As we consider the endeavor of evangelism in today’s culture, the temptation might be to think that we need new methods or gimmicks to stay relevant in an ever-changing culture. However, the reality is that we find an excellent example of evangelism in the book of Acts. A few observations will show that the methods used in by the first-century Christians are as relevant today as they were when the church was born.
TWO GROUPS OF PEOPLE:
Identity seems to be a sort of buzzword these days. People in business are tempted to find their identity in a job, college students find identity in a degree or friend group, and moms often feel as if their identity goes no further than their role as the family dishwasher. But regardless of how cliché the concept of identity may seem, the truth is that angsty and trepidatious teenagers are not the only people who care about identity. Identity has always been a big deal. The only significant difference is that a person’s identity was once linked to their lineage rather than pseudo-cultural trends. In the book of Acts, identity is important as well — we read about both Jews and Gentiles. Now at first, this observation may seem trivial, but it is entirely relevant when we consider the methods used in by Peter and Paul to spread the gospel.
A. THE JEWS: The Jews knew the Old Testament thoroughly. They were familiar with the story of creation, had an awareness of God, and grew up learning the Shama. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).” The Scriptures were woven into the very fabric of Jewish society — it distinguished them from all other nations.
B. THE GENTILE: The Gentiles, on the other hand, had a limited understanding of God. Or perhaps more accurately they had and “under-limited” understanding of God — they believed in many gods. Unlike the Jews, Gentiles did not expect a coming Messiah. They did not know God created the heavens and the earth. Of course, it’s easy to overlook the difference between the two — we are reading from a 21st-century perspective. Yet when we compare the background of each, we can identify distinctive ways, which the gospel was presented to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
PREACHING TO THE JEWS:
In Acts chapter 2, we read about Peter’s fiery sermon at Pentecost. The principle thing to notice, however, is not what Peter said but rather what he didn’t say — he did not introduce them to the reality of God. Instead, Peter immediately begins calling people to repentance (Acts 2:22-24). And, why not? He was speaking to a Jewish audience — the concept of God permeated their worldview. They had the Law and were all too familiar with the holiness of God (at least in a propositional way). They were keenly aware of the facts that God created the world, man rebelled, and sin requires atonement — daily sacrifices at the temple were a constant reminder of this. Consequently, Peter could immediately preach the Gospel.
Perhaps you know someone like this; an individual who grew up learning about God, is familiar with the stories of the Bible, and has a general concept of morality. Perhaps you know a religious person. If we are to follow Peter’s example, then we ought to faithfully call religious people — those who are already familiar with the Bible — to repentance. We must not presume that a person’s familiarity with the Bible means they are spiritually alive. This is apparent for the Jewish people had a biblical worldview and were no closer to God because of it. The goal in evangelism is not merely to persuade people to theism — we want to see dead people brought to life through the power of the gospel.
PREACHING TO THE GENTILE:
Unlike Peter, the Apostle Paul didn’t have much noticeable success preaching to the Jews. This “lack of success” among the Jews was not due to shortcomings on the part of Paul. Instead, Paul was singularly chosen by God to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles — his method was necessarily different.
Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
As Paul stands before the educated men of Athens, we might expect him to begin preaching repentance after all it worked exceptionally well for Peter. However, his audience were Gentiles — they were unfamiliar with the Scriptures. So instead of calling these men immediately to repentance, he began by pointing out something they had in common (Acts 17:23) and from there taught them about God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Acts 17:24-28). Only after this foundation was established did he then move on to preach the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:29-31).
What we find in Acts is one Gospel and two presentations. So the question for us to consider is this. Does our world more closely resemble Jewish or Gentile culture? For approximately 200 years the western world, specifically America, has been living a historical anomaly. Most people have known about the God of the Bible or at least they have been familiar with the biblical jargon. In short the western world, in years past, has more closely resembled the Jewish audience to which Peter spoke. It seems to me, however, that this is an assumption we can no longer afford to make. The majority of the world is biblically illiterate. To share the gospel using “evangababble” (i.e., jargon used in popular evangelical circles) is both unclear and unhelpful. So how are we to be gospel fluent in a biblically illiterate world? If we are going to teach our friends and family about Jesus in a way that will make sense, we must first introduce them to God as creator. Then clearly explain to them that all men are accountable before a holy God. Once the foundation is established, we have the privilege of sharing the solution to man’s overwhelming condition. In short, we teach the foundations first – the ABCs of Christianity.
Updated: August 24th, 2018
Note From The Author // Since writing this post, I have gone back and reread the book of Acts the these two methods of evangelism in mind. While I do think that the principles I laid out above are helpful — namely the need to teach foundational truths rather than assuming people understand the Bible — I am wrestling with whether or not Acts provides the strongest argument for this. In other words, the book of Acts doesn’t seem to be presenting these principles in any kind of prescriptive way. Furthermore, when Stephen addressed the Jewish mob in Acts chapter 7, he starts at the very beginning as well and explains the full scope of God’s redemptive plan. I am sharing this for two reasons. First, I hope it clearly demonstrates that I am a fallible writer. There is only one infallible word of truth and that is Scripture (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Second, I want to invite you into the discussion and would like to hear your thoughts. What do you think we can/should learn about evangelism from the book of Acts? I love getting feedback from people and want to know what you are thinking. Ok…that’s all.