FULLY PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL
So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:19)
The reality described by these words from Paul just take your breath away. They seem so very far from anything most of us have ever known. In a Roman Empire comprising approximately 60 million people, this sector was the most populous, estimated at around 20 million. At the time of writing the words, Paul was almost certainly in Corinth and was coming to the end of his third missionary journey. The narrative contained in Acts 20 tells us that he spent three months in Corinth, possibly his last visit to the city. During those three months, he wrote the Roman letter indicating his intention to come and his plan to visit Spain. In the section from which the above quote is taken, he outlines his reasons for making those plans. To put it simply, he has finished his part of the job given to him in that region.
The “NoPlaceLeft” trail marker, in this case, is contained in the words, “fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” As it is with many other Biblical terms, they simply slide by our eyes without the chance to make any impact at all. It is a sad fact of life that the words of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day seem to apply to us with matters like this one:
“You have made the word of God of no effect for the sake of the traditions you have handed down; you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13)
We have built traditions around our Christian living regarding the preaching of the gospel. Our picture may be of an evangelist preaching to a gathering of people in a stadium somewhere, or a visiting ministry coming to the church. It may be associated with a “gospel appeal” at the end of a sermon. There are churches where such an appeal would happen on a weekly basis. We may associate the idea of proclaiming the gospel to stories we hear from a small number of individuals who are supposed to have a “gift” of evangelism. From time to time, they will tell stories of being on a plane or a public place where they end up talking to someone about Jesus. These experiences are not common and are often nothing more than a brief encounter that does not lead to discipleship. We have also grown accustomed to thinking that the typical gospel proclaiming method is to bring people to a church service; either a special one or a regular one. The assumption is that the programme is the primary agent for the proclamation whether it be in the form of a preacher giving an appeal or just giving people a pleasant experience and hoping they will come back again.
This picture looks nothing like what Jesus draws for his followers in the words of any or all of the Great Commission statements, nor in the Acts of the Apostles, nor in Paul’s letters. The culture and focus are different. That’s the reason for drawing a parallel between what Jesus said about the religious leaders of his day. He said their traditions had caused the Word of God to have no power. It is the same for us. Our practices (culture and tradition) have robbed the Great Commission of its power to inspire, challenge and equip us with what we need to do the work. We can read it again and again but never reach the conclusion that we should change anything we do in a given week or month of our life.
The following is a summary of the things that Jesus said in the six great commission statements:
- They were to intentionally go to the people lost from God.
- They were to go with the intention of making the gospel known to them.
- They were to make sure they proclaimed the gospel to every person.
- They were to enable those who responded to become disciples of Jesus.
- They were to baptise them.
- They were to teach them to obey everything Jesus had commanded.
- They were to do this ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- They were to maintain a constant relationship with Jesus.
You only have to frame these commands in the form of questions to see the calibre of our neglect. Consider what your response would be to any or all of the following questions:
- How many times during the past week have you deliberately gone among people lost from God with the intention of proclaiming the gospel to them?
- How many times during the last week have you proclaimed the gospel?
- When was the last time you worked strategically among a group of people so that you were able to proclaim the gospel to everyone?
- Of the people who have responded to the gospel when you have proclaimed it, how many became disciples of Jesus?
- How many did you baptise?
- How many were taught to obey all the commands of Jesus?
- How did the Holy Spirit work through you?
- To what degree do you experience the fellowship and presence of Jesus as you do this work?
It soon becomes apparent that we have dropped the ball on most of these issues, big time.
When Paul tells the Romans that the gospel had been “fully proclaimed,” as Jesus had said, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria – and Illyricum was on the way to Spain – which may well have seemed to Paul and his companions as the “ends of the earth.” What did Paul mean by “fully proclaimed?” I think it is safe to assume that that all twenty million individual people were not individually approached. What we do know is that a church was planted in Thessalonica, which then proclaimed the gospel to the rest of Macedonia. We are aware that he planted a church in Ephesus and within three years the gospel had come to every part of the province of Asia. We know that most of the one hundred names Paul mentioned in his letters and the Book of Acts were people who, when they became committed to Christ began to take responsibility for the people and places that had not yet received the message. If the researchers are right, we know Paul visited fifty cities and was personally involved in planting twenty churches. That was the backbone of a multiplying number of disciples and churches, many of whom had not personally known Paul but knew people who were trained by him. All of these were involved in reaching the twenty-million as their priority.
These observations require us to have a clear understanding of what the gospel IS. Once again, it becomes like many other things within Christian faith. It has been given so many meanings by so many people that it has lost its original distinctive. If we were going to take the Gospels themselves and the ministry of Jesus as a basis for understanding the nature of the gospel, we would need to take seriously the Matthew 24 phrase used by Jesus, “the gospel of the kingdom.” Jesus proclaimed the gospel every time Jesus taught or healed or delivered someone from a demon. Here is my working definition of what it means to proclaim the gospel: it is a tangible demonstration of the kingdom of God where people get to experience the nature and purpose of God for themselves and have an opportunity to respond. It could be in word, sign or deed in my view. In the 180 plus stories of Jesus’ ministry recorded in the gospels offer one or more of those. Each of these gave people a choice to believe or not believe what they heard or saw. The same is true for the events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. These tangible connections are like the seeds referred to in some parables. We need to sow these seeds and then watch to see what happens. In the words of Mark 4:26-29, once the seed is sown the farmer has to wait. The next part of the process is a mystery that goes on between the soil and the seed. Only when that has been completed does the farmer get involved again. It is worthy of note that the first examples of gospel ministry in the Acts of the Apostles were acts of God being explained, not offering a philosophical argument about the existence of God or a heavily worded presentation of atonement theology. So “fully proclaimed” requires a rethink and some prolific road testing of what constitutes a gospel proclamation. I find myself wanting to ask the question, “What would it take to know for sure that you had proclaimed the gospel to someone?” Only then will it become possible for us to know what “fully proclaimed” means in our circumstances.
I live in a city of approximately 400,000 people in a nation of twenty-four million. I can’t say I have ever participated in a plan that was credibly capable of seeing the gospel proclaimed to every person. I haven’t even been part of such a plan in a smaller region – until now. For the first time in my life, I am connected to people who only want to do that and call others to do the same. The model we are using is not about large buildings and employing highly skilled people to run programmes. We are starting at the other end of the Christian spectrum. We are learning how ordinary people can effectively proclaim the gospel in the spheres where they live and work. We are learning how to preach the gospel and make disciples who can immediately preach the gospel and make disciples. We are starting out with a goal to see four streams of four generations of believers. In this way, we plan to see 5,000 missionaries equipped and sent to preach the gospel until it is “fully proclaimed.” It is hard and not a little scary, but we will learn what it takes and work within a defined region or community sphere until we can say, there is ‘NoPlaceLeft.’