A real challenge in reading the New Testament is to let it say what it actually says. I experienced this when I was tasked with writing on the topic of evangelistic engagement in the New Testament. I started out thinking I’d look for some nice principles that I could use to support what we already think about reaching out to others with the gospel—things like “meeting people where they are,” “building bridges,” or even using “mentoring relationships.” Starting that way, I was able to find enough support in the Scriptures to back up what I wanted to say.
But while doing that, I realized I was putting a strong filter over the text and was only allowing certain things to come through. So I decided to work through the New Testament fresh, to hear what it says about this subject before laying such a strict grid on it. As I did that, I discovered results that I was less comfortable with, but that were probably more accurate to God’s Word than my first approach. I found that evangelistic engagement in the New Testament was largely confrontational, divisive, and flourished under persecution.
That may not be what we’d think of right away, but I imagine that many Christians—for example, those of the first 300 years of Christianity, those involved in the Reformation of the 16th century, as well as the many Christians in persecuted regions today—would quickly affirm these truths. Consider the actual texts with me and see how this looks:
In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested for “teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (4:2). As they stand before the authorities, they boldly announce the same message that got them arrested in the first place. At this point, the leaders allow them to go free, but this won’t be their last arrest. Having a sense of this volatile situation, the church gathers to pray. Interestingly, they don’t pray for peace, moderation, or opportunities at this point (though those are good things); in Acts 4:29 they pray, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” And this is exactly what we see played out throughout the book of Acts.
In Acts 5:27-40 the Apostles are brought before the council of the high priest to be questioned. The high priest reminds them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” How should the apostles respond to such an accusation? They answer, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Their bold answer pushes forward into confrontation, rather than pacifying a volatile situation (5:33). Later, when Stephen has a chance to speak, he closes with the confrontational words, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised… You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (7:51). This led to his immediate stoning.
Confrontational encounters are repeated in Samaria (8:20), Cyprus (13:10), and all over the Mediterranean world. When Paul is later urged not to return to Jerusalem—because the believers knew he would enter into conflict—Paul responds, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13). The early Church often spread its message confrontationally with boldness.
It should come as no surprise that such confrontational engagement led to a divisive environment. Through these confrontations, the early Church had no problem drawing firm lines between those inside the household of faith and those outside. As the Jews began reviling Paul in Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas boldly proclaimed, “Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). A few verses later, Paul and Barnabas are recorded shaking the dust off their feet against them and moving on. This is certainly reminiscent of the exhortation Jesus gave to the ones he sent out before his crucifixion in Matthew 10:14, Mark 6:11, and both Luke 9:5 and 10:11.
Jesus himself had established this divisive way of thinking, even correcting some misperceptions about his ministry when he said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36). Paul too carried this divisive way of thinking into congregational life. He warned the Ephesian elders to be aware that fierce wolves will attack the church with false teachings (Acts 20:29ff), and he exhorted the Corinthian church, “Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).
It should be noted that these conflicts and this divisiveness were not something the Church necessarily sought or wished for; their goal certainly was unity (John 17:23, Ephesians 4:1-5, and more). But in Christ-like humility they preached the Word boldly and recognized that these divisions were often the result.
Flourished Under Persecution
It should come as no surprise that confrontation and divisions naturally led to persecution. While we tend to think of persecution as a terrible thing, it often also led to a great expansion of the Word of God.
Following the great confrontation with Stephen in Acts 7, Acts 8:1 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,” scattering the Christians “throughout Judea and Samaria.” I would have thought this was a bad thing. However, God used this persecution to spread the Word. Acts 8:4 records, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Such persecution became part of Paul’s early message as he exhorted the disciples in Lystra and Iconium in Acts 14:22, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Likewise, others were reached through the way Paul endured persecution—such as the Philippian jailer of Acts 16. In fact, much of Paul’s message to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians centers around this unexpected reality, where Christ works through weakness (12:10). I would have thought these early leaders viewed persecution as a bad thing, yet several times in the New Testament, and in the early Church fathers, we see them rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer like Christ (e.g., Acts 5:41, Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 4:13, and Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans). For both personal sanctification and public witness, the early Church learned to rejoice in persecution and saw the Word of God flourish.
In contemporary North America, we probably don’t think of our evangelistic outreach in these terms. Perhaps in our context we shouldn’t. Maybe other principles like unity, inclusion, and bridge building are more important today. On the other hand, a time may be coming (or maybe has already come) when we will need to rely more on God to proclaim his Word boldly—even when the immediate results might make us uncomfortable. May God grant us such faith, for this world needs to hope in him.
Dr. Daniel Berge Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as professor of New Testament at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.