CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT

When ever I lead Bible Study, I eventually get around to talking about the three rules of Biblical interpretation, something I learned during my time as a theology student. To properly understand any passage of Scripture, you follow the three rules: Context, Context, Context. The point of the rules is that Scripture cannot be easily and truly interpreted unless we see a passage in its setting in the Bible–the more we understand the context of the passage, the better our interpretation of the passage.

The same three rules apply to witnessing, particularly when it comes to the time when we need to use words as part of the process. I mentioned the encounters between Jesus and a variety of people that we read of in John 1-10. Every encounter is different. As we widen the context to look at all the Gospels, we discover that no two encounters between Jesus and people are the same, except for the times when the Gospel writers tell the same story.

Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 is a very philosophical, theological discussion. Nicodemus is a well educated religious leader and probably thinks and talks in this way a great deal. Jesus’ comments and questions fit Nicodemus’ personal approach to life.

But in John 8, when Jesus is faced with a whole crowd of educated, theologically and philosophically astute leaders, he says very little, refusing to be drawn into their debate of the fate of the women they have trapped in their midst. His approach to this crowd is not to argue but to be silent and write in the sand. His one comment to the leaders forces each of those present to do some serious soul searching. His comment to the woman offers forgiveness and guidance for a better way of life.

Taking all the encounters together provides me with two more principles of evangelism. One of them is that there is no one way to do witnessing. If Jesus himself doesn’t have a canned speech or prescribed formula, why should we expect any one approach to verbal witnessing to be the way it must be done?

Approaching people with a prepared and memorized script may make the verbal witnessing process easier for the person doing the witnessing but in general it doesn’t do much for the person being witnessed to. In fact, it can be a very rude and obnoxious thing to do. When we try to use a pre-packaged witness script, we end up sounding like telemarketers, who appear to be trained to go through a script no matter what the person listening says or doesn’t say. When I used to be on the receiving end of such marketing tactics, I used to get very frustrated and annoyed and would hang up–sometimes after politely telling the person I wasn’t interested (if I remembered that even on the phone to an anonymous and annoying telemarketer, I was still giving witness to my faith)

Not having a formula or script makes witnessing much more difficult and scary, at least for me. And I think that is a good thing. If I don’t know what to say and am not even sure that I have the courage to say anything, that can cause me to avoid verbal witnessing–or, it can force me to open myself more fully to the Holy Spirit.

God, I think, delights in putting us in places and situations where we are out of our depth and therefore don’t know what to do. We are much more likely to remember God at those times and call upon him for guidance and help and wisdom and anything else that will make a difference. If we knew how to do witnessing, we would have no real need of God and then we would end up witnessing to ourselves, not God.

But if we are feeling that we are in over our heads, we just might turn to God, who is already active in the life of the person we feel the need to witness to and who through the Holy Spirit can show us what to do and say. If we remember that our job isn’t to bring people to God but to be let ourselves be used as his instruments in the process, we will also remember that he can and will help us know what to say when the time comes to say something.

So, the second principle of witnessing is to remember that there is no one way to witness–no formulas, no memorized package, no wonderful words that always work. But there is the Holy Spirit, whose presence is much better and more effective.

May the peace of God be with you.

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