Consider two, hypothetical, but very realistic, scenarios. A team of young missionaries visits jungle villages, bringing relief supplies and providing medical care and education. As they win people’s confidence, they share the good new of Jesus as Saviour of humanity.
Another team of young evangelists travel and hold meetings, warning of Revelation’s impending doomsday, fire, and brimstone, and calling audiences to repentance.
What is the purpose of witnessing? Which team best reflects the outlook of Jesus?
Personally, I feel more comfortable with the first outlook. Not so much the jungle part, even though I have ministered in the jungle. Rather, the idea of the gospel blessing people’s lives and improving them in a wholistic way holds a strong appeal.
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33). In the Bible, leaven is used as a symbol of sin. Just as leaven affects the whole dough, sin can affect every aspect of the human life.
In Matthew 13:33, however, Jesus uses the exact same example of leaven to refer not to the impact of sin, but to the impact of the gospel. Sins corrupts everything it touches. The gospel has the power to transform and restore everything it touches.
My father once told me the story of a gentleman married to an Adventist lady in his church. He lived a destitute lifestyle; he opposed her faith and would make her life miserable. One day, the church was organizing an outing and invited him along. He not only came along, but, to their utter dismay, he stood in their midst, confessed his wrong-doings, and declared his determination to follow Jesus.
My father, who was the pastor of that little church, did not quite know what to make of this. Was the man being sincere? Or was it another one of his shenanigans? Time proved him sincere. From that day onward he became an exemplary husband and committed believer. “Never in my ministry had I seen such a case of sudden and complete transformation,” my father told me years later.
Transformation often takes time. And it is likely that in this man’s life the Spirit had been working for some time through his believing wife and the loving little church community. But whether it takes a shorter or longer time, the transformation and restoration of character is truly a piece of finest art performed by a Master Artist, the Holy Spirit.
Just like health professionals love seeing patients restored to health, our heavenly, spiritual Health Professional loves to transform broken lives back towards the ideal of Adam and Eve, back to the likeness and image of Himself (Gen 1:26).
God’s call to us to participate in this transforming work, is life’s highest calling. Now, that is a beautiful reason to witness.
A Sharp Edge
Reading the Bible one cannot fail to see that beyond the immeasurable love that flows from God to fallen humanity, there is a sharp edge to the gospel proclamation. Jesus began His ministry with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Incidentally, His cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist, preached an identical message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).
John addressed some sinners as “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7). Jesus went a step further and called them children of the devil (John 8:44). Strong language.
“Repent” is not a word we hear often from pulpits nowadays. And if a pastor were to address anyone as a brood of a viper or a child of the devil, he would probably find himself without a church!
Fire-and-brimstone preaching once used to be popular. My mother first became a reluctant follower of Jesus through a fire-and-brimstone sermon she had heard on the radio. The idea of hell scared her. Fortunately, from Adventists she eventually learned that there is no such thing as everlasting torment in hell. And in the process of study and growth, she also learned to love rather than fear Jesus. But the first impetus to faith had been the realization that every human must one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10).
She is not the only one. With the onslaught of the COVID 19 pandemic, I was surprised to witness a sudden outburst of interest in spiritual matters in my community. Persons who may have had marginal spiritual interests were seeking guidance to study the Bible. Long-time believers were asking for sermons from Revelation about the end times. The possibility that soon before us may lie an end to the comfortable life, as many in the western hemisphere know it, was enough to spark a desire to get things right with God.
Could it be that a ministry expressed though words and acts of kindness, and a ministry of fire and brimstone messages, are not antithetical but complementary realities?
A defining text for Adventists, Revelation 14:6-11 (the three angels’ message), may suggest as much. It contains some of the most powerful expressions of Divine love. It speaks of the “everlasting gospel.” “Gospel,” Greek euaggelion, means an announcement of good news. This gospel is described as “everlasting,” the strongest adjective in the Bible to describe the gospel.
Then the text calls humanity to acknowledge God as Creator. This is the Bible’s strongest such call. To recognize God as Creator is incredibly good news, because it means that we are His sons and daughters. Since He is the King of the universe, each one who so recognizes Him is a prince or princess of the universe! Talk about good news!
And, of course, acknowledging God as our Creator and Father implies that He will eventually fully restore us into His image and likeness. Revelation 14:6-11 is saturated with good news, with a ministry of restoration and life transformation.
And yet, within this most profound text of good news, we find some of the Bible’s strongest warnings. The first angel’s message begins with the words, “Fear God” (Rev 14:7). We like to maintain that to “fear God” means to “respect Him”: rightly so. And yet we should not forget that the saints of old who found themselves in the presence of God, or even of an angel, experienced a very real and tangible fear. Our God is an awesome God.
The second and third angels contain even more fearsome messages. They warn of the fall of Babylon and of the terrible consequences of receiving the mark of the beast.
In these few verses, the good news appears with the messages of warning in surprising co-existence.
Why witness? Because it is through witnessing that sinners encounter the gospel and the saving grace of Jesus that can restore us to peace with God, to His image and likeness. Our witness should therefore reflect the infinite love of God, who allowed His Son to die on the cross to make this a reality.
Why witness? Because, whether we like it or not, every human will one day stand before God. It will be a solemn, indeed fearsome event. The time to prepare for it is now. Our witness should therefore always maintain a sharp edge, based on the sure knowledge of the realities that lie ahead.
Kim Papaioannou holds a PhD in Theology, with an emphasis in the New Testament, from the University of Durham in England. He has served as church minister and professor of theology in Europe and Asia for over twenty years.
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash
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