by Rubel Shelly
Published in LoveLines (Jan. 22, 1997)
If Necessary, Use Words
Most discussions of how to share the gospel focus on words. Shall we speak directly or subtly? Quote Scripture or poets? Make public speeches or talk with one person at a time?
Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions and working from a mistaken assumption.
Jesus was God among us, God on a mission. He was here to announce the coming of the kingdom of God — with all the benefits attached to its arrival. So surely he knew the best way to communicate. What was his method?
For more than thirty years, he said nothing. He became one with us in flesh and blood. He lived among ordinary people. He attended the synagogue. He modeled joy, goodness, peace, and concern for others. Only then did he start to talk.
Jesus lived the gospel before he talked about it. He preached it by his life before interpreting it in words. We should not dismiss that method lightly. In fact, we would be wise to adopt it ourselves.
Of course the message ultimately must be taught and received in words. "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). But words are not the best starting point. They may only generate disputes and defensiveness. You seldom argue people to the truth. Instead, you love them, break down barriers, model the gospel, and create eagerness for the truth.
Perhaps individuals and churches are ineffective teachers because the tendency of both is to begin with words rather than life. Their sincere efforts at teaching are unproductive because they are not rooted in life. They have not earned credibility in the eyes of the people they want to teach. They somehow think words can replace love, kindness, self-control, and example.
Peter gave this counsel to wives of non-Christians men: "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives" (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
In families, classrooms, offices, and neighborhoods, people are less inclined to listen to sermons than to look for examples. Without the actions, they will consider the words empty — and have no interest in hearing them.
People want to see the gospel at work in us. They want to know Christ really makes a difference in the lives of his followers. Only then will they hear what we so desperately want to tell them about Jesus.
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