Towards a Jesus-Centered Apologetic (Part Two)
Jesus is incredibly influential. There are breadcrumbs from his legacy everywhere you look. That’s why your best defense of the Christian faith may very well be to simply begin with this epic historical figure who turned the world upside down.
But how can you begin to develop a Jesus-centered apologetic? The obvious answer is to look to the Bible itself. Even more specific, look to the gospel accounts. These ancient documents have more literary evidence for their trustworthiness than any other writing from antiquity. And they focus on the life of the one who stands at the center for the Christian faith.
The point of this series isn’t to give you concrete tactics. Though there will be some specific methods along the way, the main goal is to encourage you to immerse yourself in Scripture and develop a biblically informed muscle memory for recalling the life of Jesus and using his story to counter misconceptions about God. The more you are familiar with Scripture, the more you can reflexively respond when someone says God is like this or that, when you know good and well Jesus proves otherwise, the more effective you will be in sharing your faith.
Stories About Jesus
The gospels are all about Jesus. Each gospel has a different focus. The early church developed symbols, inspired by the four living creatures referred to in the book of Ezekiel (a man, a lion, a calf, and an eagle), to reflect different emphases in the gospels. This is called a tetramorph, where four symbols are placed together to point to a single focus. The gospel accounts have a singular focus of the life of Christ from four differing perspectives and priorities.
The church father Irenaeus identified the four gospel symbols this way: Matthew with the man emphasizing Christ’s humanity, Mark with the eagle underlining Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, Luke with the ox focusing on Jesus’s sacrifice, and John with the lion exalting Christ as King. As you read these accounts you will see multi-faceted ways the gospels point to Jesus as the solution to humanity’s deepest needs.
Obviously some will continue to challenge the reliability of Scripture. There are numerous resources available like this one for responding to such challenges, like this helpful book, Why Should We Trust the Bible, by Dr. Timothy Paul Jones. If you are sharing the faith with someone who refuses to listen to stories of Jesus without first considering arguments for Scripture, you will need to begin by addressing their concerns. But for those who are willing to look at the ways Jesus shows us what God is really like, Jesus-centered apologetics is an ideal method.
There’s no substitute in apologetics for one’s personal encounter with God through His Word. As you read the Gospels, think about the ways the different accounts of Jesus correlate to various contemporary objections to belief in God. Take some notes on what questions you feel these stories relate to. Think about past conversations with unbelievers, and how various depictions of Jesus speak into questions about God. Develop your own tactics for the next time someone presents you with a view of God that doesn’t line up with the life of Jesus, so that you can quickly respond with either a true story about Jesus, or a story told by Jesus.
Stories Jesus Told
The parables of Jesus are loaded with meaning. A lot of times we quickly pass over the parables because of our own familiarity with them. We’ve heard about them in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School a ton of times. They have become background noise. But guess what, they have powerful apologetic value. However, connecting them to contemporary challenges may not come naturally.
One problem is that we often over-dissect the parables. We can cut them into so many pieces they no longer resemble anything meaningful. When people try to make every single element of the parables have an obvious parallel, they can miss the forest for the trees.
For example, don’t try to give every single thing in the parable of the Good Samaritan some spiritual meaning. The ointment that the Good Samaritan put on the victim doesn’t have to mean something like the Holy Spirit. The donkey the Samaritan put the victim onto doesn’t have to represent the Messiah. Instead, look for the central point of the parable. It’s usually more clearly emphasized at the end of each story.
That leads to another problem with making sense of the parables. Sometimes in quickly rushing to find the central meaning, we miss it altogether. While you don’t need a degree in theology to do this, you do need to take the necessary time to study the text. The easiest way to get this wrong is to make each parable primarily about some simple moral lesson. To avoid this, look at the context of the parables. Jesus often told stories to counter some immediate challenge. In the immediate context before and after the parable, you should get a good idea of what Jesus was responding to.
For example, as we will look at in a later post, the parable of the Prodigal Son was told in response to religious leaders who were upset Jesus received sinners and ate with them. How might the story of a father who receives his wayward son and shares a meal with him, even throws a party, make sense in light of the biblical context? When someone alleges that God is for “religious people,” how might this parable offer a helpful response?
Stories of How Jesus Changes Lives
Moving away from the objective claims of Scripture, there is a whole other realm of stories about Jesus. While someone can refuse to explore historical evidence for Jesus, or deny philosophical arguments for the existence of God, it is hard for them to completely ignore Jesus’s influence. He has changed countless lives over the years resulting in what continues to be the world’s largest religion. While personal stories don’t carry the same authority as inspired Scripture, they are powerful and speak to the ongoing transformation brought about the resurrected Messiah.
When former President George W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was, he said it was Jesus, because Jesus changed his life. This is just one example of a life made new by a man from Nazareth who claimed to be God. As C.S. Lewis once said, we cannot dismiss Jesus as merely a good teacher. Since he claimed to be God, he either was telling the truth, lying, or he was crazy. If Jesus can really change so many lives, we might consider his claim to be God in the flesh.
The goal of this series is to get you into the discipline of studying the life of Jesus in Scripture and thinking through how his life and his parables counter popular misconceptions of God. As you look at stories about him, and stories he told, write out ways his life points to a true understanding of God. And as you consider all of the lives changed by Jesus, including your own, add those to your apologetics. Personal change might not be a philosophical proof, but it is a powerful message. And in the Gospels, we find numerous transformational stories told about and by Jesus, this man who changed history.