At the funeral of a family member recently, the pastor of the church at which the funeral was held recounted how in the last weeks of the deceased man’s life, he had met with and preached the gospel to him. The man was literally dying of alcoholism, and it was apparent he had only a little time to live. After weeks of rejecting the evangelistic offerings of the pastor, the man finally answered the pastor’s question of “How do you know you’ll be in heaven when you die?” with a response acknowledging that he had asked Jesus to be his savior. A few days later he was dead.
The story was encouraging, knowing the sinful and God-rejecting life my family member had lived, however, the pastor’s proclamation following the account gave me pause. He told the people at the service that because of the man’s profession, he was now in heaven, and that if we wanted to meet him after our death, that we needed to accept Jesus as well. Perhaps it was because I had been intensively praying and studying on the subject of Hell at the time, but the declaration the pastor made rang in my ears. He wasn’t simply sharing his religious beliefs… he was making a prophecy! And a very bold prophecy at that, considering the way the deceased had lived his life, and the lack of evidence of authentic conversion and repentance. (Did Paul not say that drunkards will not inherit the Kingdom of God?)
I asked myself, did this pastor really know that this person was in Heaven? Had he with fear and trembling searched the scriptures and received revelation from Heaven that he was accepted in God’s sight? Or was he simply following his particular denomination’s statement of faith, noting that the man had performed the correct religious ritual to attain salvation? What a profound and ultimate prophecy we utter when we pronounce judgment on what a person’s fate will be at the great resurrection of the dead, I hope and pray it is taken seriously.
When we share our faith with others, are we simply giving our or our denomination’s opinion on the matter? Or are we declaring with authority that which we know to be true? Some church movements advocate having flexible “conversations” rather than proclaiming our beliefs to people as truth, and surely this is the best approach to take if we are not sure we are right on a particular subject. However, if we are not absolutely sure about core faith issues such as the resurrection and return of Jesus the Messiah, then whatever we may be, we are not the Church that Jesus and the Apostles founded, and should not identify ourselves as such. (Perhaps philosophical social club would be a better word?)
So, if authentic faith in Jesus requires the proclamation of the good news as fact rather than opinion, what is the manner in which it should be proclaimed? I would like to propose a paradigm shift in evangelism away from sharing our beliefs, and to proclaiming a prophetic gospel. Consider the following account of Paul in Athens:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD ‘ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst.
— Acts 17:16-33, NASB
In the midst of a people that loved to hear about new ideas, Paul proclaims He who is the ultimate end to what they had been searching for. Rather than submitting his beliefs into the mix as one more idea to consider, perhaps hoping for his message to be considered more logical or more attractive than others, he supersedes all other ideas by declaring to know and speak on behalf of the creator of all ideas. The god that was unknown to the Athenians was no longer unknown to them, Paul was proclaiming to them who He was, and in the process was showing the Athenians who they were. Are we missing part of the real and authentic gospel, if we retreat from speaking with such authority and conviction?
Paul ends his appeal with a startling prophecy. A day is coming in which all men everywhere will be raised from the dead for the purposes of judgment, God has proven it by raising the one who will do the judging from the dead already, and they therefore need to repent of their ignorance and sin and believe in this man of judgment. Rather than merely a doctrinal point to be studied, this was a startling prophecy that had real application to the people he was talking to. Either he was right or he was wrong, but the men hearing the prophecy didn’t simply “appreciate” it as a “beautiful religious belief”… he was either a lunatic or a man to be taken very, very seriously. Both responses can be seen in the text.
When we preach the gospel, it is both the fullfilment of prophecy and prophecy itself. Every word of God is precious, and just as there is a grave need to jealously guard our speech with regard to individual prophecies and revelations we give, we need to guard the universal prophecies that the Body of the Messiah has been given stewardship over in this time, the premier one being an expectation for salvation through Jesus both now and at His returning. As we guard it, let us also proclaim it in the spirit in which it was first given, when the gospel was by its very nature prophetic.
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