Telling it Today.
In my attempts to share the gospel with people over the last fifty-plus years of my life, I have communicated at least five different messages. Each time I came to understand the gospel more clearly, I would update the message I told people. If you are interested in reading an in-depth article about this journey, click here, scroll down to Articles and click on the one called Clarifying the Gospel to Speak to Non-Christians. In today’s post, I want to share the message I tell others today, based largely on the clarity I have gained from the good news that was told in Acts.
The focus will be on the content of the message, as it has been in the posts in this series. I will, however, indicate a few things about the approach and manner as well. The message I now communicate is considerably different from the “five steps to salvation” approach I was taught in my tradition when I was young and also from today’s typical three pronged approach of ) need/sin/bad news, 2) Jesus/grace, and 3) believe/receive. Though there is some truth in both of those approaches, neither of them is the message that the first believers told non-Christians in Acts. As noted, the accounts in Acts are the only records we have of believers actually telling the gospel to non-Christians in the early days, and so they are especially valuable for equipping us to tell it to non-Christians today.
I make no claim to be a great evangelist or that I have figured out the secret of reaching people. Neither of those is my real concern. As I have come to see the truth and importance of the gospel more clearly, however, I have sought opportunities to tell it to others faithfully. So far I have told the good news as I now understand it in a funeral message, in a conversation at a party, at a pre-marital counseling session and a couple times sitting at a table talking friends at Starbucks. None of these occasions were set up with a stated purpose of discussing the Bible or the good news. Rather, in an imperfect attempt to follow what the early spokespersons did, I was simply praying, alert and watching for opportunities to tell the message. What follows is the gist of what I said on those occasions, including some of the actual language. The length varied from two to twenty minutes. Sometimes I did all the talking, and sometimes the other person made comments or asked questions as we went along. I don’t remember the exact lead in, which would vary anyway, so I will just jump into the gist of the message I told them.
As you know, Jesus went around doing good, helping and healing people. He had the power of God to do miracles like enabling people who were crippled to walk, opening the eyes of the blind, and opening the ears of the deaf. His miraculous deeds were impressive but much more—they were also significant. They signified something. Once when he cast the evil out of a person who was possessed, he told one aspect of the meaning of his miracles. He said, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In other words, his powerful deeds were an assault on the kingdom of Satan. They showed the reality, power, and superiority of the kingdom of God. They also showed that Jesus himself is the King. Many of the common people believed it and followed him.
Sadly, though, most of the leaders of the Jewish people did not believe. Jesus was the King sent by God to rescue his people, but they did not recognize him. He was not what they were expecting. They wanted someone to overthrow the Romans and make the Jews a great nation again. But Jesus seemed unconcerned about politics and such things. Jesus also exposed the hypocrisy and sin of the religious leaders. So they approached the Roman authorities about how to get rid of him. Their view of Jesus was that he was not worthy to live. They trumped up charges of treason and got a capital sentence. Since Jesus was not a citizen of the Roman empire his execution was by crucifixion. They killed him in a most horrible and shameful way, as if he were a common criminal. Although people later realized that all this was actually a part of God’s purpose and plan, it would have been very difficult to see Jesus as God’s anointed King on the day he was executed in shame as a criminal.
But then God raised him from the dead! God literally, bodily, and biologically caused Jesus to come back to life again. In doing so, he exonerated him from the shame of being crucified as an outlaw. Sometimes today people who are convicted of crimes are exonerated due to irregularities in the trial (which was true in Jesus’ case), new evidence coming out (in this case God raising him from the dead!) or discovering that someone else was guilty of the crime (which was also true in Jesus’ case—we later realize that we are the ones who committed the crimes for which he died). Jesus’ resurrection, then, is powerful new evidence that exonerates him. He is not a criminal—he God’s anointed King. The Bible says, “he was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” Because God set his stamp of approval on Jesus by raising him from the dead, we now recognize that he is both Lord and Christ. Lord means master and Christ means anointed one or King. Both are terms of absolute authority. The resurrection shows that Jesus really is the One God appointed, anointed and sent into the world to establish his kingdom to deliver his people from their trouble.
What God has done in sending Jesus and establishing his kingdom through Him is fantastic news. It means that at long last we have a great leader who can rescue us from the trouble we are experiencing now and will experience later due to our sins and show us the right and best way to live. What’s more, this Leader is merciful! Some ancient kings were tyrants who would kill you if you looked at them. But Jesus wants us to look to him, and he is looking to us with mercy. The truth is we haven’t viewed him or treated him as the Lord of the universe that he is. Humanity’s failure to do so is the source of the trouble in the world. But Jesus is a merciful king, and he is willing to forgive us for all our wrongs. It’s also good news because he is a King who has faced our enemy for us—the Evil One—and who has demonstrated that he has the power to protect us from him. We now also have access to the truly wise counsel of the King of the universe, which tells us the best and right way to live our lives. Jesus’ lordship is also good news because he is a king who will welcome anyone who will humble themselves before him. You don’t have to be any certain race or ethnicity, have money, be good looking or smart, or anything else. His kingdom is open to all. The death and resurrection of Jesus show that he is the King God sent to deliver us, and this is tremendously great news!
But God’s mighty and merciful work in Christ calls for a total response on our part. God calls on us to believe in Jesus—to believe he really is the anointed king, the reigning Lord of the universe. He calls on us to completely change our disposition and attitude toward him. It’s not enough to have our own ideas about God, give God token obedience or go to church a couple times a year. He wants us to submit to him in every aspect of our lives. And he calls on us to be baptized in Jesus’ name, immersed in water with faith in him, die to our old life and be raised up to live a new life as his disciples. These things are not a checklist of legalistic requirements; they are a way of pledging our utter loyalty and fealty to Christ as King. They are a way to “receive Christ Jesus as Lord.” But we have to respond to him before he comes back again. When he was here the first time, he did not totally destroy all the evil Satan has brought into the world, but he did do enough to show his superiority over evil and he limited its power. And he promised that one day he would come back in glory as King and totally destroy all evil and everything that is not fully devoted to God. At that time he will also judge everyone in the world. Those who have submitted to his lordship and lived as faithful subjects will be greatly rewarded and live with him forever. Those who have not will be condemned and perish. We have until we die or he comes back again to acknowledge who he is, submit to his lordship and come under his reign. There’s nothing on earth more important!
Notice that the primary form of my message is news, news of what God did through Christ. As the term itself indicates, gospel is news or proclamation. The primary form of the communication is not “deal” nor “explanation,” though there is an offer of salvation based on what he has done and some parts of what he has done need to be explained. Though I have taught hundreds of Bible studies with non-Christians over the decades and helped a good many come to Christ in that way, Acts indicates that the primary form of the message to non-Christians is proclamation or telling good news, not studying. Using a form of news, announcement or proclamation helps keep the focus on God’s work and on Jesus himself, instead of on the benefits.
Notice that the framework for my message is: 1) Jesus’ ministry, 2) Jesus being killed, 3) God raising Jesus from the dead, 4) the blessings we receive, and 5) the appropriate response to what God has done. The five paragraphs in the narrative of the message above correspond to these five truths, if you want to go back and trace them. These subjects also correspond to key points we noted in the good news told in Acts. Clarifying for ourselves a basic framework for the message enables us to tell it as an amazing story without using any notes. Doing so matches and supports the nature of the message as good news.
Notice that I quoted a couple of passages from the Bible. Most of the people I talk to have some respect for the Bible so it is good evidence to use with them. Since the form and setting on these occasions was announcement or proclamation and not studying, however, I did not open a Bible and turn to those passages. Neither did Peter nor Paul, at least not on every occasion. I did what they seem to have done normally—quoted Scripture. (I would have turned to the passages if they had asked and have done so when I have gotten together with people on later occasions.) I did not mention this in my recollections above, but on some of those occasions I also used the other prominent kind of evidence in Acts, namely, testimony. As noted in the posts, the testimony we can give is of a different nature than eyewitness testimony, but is still valid. I chose to testify to how the truth of seeing that Jesus is Lord of the universe has affected me.
As I have told the good news in this way, no one has yet said, “Brothers what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) or “What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Additional and longer conversations and teaching will usually be needed, but Acts indicates that it is right to get the whole message out on the table in the first hearing. Paul did this and often followed up with additional proclamation, teaching, and reasoning in the weeks that followed (Acts 13:44; 17:1-4, 32b; 19:8, 9). It is my intention to do the same, focusing on the key matter of who Jesus is as Lord and Christ. I have had the opportunity to do this with some but not all of the people to whom I told this news. On those addition occasions after the initial telling of the good news, the form of “studying” may be more needed and appropriate as we explore it in more depth (cf. “reasoning,” “explaining,” and “proving” in Acts 17:2-3). I have and will open the Bible and teach as we study key passages to help people see who Jesus is and understand other facets of the message. This seems to me to be parallel to what Paul did when he returned to a synagogue on multiple occasions.
As subjects of the King, we are called to prepare, pray for opportunities, and be alert to proclaim the good news of what God has done in Christ. Doing this has divine power to save people (Romans 1:16). My hope is that this consideration of the good news told in Acts will help you further prepare yourself for the most important mission in the world.