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Personal Evangelism

     Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
     They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
     “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
     Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”
     Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
     He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
     But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
     Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
     And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Mark 8:27-9:1, NIV

One of the oddest things that Jesus ever told His disciples appears in today’s passage from Mark.

Jesus asks His disciples what sort of reputation He has built up. They reply, “Some think you are John the Baptist all over again; others think you are another Elijah, but everyone’s pretty much agreed that you’re some sort of important prophet.”

Then Jesus asks, “And what do you think about all this?”

So Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah!”

And here comes the odd thing: Jesus says, “Now see that you don’t go spreading it around.”

The reason that this is odd is that it seems to contradict one of the fundamental precepts of Christianity as it has been practiced lo these many millennia: evangelism has always been seen as a necessity; personal evangelism (or “witnessing” ) has been a virtue; and even in the stodgiest liturgical church where “evangelism” is a scare word that evokes images of fanatics at the front door, it’s generally considered virtuous to bring a friend to church who’s never been before.

So where does Jesus get off telling His disciples the opposite?

Many Christians would be greatly relieved if I would stop at this point and say that church practice is at variance with the words and commandments of Christ; if I would let them off the hook for personal evangelism and let them cuddle up with their in-groups at church and not worry about nonbelievers. You see, some churches impress their members with the virtues of witnessing to such a degree that some of their people actually feel guilty if they don’t accost strangers on the street and invite them to accept Jesus!

I know a few of you feel that way, because you’ve told me about it. You screw up some courage and walk up to a stranger on the sidewalk outside the drugstore, and armed with some tract you ask them if they’ve heard of Jesus. Their reaction isn’t very gratifying. Your ears burn as you make your getaway. You want to run, but that would attract attention. You figure you might as well sell flowers at the airport; your heart is pounding and you feel like a fool, but at least you “witnessed.” At least you tried. Then guilt sets in, and you wonder if you can face the people back at church.

But hold on a moment; I want to indulge in a digression.

One night I attended a Bible study, in which we were reading the passage about when Elijah ran away and hid in a cave in Mount Horeb, believing himself to be the last true believer in God. We noted that Elijah stated the exact same complaint to God twice! Now my opinion was that Elijah repeated himself because up to then God had not addressed his complaint, but one lady advanced the theory that it was a literary device of the author. As we discussed it in the group, it became clear to me that the Old Testament was for her some sort of story book with religious relevance but no real historical content. The priest who was present didn’t jump in to refute the lady directly, but simply began to intensify the historical and geographical corroboration for the event, so that the story-book theory gradually lost ground.

Sometimes when I read the Bible (or for that matter, any book that purports to be historical), there is a little voice within me that wonders if it’s fictional. So I am constantly on the look out for clues. (You see, I am a closet skeptic. I’m always pouring acid on my beliefs to see if they stand up to the test.)

In Jesus’ odd instruction not to spread the word around too much we have such a clue. It is fairly obvious that the gospels were not written until after the Ascension. Some people place the date of their composition quite late, although nowadays even most liberal scholars who are familiar with the status of modern textual criticism date them all before AD 100 and thus during the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus in the flesh. Well, let’s face it: getting scholars to agree on the dating of the New Testament writings is like trying to get economists to agree on a remedy for a recession! But in any event, it is quite clear that the gospels were written during a time when the church placed a very high value on evangelism, and the later the date, the more certain this is.

My point (which I admit is taking a very long time to get to) is that if this were a fictional account, the author would not have Jesus forbid His disciples from spreading the news around. It directly contradicts the needs and values of the church at the time it was written. I theorize that if this incident were fictional, or even fictionalized truth, the author would more likely have Jesus say something like, “You’re very perceptive, Peter; yea verily I tell you all, there will come a day when you spread this news abroad throughout the world!” or “Right now isn’t a good time, but later, when I give the signal, I want you guys to tell everybody you can find.”

So I conclude that the incident did occur as it is presented and that Jesus really said what He is reported to have said. Since the wording superficially contradicts the author’s environment and purpose, it must be a genuine reproduction of what Jesus said. No other compelling explanation presents itself.

Now back to personal evangelism. Why would Jesus tell the disciples to hush up about the Messiah business? Obviously, at this point, before they had the drama of the crucifixion and the elation of the resurrection, not to mention the empowering of the Holy Spirit, they weren’t equipped to spread such a message. They had no personal experience to latch on to if anyone challenged their view. They couldn’t withstand any debate that might arise. If they were faced with dire consequences for preaching their message, they might reconsider their testimony and lose faith.

What Jesus said was very wise: you aren’t prepared for the consequences of this message, so don’t get carried away by the emotions of the moment and spread it around.

The same thing goes for you. If you try “sharing Jesus” or even just inviting people to your church, follow Jesus’ advice: don’t do it until you are certain of your message and the necessity for spreading it. If you rush out to play football without a helmet, no one will be impressed. They’ll just think you’re daft, and you’ll get hurt real bad.

So I say, you need to share the gospel. But before you do, make sure that your faith has survived the horror and despair of Calvary, make sure that you have witnessed the triumph of the resurrection, make sure that you are confident of the power and authority Jesus received at His Ascension, and make sure that you have been empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t faced hard questions in your spiritual life, you won’t be able to answer the hard questions that people ask you. If you haven’t realized the triumph of Jesus in your life, you won’t be able to convince others that they can see it. If you have no confidence that Jesus has received all power and authority, your spiritual opposition will terrify you and you’ll give up easily. If you haven’t been empowered by the Holy Spirit granting you the vision to see the need and the desire to fill it, you will lose heart quickly.

Until then, as Jesus says, don’t go spreading it around.

After you are prepared you can spread it around. You’ll have developed the instincts to know when and where to share and when to be silent, and you will be able to handle the pitfalls and snares of your enemy. Then you will be properly equipped to do the job.

The fields are white for the harvest. But don’t go out into the field without your scythe, and be sure and take a few practice swings before you go.