A Biblical Theology & Philosophy of Evangelism

Brandon Rhodes

Box # 679 December 2006
Early Christianity was a politically, economically, and socially scandalous revolutionary movement throughout the Roman Empire. Pockets of followers shone from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond as good news of a new way of being the dispersed, de-nationalized People of God made possible by Messiah Jesus spread like wildfire. It must have seemed absurd: these Christians claimed allegiance to a crucified, homeless, backwoods revolutionary Rabbi that was bodily resurrected and now claims higher authority even than Caesar. In obedience to this King of Kings and Caesar of Caesars, they shared everything (Acts 4:32-34). Masters and slaves treated each other with high esteem and love (Philemon). They claimed to have immediate access to the Creator God of everything (Eph 3:8-12). And for all their dislike of Roman oppression, they still refused to subvert the empire with anything but a lived-out message of peace, love, and reconciliation. Yet with all this lunacy, and no matter the violent cruelty wielded against it by the principalities and powers of the time, the Revolution kept spreading. Thousands of people continued to become followers of the teachings of this risen King, Jesus. They were excited and driven to tell others about this new Way, this irresistible Revolution which was at hand. This is the story which Christians today find themselves improvising. The good news of that Revolution of Christ continues today to be spread and shared, nearly two thousand years later. Yet that good news has arrived to this generation largely neutered of its revolutionary implications. The good news professed by Christ’s community has been tamed as it has passed through the halls of worldly power, has given up hope of another

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world being possible by God’s power. Rather than saying Christ’s power can transform the world, it narrowly proposes to transform individuals. This strangled gospel isn’t the most exciting (or good) news on the shelf for many young Americans today. It appears awfully hopeless and selfish. It has lost the revolutionary flavor so robust in the tradition’s early communities. Thus, it doesn’t really seem to be worth sharing, or, not for any reason but guilt-whipped duty. But Christ’s Revolution is still available and at work in the world, ready to be a scandalous good news for all people today. It can again be a gospel worth wanting to share. This paper will consider how the more radical Good News lived out and spread by its earliest adherents can continue to be spread today.

A Review of Definitions A conversation about evangelism will not make much sense without clarification of what is meant by the euaggelion itself, the Good News which the People of God proclaim. Out of that definition will arise a dynamic definition of what evangelism timelessly is and might look like in the contemporary North American culture. The Gospel The good news isn’t just a propositional morsel of succulent atonement theology which we must digest, but a story that happened in ancient Palestine which we must accept and now improvisationally implement where we now are. The gospel preached by Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is at hand, among you, among us (Matthew 4:17). If Jesus’ gospel is the inbreaking Kingdom of God, it must be asked just what that phrase may have meant to Him and to His earliest hearers. Chilton has concluded that

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the phrase “kingdom of God” likely derived from the Targum paraphrases of Isaiah. In its use there, “the language of the kingdom […spoke] of God intervening actively on behalf of his people.1 … The emphasis is on the dynamic, personal presence of God – not on the nature of God in itself, but on his saving, normally future activity.”2 It connotes the delivering, reconciling, oppression-crushing, exodus-echoing work of Yahweh God. 3 For Jesus to use such language was revolutionary in first-century Palestine. His gospel of deliverance from Roman oppression was a direct, if sternly nonviolent, threat to those powers and persons that were so responsible for keeping God’s dream for creation, from creation, and indeed from his covenant people. It was a way of being God’s People which commanded faithful obedience of all and above all. Yet this Way he taught, epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount and manifest in the Passion narratives, was not the kind of revolution the Jews expected. Rather than fight back when Romans struck you, Jesus taught them to neuter the imperial logic of domination by turning the other cheek and blessing the oppressor. In place of eradication of enemies, he advocated and actively demonstrated love of enemies. Instead of scorning sinners, he brought them as equals to his Father’s table. The Way was revolution through reconciliation, a “little revolution of love.”4 Thus, Christ’s gospel of the inbreaking kingdom was one of a God-

1

Chilton, Bruce. Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 11-12.

2

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig Evans. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 268.
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Stassen and Gushee say that the kingdom language connoted seven themes in its use in Isaiah: Deliverance/Salvation, Righteousness/Justice, Peace, Joy, God’s Presence as Spirit or Light, Healing, and Return from Exile. Gushee, David P., and Glen H. Stassen. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 25.
4

Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 118.

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empowered new way of being the dispersed People of God, the community chosen by the Creator God to set the world aright and so be a light to the nations. Paul rephrases the gospel in Romans 10:9 to be that “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” He says it a bit differently every time, but the core themes are that “Jesus is Lord and risen.” As with Jesus’ message, Paul’s word choice in explaining the good news is very politically charged.5 The “good news” in Paul’s day was the word for the announcement of the accession of a king or emperor. It was the word for going throughout the empire that Caesar (possessing both political-imperial and religious-cultic lordship) had arrived and was spreading salvation and freedom to all peoples. Faithful obedience was declared to Caesar by uttering “Caesar is Lord.” So for Paul to present another gospel and declare faithful obedience to a different King is extremely politically dangerous. He subverts and neuters the oppressive theological-political logic of the empire with an alternate King and deliverer of liberation: the risen and regnant Lord of Hosts, Messiah Jesus – the Slain-but-Risen Lamb! Thus Paul’s gospel formula (“Jesus is Lord and risen”) is a prophetically imaginative contextualization of Christ’s word and work of the liberation of God, the revolution through reconciliation: the Kingdom of God at hand. Therefore paraphrasing “the kingdom of God” as “the revolution of God” is a useful and fair way to capture the political charge and scandal of Christ’s message. This Revolution of Christ challenges all power claims – personal, demonic, political, and private – for it is “the judgment of God

5

Wright, N.T. Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire, for the Center of Theological Inquiry. Available online at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm.

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upon the present order and the imminent promise of another one.”6 It is a challenge to every heart, every ruler, every principality and power; it delivers humanity from every captivity (bondage to sin, under Satan, in Egypt, under Rome, etc.) and makes us instead slaves to the one who’s been King and Lord all along – God. This definition does not reduce the gospel to a political campaign – far from it! That is in a sense what Christendom has tried to do for over a thousand years, and to utter disaster. Indeed, the aim of the faith should not be the acquisition and wielding of worldly power, but rather a wielding of the patient, nonviolent power of God as exemplified in Jesus.7 Instead of a “Christian” political campaign, the gospel involves receiving and entering into Christ’s revolutionary campaign for creation: the politicallycharged missio dei of the just and compassionate Lord of Hosts setting the world aright. This reevaluation of the gospel does not diminish the role of Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, it exemplifies it as the most epic expression of God’s Revolution thus far in God’s story. The cross and empty tomb are not the totality of the Revolution, but they are certainly its apex so far. Summarily, gospel is not primarily how to go to heaven after you die, but more centrally about subversively letting bits of heaven break into history before you die. In the vernacular of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” It is that God’s dream and God’s future are already miraculously rushing in to the present in the person of Jesus (now his Church), and we can be a part of that miraculous reality, part of that reconciling Revolution. Evangelism
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Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 18. 7 Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), chapter 8.

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Evangelism, then, is whenever the Christian demonstrates or announces the risen and regnant Christ. The Christian’s goal in evangelism is to expand God’s dissident new humanity, “through [whom] the world should be blessed and turned rightside up.”8 So instead of selling a free ticket to post-mortem eternal life, evangelism is more about bringing people into God’s healing movement for His broken creation by following the Way of Jesus. This gets to the heart of the Great Commission: making not just converts, but cultivating disciples in the Way of the Revolutionary Rabbi. Evangelism is done first in modeling Christ’s Reign. Christians are signposts and sample trays of this Kingdom. Their job is, having read of God’s revolutionary works in the past (centered of course on Jesus Christ’s ministry, death, resurrection, and present cosmic reign), and having these glimpses of God’s Future, we’re to receive and improvise that subversive Future in the present. Like Joshua’s spies who came back from the Promised Land with firstfruits of what God had promised his people, they as new creations in Christ are God’s firstfruits of the coming New Heaven and New Earth.9 Only after living as one now under Jesus’ cosmic kingship does the Christian announce what’s really going on. Like the imperial heralds rushing around the world to announce the good news of Caesar, Christians live as under this real Caesar of Caesars, announcing His Revolution of salvation and freedom, and so pass on His teachings. Paul says they are His ambassadors, heralds of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19-20). As Lesslie Newbigin notes of Acts, almost every time Christ and His Revolution are preached, it is because someone saw how Christians were living, and inquired about it. They see disciples of Jesus living in a new way, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. And their
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Yoder 1977, 30.

9

Wright, N.T.. Future of the People of God Lectures: Session I – God’s Future for the world has arrived in the person of Jesus. Available at http://www.opensourcetheology.net/talks.

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question in response to this was, “What is this new reality?” 10 Evangelism is the work of answering this question, usually without it being asked so directly. When asked why they share their wealth, Christians can talk about their equalityloving King. When they’re committed to restoring relationships with those brethren whom they most dislike, they can talk about the God who gave his son up for those who had declared Him their enemy. When advocating for the rights of the poor and the powerless and the plants, Christians should cite their all-loving and fully just Creator, the Ruler who will hold all rulers to account. This is really another way of saying that the lost will know followers of Christ as such by their love for one another (John 13:35). Just by being who they are supposed to be, the people of God will bring out the “God-flavors” and “God-colors” of the Earth (Mat. 5:13-14, The Message). This method of spreading Yahweh’s reign is not limited to the New Testament. Consider Isaiah 51:4-5, where God says that “my justice will become a light to the nations. … and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” Thus, when God’s people are doing justice – taking care of each other with reckless sacrifice and a heartfelt and longviewed reach toward reconciliation – it is then that the nations will behold the surprising glory of Yahweh God. When neighbor-love is visibly practiced, justice is realized, and oppression vanquished within the Body of Christ, “then your light will break forth like the dawn” (58:8). God’s revolutionary solution for a broken world will be radiant on His people. The shared life of the community of God becomes an incarnated gospel.

10

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 132.

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“You shall be my witnesses” and Public Proclamation This is consistent with Jesus Christ’s proclamation that His disciples shall be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As the dispersed Body of Christ, they continue to flesh out the Revolution of God which was so perfectly demonstrated by Jesus. David Augsburger writes that “encounters with persons who embody Jesus’ character … is more than encounter with story or belief or theology. It is authentic witness to the Jesus who is now among us.” 11 Christians faithful to his teachings, to the subversive new Way of being God’s light, show the world Jesus with skin on.12 They are a kind of ongoing and dynamic proto-parousia. Thus Christians are only truly witnesses to King Jesus and His revolution when they are working out His most central teachings: loving God and loving one another. As gadfly author Brian McLaren writes, “unless disciples are following the Great Commandment, it is fruitless to engage in the Great Commission. Discipleship in this sense … means being called to learn a new way of living, a way of life characterized by love for God and one’s neighbor and one’s enemies. It positions one in the world as a servant, a doer of good works, and a friend to sinners, as was our Lord.”13 Thus, any announcement without authentic demonstration (witness) of this Revolution is unbiblical and out of sync with what it means to be the Body of Christ. The good news of God’s holistic Revolution must be “visible in changed persons.” 14
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Augsburger, David. Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 176.
12

Claiborne, 127.

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McLaren, Brian. “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy.” Theology News and Notes (Fall). (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary, 2004), 5.
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Augsburger, 177.

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Assimilation and Disciple-making When persons become Followers of Jesus, every aspect of life is re-evaluated. Their new King commands obedience with regard to everything from sexuality to finances, from how to deal with oppressors to what to do if your job makes you an oppressor.15 New disciples enter a new story (God setting the world aright on His own terms) and a renewed community (God’s “counter-cultural insurgency that actually believes the world can be put back together.”16). It is up to that community to collaborate with the Holy Spirit to help cultivate their new heart for the good works God would have for them (Mat. 13:5-6); for though we are not saved by works, we are saved for them (Eph. 2:10). Thus communal orthopraxy is as integral to discipleship as indoctrination. Improvising God’s Revolution Today – Biblical Strategies for the Emerging Context Today’s North American culture has no sense of future, no sense of hope. Much of the population knows there is a lot of brokenness in the world, but seems spiritually paralyzed to do much about it. It is stuck without hope or vision of another world. Perhaps today the good news of God’s gracious Revolution for creation could be rephrased again as, “Another world is possible – with God.” If biblical evangelism is an announcement which proceeds from demonstration, then radical demonstrations of jointly improvising Jesus’ Revolution of “another world is possible” must be immediately
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Early Christians had strong guidelines for how following Jesus would impact your occupation. Hippolytus wrote: “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptor of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator … give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” Hippolytus, “Church Order in the Apostolic Tradition,” in The Early Christians in Their Own Words, ed. Eberhard Arnold (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997), 16.
16

Bell, Rob. Sermon: “Jesus Died to Save Christians VI”. Mars Hill Bible Church. 10/22/2006. Available online at www.mhbc.org.

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imagined. Another world must be demonstrated. Christians in today’s Roman Empire, the United States, must echo the steps taken by early Roman Christians by looking hard at how their lifestyle, votes, and occupations might enable systemic global oppression. In a consumer society, they must share with the poor among them. In a country which spreads freedom and salvation at gunpoint, Christ’s Body must attest to the power of Christ’s cross. In one of the world’s loneliest and unhappiest of cultures, the Church must concoct and share the healing salve of joyful community. In a sexually confused world, Christians can model dignified sexuality. Amid a media fixated on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Christians can enter into relationship with the poor and ignoble. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, Christians can demonstrate God’s love by mowing the Jones’ lawn. In an economy which celebrates and thrives on the consumption of the seven deadly sins, followers of Jesus must implement an alternative economy which celebrates and thrives on the Beatitudes and fruits of the Spirit. In a culture of death, they can with God’s power model a true culture of life. Such radically subversive ways of living demand inquiry (indeed, persecution!). Regardless of the inquiries raised, it is along with these demonstrations of God’s dream really being better than the American dream that Christians may proclaim Christ risen. It is no longer enough to say that the gospel is God’s free gift of grace; it must rather be God’s free gift of grace which makes another world truly possible. The Revolution of God really is at hand: “the good news that there is another kingdom or superpower, an economy and a peace other than that of the nations, a savior other than Caesar”17. Returning to this radical (and radically biblical) gospel in such a hurting world

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Claiborne, 23.

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is every Christians’ faithful duty, for as the late Padre Guadalupe said, “to be a Christian is to be a revolutionary.”18 Bibliography Augsburger, David. Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006) Bell, Rob. Sermon: “Jesus Died to Save Christians VI”. Mars Hill Bible Church. 10/22/2006. Available online at www.mhbc.org. Chilton, Bruce. Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996) Chilton, Bruce, and Craig Evans. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994) Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006) Guadalupe, Padre. To Be a Christian Is To Be a Revolutionary (out of print). Gushee, David P., and Glen H. Stassen. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) Hippolytus, “Church Order in the Apostolic Tradition,” in The Early Christians in Their Own Words, ed. Eberhard Arnold (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997) McLaren, Brian. “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy.” Theology News and Notes (Fall). (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary, 2004) Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) Wright, N.T.. Future of the People of God Lectures: Session I – God’s Future for the world has arrived in the person of Jesus. Available at http://www.opensourcetheology.net/talks. Wright, N.T. Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire, for the Center of Theological Inquiry. Available online at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm. Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977) Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994)
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Guadalupe, Padre. To Be a Christian Is To Be a Revolutionary (Out of print), cover.

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