dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label evangelism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evangelism. Show all posts

Saturday 24 August 2013

Making children of hell: evangelism gone horribly wrong

In Matthew 23 we find the famous Seven Woes with which Jesus publicly indicted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and arrogance. The second of these woes condemns their missionary practices, reading as follows:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves." (Matt. 23:15)
The Greek word proselytos refers to Gentiles who officially converted to Judaism by undergoing circumcision (for males) and agreeing to abide by the Law of Moses. Now, is noteworthy that most orthodox Jews today do not actively seek out Gentile converts. For instance, in a recorded lecture, the late Dr. Leonard Tann, a senior British rabbi in Birmingham, England, explained that in England it is only the Chief Rabbi's Office in London that can approve conversions. Moreover, he himself followed the practice of Naomi (Ruth 1:8-15) in bluntly discouraging would-be proselytes at least three times before agreeing to assist them in converting to Judaism.

However, Jesus' statement here agrees with other historical evidence indicating that the sect of the Pharisees were very active in seeking proselytes at this time. It is apparent that the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus (himself a Pharisee) were intended to commend Judaism to his Gentile readers. Indeed, a recent book by Michael Bird which takes its title from Matt. 23:15 argues that Jews of this period were active in evangelizing the Gentiles, both in Palestine and the diaspora.

It has been argued that much of the Pharisees' activity was aimed at converting loose adherents to Judaism (the so-called 'proselytes of the gate') to their stringent brand of religion. The Pharisees compelled people to follow not only the Law of Moses itself but also the many layers of oral law which had been added over the centuries. For this reason, Paul referred to the Pharisees as "the strictest party within our religion" (Acts 26:5).

It seems that the Pharisees thought they had the perfect religion: they had worked out a foolproof formula through which they could ensure that they were following God's laws and thus earning salvation, while their consciences could be put on autopilot!

While we don't have any historical narratives of Pharisees proselytizing in the New Testament, we do have plenty of evidence that they were willing to travel significant distances to oppose non-Pharisaical practices. The Pharisee Saul unilaterally sought permission from the high priest to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians (Acts 9:1-2). Jews came from Antioch and Iconium to Lystra to oppose Paul and have him stoned (Acts 14:19). Jews came from Thessalonica to Berea to oppose Paul (Acts 17:13). Jewish Christians (possibly Pharisees) came from Judea to Antioch to impose circumcision on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-5).

Thus we can see that many Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, were zealous for stamping out any form of Judaism which did not measure up to their legalistic standards. From Matt. 23:15 we can infer that they took the same elitist zeal to their efforts to proselytize Gentiles.

Jesus' emphasis on travelling over sea and land to make a single proselyte suggests that the scribes and Pharisees may have been very picky missionaries. We know they looked with disdain on some classes of people (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7:39; Luke 15:2; Luke 18:9-11). They probably did not see the fields as 'white unto harvest' but rather sought to find a few needles in the haystack. They would probably have written off many as unworthy of their religion based on profession, socioeconomic status, illiteracy and other superficial reasons.

However, their strict law-and-order, salvation-by-merit message would certainly have resonated with some, bringing a sense of purpose and fulfilment. And for Jesus, that was the real tragedy. Once he learns that the formula for righteousness and salvation is strict legalism, the proselyte's zeal may well surpass that of his teachers. He will seek to impress his loyalty upon them by going to further extremes than they ever did. In this way, religious extremism is self-replicating. As D.A. Carson wrote in his commentary on Matthew, “The Pharisees’ interpretations and the rules deduced from Scripture became so fully those of their converts that they ‘out-Phariseed’ the Pharisees” (Matthew & Mark, Longman & Garland, eds,. 2010 p. 538).

Pharisaism with respect to the Torah and oral law is not a major problem in the church today. So is there any lesson in Jesus' words for us in 2013? I think so. Jesus' words apply equally to all those who proclaim that only those who belong to their group, who assent to their statement of faith, who follow their rules, can be saved. They say, in effect, "Come to us!" rather than "Come to Him!"

As soon as the focus turns from the Saviour to the religious system, we have laid another foundation instead of what has been laid - Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). And, if we succeed in winning converts to our ideology, they may soon turn on us once they determine that our religion is not as perfect as it could be. This is the fate of all who seek to construct their own way to salvation rather than simply believing in the Way (John 14:6). Their religious structures soon bear little resemblance to faith in Christ Jesus, but consign both founders and converts to the destiny laid out by Jesus in those frightful words, "child of hell."

Sunday 21 July 2013

"Your" Gospel and Paul's

Paul referred to the gospel (Greek euangelion, good news) several times in his epistles in the first person possessive; that is, he referred to it as "my gospel" (Rom. 2:16; Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8). Probably this was partly to distinguish it from false gospels (see Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4), but it also demonstrates that he had a sense of ownership of the message he proclaimed. True, it was ultimately the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1), because it was about Jesus Christ, and the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1), because it came from God. Nevertheless, as Paul was the earthly messenger by which that gospel was delivered, there was a valid sense in which it could be described as Paul's gospel - that is, the good news which had become known across the Roman world through the preaching of Paul.

For me, one of the striking characteristics of Paul's gospel is the paradox that it was at once both very simple and very complex. As to the gospel's simplicity, Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians:
"1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
Notice that Paul decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. It was an active choice. Paul had been educated at the feet of a leading Jewish scholar, Gamaliel; he was a learned man and had seemingly been something of a theological prodigy in his youth (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14). He understood the Hebrew Scriptures very well and was well placed to marvel, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33).

Paul's epistles are masterpieces with great theological complexity, even from a purely human standpoint. However, for the sake of the Corinthians he emphasized the gospel in its simplicity, possibly because he wanted them to focus less on knowledge and more on love (1 Cor. 8:1-3; 1 Cor. 13:2).

In the final analysis, what mattered to Paul was the gospel through which his flock could be saved: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:1-4; cf. Rom. 10:9).

If you are preaching the gospel, it is good for you to know and understand the Scriptures in as much depth as possible. Further, there is a need to contextualize the message for your audience, as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:16-32). However, when preaching your gospel to those with little biblical background knowledge (i.e. most people), resist the urge to appear wise by presenting the gospel in all its theological depth. Don't judge the unchurched for having little interest in the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the precise mechanism of the atonement, or the details of the millennial age. To the weak (in knowledge, or desire for such knowledge) become as weak, in order to win them (1 Cor. 9:22).

In short, when preaching your gospel, refrain from any level of complexity that will take your hearers' focus away from "Jesus Christ, and him crucified!"