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In 2018, in the territory of the Kimyal tribe in West Papua, a plane landed. It was carrying the most precious cargo that the Kimyals could imagine. Was it food, medicine, or perhaps some advanced technology? No, the plane brought the first Bibles in the Kimyal language—the words they had awaited for forty-seven years. You can watch the video of how the community celebrated the plane and its prized shipment. People were crying in joy and praising the triune God whose words they held in their hands.

This is the sight that we seem to forget in our Western world. Bibles are all around us, but most of them are unopened and unread. Even well-meaning Christians think that in evangelism we need to be sparing with the use of the Bible and show the gospel’s message with our lives instead. Think of the popular phrase that catches this sentiment: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

The phrase is usually (but incorrectly) attributed to Francis of Assisi. It is intended at least to emphasize that our words and deeds should be linked together. We should not preach one thing and do another, but we must live by the words that we say. And this is all true. The saying, however, is often used to mean more than that. It states that there are two different ways to preach the gospel: by our lives and by our lips, suggesting that words are not always necessary to communicate the gospel.

How shall we think about this? First, this thought flies in the face of the common teaching of the Bible. Take euangelizomai, for example, the Greek word from which we get the word evangelism. It means “to proclaim, to announce, to tell the gospel message.” This activity can be done only in verbal form. Thus, not surprisingly, we find that the Christian life, from beginning to end, grows out of the Word of God. Peter assures us that “you have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). Paul tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Through the hearing of the Word of God, we were regenerated and given faith. Not only that, but words are needed for our growth in sanctification because the words of Scripture are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Thus, words are indispensable for the creation and maturation of the new life in Christ.

If words are necessary, we need to tell them to those whom God has placed around us.

This teaching is confirmed by the example of the early Christians in Antioch. They weren’t Apostles, just ordinary Christians, whose names we don’t even know. But we know that they had a burden for their unbelieving pagan neighbors. What was their missionary strategy? “On coming to Antioch they spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). For them, there was no evangelization without words. To live according to the Word is needed but is not enough; we must tell the words of life as well.

What greater example might we have than that of the Lord Jesus? Mark 1:15 records that the Lord Jesus’ ministry started with a clear message: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Then we read how He showed compassion and mercy by healing the diseased and casting out demons. Yet when the fame of His power and good deeds started to rise, He told Peter: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38). Remember, this is Jesus speaking, the eternal Son in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col. 1:19). He became flesh, dwelt among us, and was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). If there was ever one who could preach by His perfect life, it was the Lord Jesus. Yet even He, the eternal Logos, said that His mission was to preach the gospel, to proclaim it by words. How, then, could anyone say that words are unnecessary?

Where does this teaching lead us? How does the necessity of God’s words affect us, who live both coram Deo and coram mundo, before the face of God and in front of the watching eyes of the world?

First, it calls us to strive for a deeper knowledge of the Bible. If words are necessary to preach the gospel, we are to know these words. We need to study them, meditate on them, memorize them. The words we know will be the words we share.

Second, it promises blessings for those who listen to God’s Word. Remember, the words of our God bring life by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. So those who listen and heed the Word (especially the preaching of the Word) can expect the Spirit’s blessing in their own lives as well.

Third, it calls us not to be ashamed of the gospel message. The words of the gospel are God-breathed words, the very words of our glorious, enthroned Christ. They are powerful and life-changing. They are the most powerful tools we possess. How could we be ashamed of them?

Finally, it encourages us to be active in evangelism. If words are necessary, we need to tell them to those whom God has placed around us. Don’t say to yourself that you know too little. How are your friends and neighbors to believe if they never hear? Dear Christian, the words of the gospel are not to be hidden away but are to be proclaimed and passed on. Because words—these words—are truly necessary.

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From the July 2023 Issue
Jul 2023 Issue