Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Evangelism Series (Part Six): Personal Work
It’s been on the blog shelf for a while, but I thought I’d add another installment to the ongoing “Evangelism Series" (for past posts in this series click the label below). So far, we have seen that the Biblical terms for evangelism (euangelizo and kerusso euangelion) relate specifically to the public proclamation of the gospel (see parts two, three, and four). Furthermore, Jesus was engaged in the task of preaching the gospel (evangelizing), and he gave this responsibility to the apostles as extraordinary officers, then to ordinary officers, such as elders, pastors, and teachers.
Again, in the vast majority of cases, the work of evangelism (i.e., preaching the gospel) is done publically and corporately. There are also, however, Biblical examples of evangelizing that is done privately and personally. The old path men used to refer to this as the minister’s “personal work.” For a more recent description of this task, see Fred Malone’s chapter, “Do Personal Work” in Tom Ascol, Ed. Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry (Founders, 2004): pp. 169-181. Though personal work might refer to private teaching, instruction, admonition, counseling, prayer, or discipleship with a particular individual or small group of individuals (like a family), when the ministers engages in personal work with nonbelievers his primary objective is to evangelize them.
The model for personal work is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Examples abound in the canonical Gospels. To name but a few, Jesus engages in personal work in his conversations with Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18: 18-23). The latter of these examples is a reminder that not everyone who hears the gospel, even from Jesus himself, will be converted.
Examples from Acts
This model is then followed by the apostles. In Acts, in particular, not only do the apostles publically preach the gospel, but they also engage in personal conversations, dialogues, and reasoning sessions in which the gospel is proclaimed.
Here are three examples of personal work in Acts:
1. Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8):
The Spirit directs Philip to approach the Ethiopian as he rides along in his chariot, reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip asks, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” (v. 30). The man responds, “How can I except some man should guide (hodegeo: to lead, guide) me?” He then invites Philip to come up and sit with him and to be his guide in interpreting the Scriptures. When the Eunuch asks, in particular, about the identity of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Luke records, “Then Philip opened his mouth and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus” (v. 35). This is the only explicit NT example of preaching (euangelizo) in a private setting. Given the important governmental role of the Ethiopian Eunuch (see v. 27 which says he “had the charge of all her treasure”), however, it is likely that he was accompanied by an entourage of some sort who also would have heard Philip’s preaching. In other words, this may not necessarily have been an isolated one-on-one conversation.
This encounter also provides a prototypical example of examination and confession of those who might present themselves for baptism in v. 37 (appearing in the traditional text but omitted in the modern critical text). When the Eunuch requests baptism, Philip responds, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” To which, the Eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Here is a model confession.
2. Paul the Apostle and Silas, his apostolic associate (also indentified as a prophet in Acts 15:32), and the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16):
Paul and Silas have been praying and singing praises to God in the hearing of their fellow prisoners and, no doubt, the jailer, as well (v. 25). When an earthquake miraculously opens the prison door and loosens the bonds of the inmates, the jailer is ready to take his own life until Paul intervenes, saying, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (v. 28).
With trembling, the jailer brings a light and falls down before Paul and Silas (v. 29), asking them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). They respond, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (v. 31).
3. Paul the Apostle before Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 25—26):
Though technically this passage might better be called an example of witness bearing when under trial, it also offers a compelling description of evangelistic personal work. Paul is brought by the Roman governor Festus to be examined by King Herod Agrippa and Bernice (cf. 25:13-14, 22-23). Paul addresses the court audience, recounting the circumstances of his conversion to Christ, his calling to become an apostle, and his arrest in Jerusalem (see 26:1-21). Near the close of his speech, Paul offers a Christian interpretation of the Scriptures “that Christ should suffer and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles” (26:23). Festus dismisses him by saying, “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad” (v. 24). Paul, however, ignores Festus and makes a direct appeal to the conscience of Festus. He declares that he is not mad but that he speaks “words of truth and soberness” (v. 25). Most striking is his direct appeal to Agrippa, as Paul calls him (out) by name: “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest” (v. 27). To which Agrippa responds: “Almost thou persuades me to be a Christian” (v. 28).
When reflecting on these examples, one begins to get the sense that Luke has recorded these, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to provide something like model scripts to be followed, as well as adjusted and adapted to shifting circumstances, in evangelistic conversations.
As the minister engages in a private Bible study with a willing inquirer he can follow the model of Philip by asking, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He can then preach the Jesus of the Bible to the inquirer, proclaiming him as the fulfillment of OT scriptural prophecy.
As the minister examines a new convert who desires baptism, he can say with Philip, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And he can listen for a confession that lines up with that of the Ethiopian: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
As the minister counsels the despondent seeker who asks despairingly, “What must I do to be saved?” he might respond as did Paul and Silas to the jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
As the minister meets with one willing to hear a witness for Christ, though with skepticism and perhaps even hostility, he may probe that person’s conscience, by saying, as Paul did to Agrippa, “I know that you believe the Bible is an inspired book? Will you not believe what the Bible says to you about Jesus?”
The book of Acts, indeed, provides the most profitable training manual for the personal work of the minister in evangelism.
Personal Work or Personal Evangelism?
There is yet another question to be asked here: Who is depicted in the NT (Acts, in particular) as engaged in these private evangelistic encounters? As with public proclamation, the model practitioners of personal work are church offers (i.e., Philip the Evangelist, Paul the Apostle, Silas the apostolic associate and Prophet). This seems to be a factor that is overlooked in much of the modern revivalistic-influenced construal of “personal evangelism” which universalizes and democratizes the duties and responsibilities of the Christian life.
Even some who would agree that public preaching of the gospel should only be undertaken by designated church officers (God called and church approved) insist that a somewhat looser standard is in place with regard to informal or private communication (i.e., “preaching”) of the gospel. An obvious logical challenge to this approach, however, would be simply to ask whether the size of the audience (whether a congregation of a 1000 people, a gathering of 100 people, a home Bible study of 25 people, a private family counseling session with 5 people, or an evangelistic conversation with 1 person) makes any difference in the standards for who is Biblically sanctioned to preach the gospel (evangelize). One might also ask where such a distinction is taught or modeled in Scripture? When James wrote, “My brethren, be not many masters (didaskaloi: teachers), knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation” (James 4:1), was he referring only to a prohibition against all Christians being “formal” public teachers or is his warning also germane to those who would undertake “informal” private teaching who are not church officers?
My inclination would be to conclude that the examples cited above from Acts are most applicable to the personal work of church officers as opposed to generic models of what is today called “personal evangelism.” This takes us back to one of our original lines of questioning (now expanded): If evangelism is primarily presented in the Bible as done through preaching and the personal work of ministers, what then is the general duty of all believers in evangelism? In fact, I do believe that evangelism is the duty of the whole church (and not just the ministers alone). Hopefully, we will eventually come to expand and explain this point in this series.