Witnesses

Acts 10:23-43

Whenever a doctor begins probing and prodding on you during an examination, one of the things he’s listening for is when you say “Ouch! That hurts!” It tells him something might be wrong and needs further attention. Whenever we start talking about evangelism most of us start to feel uncomfortable, and we kind of go, “Ouch!”

Don’t get me wrong, most of us are for evangelism. Even if we aren’t doing it, it is something we hold as an ideal. There will be some who take these lessons as a direct personal rebuke, because sharing our faith is uncharted and unfamiliar territory and we feel uneasy and maybe a little guilty anytime someone mentions the subject.

But the only purpose with which I preach about evangelism is to build within us the confidence that we can and should have to share the good news with people around us who are lost. The book of Acts begins with the commission Jesus gave to his disciples before his ascension into heaven – “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8.

In Acts 10, we see a turning point. To that point the gospel was restricted to people of Jewish descent -- in the words of Jesus -- “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.” But now, God is about to rip open the seams of the old wineskin, and people that were to this point despised by Jews -- the Gentiles -- now become the mission field – they represent “…to the ends of the earth.” [Picture – centurion] And this rip begins with a very unique man named Cornelius - At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:1-2)

Cornelius has a visit from an angel, who instructs him to send for the apostle Peter. Cornelius sends two of his servants to find Peter, and we’ll pick up the story there:

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius answered: “Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:23-43.

In this fascinating encounter between Peter and Cornelius we learn some important lessons about how to treat people.

Sharing our faith begins with a lifestyle that is consistent with and complementary to the words that we speak to others about a relationship with God. As I said last week: before we can ever share the good news effectively, we need to live the good news. But I want to follow that sermon with some words about what it is we are trying to share with people and especially some words of caution and common sense about how to and how not to treat people when you initiate a conversation about Jesus.

 

HOW NOT TO TREAT PEOPLE: 

1) Don’t treat people like prospects

You probably get the same kinds of calls I get from companies who have gotten my name and number from some list somewhere. They start out “Hello, Mr. Roberts. I’m calling about something you just can’t live without...” and off they go. Or the recorded message you get when calling customer service: “Your call is very important to us…” It is impersonal and irritating.

I have collected a number of evangelistic methods over the years. Some are directive and manipulative. Others are so scripted as to make a Jehovah’s Witness speech seem spontaneous.

Look at how Peter responds to Cornelius -- vss. 25-26 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”  Every person is unique and precious to God and we need to communicate that. Peter communicated that in our search for God we are all beggars telling other beggars where to find food.

2) Don’t assume people are irreligious and unspiritual

There is no more insulting attitude than arrogance, and the height of arrogance is religious arrogance. Nothing closes doors faster or turns people off quicker than sensing that you consider yourself superior - that you are better than they are.

A great many of our friends and neighbors have a religious background. Many consider themselves spiritual. Besides being insulting, it would be ridiculous to treat them as unbelieving pagans -- and yet, some of us do. We have the truth and you don’t. The truth is, many of our neighbors have much to teach us, and we need to come to the discussion with an attitude of humility and respect.

Acts 10:1 tells us about Cornelius’ background -- even though he is a Gentile, he is one who has a tremendous love for God -- and Peter recognized that and acknowledged it --vss. 34-35 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

When Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus of Athens, surrounded by polytheistic philosophers, he didn’t start by saying, “You unbelieving pagans, I’m here to teach you the truth.” Instead he said, “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.” And he wasn’t being insincere or phony. He was acknowledging their very real (though incomplete) desire to know God.

Every man and woman has spiritual yearnings. We need to acknowledge those and build upon those rather than dismiss them and humiliate them for not being as spiritual as we are.

3) Don’t use religious language

I used to have a friend in OKC that was a computer analyst and trouble-shooter for the FAA. Occasionally I would ask him a simple question about my computer. He was brilliant, but I never got my questions answered because he couldn’t speak on my level. I would always go away feeling stupid and more confused than before.

We make a mistake when we assume people are familiar with terms like salvation, lost, redemption, justification, born again -- words and phrases that are common to us, that we use and hear frequently within our church context, but are like a foreign language to people outside the church.

Even a common word like “save.” I heard the story of a Christian riding in a car with a very sincere, but worldly man down a highway, when the worldly man spotted a billboard with the words, “Jesus saves.” His face grew thoughtful, and thinking he was conversing in the Christian’s language he said, “Jesus saves. I guess that means if Jesus is thrifty, we should be thrifty. What do you think about retirement accounts?”

The point is, we need to speak in language that communicates, and if we use words that are “in-house” talk for Christians, we need to be able to explain and define what we mean. That doesn’t mean we “talk down” to people, but we communicate in language they understand.

HOW TO TREAT PEOPLE:

I heard someone say one time that we should be winsome witnesses. I like this word, “winsome.” It is a word that describes someone who naturally draws people to himself, who doesn’t rely on a super-aggressive personality or insincerity to get people hooked. There are some qualities which the Bible tells us are going to make a difference in our ability to touch people’s lives with the message.

1) With concern and interest 

In John 4, I see Jesus interacting with a woman everybody else had rejected and despised. Jesus treats her with concern and compassion and interest. He doesn’t jump into the conversation by condemning her immoral life or belittling her immature faith. Through his questions and his attitude he leads her to the realization that what she needs most in her life, he has to offer. And look at her response: Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:28-29).

2) With gentleness and respect

Two other qualities that should define how we treat people are gentleness and respect.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16).

We need to decide whether we’re trying to bring someone to Christ or win an argument and prove we’re right. Gentleness and respect are the qualities which ought to characterize every encounter we have with people – they are the WD-40 that loosens doors that have rusted shut.

WITNESSES TO WHAT?

In Acts 10:39 Peter says “we are witnesses...” And he begins to tell Cornelius everything he saw and experienced with Jesus. Now, we can’t be witnesses to what Jesus did and said – we weren’t there. But we can tell the story, we can point to the Word – and we are eyewitnesses to something equally as powerful.

1) We can tell what God has done in our life


This is where we ended last week, talking about a man in Mark 5, who life was turned upside down and inside out by Jesus in a graveyard in the land of the Gerasenes. Jesus told him to “go back to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

We are witnesses to our personal experience – we open doors with that. The first thing we need to share with people is not the plan of salvation and debate the necessity of baptism or condemn someone for not doing things the way we do them. We need to tell what the Lord is capable of doing in our lives. It is the power of a changed life – not just what God did 2000 years ago or even 20 years ago – but what is he doing in your life today.

2) We can be witnesses of hope

In that passage we read from 1 Peter a moment ago, he said, But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 

We’ve undersold hope. I hadn’t really thought about that until I started reading all the scriptures in the Bible that speak of the hope that we have in God and the assurances he gives us of his love for us (158 times). Hope is something people hunger for. Surrounded by hopelessness, people are looking for something to put their hope in.

How many funerals have I officiated where they are literally “like those who have no hope.” In those kind of situations, if there is one thing I wish that I could give them, it is hope.

We have given up depending on this world for security, we’ve stopped investing our lives in its promises for prosperity and happiness. Hope which is at the very heart of faith is that change of perspective in which we see this world and all of its troubles and temptations, no longer through human eyes, but through God’s eyes.

It seems that what catches the eyes of the world most, and which Peter says we need to be ready to explain is “the hope that is within us.” Hope is the visible part of our faith. What people notice in us is the change of perspective. What God is doing in our lives should change our whole way of seeing and thinking and responding -- and people ought to see and hear that. How does God make a difference in your life?

Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13. If you are overflowing with hope – if people see it in your life, you won’t be able to keep people from asking about the hope that is within you.

And hand in hand with that…

3) We can be witnesses of the good news of Jesus Christ. What we share is not just some subjective experience, but the rock solid foundation of God’s Word and our salvation - the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Romans 1:16  I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes....

We will spend more time talking about what that gospel next week, but let me summarize it this morning in terms of what it affects in our lives. The focus of the gospel is the cross -- the death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the tomb. It is our new birth, our second chance. It is God redeeming us from the old life and putting his hope within us.

The good news of Jesus is that we are freed from our old life, that we have been given a new life and that we have become heirs of eternal life. And because we have, God enlists everyone of us to go out and invite others to join us in following Jesus and receiving that same gift of eternal life.

Ultimately, we cannot instruct or manipulate -- we have to show people Jesus. By the power of our lives and of our words, we have something we cannot keep to ourselves.