Surprised by Hope: Evangelism — In Response to Readers’ Comments, Part 1

Readers,

In my recent post on evangelism, I argued for a greater emphasis on mission in our evangelism. A couple of readers argue to the contrary in the comment section. My response was too long for the comment fields, so I’m posting it here. I plan a 3-part series.

One friend of mine argues,

The gospel sermons in Acts talk about Jesus being the Christ, about his death and resurrection, and about the judgment to come. They call for repentance and submission to Jesus as Lord. That’s pretty much the extent of what was taught to prospective converts prior to conversion in the new testament. Those “mission” topics you mention are conspicuously absent from the gospel message the apostles taught prior to someone’s conversion.

I disagree. Certainly, personal salvation is a common teaching, but so is mission. (And thanks for pushing me to explain myself better. I hope this will be clearer.)

Now, let me be clear. I am not arguing that evangelism isn’t about personal salvation. That’s not the point. Rather, all I want to say is that evangelism in the New Testament was also about mission — calling the convert to a new life in service to Jesus. And by “service” I don’t mean passing communion trays once a month. I mean things like evangelism and benevolence, working for justice in government, and that sort of thing — expanding the borders of the Kingdom and bringing to ever fuller realization the Old Testament’s prophecies about what the Kingdom would be about.

To try to make my point, I’m going to cover in a brief series of posts the Great Commission, the conversion of Cornelius, and Paul’s preaching to Felix. And I guarantee you that you’ll see some things in these passages that you’ve never seen before.

The Great Commission

Let’s go back to the beginning of the church’s evangelistic efforts: the Great Commission –

(Mat 28:19-20) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus commands baptism, but from Matthew, all we know of baptism is that John baptized on confession of sin (3:6) and for repentance (3:11), that Jesus was baptized, and that Jesus would baptize with fire and with the Spirit. I’m not denying the salvation that comes with baptism to those with faith. I’m just noting that Matthew does not explain baptism in those terms.

Rather, the point of baptism in this passage is that it is “into [eis] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “In the name of” indicates becoming a representative of or acting in honor of someone else. For example,

(Acts 3:6) Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

Thus, the sense is “be baptized to become a representative of God, Jesus, and the Spirit.” (Read the linked article if this isn’t obvious, as this is a critically important point.)

Now, usually the scriptures speak of doing something “in” (Greek en) the name of the Lord or God. But Matt 28:19 is (despite the NIV’s bungled translation) into (Greek eis) the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The literal meaning is that baptism takes a convert from outside the name into being in the name. It’s really that simple. And, certainly, being baptized into the name refers to being saved, but the phrasing isn’t “by the power” of God, it’s “into the name,” which tells us that being saved is about being “in the name.” And “in the name” means acting by the authority or to the glory of God.

Matthew 28:19 is missional to the core. It is, after all, plainly about missionary activity — but a call to missionary service from generation to generation as each generation teaches the next to do what the first had been called to do.

Moreover, Jesus’ choice of “disciple” puts the emphasis on emulating the Rabbi — studying the teachings of Jesus and learning to live as he lived.

And this fits well, of course, with “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This is the nature of discipleship.

Now, it’s hard to find a more missional statement of what converts are to be taught. They are to become disciples, and then be baptized, and then learn what disciples learn — to go and make other disciples and how to be like Jesus.

Notice how little Jesus says about needing salvation, personal sin, or forgiveness. Rather, Jesus speaks only of making disciples, baptism, and obedience to Jesus’ teachings.

Now, this is in clear contrast to other versions of the Great Commission. For example,

(Mark 16:15-16) He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

In Mark, the emphasis is clearly soteriological rather than missiological — focused on personal salvation rather than mission. Plainly, we cannot take personal salvation out the equation. But, then, neither should we exclude mission.

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3 Responses to Surprised by Hope: Evangelism — In Response to Readers’ Comments, Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    Hi Jay,

    I'm particularly sensitive to this topic. I've seen dynamic leaders converting large numbers of people to a mission (evangelism). And I've seen what happened subsequently. It was an unmitigated disaster in many people's lives.

    Notice how little Jesus says about needing salvation, personal sin, or forgiveness. Rather, Jesus speaks only of making disciples, baptism, and obedience to Jesus’ teachings.

    The Great Commission gives us a few phrases about what Jesus calls us to do. To understand what he meant, you have to look at the examples of how the apostles carried out that instruction. But after the resurrection, Jesus did tell them that the message would be comprised of repentance and forgiveness.

    Luk 24:45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
    Luk 24:46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,
    Luk 24:47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

    And that is exactly what we see them preaching in Acts. I've recently blogged a series on what one must know to be saved, going through the conversions in Acts. It is crystal clear that the message was about sin, repentance, and the sacrifice of Jesus. The mission does not enter into the discussion during conversion. I'll show you how that is the case with Felix when you get to that case.

  2. One thing that always strikes me about the text of the "Great Commission" is that is was not addressed to the masses, but rather to the 12.

    And in the epistles, Paul write about some having the gift of evangelism and some have other gifts.

    Thus, while I do not object to saying the broad mission of Jesus disciples is to bring others to salvation; it's equally true that not all have the ability to participate effectively in the process.

    Thus, I believe the broader responsibility of Jesus disciples is to live as he lived — which means, love as he loved.

    If we could get how truly radical that is, and then seek to completely love as Jesus loved — I think evangelism would take care of itself, rather than be a goal of its own.

    And, to make matters worse, in our modern American culture, those outside the Christian community (defined in it's broadest terms) often view the Christian community as comprehensively hypocritical. And that makes overt evangelism almost impossible, from a human point of view.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I think we are very much in agreement. All Christians are to do what Jesus taught the apostles (as he said in Matt 28:19), but how we do it will vary with talents.

    Evangelism taught as duty or legalistic burden will produce — if anything — graceless, dutybound, miserable Christians.

    But if, as you suggest, we learn to be people who love as Jesus loved, then evangelism will flow from us like living water. Not that this is an easy thing, but we often skip the essential step of becoming truly loving people.

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