religious and moral. Before moving on, observe that historically emotions have never been the sole basis for a proper defense for one’s beliefs.
As the need arose in the first century, so our responsibility to give reasons for our hope to our modern neighbors has not diminished. Antagonists and genuine inquisitors are constant factors in the Christian’s life; consequently, Christians must provide solid well-studied responses. Likewise, every generation carries the responsibility of preaching the gospel to a dying world (Matt 28:18-20).
To fulfill this work Christians must study the Bible, believe and follow through with its instruction, and teach it rigorously so that the next generation can continue in this Divinely given cycle (2 Tim 2:1-2).
The Need for Personal Bible Study
To be sure, there are many Christians who are diligent and capable Bible students; some, however, engage in superficial study and have rendered themselves incapable of giving a defense of their faith – or even passing it on. For this reason, it is important to recognize the value of congregational Bible study; but we must understand that congregational Bible study is only a foundation to be built upon. It should not be the only time Christians are exposed to God or His instruction.
Again, congregational Bible study is not a substitute for personal spiritual maturing (2 Tim 2:15, 3:16-17); neither does it replace the daily light needed for living before God (Psa 119:11, 105). To be truly blessed, Bible study must be a part of one’s meditation and life – “both day and night” (Psa 1:1-2). God’s guidance must come from personal contact with His revelation.
Principles for Proficient Bible Study
It is sufficient to say, then, that in order to be proficient in one’s faith true Bible study cannot be superficial. Spiritually nurturing Bible study includes, at the very least: ample time for study, rigorous mental industry, a respect for the text, and a patient and prayerful consideration of all the facts. We will introduce and briefly consider these points below.
Our consideration here is limited of course; however, the points below are so vital to effective study that books are devoted to the pursuit of implementing each of them.
1. There must be ample time for study
Time is a valuable commodity. In the business world the phrase “time is money” illustrates how valuable time is. With regards to Bible study, we might coin the phrase “time is life.” There is no substitute for having plenty of valuable time with the word of God.
Renewing one’s mind requires proper time with the word (Col 3:9-10). However, the media-based culture we find ourselves in makes it difficult for some to spend time with the pages of inspiration. Nevertheless, we must make the time available (Rom 13:14).
We must remember that it takes time to read the biblical passage, it takes time to understand how a specific passage fits into the rest of Scripture, and it takes time to examine both the context and words employed. Just as it takes the time to mature through life, it requires time to mature spiritually (Psa 1:1-3).
2. There must be mental industry
This is not a matter of intellectual genius. This is a matter of determination, exposure, and focus. Here is an example: in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Paul reminds the church of the Gospel that they received and believed. Now notice verses 3 and 4:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
This brief section of scripture yields an enormous amount of information. It is, as one scholar observes, a “busy” section of Scripture. It is the basis of the Christian faith, the source of Christian evangelism, and the foundation to develop Christian spirituality upon.
As one determines to study the Scriptures, the level of exposure to biblical concepts increase. We must remain focused on the task of understanding the passage, noting unique phrases and points. For example, the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” above refers to a precise instance where Scripture has fulfilled prophetic passages regarding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:24-36).
The next step, then, is to find what scriptures predicted these events (Isa 53:5-12; Psa 16:8-11). When these passages are found and studied in collaboration with the Gospel message, untold spiritual fortification will occur. But remember, this is a matter of mental industry, not of mental genius.
3. There must be respect for the nature of the text
In other words, we must recognize numerous aspects of a passage. There are, of course, numerous facets or angles that a passage may be studied, but some of the most significant ones are: the context of the passage, the original purpose of the passage, the method used to prove the author’s point, and the covenantal context of the passage (e.g. Patriarchal, Mosaic, or Christian).
For example, animal sacrifice was offered both during the Patriarchal and Mosaic systems; however, the ramifications of the New Testament covenant demonstrates that this method of atonement is no longer a viable way for the forgiving of man’s sins (Heb 9:1-10:18). One cannot overestimate solid principles of interpretations.
One more issue that must be considered separately is the acknowledgement that the Bible was not written in English. One must also respect the fact that the Bible English readers have is a translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek language. This fact must never be ignored, ridiculed, nor underestimated in the study of God’s word.
Jack P. Lewis expresses this caution in the following way:
In the ultimate analysis every significant Biblical question is to be solved on the basis of what a writer meant by a Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic expression.
Observing this one principle can sometimes help distinguish biblical truth from both liberal and legalistic conclusions.
4. There must be patience and a prayerful consideration of all the facts
There is no value in jumping to conclusions. This is a fundamental principle to rational thinking. To understand the Bible’s teaching on a subject, we must take a slow and prayerful approach in coming to a conclusion. This way, one is as thorough as humanly possible.
James D. Thomas reminds us of the importance of thorough Bible study:
All facts must be considered. One white horse can ruin an hypothesis [sic] that all horses are brown, and one contrary fact can ruin any inductive-reasoning hypothesis, meaning that research must start again. This means that for perfect, absolute exegesis, every stone must be turned – every fact possible must be determined and taken into account, in order to complete scholarly research.
No one of genuine concern wants to be wrong on what the Bible teaches. Therefore, we must be cautious and ready to see all the biblical evidence as slowly or quickly as it is analyzed.
In principle, it is what we find in Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians:
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thess 5:19-22)
We must be patient and let the scriptural facts reveal themselves on their own terms.
The Christian will always be called upon to share their hope with the world; no matter what generation it is. Providing answers so that people may understand the nature of the Christian faith is the true purpose of Christian Apologetics. In order to comply with the apostle Peter’s instruction, Christians must be diligent Bible students; however this is not always the case.
While congregations are to be supporters of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), individual members must abide in the words of the Gospel (John 8:31-32). By engaging in proficient Bible study, Christians will have knowledge of their faith and hope, and therefore be able to share their faith.
- Unless otherwise noted all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publications, 2001).
- Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1993), 22.
- Donald A. Carson, James D. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 196-97.
- G. L. Carey, “Apologists,” New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 57.
- F. W. Mattox and John McRay, The Eternal Kingdom, rev. ed., rev. John McRay (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publications, 1961), 67-87; Ronald S. Wallace, “Apologetics,” New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 56-57.
- Wayne Jackson, “The Gospel in Miniature,” Christian Courier 43.1 (May 2007): 3.
- Wayne Jackson, A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge (Stockton, CA: Courier, 1986), 20-29.
- Jack P. Lewis, “Inspiration and Authority of the Bible,” Alternative 5.2 (1979): 6.
- James D. Thomas, Harmonizing Hermeneutics (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1991), 87.