One of my favorite books on evangelism is Jesus the Evangelist, by Richard Phillips. It is a collection of sermons Phillips preached at his Presbyterian church through the Gospel of John. These sermons focus on John 1, 3, and 4, and examine the evangelism of Jesus.
Perhaps the biggest danger in studying historical narratives is confusing description with prescription. Just because Jesus walked on water, for example, does not mean Mark is telling us to walk on water. This danger is the trap that plagues many books on evangelism. Many evangelistic methods take one example of evangelism from a Gospel or Acts, and build a model upon that singular event as if it was prescriptive.
But Phillips threads this needle exceptionally well, by summarizing the text, asking questions of the text, and then showing how those answers can be applied to us today. For example, from Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus, Phillips gives us theology: “The reason we can be born again, receiving eternal life, is that God loves the world.” And later: “John 3:16 shows that it is not enough to know what faith is; we must actually have it.” Finally, he shows how these truths illuminate why Jesus said what he said: “Sometimes, when doctrinal explanations have failed to move a sinner’s heart, a biblical portrait of Jesus’ beautiful love will bring him or her to salvation.” He does this all while resisting the temptation to reduce evangelism to a singular method, and instead he shows principles from all three of these evangelistic encounters that are useful today.
Another error in deriving evangelism methods from narrative accounts is pointed out by Michael Green (in the book Evangelism Through the Local Church). Some passages may teach a particular principle for evangelism, but others don’t have that same principle explicit. So what many authors do is import their principle of choice into a particular story to prove their point. Green says that no passage has been subjected to that error as much as John 4, and the woman at the well. It has been used to show that:
- Jesus had a sense of urgency, so we should too
- Jesus left the crowd to talk to one person, so we should too
- Jesus left the middle class to evangelize a social outcast, so we should too
- Jesus asked for a favor to start the conversation, so we should too
- Jesus asked about her interest (water), so building common interests is important to evangelism
- Jesus drew the woman’s curiosity (“if only you knew…”) by making provocative statements, so we should too
- Jesus thrilled her with promise of a full life, so we should promise abundant life in evangelism too
- Jesus pointed out her sin, so we should confront sin too
- Jesus responded to her objections/questions about faith, so evangelism should always include clearing up confusion about who Jesus is
- Jesus led her to faith, so our evangelism should lead others to faith as well
- Jesus told her to give testimony to others, so testimonies are an inherent part of evangelism
Green makes the somewhat comical point that everyone sees their favorite evangelistic principle justified by the woman and the well encounter. So I confess that I was nervous about how Phillips would handle that passage of Scripture (which he devotes a chapter to).
But Jesus the Evangelist moves beyond the normal illustrations and evident principles to the more practical and profound. He peels back the Samaritan’s woman’s questions to show that people are often seeking the wrong things—things that will not satisfy. In order to get a sinner to realize this, their sin must be confronted, and this is what Jesus did in John 4:16-19. Jesus’ confrontation turned into multiplied evangelism, as the woman returned home, testifying that Jesus is “the Savior of the World” (John 4:42). Phillips brought out a robust view of evangelism, rather than being satisfied with vindicating his own personal program.
Phillips brings an exegete’s keen eye to these texts, and he matches that with a God-centered theological precision. He shows how Jesus proclaimed his sovereignty over salvation in John 3, while also claiming that whoever believes in Him will be saved. He does this in a way that is faithful to the text, and more importantly, in a way that makes the reader want to go outside and witness.
His section on how the Gospel shows the love of God was remarkable for precisely this reason: he let the text speak, instead getting bogged down theological arguments foreign to the passage. I finished that section not with questions about free will and predestination, but with a sense of being overwhelmed at the love which God has shown not just me, but the world.
This book is as precise as it is practical. It would be helpful for pastors preaching through John, and it would be helpful for Christians who want to study the way Jesus practiced evangelism. I’m glad Phillips put this out as a book on evangelism, rather than as a commentary, because if an author were to write a faithful commentary on these three passages, it would end up being a book on evangelism. Each section also ends with discussion questions where are helpful for small groups.
Jesus the Evangelist has quickly become one of my favorite books on evangelism, and if you read it I’m sure it will become one of your favorites as well.
What about you? Do you have a favorite book on evangelism? Share it below.