Persuasion and Explaining
In Acts 17:2-3, Paul, in Thessalonica went to the synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.”
Christians must reason with people, but this is not just giving raw facts without providing a context and meaning. The process of reasoning also includes the idea of “explaining.” The purpose of explaining anything is to help the hearer understand exactly what is meant. For example, when Ezra addressed those who had returned from captivity, he taught and explained. Nehemiah 8:8 says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Notice the process indicated here. They read from the book clearly, then they gave the sense, interpreting and explaining so that the people understood the meaning of what they had heard.
When the Ethiopian eunuch, in Acts 8:26-40, was returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip the evangelist was sent to help the eunuch. Philip heard him reading and asked, “Do you understand what you reading?” The eunuch responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip then sat with him and explained how that passage from Isaiah spoke about Christ. He explained what was being read so that the eunuch understood and then responded appropriately. Without first understanding, there could not have been a proper response.
This process of explaining and understanding is sometimes more difficult than it may appear at first. Why so? People “bring to the table” any number of ideas and previous understandings and conceptions about a host of topics. This includes the words that people hear. The communicator may use a word that he understands in his own context, but that same context may not be shared by the other persons who are listening. This, by itself, is not the fault of any particular party. People are, in many ways, the products of their own environments. One growing up in the United States, for example, will have a very different frame of reference than one who grows up in South America or Africa. They can learn to understand each other, but to do so requires “translation” and information that helps explain their given contexts.
When twenty-first century people read the Bible, they are essentially entering into another country in different context. This can be a barrier to understanding because people will invariably read from their own modern context rather than trying to understand from the context in which the biblical authors wrote. The problem is not insurmountable, but it does take great care to make sure they are not using modern concepts to project back into the biblical world. Biblical interpretation requires seeing the context in which something is written. Words have meaning, and meaning is tied to usage in the context of its own time. For example, when Paul used the word translated “power” in Romans 1:16, he used the word from which the English “dynamite” comes. However, he was not saying that the gospel is God’s dynamite. That would be projecting a modern term and concept back into the Scriptures. The same goes for the term from which “apology” comes in 1 Peter 3:15. Peter was not saying that Christians need to be sorry for their hope; he was saying they needed to be read to give a verbal defense. Words and ideas change over time, so one must take great care to understand terms in context.
Persuasion and explanation go together for the simple reason that people cannot be rightly persuaded of something if they do not understand it. If, for example, people are talking about “God,” but they do not understand by the use of the term what is really meant, then how can persuasion occur? If a term like “love” has a broad semantic range of meanings (one can love food, love a dog, and love a spouse), then it stands to reason that a little explanation for the sake of understanding will go a long way to people coming to terms with one another.
Of course, explanation and interpretation can be fraught with danger. One can give a bad explanation or interpret in a way that leads to faulty conclusions. This, in turn, can lead others astray. Explanation and interpretation are necessary, but just as necessary are the efforts to take great care that truth is actually taught. On the other side of the coin, the listener needs to take care to check out what is being taught to make sure is correct. 1 John 4:1 teaches, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” This attitude of searching the Scripture and making sure of the truth is called “noble-minded” in Acts 17:11. Even when Paul taught, there was an expectation that hearers would make sure that they were being taught the truth. While persuasion from the communicator requires explanation, the listener must never be entirely passive in the process. The listener must seek to understand and test the teaching in order to be convinced that he really does accept what is true.