Evangelism (Luke 4:16-19)

In several places on this blog, I point out that our word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word used in the New Testament for “good news.” The church did not invent the word euaggelion. Roman propaganda used the term to refer to the “good news” brought by the emperor as he won battles, enlarged his empire, and made provision for his subjects. By co-opting this word, the church maintained that it was Jesus and not Caesar who brought good news to the world. The good news of Jesus Christ was a radical, political, and cultural alternative to the ways of empire. 

Mark begins his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For Mark, the good news (gospel) is the entire Christ Event: the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The good news was about what God had done in Jesus for the healing and reconciliation of the world. 

Unfortunately, the word “evangelism” today has taken on a truncated and distorted meaning

Unfortunately, the word “evangelism” today has taken on a truncated and distorted meaning. Many use the word to refer to “winning others to Christ,” preaching aimed at conversion, efforts to save souls, sparing people from the fires of hell, and securing a confession of Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Much of the time, these evangelistic crusades (an unfortunate term considering the nonviolent message and example of Jesus) assume and preach a penal substitutionary view of atonement (a view unknown for at least the first thousand years of the church). 

Some of the consequences of this limited understanding the good news are the following: 

  1. The primary purpose of the church is assumed to be “saving souls.” 
  2. Therefore, all other callings and efforts of the church are secondary. 
  3. With such an emphasis, there is very little attention given to spiritual growth and discipleship. 
  4. As a result, “following Jesus” (Jesus’ injunction “follow me” occurs 87 times in the Gospels), doing unto others as we would have others do unto us, practicing compassion, doing justice (Jesus said, “Seek first the Kin-dom of God and its righteousness.” “Righteousness is a Jewish synonym for “justice) .”), and loving radically (even one’s enemies) are seldom emphasized or practiced. 
  5. Consequently, once people are “saved” in the limited way understood by many Christians, they are free to remain racists, addicted to greed (even though Jesus warned repeatedly about the idolatry of money and possessions), violent, and selfish. The South in which I was raised was full of “born again Christians” who were stubbornly racist. They were never told by their pastors that such prejudice was a sin. (Ministers knew they would lose their jobs if they dared challenge the evils of segregation). What mattered was they were “saved” and would spend eternity in heaven. There was no place for justice or compassion for those they deemed inferior and suspect because of the color of their skin. The Golden Rule need not apply to “them.”
  6. The implications of biblical evangelism for beauty, community, compassion (the primary characteristic of God according to Jesus we are to emulate), shalom, creation, deepening spirituality, etc. are never recognized, much less pursued. 

In this article, I want to look at two passages in the Gospels which relate to a wider understanding of evangelism. 

In Luke 4:16-21 we find Luke’s account of Jesus’ inaugural sermon based on Isaiah 61:1-2a. Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Walter Brueggemann writes the following about these verses: First, the lead verb “to bring good news” is the verbal form of “gospel,” which we have already seen in 40:9; 41:27; and 52:7. This is a dramatic announcement of Yahweh’s newly gained power that is a harbinger of the reorganization of public life according to the will of Yahweh. This is” evangelism” that has concrete, public effect. The one anointed is to “gospel” the world of Judaism. (Isaiah 40-66 in the “Westminster Bible Companion,” p. 214)

This prophecy initially was directed at those who had been in exile in faraway Babylon. Jesus, however, gives it a wider scope defining his own ministry. The words “to bring good tidings” is the verb form of euangelion from which we get our word “evangelism.” Notice for whom this good news is intended: the poor. The Greek word for poor in this passage does not refer to poor peasants who manage to get by through farming. The word means those who are abjectly poor and barely surviving in an unjust and greedy world—people at the bottom of the hierarchy created by an evil and violent system. Others included in this good news of Jesus’ mission are the brokenhearted and prisoners. 

Proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to Jubilee when debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, the land was allowed to rest, and wealth (property) was divvied up on an equal and just basis. One could understand Jesus’ concept of the Kin-dom of God as a perpetual Jubilee in which the spirit of compassion, justice, and shalom were the guiding principles. 

It’s about justice, shalom, and compassion. It’s about emancipation from all which would enslave and oppress humankind.

This inaugural sermon assumes that the good news of Jesus Christ is not about saving souls from the fires of hell. It’s about justice, shalom, and compassion. It’s about emancipation from all which would enslave and oppress humankind. Yes, sin can enslave and oppress us, but redemption from sin (“redeem” in the Bible means “to liberate”) is only part of what Jesus’ good news was all about. The redemption Jesus intended was from anything which enslaved and oppressed including poverty, injustice, violence, and greed. (We might note that Jesus omits the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God” from Isaiah 61, an omission which his hearers resented. The way of Jesus has no place for vengeance or violence. This is one example of Jesus modifying the tradition to fit his message about a God of love who loves even Her enemies.)

But let’s suppose just for argument’s sake that the good news is about how to escape the fires of hell by being “saved” (a term which means “becoming healed and whole”). Our second passage is Matthew 25:31-46. These verses offer the only detailed description of what we erroneously call “the Last Judgment.” The only criterion for that judgment is whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and ministered to the imprisoned. Not one theological question is asked, not even whether one “believes in Jesus.” We are judged on how much compassion we offer those in need. I would think that if Christians are so concerned about their eternal destiny, they would take note of how this parable ends: “And they (those who did not show practical, hands-on compassion) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” I have never heard this passage used in an evangelistic or revivalist sermon. And yet it specifically deals with the criteria for our eternal destiny. (For a thorough treatment of this passage, see my two articles on the Last Judgment.)

There are many pastors and churches who reject justice and peace implications for the gospel. I have heard of pastors who warn their parishioners to stay away from preachers and churches who stress the importance of justice as a vital part of the Christian faith. However, there is no gospel which does not include and emphasize justice and peace. One cannot seek first the Kin-dom of God, much less enter it, without also striving for its righteousness/justice (Matthew 6:33) “Righteousness is a Jewish synonym for “justice.” (See Amos 5:24.) I John 4:20 says it’s impossible to love God whom we have not seen without loving our sisters and brothers whom we do see. We are also told, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brothers or sisters in need, yet closes his heart against them, how can God’s love abide in him?” God is love, and love involves compassion which is the foundation for justice and peace. There is no gospel without love, and there is no love without justice and compassion. And there is no authentic evangelism without a message and a mission to emancipate humankind from all oppression—spiritual, physical, economic, and social. Only that kind of good news, which is a radical alternative to what is offered by the Caesars of this world, is worthy of Jesus.   

[I recognize the need for some people to undergo a sudden and radical conversion as they turn their lives over to Jesus and find in him the healing they need. Most of us who have grown up in church “have grown into our salvation” without being able to pinpoint a time and place for our conversion. However, what the Bible calls conversion (repentance) is not just a onetime event. It is a process of “being changed from one degree of glory into another” in the words of Paul (II Corinthians 3:18). (Paul uses three verb tenses when he speaks about salvation: past, present, and future. Most of the time, he uses the future tense—”we will be saved”—which makes perfect sense when we remember that salvation is a process.) We may be “born again” as babes in Christ, but babies do not remain infants. They grow into adults. Conversion and repentance are not just about emotions or walking down an aisle and making a confession of faith parroting words given to us by a minister. They involve a joyful metamorphosis. Think of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The process is not so much what we are saved from as what we are saved for. Zacchaeus provides a wonderful example of biblical conversion. He is loved into his healing and discovers joy as he practices Jesus’ version of Jubilee. (See my blog entry entitled Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 19:1-10 “The Joy of Repentance.)]

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