January 27, 2009
[Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from Jesus the Evangelist by Richard D. Phillips.]
Gospel means “good news,” which is what the Christian faith proclaims to the world: the good news of salvation through God’s gift of His only Son. I became a Christian because someone told me the gospel. (Actually, a number of people were involved in bringing the gospel to me, and me to it.) This activity—bringing the gospel to people—is called evangelism, so named because the Latin word for “gospel” is evangelium, which has come into the English language as evangel. One does not become a Christian by being born into a certain family, by undergoing a certain ritual, or by joining a certain organization. Christians are those who believe the gospel. Whether it is by a parent in the home, a minister in the church, or a friend in private conversation, we must be evangelized to be saved by Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, the Christian faith is designed to be shared with others. The evangel is evangelistic! A true Christian church is not only evangelical, in that it holds to the biblical gospel, but it is evangelistic—it zealously spreads and shares that gospel. This means that to be a Christian is to be called as an evangelist.
But for many, this is where the difficulty sets in. As in other areas of Christianity, such as worship, preaching, and Christian discipleship, a great deal of confusion and chaos has lately surrounded the matter of evangelism. Well-intentioned Christians find themselves plagued with questions. What does it mean to be an evangelist? What does the gospel message consist of? How do I begin to talk to someone about Jesus and His offer of salvation through faith in Him? What kind of person do I need to be in order to be an evangelist? And how does evangelism work—how does someone come to believe the gospel once he or she has heard it?
I would like to make the radical suggestion that the place to find answers to such questions is the Bible. Numerous training programs and aids are available to the budding evangelist today; some are fairly good and some are not. But the Christian who wishes to serve God through the spread of His gospel, and whose love for others motivates him or her to share the gospel with those who are perishing in unbelief, would be wise to begin with a study of evangelism in the Scriptures. And there is no better place to start than with the accounts of the ministry of Jesus Himself, for Jesus was an evangelist. The Bible says that Jesus went about among the people “proclaiming the gospel” (Matt. 4:23). Just as Jesus is our primary model for faith, obedience, prayer, and good works, Jesus the Evangelist should be our model for the sharing of His gospel.
While Jesus’ ministry is documented and explained in many places in the Bible, the Gospel of John provides an ideal point of focus. Evangelism is the purpose of John’s Gospel; as John said, “These [accounts of Jesus’ ministry] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Furthermore, John’s book is distinctive in that it includes material focusing on Jesus’ evangelistic ministry, accounts that are missing from the other Gospels. Primary among these are Jesus’ powerful interaction with Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3 and His conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. These two chapters are veritable gold mines of evangelistic instruction, revealing much of Jesus’ message and method. John 1, in which Jesus’ disciples are called and gathered, also provides essential insights into evangelism through the ministries of John the Baptist and of Jesus Himself.
The purpose of this book, then, is to study these key chapters from John’s Gospel—chapters 1, 3, and 4—to learn evangelism from the Master Himself. It is my hope that studying the biblical approach to evangelism afresh will help bring much-needed reform to our gospel witness.
This book is organized into three parts, corresponding to the three important chapters of John’s Gospel that I have mentioned. Part 1, which covers John 1, is a study of the man who came “to bear witness about the light” (John 1:7)—John the Baptist. What did John the Baptist’s witness consist of and what was important about it? This section of the book also covers the accounts of the calling of Jesus’ disciples through the witness of Jesus and the disciple Andrew. The focus in these chapters is on biblical principles for evangelism. Why is our witness so essential? What is and what is not a good Christian witness? What are the ways in which the gospel may be witnessed? These are among the main questions answered from this part of John’s Gospel.
Part 2 focuses on Jesus’ remarkable encounter with Nicodemus, recounted in John 3. As Jesus interacted with this religious unbeliever— so typical of many today—He systematically presented the theology of the gospel. The importance of this cannot be overstated, since there must be accurate content in our gospel witness. Among the important topics that Jesus covered were the necessity of the new birth, as well as its source; God’s love for the world in Christ; faith as the way of receiving God’s gift; and salvation as deliverance from eternal condemnation and to eternal life. Understanding these themes as Jesus presented them is indispensable to making a clear and accurate presentation of the gospel.
Part 3 centers on Jesus’ meeting in John 4 with the woman by the well in Samaria—a person very unlike Nicodemus but typical of many people today. Here we observe Jesus’ practice of evangelism in His witness to an individual. Jesus dealt with barriers to the gospel and acted to make a personal connection. He presented His salvation offer in a way that intersected with the woman’s sense of need. We witness the change that occurred in her life as her heart opened to Jesus’ message. We even see the Samaritan woman responding to her belief in Jesus by sharing the gospel with others in her life.
The book concludes with an appendix dealing with a matter that troubles many people, but that ought to embolden our witness of the gospel greatly: the sovereignty of God in evangelism. I have also included discussion questions for group study, which I hope will promote personal understanding and application.
All Christians are called to evangelism. Jesus the Evangelist is our model. If we want to experience the power of God in our gospel witness, we must follow biblical principles of evangelism; we must present the true gospel in clear, scriptural terms; and we must follow Jesus’ example in the practice of evangelizing actual people. Let us seek God’s blessing for the salvation of many by preparing ourselves to be faithful witnesses to the gospel of God’s grace.