In my previous post “The New Testament Scripture and the Proclamation of the Gospels,” I wrote that I was going to consider the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers in the New Testament. Most “gospel presentations” that I’ve heard and read about rely primarily on the Epistles. However, the Epistles were all written to people who were already believers. I think we can learn more about proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers by studying the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and Acts.
When studying how Jesus first approached people or how he first “proclaimed the gospel,” we can begin with this passage:
From that time Jesus began to preach (proclaim), saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15 ESV)
Interestingly, when Jesus sent out the apostles for the first time, he also told them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” (Matthew 10:7 ESV) Later, when he sent out 72 others, he gave them similar instructions: “Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'” (Luke 10:9 ESV)
Now, while each of these “proclamations” point to the nearness of the “kingdom of God/heaven,” that’s not what I want us to think about. Instead, notice the brevity of each proclamation and in the instructions of what those who were sent out should proclaim.
While the hearers would have some ideas about the kingdom of God, repentance, and good news, it is clear from later interactions that their understanding concerning these concepts were vastly different that what Jesus meant when he used the terms. But, he did not spend time explaining exactly what he meant. He made short and concise statements, and he told his followers to begin proclaiming the good news of the kingdom with short and concise statements.
When we get to the Book of Acts, we find something very similar when Jesus’ followers are first proclaiming the gospel to people. Even in the longest speeches (i.e., Peter in Acts 2, Stephen in Acts 7, or Paul in Acts 17), the disciples of Jesus do not spend much time explaining exactly what they mean. They make a statement about what has happened, and leave it at that.
I think this is planned, and I think we see the pattern through the Gospels and Acts.
Those proclaiming the gospel made a concise statement without getting into much explanation or argumentation. Then, they waited for their audience to respond. For those who responded positively or with interest, they spent more time explaining and teaching.
This pattern is seen clearly in several passages, but especially in this passage in Acts:
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34 ESV)
(By the way, this pattern also explains why Paul and others write so much about the gospel – explaining and teaching about the good news and the implications of the gospel. They are writing to people who have demonstrated an interest in continuing to grow and learn and follow Jesus.)
What do you think? Was gospel proclamation to unbelievers in the Gospels and Acts shorter and with less explanation? Do you agree that we see a pattern of increased explanation only to those who positively respond to that shorter proclamation?