Monday, June 10, 2013

Acts 18:1-11 How to Evangelize in Difficult Times

The newspapers are  telling  us that Namibia   is currently experiencing    the worst drought  in 30 years.  Agricultural advisers are  saying that farmers  need to  be wise  and  sell much  of their livestock. 

The prophet Amos  spoke of another kind of drought - a spiritual drought: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12). 

Amos, like  his prophetic colleagues  Isaiah and Jeremiah  was  prophesying in  times when the Word of the Lord  was not well received in the land. People  seemed not only to be to be deaf, but also resentful  to the voice of God.  Thankfully  physical droughts  do not last  forever. Thankfully  spiritual droughts  are also broken.  The books of  Nehemiah  and Ezra  are a record of times when people  were eagerly gathered around the Word of God, ready to obey everything that they heard  (Neh. 8; Ezra 10).

The apostle Paul on his missionary journeys  encountered those  who were willing to listen  and those who  were unwilling to listen to the  Word of God.  Paul’s visit to the city of Corinth (Acts 18)  was  one of those  times when there was  a lot of  resistance   to  the gospel, although his visit there was not without fruit. One of the outstanding conversions was that of the synagogue ruler Crispus  (18:8). But, by and large  this city was not  very responsive. It also happened to be the congregation  in   this city to which he had written at least 2 letters. This congregation as we know, had many problems. The  people there seemed to be very self -centered and unwilling to submit to the Word of the Lord and to one another.  There are times when  a spiritual  hardness overtakes  a society, and even the  church in that society.

These are  some of the  signs  of spiritual  hardness: 

(i) Either the  Word of the Lord  is resented   (even by  so called professing Christians) and the preacher will be labeled as boring  when he preaches the Word without gimmicks.[1] 
(ii)  Or the Word of the Lord  is simply not proclaimed, or side lined for social action or substituted, as is common in our day, by pop psychology. 

A  society  is spiritually hard when  it wants to  have the gospel of Jesus  changed  and to be  turned into a soothing syrup.   
A society is hard  when   the  Word  of the Lord  does not produce regular conversions, and when people are not healed from their spiritual sicknesses , such as  anger, bitterness, resentment  and other ugly emotions which are not fitting for God’s holy people.  
A society is hard  when, by and by a former living  church   empties out until only a handful of old folk remain who remember the previous days of glory, when every  week people came, hungry  for the Word, and when every week people were being saved, baptized and added to the church.    

Why does this happen? Why are there  such times  when it seems as if evangelism  becomes  an exercise in   futility?  How do we evangelize in difficult times?

Corinth – a case study

Corinth  was  an  affluent  city, strategically   located on an important  trade  route. A strong   sex cult was  located on  the Acrocorinth,  a mountain overshadowing  the city. Every evening   a thousand prostitutes would descend upon the city, contributing  to  the prevalence  of  much sexual immorality. As we read  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians  we see that  this spirit  was also affecting  the church[2].  Another  matter that affected  the spiritual temperature of the church was  the  man centredness (the excessive focus on man) and the resultant division that was  found within the church.[3] 

When such things happen, the  Spirit  of God  is  grieved [4] and  He withdraws [5]. We learn this from the history of  Israel. Whenever they grieved the Holy Spirit [6], God withdrew until they  repented. At such times it is necessary to  have seasons of self- examination[7]  and confession and repentance in the  church  until God returns  in His saving power to  heal  broken relationships and to save  rebellious  sinners.  At times when  the church descends into  a merely religious spirit (keeping up appearances), when believers  find worship on Sundays a drag and not a delight, it  is time  to seek the Lord, for  if we don’t,  we will find and substitute other loves!    

I believe that  we are living in such times and we  need to  understand these times! We need  to know what to do in such times.[8]  Our society  has become every bit as aggressive  and resentful of the gospel  of Jesus Christ  as the Corinthians  were  in the text that we have read. So, how do we evangelize in such  challenging times?  What can we learn from the text before us?

1.     We must continue to  evangelize: Paul and the apostles  never changed their method. They always did the same thing: “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (v.4) … “testifying  to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus…” (v.5) 

2.     We must  continue to evangelize until it becomes impossible to evangelize:  God has commanded  the church  to preach  the gospel, notwithstanding the difficulties we may encounter. We  must do so until it becomes physically impossible to do so.  We see two examples of this in our text: 

  1.      Vv. 1-2: “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”  Priscilla and Aquila, a Christian  husband and wife team were committed to the spreading of the gospel, whilst making tents to support themselves. At one time they were forced to leave  Rome  because  the emperor Claudius (Roman emperor from AD 41-54)  had ordered all Jews (including  Christians, who were regarded a sect of the Jews) to leave  Rome.  Thus it became impossible for them to preach the gospel in Rome. 
  2.     The next example is found in  in  v. 6And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”  Paul reasoned (dialego) and sought to persuade (epeitheo) Jews and Greeks in Corinth(v.4). He was earnestly testifying (diamartureo) (v.5)  - and when they opposed him, he had to  do what Jesus said [9]– and he shook out His garments  and left  there. Let this be clear. We are under no obligation  to continue to plead with people if they  oppose  the gospel, or if they  threaten us  in any way. 
There are two formidable obstacles  in the way of  successful evangelism: 

(i)  man’s  natural inclination to oppose God. 
(ii)  Satan’s  powerful work in  blinding people in  the ways of unbelief and disobedience. 

What does this mean for evangelism? Quite simply this: No matter how clearly you present the gospel, you will not persuade  anyone to believe in the Lord Jesus. You cannot give life to the spiritually dead.  You cannot oppose Satan  in your own strength. Our approach to evangelism  is not realistic until we have faced this shattering fact. 
Unfortunately modern evangelism  has  thought  otherwise.[10].We have been taught for many  years  that good organization and  the right techniques ( e.g. a powerful speaker, good music) would ensure  that  our evangelism would be successful. It was believed that a dead church or a dead town could be automatically revived  by  an intensive evangelistic campaign. 
The late  1800’s and much of the  1900’s  were well known for  big  evangelistic crusades (D.L. Moody; R.A. Torrey, Billy Graham etc.), but if the truth be told  it wasn’t their great preaching  that  brought men and women to Christ. The truth is that God was working in  those days  in  a way  in which He is evidently  not working now. Countries and continents that  once  saw immense  spiritual blessing  (e.g. the UK and  the USA) are now rapidly drifting from their Christian moorings, and it is not that they have lesser gifted or less  anointed preachers now. 

The biblical ‘secret’ to evangelism  is  this (and we laid the foundation for this series on Evangelism  at Pentecost) : The power of the Holy Spirit, and  the  unmerited grace and mercy of God  is  that which gives life  to  people. We must  certainly pray for  Him to return. He is certainly the God who loves and forgives  the repentant sinner and the and the lukewarm church when they  call unto Him, but whether or not He will visit our country in revival power  we cannot determine by  doing the right things. 
What we do know is that God always   honours His own   Word.  If our people  faithfully share  the Lord Jesus Christ with  unbelievers  there will be a harvest. So, in times of coldness and hardness   we must continue to  evangelize until we are forbidden or driven away. 

    3.     We  must   evangelize where we are received: (Vv. 7-8)  “And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. Notice that Paul did not leave Corinth. He  left a certain kind of people  that were unreceptive  for a people  that were receptive in another part of the city.

    4.     We must believe that the Lord has a harvest field:  (Vv. 9-11)  And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

What effect should this  have upon our attitude when evangelizing?

(i)      It should make us bold  and confident: The Lord has His chosen people everywhere and at all times. They are part of His harvest field. They will hear the voice of their Good Shepherd, and they will come. So just because they don’t respond in Ludwigsdorf  or in Rocky Crest  does not mean that they will not respond in Katutura  or Olympia. God has His people  here in Windhoek. Therefore  find them!

(ii)   This confidence should make us patient: We live in an age of hurry and pragmatism. We want quick results. We resent  spending time doing things thoroughly. The truth is that  the work of  evangelism  often  demands  patience and perseverance.  Explaining the gospel takes time, and often you build on another  man’s labours  (Jn 4:37). We need to make sure  that he/she is convinced of the truth, and that repentance and forgiveness  is  sought from God  before we encourage them into an active response.

(iii)      This confidence should make us prayerful:  prayer  is a confessing of our helplessness and  our need, an acknowledgement of our dependence, and an asking for the  mighty power of God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Evangelism belongs to this category. Paul’s  plea wherever he goes to preach  is  this “Pray for me”  (Col  4:2-4).  

So what should we do in times when the work  of  evangelism has become  difficult?  The answer is – carry on, but don’t waste your time with those that will not hear. Go to those that are willing to receive the gospel, and yet, be ever  hopeful and prayerful that in time the hard  soil of those that you long to reach may soften.  Above all remember that  effective Evangelism only happens when the Holt Spirit is at work. To that end pray expectantly!

[1] See Paul’s comment on this in 2 Corinthians  4:1-6
[2] 1 Corinthians 5
[3] 1 Cor   1:10-17; Ch 3
[4] Eph. 4:30
[5] Rev 2:4,5
[6] Isa 63:10ff
[7] 2 Cor 13:5
[8] 1 Chronicles  12:32
[9] Matthew 10:14
[10] Jim Packer  : Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is a very helpful book on this subject  (particularly Ch. 4)

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