When you talk to someone about Jesus does the person listening understand what you mean? This was a powerful lesson I learned when I served for 10 years in Mongolia.
Many missionaries in Mongolia experience a unique phenomenon when witnessing to some Mongolians. In fact, this phenomenon is not unusual for others to experience as well. Some missionaries report that when they share about Jesus with a Mongolian that the Mongolian automatically interprets what they hear through their previous religious ideas of Buddhism or Shamanism. This means that the hearer views Jesus as another Buddha to bring Buddhist enlightenment under a buddhist worldview. If he has a shamanistic background he will interpret the news of Jesus as Jesus being another spirit that they must appease to get good things or to prevent evil from befalling them. The end result for many is that they syncretize their understanding of Jesus with their previous religious views, thus corrupting the Gospel they are seeking to embrace.
The solution for helping these Mongolians understand Jesus properly is to spend time explaining who Jesus is from a historical perspective, that is, from Genesis to Jesus. By explaining Jesus from this perspective many Mongolians begin to grasp the idea that Jesus is different from Buddhism or Shamanism. When you share that the unique God of the universe created all things, and explain how creation came to be, they begin to see things differently.
This phenomenon is not unique to today’s Mongolians. Actually, the Apostle Paul experienced something similar—and he was stoned for it.
Look at what happened when Paul and Barnabas tried to preach the Gospel to the citizens of Lystra in Acts 14:8-19:
“Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.’ Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.”
Imagine the scene. Paul is standing before a group made up of Jews and gentiles telling them the good news about Jesus. Since we have a record of Paul’s preaching elsewhere in the book of Acts we know that Paul most likely communicated the early acts of God in creation just as he did in this passage when the Lystrians wanted to sacrifice to him (verse 15). Imagine what the Lystrians were experiencing. Paul was an Apostle of God, uniquely qualified because of his training with Jesus to share the Gospel. He was undoubtably filled with the Holy Spirit as he preached because he also healed a man crippled since birth. God was at work mightily to demonstrate to the Lystrians the truth about Jesus Christ. Yet what happened when the Lystrians experienced these things? Notice what they said, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” In other words, they interpreted everything they heard and saw within the framework of their previous religious beliefs. With the exception of a few, most of those attending did not truly grasp the unique nature of the message they had heard and the power of God that accompanied the message. Things eventually broke down so badly that they stoned Paul and left him for dead. Imagine that, they just saw Paul heal a man crippled since birth and then they stoned him. How quickly the human heart turns to evil and darkness when we reject the message of Jesus.
What can we learn from this experience of missionaries in Mongolia and the Apostle Paul? Simply this, how do you know that when you share Jesus with someone that what they understand about him is the same as what you are trying to communicate to them?
Every person, no matter what culture or creed they come from interprets all of his or her experiences through a set of filters. They may be cultural filters, filters of personal experience, filters of religious beliefs or assumptions, or even filters of political ideas that shape their world view. Just like the Lystrians who interpreted the Gospel through the filter of Roman paganism, so too everyone interprets the Gospel through a set of preconceived ideas. Therefore, there are two things that we must do to make sure that we are communicating the Gospel in a way that our hearers will understand what we are truly saying.
First, we must unpack the Gospel. Saying Jesus loves you and died for your sins is not enough. We may know what that means but we cannot assume our hearers will understand the full impact of the true meaning of the Gospel. A person may even pray to receive Christ at that moment and his conversion may be genuine, but we must continue to unpack the meaning of the Gospel to ensure that they grow in the truth and grace of God.
The second thing we must do is to disciple the person who has come to Christ. Our work as Christians does not end when someone receives Jesus. The work is actually just beginning. Paul did this in Lystra after he returned from the stoning. After Paul went to Derbe he, “Returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:21-23).
For the few that came to Christ, Paul did not leave them wanting. He returned to disciple them for a short time then appointed leaders that could help them grow in their faith.
Many years ago CBN did a study in which they discovered that if a new believer does not receive some measure of follow-up and discipleship within 10 weeks of coming to Christ, that 80 percent of those people would fall away from their faith. Discipleship is the key to all ministry. Without a strong emphasis on discipleship, how will anyone truly grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ?
Think through what you are communicating to the people around you. How do you represent Christ in your home, workplace, neighborhood, or with friends? Do the people you know understand the Gospel through your words and behavior? Or do they understand him only through the preconceived filters that skew their understanding? Our challenge is just like Paul’s, and just like those missionaries to Mongolian who daily unpack the Gospel to their hearers. We should endeavor to ensure that our hearers not only hear the Gospel, but that they understand the Gospel and all that it implies.