We are exploring the question of what we can learn about a method or approach to evangelism by the ways people respond to it. Our common practice of asking about results indicates we think this will tell us something. Currently we are focusing on the various responses we see in the New Testament, and so far we have considered the response we all desire, namely, conversion. Sometimes the results to the message about Christ in the New Testament were overwhelmingly positive.
Other times, though, the response was what I’m going to describe as “mixed.” I’m including two things in this category. First, there were times when some of the people in an audience received the message and others did not. This lies between the occasions we discussed last week when most of the people were converted and the occasions we’ll discuss next week when most are not.
We see these mixed responses to Jesus in the Gospels. In John 7, the text overtly states that the Jews were divided over Jesus (v. 43). There was much muttering about him (v. 12). Some said he was a good man, and others thought he was leading the people astray (v. 12). Some thought Jesus was the Prophet (mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15; cf. Acts 3:22-23) or the Christ, while others said he could not be the Christ because he was not from the right town (vv. 40-42). Some put their faith in him because they did not think the Christ would do more signs than he was doing, but others thought he had a demon (v. 20, 31). The theme of a mixed response runs throughout the whole chapter. This divided attitude toward Jesus is specifically noted by John on at least two other occasions (9:16; 10:19).
As in the Gospels, so in Acts, we sometimes see a mixed response among a single group of hearers. At Thessalonica some people were persuaded by Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ and joined him (Acts 17:4), but others clearly opposed him (v. 5). In Athens, when Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection, some mocked while others believed, (Acts 17:32-34). Later, Paul spent a whole day testifying to the Jews in Rome about the kingdom of God and Jesus, and some were convinced but others disbelieved (Acts 28:23-24). Both Jews and Gentiles were often “divided” because of Jesus.
In addition to these responses, I’m including a second response in the “mixed” category, namely, those occasions when there was no definitive response one way or the other. Sometimes people neither accepted (conversion) nor rejected the message when they first heard it. Among those who make this “not yet” response, some appear to have been a little more favorably inclined while others appear to have been less favorable. Either way, though, they did not make a definitive decision about Christ initially.
In Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus is a good example. He believed Jesus was a teacher from God, based on the miraculous signs he was doing (John 3:2), yet he could not understand the new birth Jesus spoke to him about (vv. 3-10). The fact that Nicodemus approached Jesus at night has led to the suggestion that he was afraid to be seen with him because so many of the leaders were opposed to him (3:2; cf. 7:13; 9:22). After Jesus’ death, we see Nicodemus even more favorably inclined toward Jesus since he “went public” by accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to take care of Jesus’ body. When John recorded this event, he mentioned that Nicodemus had previously come to him at night (19:39). That seems to support that he was unsure about Jesus before but grew stronger in faith later. I’m not sure whether he had actually put his faith in Jesus even when he helped Joseph of Arimathea, but certainly he had not done so initially.
This “no decision yet” response is seen in Acts as well, for example, among some of the Greek philosophers in Athens. Specifically, these said “we will hear you again about this” (17:32). They neither accepted nor rejected immediately. The door was still open for considering Christ further.
Another possible example of this is when the pagan crowds in Lystra heard Paul speaking and saw him heal a paralyzed man. Initially, they made the misguided response of trying to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas! But after Paul and Barnabas explained matters more clearly to them, they were able to restrain the crowd from doing so (14:8-18). No other response is stated, but it would seem there was at least a possibility for further discussions.
Another example, one that leans favorably, is the Jews in Antioch who heard Paul’s proclamation of salvation through Christ and “begged that these same things might be told them the next Sabbath” (Acts 13:42).
The same “not yet” response of at least being open to consider the message further is also suggested by the very fact that Paul sometimes returned to the same synagogue multiple weeks in a row (Acts 17:1-2; 18:4; 19:8). Perhaps the exact makeup of the crowd varied some from week to week, but no doubt some of the same people were listening to the message multiple times and were pondering it.
In Scripture, then, we see a number of examples of a mixed response both to Jesus himself and to his apostles. Sometimes this was a true mixture of belief and unbelief, within a single audience. Other times people neither accepted nor rejected the message right away, which I am describing as no definitive response.
These responses to the gospel in Scripture show that even when the true message is spoken and spoken well, there will often be a mixed response, even within a single group of hearers. Also, some will not make any response initially. There is nothing in the text that indicates that these mixed responses were due to any deficiency in the presentation of the message. Indeed, it seems a bit ludicrous to even suggest that Jesus or the apostles might have approached these people with an inadequate method.
The examples of those who made no definitive response initially teach us that we should not have an expectation that a person must make their decision about Christ upon a single hearing of the message. Some people clearly needed or wanted to hear more.
The mixed responses also suggest some questions we might ponder this week: What light do these responses to the gospel in Scripture shed on what we can learn from the results we get to our efforts today? Should we, too, expect mixed responses? Should we expect we can generate a more favorable response than Jesus and the apostles? What kind of response to a method or approach today is most similar to what we see in Scripture—a predominately favorable response, a predominant unfavorable response, or a mixed response? We’ll pursue such questions more as we continue.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is seeking to equip people to tell the good news about Jesus, see here.