One evening I was engaged in vigorous debate outside Ladbroke Grove tube station with a member of the ‘Nation of Islam’ who was selling copies of The final call. We were soon surrounded by a group of Rastafarians who left their table of joss-sticks to join in the discussion.
One Rasta rounded on the Nation member, challenging him, ‘Are you saying it’s right to hate people?’ The reply was somewhat mumbled, ‘Well, yes, if they do this, and if they do that…’
The Rastaman stood his ground, ‘That’s not right! If a person says bad things, we hate the things he says, or if he thinks bad things we hate his thoughts. But we don’t hate the person’. I turned to him, ‘We agree on that one!’ And as we shook hands, he said, ‘There’s such a thing as shared truth!’
And he was right: there is, indeed, such a thing as shared truth. Have you ever noticed how the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles believed in shared truth? The idea comes out clearly in several incidents.
A Samaritan woman
Jesus was on his way from Judæa to Galilee via Samaria and stopped to rest by Jacob’s well outside the city of Sychar.
At that late hour, presumably because she was unpopular with the other women, a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus, who came to seek the lost, was not put off by the woman’s lifestyle, but asked her for a drink – which surprised her because he was a Jew.
Jesus used this opportunity to introduce the truth concerning himself and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and, after a further conversation, she became convinced that Jesus was indeed the -Messiah.
What emerges from the exchange is that the woman was well aware of her ethnic history and beliefs (John 4:12,19, 20,25). Jesus also understood the beliefs and practices of the Samaritans and was able to make use of this shared knowledge in his presentation of the truth.
He was very direct: ‘You worship what you do not know. We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews’ (v. 20). He well knew that the Samaritans did not worship God according to the Law – and consequently had little knowledge of the God they professed to serve.
But nevertheless, Jesus was able to use his knowledge of the Samaritan religion and exploit to advantage such common ground as there was – such as belief in the Messiah – as he witnessed to this woman.
If we understand what people believe, we can save a great deal of time in witness and get to the point sooner. Jesus was able to demonstrate that the woman had not really been worshipping God at all – but he did not leave it there. He went on to instruct her in the way of salvation.
Jesus pointed out that she was so concerned about what her ‘father Jacob’ and the other patriarchs did (vv. 20-21) that she had lost sight of the one whom she should have been worshipping – ‘theFather’ (vv. 21, 23).
Because Jesus knew her personal circumstances (vv.17-18) she had already acknowledged him as a prophet (v.19). So in response to her affirmation of faith in the coming Messiah, Jesus got right to the point: ‘You believe in the Messiah; right then – that’s meyou’re talking about!’ (vv. 26-26).
Jesus’ approach shows that he understood the beliefs of others and used his knowledge to advantage in dealing with them concerning their relationship to their Creator. Agreement about the coming Messiah – shared by Jesus and this Samaritan woman – was shared truthon which Jesus was able to build.
Paul at Athens
It is interesting that the apostle Paul followed the same approach when he reasoned with the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31). Rather than engage in head-on confrontation with the Athenians over their manifold idolatries, Paul picks as his starting point one of their own inscriptions: ‘To an unknown God’.
Having declared the true nature of this ‘unknown God’ – as the one who ‘gives to all life, breath and all things’ – he then quotes one of their own poets to demonstrate the transcendence yet immanence of God. In other words, he makes maximum use of the limited ‘common ground’ between Greek culture and the gospel.
Paul recognises that shared truth is a valuable – perhaps even necessary – starting point if we are to engage men’s attention with the message of salvation.
Of course, it is onlya starting point! He goes on to proclaim Christ and his resurrection from the dead (v. 31).
Returning to the example of the Lord Jesus, consider thirdly how he dealt with some Sadducees who tried to trap him in his words.
The Sadducees were ethnically Jewish, although probably influenced by Greek culture. They only accepted the five books of Moses as absolute authority and not the later scriptures. The Sadducees did not believe in angels, miracles or the resurrection of the dead. On this occasion, they were trying to trap Jesus concerning his teaching about the resurrection (Luke 20:27).
The Law of Moses (they argued) states that if a man dies and leaves no children, his brother should take his widow as his wife and raise up children by her in the dead man’s name. In this way, the inheritance of the deceased brother would pass to those children who would also bear his name (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Having set the legal context, the Sadducees tell the story of seven brothers. The first brother marries, but dies leaving no children. The second brother then takes his brother’s widow as his wife according to the Law, but he also dies before he can father children in his brother’s name. This continues until the seven brothers and the woman herself are all dead.
Sure that it would stump Jesus, the Sadducees then fired a question: ‘Therefore in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife’ (Mark 12:23).
God of the living
Jesus’ answer was precise and to the point. They were mistaken, he said, for two reasons – they knew neither the Scripture nor the power of God. ‘For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels of God in heaven’ (Matthew 22:29-33).
But then Christ clinches the argument – and does so by using ‘shared truth’ to convince his questioners of their error. Knowing that the Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Bible as God’s Word, what does he do? He turns to the account of the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-6 and uses the second book of Moses to prove the resurrection!
‘Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. God is not the God of the dead but of the living’.
Jesus did not waste time trying to prove to them that the whole Old Testament was God’s Word. Rather, he argued from shared truth. The first five books were without doubt inspired by God and the Sadducees accepted that – so Jesus went straight to the mutually agreed authority to prove his point.
What can we learn from all this? The lesson is that in seeking to present the gospel to people, we should do it from a basis of shared truth. There is always some truth, no matter how slender, that we have in common with other people. Jesus shows us that we can use that sharedtruth in presenting the wholetruth!
A good starting place is to ask people what they believe and listen carefully to what they say. If we spent more time studying the beliefs and assumptions of others, we would be better able to get to the heart of the issue. In other words, we can use things they already accept as a springboard for our presentation of the gospel.
Too often we have been led to think that the gospel message will enter people’s hearts like a bolt from the blue. ‘All that is needed is faith and power’, we are told. But this is seldom the case.
To introduce people to the salvation that is found only in Christ, we also need wisdom, knowledge and understanding – things that come through listening, questioning, study and reflection.
It is easier and more natural to strike up a conversation if you have some idea what the person you are speaking to believes. And when others feel that we are taking an interest in them as people, and that we understand them at a deeper level, they will also feel more ready to listen to us.