Of the three Behold Your God Israel campaigns we’ve already completed, the opposition to our last one (May ’09) was the most violent we’ve experienced in Israel thus far. Our Jews for Jesus staff and volunteers were kicked and punched more in Rishon, Rehovot and Ramala, than we have been on previous campaigns. One missionary, after having her arm twisted by a security guard, reported that the high incidence of aggression must be because the gospel had not yet been preached in this region. While we did receive names and addresses of 754 seekers and prayed with 22 people to receive the Lord, she felt that the campaign was mainly tilling the soil for future ministry.
I have been pondering her statement ever since. I suppose that I am cautious about the idea that a high level of hostility is tied to breaking new ground. Maybe that’s because it sounds like a corollary to an idea that seems to be gaining popularity among some Christians: that apathy toward the gospel indicates that people have heard the message too often.
Apathy or the ability to ignore the gospel message is nothing new. For years, Moishe Rosen has warned that many Christians inadvertently inoculate their friends against the gospel by telling them just enough of gospel that they think they understand it, but not enough for them to actually “catch” a case of it.
What does seem new, at least to me, is the idea of “too much gospel proclamation.” One contemporary Christian speaker describes Americans as living in a “gospel bubble,” surrounded by a message that they view as commonplace and irrelevant. He concluded that it is unnecessary for Christians to continue to proclaim the gospel in words. Instead, we should just let unbelievers see our acts of charity, and as we live out what Jesus taught us, those who observe us will be drawn to the Savior. The idea is that Christians need to stop preaching the gospel message and simply become the gospel.
Who can deny that we should strive to be living examples of God’s goodness? I won’t deny it because Jesus told us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
But that doesn’t mean our responsibility ends there, or that our lives can come anywhere close to being substitutes for preaching God’s word. After all, Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching… do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
In fact, what may seem like apathy to the gospel can quickly turn to hostility when we continue to get out the message “in season and out of season.” We don’t have to travel to Israel or to the far reaches of the globe to see this. You may have heard that our Jews for Jesus missionaries have been arrested for preaching the gospel here in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, just as we have been in Israel.
Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) He doesn’t indicate a time or a place where there would ever be enough gospel preaching—not until He returns. There are surely places where there has not been enough gospel preaching as was suggested by one of our missionaries in Israel, but too much? I don’t think so.
Has the gospel really been preached so very much in public? Where? As we stand out on the streets or college campuses we often share a corner with people promoting concerts or sales or new restaurants—but rarely do we see others out proclaiming this good news of the Kingdom.
People need to hear the words of the gospel. What is the gospel? It is the simple truth that all of us are separated from a holy God because of our sin. Jesus the Messiah came to pay the penalty for our sin by dying on the cross. Because He is the sinless Savior, the Son of God, death could not hold Him. He rose again from the dead and that same resurrection power is available to each person who, by faith, receives His offer of forgiveness and a new life. By believing this message we can be forgiven of all our sins and both be saved now and be with Him in forever heaven. This is a simple but wonderful and life-transforming truth. This is the gospel.
Christians who believe that gospel proclamation is no longer necessary might be in a bubble of their own. They may be so accustomed to seeing the lost all around them that they have lost touch with the tragedy of their lostness. Or they may be so acclimated to God’s grace that they have lost their wonder over what Christ has done for us.
No doubt many non-Christians or post-Christians believe they have heard enough about Jesus, but if they were anywhere close to really understanding who He is, they would only want to know more. Those who think they know enough about Jesus to dismiss Him certainly don’t know their own danger and don’t comprehend the message that is able to save their very souls.
Preaching the gospel in season and out doesn’t mean we spout forth a steady stream of verbiage without regard to the other person’s interest or needs. The New Testament gives many examples of how to make our words relevant to others in interesting and creative exchanges. But preaching in season and out means that we can’t second-guess when it will be fruitful to sow gospel seed. Only God can know the season of someone’s heart and when they are ready to respond to His grace. The way that people respond to the gospel is not necessarily the best indication of how much or how little has been done.
How people respond to the preaching of the gospel has little to do with the manner of preaching or the method of the preacher. It has to do with the hearer’s spiritual state. We “are” the gospel message only to the extent that we make the message clear. “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). If we hold back to prevent ourselves from being a stench to some, it will prevent us from being the aroma of life to others. The two go together.
It isn’t easy to smell a fragrance that’s been trapped in a bubble. So if we find ourselves in a bubble—whether it is apathy or fear of rejection or even false teaching concerning “too much” gospel proclamation—we need to burst that bubble. Only then can we release the fragrance of Christ through the relentless, effectual, all-encompassing and glorious preaching of this gospel… until He comes again.