Personal evangelism (continued): Acts 11.19-26
We have observed in Philip the evangelist a pattern for effective personal witnessing. Now we turn to the beginning of the work of God at Antioch. In Acts 8 an individual is reached by the gospel with no record of his subsequent progress or of his associations with any other believers. However, the history of how things began at Antioch shows that personal witnessing played a crucial role in establishing an assembly in that city.
Doing the work of an evangelist
The people involved were not designated "evangelists" but every one of them was doing "the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim 4.5). There were no prominent men among them (Acts 8.1), yet these zealous believers were committed to the expansion of the work of the Lord. The tragedy of denominationalism is that congregations are happy to leave responsibility in the hands of one man. Sadly, that attitude can be reflected in assembly life. Undue place can be given to the activities of public preachers, and many are content to sit back and expect the visiting preacher to create his audiences, and see souls saved. In reality, the visiting evangelist is unknown in the community. At every door he knocks he encounters a stranger. By contrast, local believers know the people and have a rapport with them.
Experience has shown that the majority of people who attend gospel meetings are those who are brought by neighbours, colleagues, or relations. The response to mail shots and leaflet drops is minimal. Arduous door knocking produces a marginal increase to that, but by far the greatest response is through personal contact. A year or two ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of one of our dear older brethren. He was a man who would never have preached the gospel publicly, and yet in the congregation there were saved ex-colleagues to whom he had introduced the gospel. This is a plea to every believer to rise to the challenge. Let the example of others, ancient and modern, fire us with enthusiasm for practical involvement in the effective spread of the gospel.
When circumstances change
The people who arrived in Antioch had been "scattered abroad" (v.19). The word implies a "sowing". Their arrival in the city seemed to be the result of them fleeing in panic as refugees, but a divine hand was behind their movements. God was "sowing" them in the place of His choice. From their point of view, their circumstances were unwelcome, and yet they were used by God to effect His sovereign purpose. Pauls experience was similar: he wrote to the Philippians that "the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel" (1.12). His imprisonment resulted in the Praetorian Guard being confronted with the gospel (v.13), and his fortitude emboldened many of his fellow believers in their witness for God (v.14).
Apply these situations to modern circumstances. No one wants to be hospitalised, but believers have used such experiences to help others. Recently, a dear brother told me that at a time of major surgery he was able to bring the message to dozens of people, either by word or leaflet. Personally, I find disrupted travel arrangements an irritation. On occasions, that has been alleviated when an opportunity has been given to speak to someone with whom we may never have had contact had everything gone to plan. An unwanted work transfer may place you in a position for pioneer evangelism. At any time you are where you are by divine decree and for the outworking of Gods great eternal plan.
Speaking and preaching
Initially, there was no public preaching at Antioch. Luke uses the Greek word laleo to describe their activity and it simply means that they were speaking "the word" (v.19). Formal public preaching would soon come when a fresh band of fugitives arrived (v.20). One of the words that is used to describe their work is another word for "preaching", euaggelizo, a word that embodies the concept of preaching good news. Contributing to the success of the work was the fact that personal witnessing and public preaching were conducted in tandem. That pattern has to be adhered to today. If there has been no personal work, it is unlikely that there will be an audience for public preaching. Historically, we have neglected the personal side of things, and hence the meagre attendances at regular gospel meetings. No one has been invited, so nobody comes. With some believers, the consistently poor attendance of the lost has created an attitude that despises the occasion altogether, to the extent of withdrawing support. It is suggested that the hour could be better spent knocking doors or doing street evangelism. Why does it have to be the one or the other? Time could be spent engaging profitably in various outreach activities without boycotting the public preaching. At Antioch, the personal and the public were both critical parts of the work, and if we are anxious to follow the New Testament pattern, we will maintain both at a high level; the two are complementary.
To Jew and Gentile
The first arrivals at Antioch spoke "to none but unto the Jews only" (v.19). This is in keeping with the principle that the gospel was "to the Jew first" (Rom 1.16). Obviously, that principle has no relevance for present day Gentile society, but it did hold good in the early days of testimony in the book of Acts. Witnessing was to be in "Jerusalem, and all Judæa" before the message spread to "the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1.8). When pioneering with the gospel, as a priority Paul always visited the Jewish synagogue. This does not give us licence to be involved with unscriptural ecclesiastical groups in evangelical activity. The code by which Paul was acting was this fact that the gospel was for the Jew first.
The second phase of Christian immigrants spoke to "the Greeks" (v.20, RV). The general populace was now being targeted with the gospel. It was the good news about "the Lord Jesus" that was being presented. There is instruction here about the content of the message that we preach. Christ must be at the heart of the preaching. In the previous article we observed that in personal witnessing Philip preached "Jesus" (Acts 8.35). Summarising his public preaching at Corinth, Paul indicated that it centred on this: "Christ died for our sins he was buried he rose again " (1 Cor 15.3-4). These basic facts should be the foundation of every message. The preacher who fails to visit Calvary has let his audience down. To ignore the resurrection is deficient preaching. In the preaching at Antioch there was an emphasis on His Lordship, mentioned three times in two verses (vv.20-21). This is in keeping with teaching in Romans, the need to "confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord" (Rom 10.9, RV). Thus at Antioch a sound gospel was being promoted by earnest people.
The presence of the Lord
Another ingredient was necessary if this venture was to be successful, and Luke tells us of that crucial element - "the hand of the Lord was with them" (v.21): hence "a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord". There is no alternative to divine activity, and one wonders if paucity of results is a consequence of our lack of dependence on God. Fresh initiatives are doomed to failure "except the Lord build the house" (Ps 127.1). Good ideas are no substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit, and gimmicky methods can never take the place of the divine assurance, "I am with thee" (Acts 18.10).
In the UK it is evident that part of the reason for a downturn in spiritual interest is the increasing godlessness of the nation. Only a few believers can remember pre-war circumstances, but those now gone would tell their stories of near revival conditions. For two generations that has been a rarity. Within my experience of the Lords work, I have seen deterioration in terms of sinners attending meetings, and of strangers being saved. Fellow-servants tell the same story, and there is no doubt that one reason for decline is the state of the nation. Militant atheism is on the march. Sport and entertainment have sapped any spiritual concern; people have become "lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God" (2 Tim 3.4). The acceptance of abnormal moral conditions as normal has shattered any sense of the loathsomeness of sin. I firmly believe that all of these factors in society make it increasingly difficult to evangelise. Having said that, I feel that as believers we have contributed to the difficulty. Have we created conditions that exclude "the hand of the Lord" among us? Has materialism blunted our zeal? Has carnality or worldliness smothered our commitment? Has internal strife diverted our energies? Let us all give diligence to maintain conditions that would allow God to work happily among us, so that "a great number" will believe and turn unto the Lord.
To be continued.