Sowing the Seeds of the Gospel
December 1, 2011 - I boarded the plane for a cross-country flight, secretly hoping that the seat next to me would be empty. A stimulating conference had left me tired and ready for some down time. I looked forward to reading, watching the movie or napping. I sat down in seat 12A and thanked God that 12B was empty—until a man named Jim joined me.
by Paul Borthwick
We exchanged cordial greetings, and I returned to my reading. Within minutes Jim let it be known that he wanted to talk. I just didn’t feel up to a long, cross-country conversation.
But then a phrase from the book “Divine Appointments” by author Bob Jack came to mind: 24/7 availability, meaning always available and willing to be a witness for Christ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Convicted, I prayed: “Lord, strengthen me now to listen to Jim, to draw him out, to be your witness.”
When the Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to be prepared always to “preach the Word ... in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), he was calling Timothy (and us) to 24/7 availability, no matter what the circumstances. As Paul wrote these words, he was facing much greater challenges than feeling too tired to face a chatty co-traveler on a cross-country flight.
Paul penned this letter to Timothy from a Roman prison while facing imminent death. In perhaps the toughest season of his life and ministry, Paul was lonely, had been deserted by co-workers and was suffering physically. But Paul practiced what he preached. Church tradition records the names of multiple prisoners and prison guards whom Paul led to faith in Christ before he was executed. Scholars believe Paul and the Apostle Peter both spent their last days before execution in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. If you go to this historical attraction today, you’ll see a plaque with dozens of names on it—the prisoners and prison guards whom church tradition says were led to Christ by Paul and Peter while they were prisoners.
How can we cultivate this same attitude so that we are always ready and alert to be witnesses to the hope that we have in Jesus? Here are a few suggestions.
Open Our Eyes
Matthew records Jesus encountering a crowd and seeing them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). In a similar encounter, the disciples urged Jesus to send the people away (Matthew 14:15). The difference is vision. Jesus saw people through eyes of compassion, while the disciples saw them as an inconvenience. We need to change the way we view people.
My attitude toward Jim on the airplane—or my neighbors, my co-workers or the international fellow who serves me at the supermarket—changes when I ask God to help me see them with eyes of compassion. That man sitting next to me is an eternal soul, with an eternal destiny. God also loves the people I encounter throughout the week, but they might not know it. When I see others through the eyes of Jesus, I realize that it’s my privilege to be God’s 24/7 available witness.
Open Our Schedule
In a context similar to Paul’s letters to Timothy, Peter wrote to suffering, persecuted Christians exhorting them always to be prepared (in spite of their circumstances) to give a response to others—explaining the “reason for the hope that they have” (Cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
When I boarded that plane, I had my own agenda, but God’s agenda for me included Jim. I turned my attention toward Jim, and he talked. Most people are deeply attracted to someone who will listen to them. Being available means being willing to focus my attention on the person or people God has placed right in front of me.
A study of Philip’s ministry (Acts 6:1-7, 8:4-13, 26-40) provides a great picture of the open-scheduled, available witness. Wherever Phillip went, he looked for opportunities to serve, to preach and to affect others for Jesus’ sake. As a deacon, he served the immediate needs before him. As an everyday witness, he preached to Samaritans, launched into an unexpected encounter with an exotic foreigner—the Ethiopian eunuch—and resumed preaching when he found himself “beamed over” to Azotus. Philip exemplified a believer in search of divine appointments. Rather than looking at interruptions and unexpected human encounters as inconveniences, he responded to them as opportunities sovereignly created by God.
In a day and age when time may be our most valued resource, opening our schedules to others can be tough. For many of us, “in season and out of season” might be translated “when it’s convenient and when it’s not” or “when it fits our schedule and when it interrupts our plans.” Making time to listen to a co-worker, an aged neighbor or an interrupting child might be the availability challenge we face.
Open Our Prayers
My wife sets the tone for “in season/out of season” witness by arriving early to the medical laboratory where she works and praying over the various work stations and the people who will soon be there. An attitude of prayer gives us the anticipation that God is going to work.
Dr. J. Christy Wilson, former missionary in Afghanistan, taught us to breathe prayers on behalf of the people we pass on the streets because we “might be praying for someone who has never been prayed for before in Jesus’ name.” God works through our prayers to prepare us, but He also uses prayer to prepare those who will receive the Gospel.
Open Our Hands
For many of us, our neighbors are the people before whom our witness is most visible. Practical service is a bridge to the Gospel in almost any culture, a way to demonstrate our faith by our deeds. Help in the yard, run an errand, assist with a physical labor project. People might respond to the actions of our hands and feet long before they listen to our words.
Open Our Newspaper
Look for “hooks.” What are people already interested in that you can then connect to the Gospel? One of the best biblical examples of this is Paul in Acts 17. He walked around and observed the spiritual condition of Athens, then used the spiritual interests of the Athenians as a bridge to introducing them to Jesus.
In the past year, I’ve engaged in conversations with people around a host of topics: the economy, historical events in the Middle East, major league baseball—and more. But as one who desires to have 24/7 availability as a witness, I look and pray for ways to direct these conversations into spiritual discussions.
Interactions about the economy prompted a conversation on “What are we trusting as we face the future?” Historical events in the Middle East led to discussions on the difference between the Christian faith and other religions. Even banter around baseball, and the sports slogan “I live for this,” evolved into the question, “What are we living for?”
Which brings me back to my cross-country seatmate Jim. Though my emotions were definitely in the “out-of-season” mode, I started asking questions. I discovered that Jim is a professional gourmet chef, so we talked about some of the reality TV shows depicting life in the kitchen for gourmet chefs. That led to discussing some of the tensions in Jim’s life, which transitioned to a conversation about family. Then we talked about faith, prayer, church and life direction.
Jim and I talked for more than three hours. When we went our separate ways, Jim left thinking of the questions I had raised and the invitation I had given him to begin a relationship with Jesus. I left praying for Jim, that our conversation might be a seed of the Gospel planted in his life. And I continue to pray and trust that he will one day commit his life to Christ. ©2011 Paul Borthwick
Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Paul Borthwick and his wife, Christie, serve on the staff of Development Associates International (daintl.org). Paul also teaches missions at Gordon College and is an Urbana/Missions Associate with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.