This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Recently I held up my sign advertising my website “FollowTheChrist.com” as five thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) drove past me. I was standing on the sidewalk by the Dee Events Center in Ogden, Utah, on the second day of the annual JW convention. Soon after the attendees had been released to go home, I watched as two sharply dressed men, walkie-talkies in their suit pockets, left the arena located a football field away and walked in my direction.
“Hi,” the first man said as they approached. “What are you doing out here?” I explained that I wanted to share internet information about important doctrinal differences between the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and evangelical Christianity. While most of the people in the cars did their best to ignore me (and the thirty other signs I duct-taped to poles down the street), a few did look. Several passengers even used cell phones to snap pictures of the sign I held.
At face value, this encounter with these officials was going to be difficult and probably would not bear much fruit. I was surprised, however, when, after exchanging introductions, critical issues such as the supremacy of Jesus, the Trinity, and justification by faith alone1 became the main topics in our hourlong back-and-forth dialogue, with each side listening to the other. I can only imagine that the pair’s original intent was to distract me from communicating with anyone inside the slow-moving cars. Yet, with my sign held up for everyone to see, the conversation we had was positive, with one of the men asking good questions while admitting he needed to do further research.
Although the example I have given turned out to be a positive evangelistic opportunity, I could spend hours writing about other examples where my efforts seemed in vain. From such encounters, a hard question emerges, “What should we do when those with whom we share the gospel are adverse?”
On the Proper Casting of Pearls. Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” The verse loosely fits with the first five verses of chapter 7 about not judging in a hypocritical fashion, but for all intents and purposes, it stands more on its own as a balance between loving our enemies (5:43–47) and becoming, as commentator D. A. Carson puts it, “undiscerning simpletons.”2
Three words are emphasized in the verse. First, it is no secret that pigs (“swine” in the King James Version) are considered unclean animals and are avoided by pious Jews. In the parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11–32, the younger son hits rock bottom when he is hired to take care of a herd of pigs and later has to consume the pig’s own slop or starve. Jesus warned about these animals that could “turn to attack you,” as they have a reputation to be aggressive when agitated. To be called a pig is considered an insult of the highest order.
Wild dogs are also included in this warning by Jesus. Like the pig, dogs are labeled unclean animals (see Leviticus 11:27– 28) because they were considered scavengers. The Jews during Moses’s day were instructed to throw the roadkill to the dogs (Exod. 22:31); these animals licked up Naboth’s and Jezebel’s
blood (1 Kings 21:19–23; 2 Kings 9:36) and licked Lazarus’s sores (Luke 16:21). Figuratively speaking, evil men who surrounded Jesus in the prophecy given in Psalm 22:16 and 20 were given the label dogs, a designation Paul used to refer to evildoers and mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). In Revelation 22:15, those who practice magic arts as well as the sexually immoral, murderers, and idolaters are called dogs. No matter how much we may like the canine as a pet, “man’s best friend” did not receive a ringing endorsement in the Bible!
Pearls are the third item in this list. As they are today, pearls were valuable in ancient times. In the parable of the pearl of great price, Jesus said in Matthew 13:45–46, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
To take what Jesus called holy — obviously representing the gospel of Christ — and set it before those who are scornful is never encouraged in the Bible. Only those who are agreeable to at least consider the presentation of truth should receive this invitation. How many of us have been received with angry outbursts and personal insults by those rejecting God and the Bible? We are instructed to cut our losses short when this sacred message is rejected or ridiculed by mockers. As the author of Proverbs 9:7–8 states, “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you” (NIV).
In other words, there is a time for everything, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it. There are times to share the gospel and have it well received; there other times we need to put the message away when contempt is the result. Consider what Jesus told the seventy-two in Luke 10:1–24 who were taking the gospel from village to village. When their message was not received, Jesus told them to tell their antagonists that “even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you” (vv. 10–11a).
In Matthew 10:5–15, Jesus sent out the apostles and told them to “shake off the dust from your feet” when their message was rejected. The potential recipients had their chance, Jesus said, adding in verse 15 that “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” One thing is clear: begging for converts, especially if they were not receptive, was not part of the evangelistic plan offered by Jesus.
Meanwhile, the apostle Paul understood that it requires an inner working made possible by the Spirit of God for anyone to receive the gospel. As he explained in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” When Paul had a cordial dialogue with the local philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens, some mocked, but others listened and became believers (Acts 14:1; 17:32–33). He was willing to accept some mockery as long as there was the potential for others to hear his message.
When it came to evangelism, Paul’s favorite go-to place in any city he visited was the Jewish synagogue, where he reasoned with the rabbis and teachers of the law. Yet he described in 2 Corinthians 11:23–27 how he was treated brutally and even taken to the brink of death. In Acts 13, when the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch rejected the message of salvation, Paul and Barnabas said they would turn their efforts “to the Gentiles,” to the great delight of the Gentile people (Acts 13:48–49). This didn’t stop his synagogue visitations, as Luke says it was the regular “custom” (Acts 17:2). Paul’s visit to the synagogue in Ephesus in Acts 19:9 was the modus operandi for Paul: “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him.” He simply found another place to speak and continued his tactics there.
Application to the Twenty-First Century. Many Christians understand the importance of evangelism, but for those who are willing to share their faith, it is not a simple task to determine when an encounter moves from being possibly productive to outright slanderous. Here are four things I have learned through the different types of evangelistic approaches I have participated in over the years.
1) Ask questions. Don’t assume anything. Let others tell you what they believe instead of you telling them what they believe. I have found that people are more receptive when the evangelist is willing to listen to what they have to say.
2) Keep a sense of humor. The gospel is serious business, but sometimes keeping the evangelistic encounter on a lighter level is beneficial. Be careful not to poke fun at others but consider making yourself the object of any humor, as this can sometimes diffuse a tense situation.
3) Look for signs of resistance. Make the good news available, while watching for telltale signs of discomfort or rejection. For example, body language such as rolling eyes or a lack of direct eye contact may be the other person’s way of saying, “Just leave me alone.”
4) Accept the response “No, thanks.” If someone is not ready for the gospel, then be willing to change topics or move on completely.
Our tactics of sharing with others will change depending on what we are trying to accomplish. We must remember that sharing God’s truth with others is a mandate from God. Being mindful of these things sets up our evangelistic efforts for success.
As much as we may try to present the gospel to a relative, friend, or neighbor, our efforts may end up being adamantly rejected. This is when we need to take a step back and realize that we have been presenting holy things to people who may not even deserve the offer. At these times, we should suspend sharing the gospel with our listeners until there is more receptivity, since they are just not ready at this time for priceless pearls. —Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson lives in Utah and works with Mormonism Research Ministry (mrm.org). He is coeditor (with Sean McDowell) of Sharing the Good News with Mormons (Harvest House, 2018) while coauthoring (with Bill McKeever) Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013) and Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2015).
- Editor’s note: It may be instructive to see the explication of justifying faith in James 2:14–26, particularly verses 24 and 26 — “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 185