In this series of posts we are considering what we might learn about approaches and methods to sharing the good news from the results that come from them. So far we have noticed that, in the New Testament, sometimes the results to the gospel message have been overwhelmingly favorable (conversions) and sometimes mixed. In the mixed category I am including those times when a single group or audience responded both favorably and unfavorably and also those times when people were not ready immediately to make a decision about the gospel.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear me say the third kind of result to the gospel in the New Testament is rejection. One classic example of this in Jesus’ ministry was when he went to his hometown. It seems that the people were amazed by his teaching initially, but then began to ask questions and soon became closed to him (Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6). The text says directly that “The took offense at him,” and Mark even states that Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith. He did a few miracles there, but only a few.
Similarly, we read about Jesus pronouncing “Woes” on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because they did not repent in response to the signs he did among them (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15). Likewise John wrote that, even though he did many signs in their presence, the Jews still did not believe in him and consequently their hearts hardened so much that they could not believe in him (John 12:37-40).
This is perhaps a good place to note that some people who responded favorably to Christ initially did not remain faithful to him and so ultimately fall into the rejection category as well. Judas is the clearest example of this, but there were many others (John 6:60-66). Likewise, two of the four types of hearts represented in the Parable of the Sower responded to Jesus initially but did not remain true to him long term (Matthew 13:20-22).
In Acts it is difficult to find occasions when the word was simply not accepted. There were mixed responses, when some accepted but others didn’t, as we discussed last week. But it’s not easy to find occasions when people simply said no (perhaps 17:32). I’m distinguishing this from a stronger way of rejecting the message that is much more common, namely, rejection plus opposition and persecution. Sometimes the hearers not only refused to believe, but they also actively opposed the message and persecuted the ones telling it.
For example, the first time Paul spoke the gospel in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, many accepted the messages and many others begged that it be spoken to them again the next week (Acts 13:42-43). The next Sabbath things started off well enough, but when the Jews (perhaps the Jewish leaders) saw the eager crowds, they were jealous and began to contradict and revile Paul (13:44-45). They rejected the word so Paul turned to the Gentiles (13:46-49). Even after that, the Jews continued to stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out (13:50). This kind of strongly negative response on the part of both Jews and Gentiles is repeated multiple times over the next several chapters in Acts (14:19-20; 16:16-24; 17:1-9, 13-14; 18:5-7, 12-17; 19:9, 23-40). Jesus, too, receive rejection with persecution during his ministry (Mark 3:6; Luke 4:28-29; John 8:59; 10:31-33; 15:20).
I doubt any of us is thinking that these occasions when the word was rejected, either with or without persecution, call into question the method that Jesus or the apostles used to communicate it. It seems clear to me that the rejection doesn’t say anything about these speaker’s approach but rather says a great deal about the hearers hearts. That, too, is the overall message of the Parable of the Sower.
This reminds us that there are at least three parties involved when the gospel is spoken: the spokespersons, the hearers, and God himself. The Scriptures are clear that God works when people come to Christ (John 6:44; 16:7-9Acts 16:14). We might assume that, since God desires everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), he will work in every case to bring someone to him. On the other hand, I don’t want to think I control God or can always fully discern his ways (cf. for example 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). I need to acknowledge that I control my part in bringing others to Christ but do not control God. And by all means we must recognize that the person we are talking to has a part in the matter. So at least three parties are involved in whether a person responds to the gospel. I mention all this to ask this question: Is there any reason for thinking the method I use to reach out to the person has more influence on the result than the work of God or the condition of the person’s heart? If not, results may not tell us as much about a method as we sometimes assume.
What’s more, a fourth party is potentially involved as well, namely, Satan. Though it may make us uncomfortable, the parable of the sower clearly states the Satan sometimes takes away the word (Matthew 13:18; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). Paul wrote that “the god of this age” sometimes blinds the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The Lord’s description of Paul’s ministry as opening people’s eyes, and turning them from darkness and the power of Satan indicate some influence of the evil one over people before they turn to God (Acts 26:16-18). My purpose here is not to give a full theology of the work of God versus Satan in the conversion process but simply to acknowledge that there is much more involved than simply our role. And if, for whatever reason, Satan is allowed by God to hinder a person from receiving the message, does that rejection mean our method was inadequate?
We might also add here the matter of the “offense of the cross.” This cannot be equated with our offending people by having a self-righteous attitude, something most of us need to beware of. Rather, it refers first of all to the sheer shock and horror any reference to crucifixion often aroused in first century people who had actually seen them. At another level, Jews simply could not grasp the seemingly incongruent combination of “Christ” (or Messiah) with “crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). They expected the Messiah to live forever (John 12:34). A yet even deeper source of offense is suggested by Galatians 5:11. Paul’s reasoning there is that the cross is an offense that leads people to persecute him. If he were to preach circumcision, however, as some apparently were accusing him of, the offense would be removed. Apparently he means that if we could contribute something to our salvation by getting circumcised, our “self” (or flesh) would “feel better about it,” so to speak and not persecute. But the notion that salvation is dependent entirely on the work of God at the cross and that we do not add to it is an offense to our self (or flesh) that arouses hostility and persecution.
In light of the offense of the cross, then, does rejection of the gospel indicate that a method for communicating it is inadequate? Or might it suggest just the opposite—that the method did a good job of communicating the cross, something that many will find offensive? And could it be that what we learn from the results of a method isn’t as clear-cut as we sometimes assume?
We’ll draw some conclusions about results next week.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is seeking to equip people to tell the good news, see here.