What is the goal of evangelism and apologetics? It is not to argue endlessly, or to merely agree to disagree. The goal is very simple—get them to Jesus. In other words, the goal is to dismantle the unbeliever’s worldview so effectively, and present Jesus so compellingly, that his heart is led to repentance and faith in Christ. This truth should guide everything we do when in conversation with non-Christians.
As you ask and answer questions, clear away intellectual obstacles, and present the Christian alternative, the primary goal is to get them to consider the claims and work of Christ on the cross. This only makes sense. If what saves a person is trust in who Jesus is and what he said and did in his incarnation, then you want to try to talk about those topics as soon as the unbeliever is ready to listen and consider them. As soon as some of his objections are answered, you want to begin to introduce the gospel truths about Jesus—his divinity, his incarnation, his humanity, his life and death, and his resurrection. What a person does with Jesus determines his eternal state, so nothing else is as important.
This is the primary reason we don’t get involved in arguments about issues that don’t really matter. Paul warned Timothy to rebuke those in the church who spent time in pointless questions and speculations about matters of minor importance (1 Tim. 1:3-7). It is too easy to get off track in discussions about the age of the earth, the details of the end times, or a person’s views on cultural issues. While these may be important in other contexts, they have nothing to do with a person’s salvation. You want to focus on the central claims of Jesus to be God in the flesh, the only way to restoration with God, and the risen Savior.
Therefore, when engaging with unbelievers, focus on clearing away objections so that they can hear and consider the claims of Jesus in Scripture. What are the key claims of Jesus of which people are often unaware?
- Jesus claimed to be God
Many people have never considered what a radical claim this is. Jesus claimed to be God in human form. This means that Jesus could not have been simply a good teacher or a wise, wandering sage, as many people believe. C. S. Lewis addresses this dilemma in his famous “trilemma” discussion:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Mere Christianity, 55)
In other words, what people often believe about Jesus, that he was a good, moral teacher, cannot be true because of the claims he made to be God in the flesh. A good, moral person does not claim to be God. But Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God.
Sometimes critics argue this point by pointing out that Jesus never said the particular phrase, “I am God.” This is a false test of the deity of Christ, however, because the truth of a statement does not depend on particular wording if there are other ways to describe the truth. I don’t have to say, “I am a father” to establish that truth. I can talk about my children, and in doing so I state indirectly the obvious—that I am a father. In the same way, there are many different ways Jesus makes it clear that he is claiming to be God. In addition, the reactions of others when he used these various ways to state his deity demonstrate that those who heard him understood him to be claiming to be God.
- In John 3:13-15 Jesus claims to have come from heaven and to be the Son of Man. The term “Son of Man” does not speak primarily of Jesus’ humanity, but rather his deity. It is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 where the Son of Man is equated with God himself. This term is used more than 80 times in the New Testament, many of them by Jesus referring to himself.
- In John 5:18-26 the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal to God. How was he doing that? He was comparing his miraculous works with God’s work (v. 17). This alone in the minds of the Jews was a claim to be God.
- In John 8:58 Jesus used the words of God in the Old Testament to describe himself. As God told Moses, “I AM who I AM,” Jesus claimed the same status for himself by saying that, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The very next verse shows that the Jews interpreted this as another claim to deity, because they picked up stones in order to stone him for his blasphemy.
- In John 10:30-33 Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” Again, the Jews pick up stones to stone Jesus. He asks them why they wanted to kill him, and their response shows that they interpreted his words as a claim to deity.
- Additional claims to deity can be found in the following passages: Mark 14:61-62; Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 26:63-65; Luke 22:67-70; John 16:28.
In the next post we will examine more claims of Jesus to fill out the picture of the biblical Jesus.