Witnessing: Messenger and Message

Let us return to Victor, the young man we met in Chapter One. Victor had a breakdown in communication. He was talking, but people weren’t listening. His words carried the outline of God’s plan of salvation, but didn’t penetrate the minds and hearts of the people to whom he was speaking. As a result, Victor was not really communicating. His words may have been meaningful, but unless they were received and understood by the other person, they were wasted.

I’m sure all of us have experienced situations when we have been talking to another person but did not communicate with them. Why is this? How is it possible to speak to a person and yet not communicate with them?

The answer is not complicated. Studies show that for effective spoken communication to occur, three essential ingredients must be present: the actual words we say, the tone of our voice (attitude) and our nonverbal mannerisms (the way we live). What is important is the percentage each ingredient plays in producing effective communication.

It is believed that around 90 percent of effective communication is the tone of our voice (our attitudes) and our nonverbal mannerisms (the way we live), and only 10 percent is actually dependent upon the words we verbalize. Or put another way, our attitudes, the manner in which we say something, and the type of lives we live actually communicate much more to a person than the words we say. So it’s possible to speak to someone and not really communicate with them. We speak empty words. While we might be saying the right words, our attitude and the way we live is communicating a much different message—a negative nonverbal message—so people stop listening to our words.

Victor’s message was memorized and in a sense artificial. He wasn’t really sensitive to the people he met. What was important to Victor was delivering his scripted gospel presentation.

Those of us who constantly experience communication breakdown when we attempt to witness to non-Christians are too often approaching witnessing solely as a verbal activity, instead of as the way we live. But this is the truth: The way we communicate is as important as what we communicate. Our attitude and lifestyle communicate content just as do our words. If non-Christians seem embarrassed and defensive when talking with us, it is probably because they are feeling uncomfortable with our unnatural approach and non-authentic attitude.

What does all this mean, and what are the ramifications for Christians today? Clearly the message of the good news of Jesus Christ is linked closely to the character of the person communicating it. We are both the messenger and the message! God has commissioned us to go forth with his good news of grace and hope as his messengers, but at the same time we are to embody that message. We are to live out God’s grace and hope for all to see. We are to demonstrate to people that the message of the gospel does not exist only in words. It is not some abstract idea, but rather God’s good news to humanity, which is validated through how we live our lives.

This is exactly what Jesus did. This was the way of Jesus. During his earthly life he both spoke and demonstrated God’s truth and that we could live as he did. For as it says in 1 John 2:6, “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

Jesus—The Icon of God

Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus was the exact image of God. The Greek word translated “image” is icon. Jesus was God’s icon. He manifested to us exactly what God is really like. Jesus told his disciples in John 14:9 that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was the exact image of God’s character in all its perfection and glory. He did not simply declare truth; through his life he demonstrated truth.

The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 4:20 that, “the kingdom of God is not a lot of talk, it is about God’s power.” Jesus didn’t come to just talk, but to be a powerful representation of who God is. Jesus was full of grace and truth. He preached to multitudes and taught individuals in their homes, by the Sea of Galilee and along the roads he walked. But every time Jesus spoke, his inspiring words were supported by the power of the life he lived. His life validated the message he came to reveal. He was not just another prophet sent by God; Jesus was truth incarnate—he was “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; John 1:1,14).

Jesus acted in stark contrast to the religious leaders of his day. The religious Pharisees were masters of many words. They knew the talk. They could argue theology, and the Jewish law all day long. They also kept an elaborate religious system of rules they had constructed for themselves and others.

Yet, despite their religious talk and outward piety, the Pharisees were internally empty and void of God’s grace and hope. They were hypocrites, and Jesus addressed them as such on several occasions. Jesus said in Matthew 23:13, “How terrible for you, teachers of the law of Moses and Pharisees! You are religious hypocrites! You slam the door of the kingdom of heaven in peoples faces.”

Jesus was the opposite of the religious leaders of his day. He came to embody God’s truth, to demonstrate how people could live a holy life free from hypocrisy of the religious establishment. And huge crowds of people were attracted to his life of grace and power. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that multitudes of people followed Jesus, yet they didn’t always understand what Jesus taught. But they continued to follow him. Why? Because his words were demonstrated by a lifestyle that was genuine and transparent.

The New Testament condemns the separation of our words and how we live. As James 2:14-17 says, “What good is it if someone claims they have faith in God but does not do works? Can this kind of faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and be well fed,” but does nothing to provide for their physical needs, what good is this kind of faith? In the same way, faith without works is dead (worthless). James is explicit here. Faith must flow into practice; words must flow into action. The truth of God in our hearts must produce a transformed, grace-filled life that accurately reflects God’s character.

Because of this truth, the religious leaders came under the judgment of Jesus even more than prostitutes and tax collectors who openly confessed their lack of righteousness. The Pharisees lacked integrity, and actually hindered people in bondage from experiencing the grace and hope of God’s kingdom. They were unwilling to recognize or acknowledge that their lives did not match their words. As Jesus warned us in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law of Moses, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The person who is able to verbalize a gospel outline in three minutes is not always the most effective witness for God; it’s the Christian who consistently follows the way of Jesus by living a life of grace and hope toward people in need of God’s love.

Modeling Jesus

We have a tendency in the church to isolate specific incidents in the life of Jesus and construct elaborate doctrines around them. This is especially true when we talk about Jesus and witnessing. We tend to take a situation such as Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and lift from it what we see as the essence of Jesus’ witnessing style. This reduces Jesus’ witnessing approach to a rigid formula.

As I have said, there are weaknesses and dangers when we reduce witnessing to a formula that we think we can apply in every situation and to every person. The most cursory reading of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will show that Jesus didn’t use formulas. His approach to the Samaritan woman was not the same as his approach when speaking with the woman caught in adultery (John 4:1-42; 8:3-11).

Rather than trying to isolate some witnessing formula Jesus may have used, we need to observe his entire life and see how it affected people’s lives. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contain eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:2-3; John 20:20; 1 John 1:1), but essentially they were written so we could see Jesus’ overall way of living. As we survey the Gospels, we discover the true way of Jesus.

A Heart for Others

Jesus was not a “holier than thou” separatist. Instead, he lived and ministered among common people, touching their lives with God’s forgiving grace and love. As a result, he was loved and embraced by the people, but rejected by many within the Jewish religious establishment.

The religious leaders criticized Jesus because he ministered in Galilee and not in Jerusalem, he didn’t keep the Sabbath day properly, he physically touched lepers to heal them, and he talked with and forgave prostitutes. Jesus was a friend to sinners! Jesus’ way was to actively seek out hurting and sinful people. He declared in Matthew 9:13 that he had “not come into this world to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus not only befriended sinners, but he refused to let religious, social, or ethnic barriers stand in his way. For example, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs, but Jesus ministered to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42). He also healed the son of a Roman official (John 4:43-53), touched and healed social outcasts like lepers (Luke 5:12-16) and called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of his 12 Apostles (Matthew 9:9).

Jesus had compassion for all people. He was neither indifferent to their pain and suffering nor merely intellectually concerned. Instead, he emotionally bonded with suffering people and reached out to them. He anguished over their helpless condition. When Jesus received the news of Lazarus’ death, John 11:35 tells us that “he wept.” As described in Matthew 9:36, when Jesus looked at the crowds of people who came to hear him, he “had deep compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This was the way of Jesus!

Jesus was approachable, and he loved people. He spent time with them, ate with them, visited their homes, and attended their parties and weddings. He enjoyed being with people, and they enjoyed being with him. He treated them with love and respect as God’s special creations. He affirmed their value as those who were created in the image of God.

People knew Jesus cared about them. The way he lived his life demonstrated that fact that he was sent into the world to offer God’s love to everyone. So they flocked to him, sat with him, talked with him and listened to him as he taught them about the kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that for the gospel to be God’s good news, it needed to be delivered with heart-felt grace, love and mercy. So that was how he approached people. There was no “one size fits all” formula. To Jesus each person was a uniquely created individual. He listened as they spoke and adapted the message of the kingdom of God to meet their personal needs.

It is a sad commentary that all too often Christians fail to demonstrate a deep-rooted love for other people. However, if we desire to become effective witnesses for Christ, we must first become grace-filled and people-centered. We must follow the way of Jesus and become friends to those living a wayward and godless lifestyle, as Jesus did.

For some Christians, this may seem frightening at first, but it shouldn’t be. Our fears are often derived from an unbiblical value judgment. Some of us mistakenly believe that we are intrinsically better than non-Christians, and that if we spend time around sinners, their sinful lifestyle will somehow rub off on us. And it is true that we must love people, but we must be wise and not fall into deception and begin to live like they do. We are to live in the world, but not be of the world.

All human beings are valuable to God, and he loves each one. His unconditional grace and love for us is not based on anything we can do to earn it, but because he created us in his image. That is the message Jesus embodied—that God loves and esteems his creation. And that is the message we must live out as followers of Jesus.

A Man of Prayer

Not only did Jesus have a heart for others, but he was also a man of prayer. The one directly follows the other. Prayer was not an optional extra that Jesus squeezed in when he had the time—it was imperative! He rose early in the morning and escaped to a quiet place where he could be alone and pray (Mark 1:35). Prayer was more than an occasional practice on Jesus’ part; it was a lifelong discipline. He lived a lifestyle of prayer. Everything he did arose out of prayer.

Jesus recognized that his spiritual strength of grace and hope came through spending intimate time with God. Many of us mistakenly believe that Jesus was able to do all he did on earth because he was God. It is true that he was God. But in becoming a human being, he made himself “nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). In other words, he gave up his right to act as God and walked as a servant, in perfect obedience to the Father. As Jesus said in John 4:34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish His work.” Through prayer Jesus learned to rely solely upon the leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer was the logical conclusion to Jesus’ heart concern for people. It was an act of ultimate compassion as he interceded before God the Father on behalf of the people with whom he had personal contact.

Often we fail to see prayer in this light. Prayer becomes something we squeeze into our schedule because the Bible admonishes Christians to pray. Prayer can wrongly become a religious duty. When the going gets tough, prayer is often the first thing we drop from our daily activities. But prayer and intercession for others is born out of a compassionate heart. When we are filled with God’s grace and love, we are willing to sacrifice our time in order to lift up people and their needs before the Lord, entreating him to move on their behalf.

We harvest what we sow. The more we pray, the more God’s compassion in our hearts grows for other people. The more compassion grows, the more we desire to intercede for others. So it is no wonder that Jesus—who was love in the flesh—prayed to his Father about everything.

Becoming the Message

Several years ago during my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to study in Israel for one year at the Jerusalem University College. I traveled extensively throughout the land of Israel, but I especially enjoyed the geographical region around the Sea of Galilee. During my frequent visits to the Sea of Galilee region, I fell in love with the life and ministry of Jesus. While camping out on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I read and reread the biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I imagined what it must have been like to follow Jesus. I envisioned the beaming faces of the people as they watched Jesus perform miracles. I also tried to picture in my mind their bewilderment as he spoke to them in parables about the kingdom of God.

Even today, I can close my eyes and envision the Sea of Galilee region and what it must have been like in Jesus’ day. I have meditated a lot on the ministry and way of Jesus over the years. While the penetrating words of Jesus were extremely important, people were especially attracted to his character—which was exemplified in the life he lived. He came not only to declare God’s message of love, but also to demonstrate through his life how that message could transform desperate lives. He wasn’t just a messenger; he was the message of God in the flesh.

If we are to be successful and loving witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ, we must follow the way of Jesus. We must become the message. We must live and demonstrate the message of the gospel’s grace and hope in every area of our lives. As the apostle Paul emphasizes in 2 Corinthians 3:3, “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Holy Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on the tablets of human hearts.” A paraphrase of this verse could read, “You are a letter from Jesus Christ for all to read. You’re not a letter to be read like ink on paper, or listened to like words from a dissertation, but a letter carried on the actions that flow from your heart.”

Are Christians today Jesus Christ’s letter to the world? Are we living lives of grace and hope that embody the message of the gospel? Do we reflect and project Christ’s love to everyone with whom we come in contact? Or are we more concerned about delivering a memorized, prepackaged gospel presentation? Are we simply the messenger, or are we also the message of grace and hope for others to see and follow?