How important are words when it comes to sharing the gospel? Many are fond of quoting St. Francis of Assisi’s famous admonition: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” By this they mean the good news is best proclaimed by how we live among people.
A word that is often associated with this approach is “incarnational.” Some use this terminology to describe their desire to build communities of witness where all of life is a story to the presence of God in the midst of the world, where our deeds of service demonstrate His presence and our message is seen by what we do. The gospel is incarnate in us by how we live, not simply by what we say.
I like the idea of communities of witness and I know that it is biblical to live out our faith. I also appreciate those who stress how important it is to avoid hypocrisy, i.e. don’t speak one way, while acting in ways that contradict our words.
But the problem we are seeing is that some make a false dichotomy. Some genuinely believe that we need not use our words with unbelievers until they have been positively impacted by the way we live our lives. But is that really the message of incarnation?
Think about it. Our Lord Jesus demonstrated the original incarnational ministry. Jesus came to earth as a giant intrusion into human history. He came uninvited and for the most part, unwelcomed. The denizens of hell withstood Him and the religious authorities of the day feared Him, but His coming could not be deterred. At times He chose to be “under the radar,” but His incarnation was not meek and mild. He was very outspoken in proclaiming His message, and not just to those who were open to Him. And without that message, His miracles would have been meaningless.
The miracles showed Yeshua’s (Jesus’) Messianic credentials, but it was His words that truly transformed lives. They were powerful words that intruded on the minds and hearts of those who heard them. Those who chose to obey His words were radical. Their lives were turned upside down. Jesus’ life, words and actions challenged the powers and authorities and sometimes upset the common sensibilities of the people He came for.
If the Son of God found it necessary to use words to convey His message, doesn’t it stand to reason that we will need to as well? So the question is not whether we should use words to communicate the good news but how we should use them.
Yesterday I was listening to a wonderful album of gospel music called Welcome Wagon. The first song on the album is entitled He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word. The chorus and refrain remind us that as Jesus stood before Pilate and as they nailed Him to the cross He said, “not a word, not a word, not a word.”
Isaiah described the coming Messiah by saying, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). How was that prophecy fulfilled?
Jesus did not open His mouth to defend or save Himself, but we can see in the Scriptures that He was not speechless. In the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus answered but one question. When Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “It is as you say.” Yet in John’s account there is a good deal more spoken between Pilate and Jesus. In answer to Pilate’s question, “are you King of the Jews,” John records Jesus as asking, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?” (John 18:34).
Asked the same question a second time Jesus answers, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (v.37). Finally Pilate tries to get Jesus to defend Himself, saying “Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you and the power to save you?” Jesus makes one more response, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above” (19:11).
Clearly Jesus spoke words to Pilate but they were not like any words ever spoken by a man whose life hung in the balance. There were no explanations, no pleas for mercy, no attempts to defend or free Himself. Not a word was spoken to accomplish any of these things.
Likewise while hanging on a cross Jesus did not remain completely silent. The “seven words” of Christ from the cross are part of the Good Friday services of churches around the world. But again, these are not the words you would expect from a dying man. They are not complaints, pleadings, or last minute confessions to clear His conscience. They are not defensive or self-righteous words. They are clear declarations of faith, words of assurance and comfort and care for others. Finally they were words of absolute faith and trust in God, the kind of words that are always appropriate to speak, “like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11).
To be like our Lord we need to bear witness with the same kind of speech: words that are not defensive but full of faith and full of grace.
Paul put it this way: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Colossians 4:6) We need to know how to answer people and sometimes it’s not easy. But if we commit ourselves to gracious speech we will find it is not only necessary to use words in our witness, but most desirable. Ours should be not a word of acrimony, not a word of defensiveness, not a word of accusation but words of grace and full of the mercy of God.
There were times in Jews for Jesus when we were trained to use a bit of mild sarcasm as a legitimate response to insincere questions or presumptuous remarks. The thinking was based on the Proverbs; “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5) A foolish question or remark did not deserve a sincere answer. To give one would be like casting our pearls before swine, whereas an ironic answer given with a smile often made a person think twice and come back with more sincerity.
For example: someone would accusingly tell one of our missionaries, “You’re not Jewish!” and the missionary might reply jokingly, “You’re right, I’m Norwegian.” The accuser would either leave in disgust (which is what they would have done anyway) or chuckle (most of our staff could not pass for Norwegian) and stay to have a real conversation. But it’s very easy to abuse this tactic, and for some, it opened the door to a kind of one-upsmanship.
We can’t allow our hearts and our words to be guided by the sincerity or lack of sincerity of those we are talking to—Jesus never did. He had a marvelous way of speaking to the heart of a matter and His words were not always based on His listener’s hearts but reflected His own heart. His life was always a tribute to the truth of His message. He never withheld words that would give opportunity for people to receive the grace and mercy He carried in his heart.
Some believers do well to allow their lives to speak for the truth they wish to share. But eventually, when God wants to use our lives He does ask us to use our words—not spoken in sarcasm, defensiveness or accusations—but words of truth and life and love. Just like Jesus.