Boldness

In our church plant meetings, we are often praying for boldness, and our pastor consistently exhorts us to continue to pray for boldness, motivated by the description in Acts 4 of the believers praying for boldness and then immediately after being recognized by others because of their boldness. But I wonder how well we really understand just what boldness is. What exactly were the apostles praying for? And what are we praying for?

In thinking about this, I decided to check out what the book of Acts has to say about boldness, and I was actually surprised to find how frequently the word is actually used throughout the book. The Greek noun parresia is used 5 times and the verb parresiazomai 7 times. What struck me, at first, was that the word is already used of the apostles before Acts 4:29, where the believers pray together for boldness. It’s used again of Peter and John in Acts 4:13, as the Jewish council recognizes their boldness because “they had been with Jesus.” In Acts 4:29, the believers are all together praying to continue speaking with boldness, and we see in Acts 4:31 that God grants their request. Through the rest of the book, Paul’s boldness is focused on. He was not among the believers in Acts 4, but his conversion is narrated in Acts 9. And, soon after his conversion, Barnabas testifies about him that he has been preaching boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27). And Paul continued to preach boldly as Acts 9:28 records. Paul and Barnabas together are characterized as speaking boldly in Acts 13:46 and 14:3. In Acts 18:26, we meet Apollos who spoke boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus, but, apparently, even in his boldness, he did not have the message quite right, for Priscilla and Aquila had to take him aside and explain to him “the way of God more accurately.” Apollos was then sent on his way over to Achaia, which is the region where Corinth is. Paul follows shortly behind and enters Ephesus apparently soon after Apollos has departed, and he spoke boldly in the synagogue of Ephesus for three months (Acts 19:8). In Paul’s defense before Festus, he is characterized as speaking boldly to try to persuade Festus of the significance of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection which Festus already knew about (Acts 26:26). Finally, it is very interesting to note that the final verse of the book highlights Paul’s boldness in preaching, as he is settled into house arrest in Rome, having freedom to receive guests and preach the gospel unhindered (Acts 28:31). So, clearly, boldness could be identified as a unifying thread that runs throughout the book of Acts.

Now, typically, I think, when we think of “boldness,” we think simply of confidence to stand up for the truth in the face of opposition. But, while this is truly one aspect of parresia, boldness, as it is used in the Bible, I think we are actually missing the primary meaning of the word, the meaning which supports or grounds or undergirds our ability to stand up to opposition and to proclaim the truth unashamedly. This aspect is revealed more clearly in the first occurrence of the word parresia in the book of Acts, found in Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:29. Peter says, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence (parresia) about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Our English translations, even the most consistently literal translations such as ESV or NASB, translate parresia here as “confidence” or “confidently” rather than with “boldness,” as in every other occurrence of the word in the book of Acts. It would be more helpful, perhaps, if the translators would be a little more consistent, but I can see why they feel that “confidence” is more appropriate in this context, and, in fact, it helps us see more clearly the fullness of the meaning of parresia. Peter claims to have confidence/boldness about the historical fact that David has died and is in his grave. Of course, as he develops this, he is making a contrast with the Son of David, Jesus, who has not remained in his grave! But, Peter is claiming confidence/boldness here because he is absolutely certain of the truthfulness of what he is preaching. This, I think, is the aspect of boldness that we are not thinking enough about. In order for us to have the kind of boldness that enables us to speak clearly and unashamedly in the face of skeptics or unbelievers, we must have a settled certainty about the events that comprise the gospel message.

Therefore, not only ought we be praying for boldness, but we must also be working to increase our confidence, our certainty about the events narrated for us in the Bible and about the significance of those events as fleshed out by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament, including and especially how those events fulfilled every hope and promise which are set forth in the Old Testament. Simply put, we must learn how to understand and proclaim “the whole counsel of God” as Paul indicates he did to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:27). In other words, we must be working diligently to increase our knowledge of the Scriptures. Peter’s certainty concerning the truth about Jesus’ resurrection in contrast with the great David’s death and how those two facts relate in the scope of redemptive history is why he was able to preach with boldness. So, we should not necessarily expect that God will grant our request for increased boldness if we are not actively pursuing an increased knowledge of God through studying his revelation to us. This is not to say that God’s granting our requests is dependent on our behavior or our preparedness; rather, it is to acknowledge that God often (if not always) uses means to answer our prayers. In fact, the fact that God uses means in this world to accomplish his purposes is one of the primary reasons we pray in the first place. Scripture bears out time and time again (even and especially in the book of Acts) that God uses the prayers of his people as the means by which he brings things to pass in our world. Thus, we ought to expect that God would give us boldness through or in response to our prayers for boldness. However, by virtue of the very nature of boldness, which, I think, includes and is founded on a growing confidence in the truth of the gospel in accordance with our increased understanding of the gospel, we must realize that God will probably grant our prayer through the means of increased study and discussion and thinking about the Scriptures.

This is probably one of the reasons that Paul prayed so frequently, as recorded in his letters even, that believers would grow in their knowledge of God (read: in their theology!).

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Peter’s Denial in Light of His Knowledge

On occasion, someone has warned me about having too much knowledge. Usually, the one who warns me is a well-meaning person who, in my mind, holds to some kind of incorrect/unbiblical dichotomy between the heart and the mind, concerned that my rigorous studies cannot lead me to a genuine experience with Jesus–or, worse, will lead me to reject the faith altogether (a la Bart Ehrman). Thus, for a person who thinks this way, emotional response or experience is often (unintentionally, I think) elevated above critical thinking and evaluation.

Today, I see the warning in a different light…from the Scriptures.

Consider Peter, the great apostle. At one point in his ministry, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Probably representing the Twelve, Peter steps up to the microphone (I wonder if he was trembling as he spoke, or if he spoke with all the boldness he could muster?), “You are the Christ.” Reading through the Gospel of Mark, other than the demons, this is the first time anyone has correctly identified Jesus (except for the Father when Jesus was baptized). Matthew tells us more about this conversation; Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter on the spot: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). So, Peter is portrayed as one who has been given special revelation about Jesus’ identity that no one else has been given! Remarkable!

Peter, who had this great revelation from the Father about Jesus’ true identity, of whom it could probably be said, “He has more knowledge than everybody else,” assures Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not….If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mark 14:29, 31). Mark indicates that everyone else said the same thing, but he wants to highlight Peter in the story. Of course, we learn very soon that Peter does, in fact, deny Jesus. Three times within a very short span of time, Peter denies his Lord. (What Peter was doing publicly the rest of the disciples were doing secretly.)

Indeed, the last time before the rooster finished crowing, Peter even swore emphatically, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mark 14:71). So, the one who had the great revelation, the one who had the most knowledge, perhaps the one who knew Jesus best, suddenly claims not to know this man.

He who had the most revelation about Jesus’ identity sinned the most flagrantly.

So, is more knowledge a bad thing?

The apostle Paul was also a man of great knowledge, even about Jesus, though he probably never met him before the resurrection. In fact, he even prayed for believers to increase their knowledge (e.g., Col 1:9-10; Eph 1:16-21; Phil 1:9-11). What happened to Peter? Luke gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what happened to Peter, as Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Lk 22:31). Now, it appears that Satan actually demanded to have each of the disciples, since the “you” in Greek here is plural. But, Jesus singles out Peter and encourages him personally by giving him the responsibility of strengthening the rest of the disciples once he has repented. These eleven men knew Jesus better than anyone else on earth. Satan demanded to have them, to sift them like wheat. In other words, Satan desired to tear them to shreds, to break them into pieces, to devastate them utterly.

So, perhaps it’s not an inherent hindrance to one’s spiritual growth to eagerly seek more knowledge, particularly knowledge about God (i.e., theology). However, it may incur the wrath of the devil himself.

Better the wrath of the devil than the wrath of God!

Likewise, notice that Jesus assures Peter that he has prayed for him, that, in the midst of Satan’s sifting project, Peter’s faith would not fail. Jesus prayed for Peter! Likewise, we know that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us (Rom 8:34, Heb 7:25). As if that weren’t enough, the Holy Spirit also intercedes for us, praying for the things we don’t even know to pray for (Rom 8:26-27)!

So, I suppose the end of the matter is this: those who pursue greater knowledge of God can expect Satan to desire to sift them like wheat; those who pursue greater knowledge of God can also expect that the King of the Universe, who graciously grants us any true knowledge that we acquire, and who has already defeated Satan in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (Rom 8:31-39, 1 Cor 15:54-57, 1 Jn 3:8, Rev 12:10-11), will protect them (1 Jn 5:18). “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).

So may all of us be more diligent about pursuing the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ! And let us press on with complete confidence in our Savior’s willingness and ability to protect us from the evil one, to sanctify us wholly, and to keep us to the end of our sojourn in this world.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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