|Always Be Ready to Give an Answer
May 11, 1997 / Acts 23:12 ó 25:12 [Note: See addendum for alternate way to begin.]
One of the most obvious facts about the life of Paul is his eagerness to tell people about Jesus. Whether Jew or Gentile, anyone in Paulís path was a potential believer. Weíve certainly seen this to be characteristic of the great apostle in our almost-completed study of the Acts.
From the earliest days after his conversion on the Damascus Road, Paul wanted the whole world to know about Jesus. So he went off to Arabia to prepare his own heart for the project God had told him was in his future. He restudied the Scriptures. He came to see Jesus of Nazareth in every line. He spent hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks reflecting on his story in light of Jesusí story. He wanted to know how to think like Christ and behave like Christ. He wanted to know the salvation story well enough that he could tell it to anyone he met.
So Paul thought out in advance how he would approach Jews with the gospel. In a word, he would begin with their shared belief in the writings of Moses and the prophets. From that base, he would prove that Jesus of Nazareth fulfills every divinely given prediction about the Messiah ó and ask his fellow-Jews to accept him as Godís Anointed One and to see Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism.
Paul formulated a plan for reaching the many non-Jews of his day who were honest truth-seekers and moralists. Some knew a little of the Hebrew Bible through their contact with pious Jews at the synagogues of their city, but most knew nothing of Scripture. They knew certain Greek philosophers and poets who had longed for a higher plane of living than the debauchery and immorality of polytheism. His plan with these people was to affirm their longings and to offer Jesus as the single best hope for their fulfillment ó not as the Jewish Savior but as the Savior of the Whole World.
Similarly, Paul thought through his presentation of the gospel to people still living in and flaunting their immorality, confused people, broken people, etc. In his own words, here was his strategy as a Christian evangelist: "Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized ó whoever. I didnít take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ ó but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. Iíve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didnít just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!" (1 Cor. 9:19-23, The Message).
Life in a Pre-Christian World
Paul learned to see everyone as pre-Christian rather than un-Christian or anti-Christian. We need to cultivate the same mind set toward the people around us.
Several years ago, the late Francis Schaeffer popularized the term "post-Christian world" to describe the culture in which Christians now live. I understand what he meant by the term and have used it myself. A hundred years ago, there were more shared beliefs in Western Civilization that reflected deep Christian roots than there are today. Having granted that, however, I am no longer happy with the term. During the past year, I have increasingly used the term "pre-Christian world" of my time and place in history.
The term pre-Christian sounds more optimistic to me than post-Christian. The latter speaks of what has come and gone, whereas the former holds out an expectation. This is not the first time some of you have heard me say that I believe revival is in the offing for this city, this country, and this culture. No, ours is not a world where Christian presence, values, and lifestyle dominate. (And, I hasten to add, I am not speaking of a political or social dominance. I have no hope for such a project, do not believe it would be Godís project, and would not want to live in such a culture.) But I hope someday to live in a culture where Christians and churches are serious about our calling, faithful to our commitments, and light to our world.
When I speak of my culture as a pre-Christian world, it signifies that I am dreaming of a time when the church will be so effective in its mission that the message of Christ will be known everywhere. I dream of the death of sectarian division and bitterness. I long for the time to come when hurting people will think of the church before they think of government or therapists or hospitals. I want to live to see the day that downtown arenas in Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles will have bigger traffic jams on days when Jesus is being preached in them than when professional or college football is being played there.
In order to move from this pre-Christian world to a Christian world, churches like this one must help their people cultivate the mind set Paul had. I repeat: He was eager to tell people about Jesus. Coupled with his eagerness, though, Paul also knew what to tell people about Jesus. He knew how to tell the gospel story. He could lead people from the point of his understanding of their need to the point of their understanding of Godís answer to their situation.
Many Christians I know have a passion for others to know Christ but simply do not know how to tell them the story. Some of you are in that situation with your strong and compassionate faith. And it is my responsibility to help you with that. One of the things we need to teach more effectively in this church is how our people who love Christ and have been saved by him can share their faith with people who still donít know him as their Savior.
Not every Christian is called to be an evangelist. Evangelism is a spiritual gift that some believers have, while others have service, compassion, administration, teaching, or some other ability as their primary spiritual gift from God. But while not every Christian is called or equipped for evangelism, every Christian is expected to bear witness to Christ and to help prepare hearts to receive the gospel when they are confronted with it.
In the section of text that most of you will read and study in your small groups this week, you will see Paul present the gospel in three settings. Before the Antonius Felix, "Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come" and pricked the Roman procuratorís heart. Felix came under the conviction of God for his sinful lifestyle ó he was an unprincipled pagan who had seduced his wife, Drusilla, from her husband while he himself was still married to another woman by the same name ó and made Paul stop preaching rather than be moved to admit his sin and turn to Christ for salvation. "Thatís enough for now!" he interrupted. "You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you" (Acts 24:25). He soon hardened his heart in the spots where Paul had touched it, left Paul in jail unjustly, and occasionally hinted to him and his friends that a bribe might secure his freedom (Acts 24:26).
Then you will read about Paul before Felixís successor, Porcius Festus, who didnít even listen closely enough to the story of Christ to be touched by it at all. He was totally disinterested and had little enough concern for spiritual things that he didnít have a clue what the apostle was talking about (Acts 25:1-12). And next week, we will see Paul before Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa knew the Scriptures, and Paul could base his preaching on the prophecy-fulfillment motif that was often successful among biblically literate people. But Agrippa can only hear with the ears of a cynic and will have nothing of Paulís attempt to convert him (Acts 25:13ó26:32).
The only thing Agrippa got from Paulís speech was the obvious fact that Paul was trying to convert him to Jesus. "Keep this up much longer and youíll make a Christian out of me!" he said (Acts 26:28, The Message). No, he wasnít serious. He was altogether sarcastic and scornful in what he said. But he was perceptive to see that anyone who heard Paul for long was going to be urged to believe on Jesus.
Be Prepared to Answer
I will say again that not every Christian has the gift of evangelism. Some of you do not have the giftedness from God to present the gospel as Paul did. Since that is not your calling from God, you need not feel guilty that you donít know how to do it.
In the words of an old hymn, though, you ought to be able to tell people something if they open an evangelistic door to you. How does the song go? "If you cannot sing like angels / If you cannot preach like Paul / You can tell the love of Jesus / And say he died for all." Your prayer about unsaved people should be that God will use your life to touch theirs, enable you to "tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all," and then lead that person to someone with the gift of evangelism so he or she can be saved.
Your task may not be to teach, but it is to witness. That is, even if you donít have the ability to lead the person to salvation, you must let God use your life to make people thirsty for the water of life and hungry for the bread of life. Jesus will be their satisfaction, but you can help stir their dissatisfaction with anything else.
Hereís how you can be Godís tool to lead someone to eternal life. Itís not that complicated. You simply need to be conscious of the process and pray daily for God to use you for someone elseís salvation.
1. Donít shut non-Christians out of your life. Some Christians are snobbish without meaning to be. In our zeal to avoid "bad companions" (1 Cor. 15:33) and to keep from "being polluted by the world" (Jas. 1:27), some believers isolate themselves in religious cocoons a la the ancient Pharisees. Jesus was a friend to the people the Pharisees strenuously avoided. Loving your neighbor was the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Friendship with someone who doesnít know Christ is the first step in breaking down the barrier between that person and the gospel. The longer people are Christians, the fewer non-Christian friends they have ó and the less influence they have over unsaved people.
2. Let your life arouse othersí interest in Christ. Talk is not a good beginning point for sharing the gospel. Integrity is a good starting point. Do more than your share on any project at work. Be grateful for your job, refuse to be a clock-watcher or gossip, and always do your best. Be kind to anyone who is sad or angry. Apologize when you have been wrong. Be scrupulously faithful to your wife or husband, and say only positive things about her or him. When someone asks you why you are different ó and somebody will! ó tell them very gently that you are a Christian, that you want God to be sovereign in your life, that you try to follow Jesusí example.
3. Move the conversation with an interested person to the gospel. When your life has generated the sort of interest Iíve just described and youíve given the sort of answer Iíve suggested, the door for your "personal testimony" is wide open. And how do you give it? Maybe this simply: "Jesus Christ has changed my life. What does he mean to you?"
Donít ask her if sheís a church member. Donít ask him if he is a Christian. Donít ask "Are you a born-again believer?" or "Has your heart been regenerated by the propitiatory power of the substitutionary death of Jesus?" Instead, ask, "What does Jesus mean to you?" Thatís the real question of salvation and eternal life. Some people are church members but have no relationship to him. Others hear church-language like "regeneration" or "substitutionary atonement" only to have their eyes glaze over. Just ask that person you are concerned about to tell you what Jesus means to him or her.
4. Donít press too hard, judge, or condemn the person. Youíll be surprised at some of the things people will tell you about their families, personal confusion, or messed-up lives. Try not to be too surprised or too shocked! Just be interested and compassionate. Some single womanís sadness is due to the fact that she just learned she is pregnant. Some manís anger is because his son was arrested for drug possession. Somebodyís tears are because of the divorce in process or the disease just diagnosed. Just listen. Care. Speak of the love of God for all of us in our problems.
5. Keep things focused on Jesus. Doní t think you have to speak wise words or solve the personís problems. He or she doesnít expect that of you. Just continue to speak of Jesus. By all means, donít try to defend the failures of the church or the hypocrisy of some of its members. Donít defend a denomination or a preacher or a doctrine. Just affirm Jesus to that person, and affirm your belief that Jesus is the only one who can give any of us the answers we ultimately need to make sense out of our existence or to deal with the cruel things that hurt us (i.e., sin).
But what Bible verse should you use to present the gospel? What "steps to salvation" should you memorize? How do you tell the story to get the right response?
Iím not an advocate of a clichť-ridden, memorized speech that lays out a sales-pitch presentation of Jesus. Iím smart enough to recognize a sales pitch when I hear it, and I donít want to come across to anyone as a religion huckster. As a matter of fact, I donít want to come across as a religionist selling religion. I simply want people to have the facts about Godís love shown in Jesus and the freedom to make their personal responses to the Son of God.
As a simple, uncomplicated strategy for presenting Jesus, why not use the most familiar verse in the Bible? "For God so loved the world that he gave his incomparable Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). It is the Golden Text of the Bible and outlines the plan of salvation as effectively as any text you could choose.
First, it tells of Godís love ó "God so loved the world." On this biblical peg, hang your own story of how God reached (and continues to reach) you. Affirm the love of God for the person with whom you are sharing that story. Even though we do not deserve it, God loves us.
Second, John 3:16 affirms Godís gift for our salvation ó "he gave his incomparable Son." When a bullet was headed for our hearts, Jesus jumped in front of it. When we had put the nooses around our necks with sin and rebellion, Jesus went to the gallows for us. When we should have died on a Roman cross, a divine conspiracy of love put God in the flesh there in our place. Tell that story in your own words and with straightforward sincerity.
Third, this Golden Text of the Bible outlines the human response to Jesus that results in salvation ó "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." We are saved only when we trust what God has done through Christ rather than what we might otherwise try to save ourselves. Promises, good works, tears, restitution ó these are right things for sinners to do, but they are not saving things. Only the work of God on our behalf is adequate to solve the sin problem we have. We must believe in that and show our faith in lives of surrender and obedience to Jesus as our Lord. Then, when we arrive safely home in heaven, we will praise him forever for his redeeming love.
Until those of us who know the salvation story and its author are with him, our task is to be ready ó like Paul, Luke, and other faithful believers ó to bear witness to him as Savior and Lord. "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord," said Peter. "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . ." (1 Pet. 3:15-16a).
Paul was always ready to speak a word on Jesusí behalf. Donít you want to be ready too? Someone you are going to meet this week will need to hear that word from you.
[Please donít be a fisherman who never wet a hook!]
The Parable of the Fisherman
(Who Never Went Fishing)
Behold, a fisherman went forth to fish. "But before you wet your hook," he was cautioned, "you must be sure you have mastered the fishermanís fundamentals." So the passionate would-be fisherman who lived in a land of lakes and streams that were alive with fish set his heart to learn the joyous art of fishing.
He bought books about fishing and read pamphlets about the glories of fishing. He even got bumper stickers that sang the praises of fishing and put them on his car.
In addition to regular fishing meetings of the club he joined, he also travelled to seminars and training sessions ó all devoted to fishing. But he had not yet gone fishing himself.
As he entered more deeply into the language and lore of this noble craft, he began to study the history of fishing. He thrilled at the reports of great catches of fish by net-casters and cane-and-corkers. He affirmed the critique of those who said, "These fisherman have turned the world on its ear!"
Learning of other streams in foreign places where fish were being caught, he longed to share the joy. So he sent money. And he read the glowing reports. And he thought, "How wonderful fishing is!"
At one of the meetings where a fellow fisherman aroused the crowd with a stirring lecture on "The Reason Why We Must All Go Fishing," one young man went forth, caught countless fish, and reported back to the group. So thrilled were those who heard his report that they sent the young man to lecture across the country on how he had done it.
With the passing of time, the would-be fisherman became so ardent about his fishing club that he saw himself become increasingly impatient with anyone who dared miss one of the meetings that meant so much to him. Oh, what passion! What love for fishing! What affirmation of fishers!
One day he died ó never having wet a hook.
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