Picture an evangelist.
What are they doing? What are they like? Do you warm to them?
Now picture the person or persons most significant in bringing you to Christ.
What did they do? What were they like? Why did you warm to them?
How do your two sets of answers compare?
Invariably when people are asked to imagine 'an evangelist' they picture a bold enthusiast with boundless energy. A salesman who could sell ice to Eskimos but, praise God, now they’re selling Jesus. They are born communicators and can turn a pub discussion of the off-side rule into a proclamation of Christ – our Last Defender.
We are inspired by them sometimes. Daunted by them more often. Do we warm to them? Well, we’re grateful that they’re out there. Because, Lord knows we couldn’t do what they do. We are not 'evangelists' – not like them anyway. So God bless them in their efforts.
Every once in a while we’ll rein them in off the streets to turn their wild-eyed enthusiasm on us – drumming up support for the church’s next ‘big push.’ But once that’s over they will ride off into the sunset and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
I’m exaggerating. Slightly. But, lest you think I’m setting up a straw-man, try this experiment at your church. Raise the topic of ‘evangelizing your friends’ and then count down the seconds until someone complains ‘But I’m no Billy Graham.’
What does this kind of thinking betray?
It reveals, for one thing, a belief worryingly similar to that medieval division between clergy and laity. At root there is the constant guilt felt by ordinary folk who know their failings. And then there’s the offer of some small relief. The riff-raff can pay for professional Christians to live the really holy life for them. The professionals (this strange breed of 'evangelists') are secretly delighted to be put on such a pedestal. And inevitably these experts aggravate as much as alleviate the guilt feelings of the common folk. But really, once the guilt is in place, the divide will follow. And both sides will have strong reasons to reinforce it.
How can we possibly address this situation? There’s a big problem here. If anyone tries to remove the guilt from ordinary Christians they’ll be accused of building up the dividing wall: Are you saying the ordinary folk are off the hook?? Are you saying only certain people can/should evangelize!!? And if anyone tries to remove the division they’ll be accused of guilt-mongering: Are you saying everyone’s under this burden?? Are you saying we all need to be Billy Grahams!!?
But the gospel flushes that whole paradigm down the toilet where it belongs. The gospel addresses both the guilt issue and the division issue. And it doesn’t just re-balance them, it abolishes them. Think of the priesthood of Christ. It means the end of guilt. And then think of the complement to that truth – the priesthood of all believers in Him. It means the end of divisions.
So what would evangelism look like which glories in the perfect priesthood of Christ and the corporate priesthood of all believers? What would evangelism look like if it was motivated not by the high-octane marketeers but by the goodness of the gospel itself?
To find out, let’s follow the story of a prominent 1st century evangelist…
Peter was at one time the poster boy for have-a-go-hero evangelism. He would have been a star speaker at the evangelists’ conferences, goading his contemporaries on to greater resolve. 'Even if all of you fall away' he would say provocatively, 'I will never fall away... Even if I must die with Him, I will not deny Him!' (Matt 26:33ff) And of course these protests of undying faithfulness are contagious: 'They all said the same thing' (Matt 26:35). You can just imagine the passions aroused at the conference.
Peter’s emphasis on what he would do for Jesus created a motivational rush that was both incredibly powerful and incredibly short-lived. For those moments together in the upper room, they were lions for the Lord. Yet within hours they were scattered sheep – deserting, denying and betraying their Master (Matt 26:31). But really it was the same self-promotion that created the oaths among friends and the cowardice before questioners. The assured vows had within them the seeds of the passionate denials and so soon it ended in tears (Matt 26:75). If it wasn’t for the grace of Jesus, this would have been the end for Peter the evangelist.
Yet in John 21, just as Peter was settling back into his old job, Christ appears to him. But this time it’s different. Where once Peter’s sin made him want distance from Jesus (Luke 5:8), now he races towards Him (John 21:7). Where once he sought to share a fire with Christ’s opponents (John 18:18), now he joins Jesus by the fireside (John 21:9). Where once he denied Him, now he affirms his love for Jesus three times (John 21:15-17). And here, founded on the grace and love of Jesus, Peter is re-commissioned to the task. No more grand promises of his own fidelity, instead Peter is captured by the forgiveness and loveliness of Christ:
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
This will be the foundation of his future ministry. And it will sustain him beyond the adrenaline bursts of the next ‘big push’ and on even to a martyr’s death (John 21:19).
Self-assured Peter proved a total failure. But failed Peter shows the way forwards. His first letter will debunk all the old myths and set us straight about evangelism.
From the first verse, 1 Peter is the letter of an evangelist. Peter is ‘an apostle’, that is ‘a sent one’ (or ‘missionary’ if you want to translate it through the Latin). His methods and motivations may have changed but his evangelistic focus has not. He was, after all, personally present for Christ’s commission to take His gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). But now with the grace of Jesus and the wisdom of the Spirit, Peter will apply that great commission to scattered and persecuted believers living their everyday lives. It’s a letter from an evangelist to a community created by and for that same evangelistic mission.
He calls these 'strangers in the world' a 'royal priesthood' (1 Pet 2:9). This means that they are to bring God to the people and the people to God. Their ordinary Christian witness will declare God’s praises among the pagans and see them won to the Lord (2:12). And each member must 'be prepared' with words of witness to 'answer' unbelievers (3:15). This is a high evangelistic calling for the church. Yet the context is the daily grind of their difficult lives and the motivation is something very different from the upper-room pep-talk.
We’ll study the letter under three headings. First:
The recipients of the letter are 'aliens and strangers', or you could say 'exiles of the dispersion', or 'strangers scattered', or 'sojourners banished' (1:1). They are not the movers and shakers of the culture, they are the asylum seekers. Chapter 2 verse 11 describes them as 'homeless' and the whole letter reverberates with the sufferings they are enduring and must continue to endure for Christ’s sake. This is not a victorious looking people. And yet Peter reassures them of their position with the triune God. They are choice in the eyes of the Father, cleansed and bought by the Lord Jesus and indwelt by the sanctifying Spirit (1:2).
From verses 3-9 Peter pours incredible gospel blessings onto the heads of these bedraggled believers. They are showered with Fatherly mercy and reborn in the risen Jesus. They are bequeathed a living hope, an incorruptible inheritance and divine protection until that last day. Here are statements of fact pronounced over weak and suffering Christians.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to say that the Christ in the word of a brother is stronger than the Christ of our own hearts.1 Well here Peter is fortifying these scattered sojourners with the word of Christ. He reassures them that they are gripped by the triune God and gripped by His gospel. The letter begins with a torrent of gracious indicatives. And once the readers are drenched, the first imperatives are simply to set their minds and hopes firmly onto these truths (1:13).
Peter wants these Christians to know that their current experience will be suffering 'for a little while'. But in amongst the suffering will be 'great', 'inexpressible' and 'glorious' rejoicing (1:6,8). How do the believers experience this joy? Through their abiding love for Jesus:
Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. (1 Peter 1:8)
Peter had seen Jesus and loved Him – it was the foundation of His pastoral ministry. Now he writes to those who have not seen Jesus but still the issue of their love for Him is crucial. And he is thrilled to know that they love and trust and rejoice in Jesus because this love is foundational.
Just as Jesus raised it with Peter and just as Peter raised it with his readers, every prospective evangelist must be asked: Do you love Jesus? If you don’t, the joy will be absent, duty will prevail, and non-Christians will not buy it.
If you don’t love Jesus, don’t do evangelism!
Think of Matthew 23:15, where Jesus speaks of loveless evangelists:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.'
Here are zealous, sacrificial, moral, bible-teaching evangelists. And all they do is drag more people to hell with them. Forget the label 'teacher of the law' or 'Pharisee' – such sulfurous evangelism can happen under any label. It could easily happen under the flag that you happen to fly.
Evangelism always multiplies the faith of the evangelist. Which means this: if you have loveless, joyless faith please don’t spread it. 'Sharing your faith' is not always the thing to do. It depends entirely on the kind of faith you have. Spreading the gospel is not good in itself. It all depends on what your gospel is!
It’s not just Pharisees, there are many people sharing their faith who shouldn’t be. Instead we must return to these gospel indicatives of Peter’s opening paragraphs. We must prayerfully meditate on them until verse 8 is true for us. We must be gripped by them until, like Peter, we start using words like 'precious' when we speak of Jesus: 'the precious blood of Christ' (1:19); Christ is 'precious to God' (2:4); Christ is a 'precious Cornerstone' (2:6); Christ is 'precious' to us (2:7). Those are the words of an evangelist gripped by the gospel.
We may well lament the absence of words like 'sin', 'wrath' and 'repentance' in today’s evangelism. Yet how much more disturbing is the absence of a word like 'precious'?
If such words and affections aren’t present, we don’t need more practical tips on sharing our faith. We have lost our first love (Rev 2:4f) and need to return to the gospel that first gripped our hearts. Then the words will come.
And here’s why: we always speak about what we love. We speak of our favourite films, our favourite football team, our favourite grandchildren, even our favourite X-factor contestants. We do so without ever requiring ‘expert knowledge’ or ‘a gift of the gab’ or ‘earning the right to speak.’ We just do it. It’s incredible how people who claim they’re ‘not good with words’ manage to find more than enough of them when the subject is close to their heart. We speak about what we love. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 'From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.'
If our hearts are full of Jesus the words will come – falteringly, feebly but with unfakeable authenticity. If our hearts are not full of Jesus then our words will be sparse, lifeless and unconvincing. A failure to evangelize is not an information problem, a technique problem or a strategy problem – it’s a heart problem.
Whether we claim to have a ‘gift of the gab’ or whether we maintain that we’re ‘just an ordinary Christian’ our first duty is to ensure we are gripped by the gospel. If the heart is right, the words will come.
When we imagine 'an evangelist' we often think of someone who blends in. If they’re in the office – they’re the popular one, if they’re at a party – they’re the life and soul, if they’re playing sport – they’re one of the boys or one of the girls. In this kind of evangelism the strategy is to convince unbelievers: 'You can be cool and a Christian!' And usually the emphasis is on: 'You can be cool!'
But the whole of 1 Peter screams 'No!' The life of the believer is not a blending in with the world but a sharing in the life of Christ. It is His identity we blend in with even as we 'live among the pagans.' This is not, first and foremost, a moral decision to be like Jesus. It is much more fundamental than that. When we were reborn (1:3) through the gospel (1:23) we were reborn into Christ to share completely in His life. And so…
Just as He is Chosen, so we are chosen in Him. (1:20; 1:2)
Just as He is the Living Stone, we are living stones in Him. (2:4; 2:5)
Just as He is our Priest, we are a priesthood in Him. (3:18; 2:9)
These are immeasurable privileges. But if we pay attention to the context of these verses we will see how these honours are intimately attached to suffering. The Chosen One is a Chosen Lamb and His chosen people are chosen exiles. The Living Stone is rejected and so are His living stones. Christ died to bring us to God and His royal priesthood will suffer in cruciform ways (e.g. 2:21).
This is a constant theme in the letter. Christians are:
Accused of doing wrong (2:12);
Suffering for doing good (2:20);
Suffering for doing right (3:14);
Spoken against maliciously for their good behavior (3:17);
Insulted for the name of Christ (4:14)
The similarities with Christ’s sufferings are no coincidence. Peter tells us these hardships are a 'participation in the sufferings of Christ' (4:13).
But this isn’t corporate masochism. We don’t suffer for suffering’s sake. Just as Christ suffered to save the world so our sufferings come as we reach out with salvation for the world.
Look at chapter 2, vv11-12:
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
This is very far from ‘blending in’. Peter asks us to stick out like a sore thumb. But there’s power here. On the day Jesus returns, former pagans will glorify God saying, 'I used to despise those Christians but actually they showed me Christ.'
It’s therefore crucial to know what ‘sharing in Christ’s life’ will look like day-to-day. And Peter tells us what it means for living under authorities (2:13-17); in the workplace (2:18-25); in marriage (3:1-7) and more generally with unbelievers around us (3:8-4:6). In every circumstance we are called to a cruciform stance (e.g. 2:21ff). And this makes perfect sense. Just as the cross was evangelistic (3:18) so, as we participate in Christ, our evangelism will be cross-like.
We are not called to be like Billy Graham, no. But we are called to be like Jesus. In fact we are called in Jesus (5:10). And we live His life in the world, carrying on His priestly ministry. In Christ, we extend ourselves into a sinful world yet offer sympathy, love, compassion and humility (3:8). In Christ, we extend ourselves into a hostile world yet offer grace and blessing (3:9). And in this cruciform way we will experience a deeper fellowship with the Jesus we love:
Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Pet 4:13-14)
Blending in with the world is our great temptation and it is the death of true evangelism. But Peter offers us a much more satisfying fellowship. As we speak up and stick out for Jesus we can experience so much more of our union with Him. As we bear His name we stand in Him, sharing His own life and privileges, His sufferings and His priestly work.
As we think about ‘bringing people to God’ there are three truths to keep in mind:
Firstly, He did.
What I mean is, Jesus has already brought people to God. The great missionary journey has been undertaken and accomplished. And it was a complete success.
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
Christ remains the great Evangelist. In every soul that’s won it’s Christ who has won them. It’s His lifting up at Calvary that draws all people to Himself (John 12:32). We may fellowship in that lifting up by lifting Him up in our own feeble witness. But we must remember that it’s always Christ drawing people to Himself.
This gives us tremendous confidence as we speak for Him – the great Evangelist is drawing all people through us. And it gives us a proper humility as we put our own little efforts in perspective.
It also means that the pressure is off. The perfect Priesthood of Christ is death to the guilt that we discussed at the beginning. My evangelistic efforts do not bring me to God. Christ has brought me to God. For free. Forever. Irreversibly. Unimprovably. I haven’t gotten closer to heaven through door-knocking and I haven’t fallen further from heaven by fluffing an opportunity. Christ is my standing before the Father, not my performance. Therefore my evangelism doesn’t save me and my failures can never condemn me.
If we haven’t grasped, or if we’ve forgotten, the perfect Priesthood of Christ then, again: Please don’t evangelize. Evangelism birthed out of guilt is a denial of the evangel that we preach. He has brought us to God. He has brought us to God. So no more fear, no more pride, no more pressure, no more guilt.
Secondly, we are.
We already are a community bringing people to God.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Priesthoods bring God to the people and the people to God. And as these believers declare God’s praises among the pagans – people will come to glorify God for themselves (2:12). It’s absolutely extraordinary, Peter is calling these scattered exiles what the LORD called Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex 19:5-6) – a royal priesthood to the nations.
Notice this is an indicative – you are. The very existence of this community is priestly. It cannot help but be evangelistic (of course it might communicate a perverted evangel, but it will always be evangelistic).
Notice this is inescapable – you are. You cannot be in Christ and not in His church. And you cannot be in His church and not priestly. When we trusted Christ we entered the priesthood.
Notice this is corporate – you (plural) are. The church is not a club of individual evangelists who get re-fuelled on a Sunday and then run off to their individual ministries. The church as a whole is the priesthood. Therefore we are to bring people to God as a body.
There are many implications of this truth, but one thing to say is that not everyone within the priesthood will have the same gifting and opportunities.
In 1 Peter 4:10-11 we see two broad categories of gifts: speaking gifts and serving gifts (diakonei). Though all are expected to speak (3:15), some people are particularly good with words. And though all are expected to serve (4:10), some are particularly good with hospitality (diakonei has lots of 'waiting on tables' connotations). But imagine getting these differently gifted Christians together in priestly mission. Imagine homes and tables opened up to the world. And then imagine Christians liberally sprinkled around the dinner table who are particularly good with words. You’ve just imagined one of Jesus’ favourite evangelistic strategies (e.g. Luke 5:27-32).
So of course some people are more gifted verbally than others. But every gift is essential in its contribution towards our corporate priestliness. We just need to get better at the together-ness of our mission of proclamation. The different giftedness of believers is not an excuse to divide the work of evangelism off from sections of the church. That would be a denial of the priesthood of all believers and a narrowing of evangelism to the solo-exploits of the soap-box preacher. Instead the different giftedness of believers is an opportunity for the church to work together as the priestly body that it is.
Thirdly, I can.
Finally, no matter who I am, here’s what I can do when an opportunity arises:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)
This is for every Christian, not just the gifted speaker. Every Christian should be able to put words to their gospel hope. As the saying goes, you can’t mime the gospel.
But you can do things that prompt questions. From chapter 3 verse 8 we see all kinds of Christ-like behaviour that will raise interest in unbelievers. And in the scenario envisaged in v15 it’s the non-Christian who initiates the conversation. The non-Christian has noticed a hope that is in the Christian (that’s how the ESV more literally translates it). This is not a hope that is in the creeds or in a gospel tract or even in the bible. Rather it’s a tangible, evident hope that is in the Christian. And it’s so obvious, life-shaping and attractive that they ask about it.
And the Christian should be ever-ready for the opportunity. Think of the engaged man, ever ready with the story of his proposal. Think of the engaged woman, ever ready to show off the diamond. Think of the book-lover who’s just read their new favourite novel. Or the proud owner of a new sports car, or a new outfit, 70% off. We are always ready to talk about the things that are important to us.
Which is why Peter begins the verse by exhorting us: 'In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.' That must be our fervent prayer: that the Spirit would make Christ the highest affection of our hearts. Higher than the engagement ring, or the dream car, or the designer outfit Then the words will come – awkwardly at first. But over time, if Christ is Lord, if the gospel is grasped, if the love is there, if the joy is active and the hope is real then we’re prepared to give an answer.
What is our greatest need in evangelism? It’s not more high-octane pep-talks. It’s not more guilt-soaked inducements. It’s not a professional class of experts. Our first need is to be won again by the goodness of the good news. Therefore our primary task is simply to preach the gospel… to ourselves… to other believers, and then to the world.
We often berate ourselves for failing to speak of Christ to pagans. Yet even more concerning is our lack of Christ-talk to brothers and sisters! Perhaps, then, we should begin there. Let’s take a leaf out of Peter’s book and pronounce those gospel blessings to one another. Let’s be full of words among our own communities until we are gripped again by the gospel. When the ‘Christ in the word of a fellow-Christian’ fortifies our hearts, our own words will flow. And flow out to the ends of the earth.
1. Life Together, p.32.