On October 1, 1866, the young Samuel Clemens—later known as Mark Twain—walked the roadway gripped with fear. His first comedy routine was just a day away and he had come to realize that his material was anything but funny. Earlier that day he had hired three stormy voiced men to sit in the audience and laugh with gusto.
But now he happened to pass on the street a drunken character that said to Twain: “You don’t know me, but that don’t matter. I haven’t got a cent, but if you knew how bad I wanted to laugh, you’d give me a ticket. Come, now, what do you say?”
Anyone familiar with evangelism knows that this is not how unbelievers approach the gospel. “If you only knew how badly I want to follow Jesus and receive eternal life, who’d give me the truth. What do you say?”
FEAR MAKES US COWARDS
But we are afraid to tell our family, neighbors, and co-workers about Jesus, and fear can turn us into cowards. The chief priests and scribes sought to put Jesus to death because they “feared the people” (Lk. 22:2). The blind man’s parents didn’t evangelize because they “feared the Jews” (Jn. 9:22). Government big wigs in Israel believed in Jesus but wouldn’t confess him for “fear of the Pharisees” (Jn. 12:42). Herod kept John the Baptist alive because he “feared the people” (Matt. 14:5). Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus for “fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).
WHEN FEAR IS GOOD
A few preliminary points may help here. First, our goal in evangelism should not be to eliminate fear all together. Rather, we must strive to work through the fear and overcome it. Even the great apostle Paul ministered to the Corinthians “in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).
Second, fear in evangelism is healthy and mixes well with other emotions. Matthew tells us that the women at Jesus’ tomb left “with fear and great joy” (28:8). After Jesus raised the widow’s son, Luke tells us: “fear filled them all, and they glorified God” (Luke 7:16). So fear mixes well with joy and worship. It also blends well with evangelism. If we never felt the sting of terror while telling our boss the Gospel or our neighbor the truth of Christ, we would be tempted to forget the enormity of the message. We talk of football and shopping casually. We speak of Jesus and redemption with measured trepidation.
Finally, the object of our fear must be the Creator, not the creature. Christians are commanded to “fear [Jesus] who has authority to cast into hell (Luke 12:5), but not to fear suffering (1 Peter 3:14). “Knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11), but we are not to fear man (Prov. 29:25).
CAUSES OF FEAR
We find one of the greatest examples of victory over fear in evangelism in Acts 5. In v. 12, we’re told the apostles healed many by the power of the Spirit, a deed today’s pastors love to imitate, though public rebuke and execution by the Spirit in the previous passage is not nearly as popular. The apostles were evangelistic machines, as “multitudes of both men and women” were being converted (v. 14). But they also had a host of reasons to despair.
Despite their success, v. 13 tells us that “none of the rest dared join them”, indicating the many believers besides were not willing to identify themselves publicly with the apostles. Then we find that the Jews, moved by jealousy, put the apostles in prison due to their evangelism. This was the public prison, with no bunk beds and no color TV.
An angel of the Lord, that Opener of hearts, now comes in the night to open the doors of the prison. Here is the preposterous assignment: “Return to the same place and preach the same message for which you were arrested. You’ve got a few hours to rest.”
The officials find the apostles preaching in the temple the next day and arrest them again, but not by force due to “fear” of the people. This is an interesting point. The Roman government was working tirelessly to instill fear in the apostles, but it was they themselves that were fearful. Never forget that across from our trembling Bible is often the trembling conscience of a sinner.
Now they are placed before the council, who wield the power of life and death. Peter responds to their first accusation (“Aren’t Christians supposed to obey their authorities?”) by stating that their authority is far less than God’s. The second (“You are insinuating we are guilty for Christ’s death”) Peter denies. “We were not insinuating. You are guilty for Jesus’ death, for you are the ones who hung him on the tree” (v. 31).
This throws the Jews in a murderous rage, spelling the end for Peter and the apostles had not Gamaliel used some very good logic (vv. 34-39). The Jews followed Gamaliel’s advice—kind of. Gamaliel said to “keep away from these men”, which the Jews took to mean: don’t kill them, but break a few of their bones on the way out (v. 40).
OVERCOMING FEAR IN EVANGELISM
These apostles had every reason to be afraid, but they left the council “rejoicing”. What is their secret? In Acts 5, the apostles understood at least three things.
First, God commands evangelism. “We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29). We witness because God tells us to (Matt. 28:19-20). Does a soldier really need motivation for doing push-ups when his senior officer tells him to drop and give him twenty? Perhaps we should spend more time learning how to evangelize, more time talking to sinners than about sinners. Good resources abound, like Tell the Truth by Will Metzger and The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever. Watch, listen to or read Hell’s Best Kept Secret by Ray Comfort and peruse the resources at Way of the Master. Mathias Media is a treasure-house of evangelistic tools, most notably their book Two Ways to Live.
Second, God is sovereign over evangelism. The apostles had a steady belief in the sovereign gift of salvation. Sinners will repent if and when God chooses to “give” it to them (v. 31). The Holy Spirit is not so much received as He is “given” by the sovereign hand of God (v. 32).
My colleague and I live in neighboring Shangaan villages and we are often discouraged by the lack of interest in the gospel. The family is gone when they promised to be home. The chickens and cell phones and music and neighbors are endless distractions. It rains. But the verse that my college loves to quote and that which is the oil that keeps our gears moving is 2 Timothy 2:10. “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” That is, we continue to dig through rocky soil because the Farmer has promised us that there are seeds that will grow.
A hearty belief in the sovereignty of God does not discourage evangelism, but rather is the fuel for our discouraged hearts when we despair. Peter stood with a spine of steel before Gamaliel and Alexander and Ananias because he knew God had promised to “give repentance” to the Jews.
I can sow seed courageously in my village because God will give saving faith to Tintswalo or Vutivi or Khulani. Yung can witness brazenly at work to Wong and Lee and Jet because God has promised to save sinners. Decisions don’t come based on how strong we are but by how mighty the Spirit is to soften hearts. Of course we must plead with sinners to repent, but all is vain lest God himself gives them such a gift to believe. This should give us confidence in our evangelism. “It is not by might, but by my power says the Lord.”
Third, God rewards evangelism. Persecuted people are blessed people. Why were the apostles rejoicing in v. 41? Or first, why are people told to rejoice in Prosperity Crusades today? “You’ve been healed.” “You have a new job.” “Your womb has been opened.” These people will never give their lives to lesser reached people groups or evangelize in dangerous areas because the motivation for their morality is comfort here on earth.
Here, the apostles rejoice because they are considered important enough to suffer for Jesus’ name. Jesus promised this on earth: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). When we give the gospel, we are afraid because we may be persecuted, mocked, shamed, or ridiculed. But when this happens, the Bible promises blessings. Perhaps many of us miss out on this because we do not evangelize.
As the curtain falls on our story, the apostles are teaching and preaching Christ from house to house. They knew that evangelism is commanded, controlled, and compensated, so they continued to witness in the midst of their fear and longing for genuine conversions. Spurgeon said it best: “I do feel a longing for the conversion of my hearers, such as I cannot describe. I would count it a high privilege if I might sleep in death this morning, if that death could redeem your souls from hell.”