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5 Minute Jesus: Mission



Episode 33: Danger: Proselytising

For the first few years of my Christian faith at about 16 years of age, I was a passionate promoter of the Christian faith. I talked to everyone about it, my mum, friends, complete strangers. I had no idea in those first couple of years that a Christian could be embarrassed about being a Christian. That’s something I only learned later after I mixed with Christians a little bit. But because of my enthusiasm for sharing the faith, my church decided I should be trained in evangelism. Honestly, I’d never heard of evangelism. I just wanted to let people know what I’d come to know. I didn’t know there was a word for it, let alone a course. But I found myself attending these classes over, I don’t know, maybe 12 weeks; learning an outline of the gospel, illustrations to make the whole thing come alive, Bible verses I memorized, answers to tricky questions and so on.

And once they thought I was trained, I was turned loose on the unsuspecting public in my local area. I would literally do door knocking, walk up to people in shopping malls and ask them for conversation. I was one of those guys. But you know what, suddenly my joy and natural ability to talk about these things evaporated. The whole thing became a burden on my emotions, my memory, probably most of all, my evangelistic targets. This joyful promoter of the Christian faith was now a nervous, unnerving Bible basher. I had become self-conscious about reaching out to others, whereas I used to speak about Christ as freely as I talked about Bryan Robson, the captain of Manchester United at the time. Now, I was completely self-conscious about the whole thing. I became so fixated on finding opportunities, on steering conversation in a very un-conversational manner, on getting the gospel correct, that I forgot the joy of just sharing with others the brilliant things I’d come to learn.

If it’s natural to want to talk about the brilliance of Manchester United, or nowadays my wonderful Green Bay Packers, then it is surely natural for a Christian just to be open about the wisdom, the power and kindness of Jesus Christ. What we dismiss as proselytising is really nothing more, at least it should be nothing more, than letting our natural enthusiasm for an idea or a person bubble to the surface. It doesn’t have to come across as a kind of Tupperware sales presentation.

And by the way, Christians didn’t invent it either. On Twitter just the other day, as we were preparing this episode, I was drawn into a really weird conversation about proselytising. Some sceptical woman named Morgan tweeted this:

“Essentially, the Catholic church, it’s important to remember, was created with the government of the Roman empire for the purposes of political power. Many of the letters of Paul that included a heavy focus on evangelism and spreading the Word of Christ were really put into the Bible, which didn’t exist until this meeting among proto-Catholic leaders, and Constantine and his politicians to further the Roman Empire’s colonial motivations.”

I naturally probed, “May I ask what you do with the wide, wide evidence of Christians evangelising and getting into trouble for it from Rome in the second and third centuries, long before Constantine was a twinkle in his mother Helena’s eye?” But the sceptics weren’t going to have a bar of it. It was a political thing, pure and simple. And obviously it doesn’t go back to the lovely Jesus. He would never have told people to go and Bible bash others. 

But here’s the thing, it does go back, not just to Jesus, but to Jesus’ Jewish heritage. It’s often said that Judaism wasn’t interested in converts, that they tended to stick to themselves and keep away from the Gentiles. And so it was only Christians who invented the notion of evangelizing, perhaps as a counterpoint to its Jewish background. In fact, there’s a very famous Jewish scholar from Oxford, Martin Goodman, who’s called a Christian mission a shocking novelty in the ancient world. With all due respect to Professor Goodman, there is plenty of evidence that some Jews, some of the time, did in fact seek Greek and Roman converts. It was the natural overflow of believing there was one God who loved the whole world, which was a pretty widespread Jewish belief.

Virtually all Jews in the period before Jesus believed in what scholars call the eschatological pilgrimage motif. This is the belief that at the climax of history, the pagan nations are going to travel to Jerusalem to learn about the one, true God and worship him. The response of many Jews to this idea was just to let the pagans go their own way because ultimately God, in the future somehow, will miraculously bring about this pilgrimage and salvation for Gentiles.

But some other Jews saw it totally differently, they reasoned that if the one true God really wanted to bring Gentiles to himself at the climax of history, it made sense that he would love to see at least a little bit of that within history. And so the wonderful Jewish intellectual, Philo, in the decades before Jesus, praised the Jew who could offer pagans “wise words and doctrines of philosophy, as well as setting before them a life of temperance and every virtue, converting even those who seemed to be quite incurable.”

Philo also speaks of a huge festival on the island of Pharos off the north coast of Egypt, where Jews celebrated the translation of the scriptures into Greek and invited their pagan friends to the festival in the hope that these Gentiles “might throw overboard their ancestral customs, and turn to honouring our teachings alone.”

Then there’s the first century Jewish writer, Josephus, who talks about his fellow Jews in Antioch in the first century, who were “constantly drawing multitudes of Greeks to their religious ceremonies (synagogue services) and were,” he says, “incorporating these Greeks with themselves.” He’s talking about conversion. He records actually the most amazing story of Jewish mission from the year 30. This is the closing days of Jesus’s own work, but this is going on in a different part of the Mediterranean world/the Middle Eastern world.

Josephus tells us about a Jewish merchant named Ananias who travelled to Adiabene in Northern Mesopotamia and taught the Royal Household of Izates how to worship the Jewish God. First we’re told the Royal women embraced Judaism. They turned from paganism to the God of Israel. And then with their help, Ananias was able to teach King Izates himself. And Izates became a passionate believer in the Jewish God and so did his mom, Helena. This whole Royal pagan dynasty became Jewish and they were eventually all buried in Jerusalem. I’ve visited their tombs just around the corner from the hotel I stay in when I’m there.

Anyway, here’s my point. Certainly, Christianity did not invent the idea of mission. It’s just a logical thing. The overflow of coming to believe in such wonderful stuff. Even Jesus himself referred to the Pharisees doing mission before him, except he wasn’t pleased with what they were teaching. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees you hypocrites,” he says in Matthew 23, “you travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are.” It’s strong stuff.

Jesus disagreed with what the Pharisees were teaching because in his view, they were laying legalistic burdens on the Gentiles that crushed the spirit instead of lifted the spirit to a sense of God’s love and mercy. But certainly Jesus wanted his own students, disciples, to spread the faith. In every gospel in different ways, we find Jesus saying things, like at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age.”

As the climactic statement of Jesus, Christians took this seriously. They didn’t become weird, bullying proselytisers. At least, not in those early centuries. They just did what was perfectly logical, beautiful and natural. They couldn’t keep to themselves the beautiful things they’d found out about Jesus. So they shared their faith with anyone who’d listen. Mission Mission

By John Dickson mission

Want to hear the rest of the episode?
Check out episode 33: “Danger: Proselytising”





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