When you read the Gospel accounts you discover over forty specific times when Jesus spoke with people individually. Studying these accounts gives insight into how Jesus related to various people in various circumstances and can thus help us as we think about talking to others about Him.
Jesus adapted his message to different audiences. Sometimes He simply spoke directly, other times He used an object or example. He demonstrated compassion and patience with some, yet confronted others. He obviously knew people well. He was sensitive to his Father’s leadership. He was urgent and persistent. And even our Lord did not reach everyone with whom he shared. The following summarizes some of the ways Jesus interacted with others.
First, Jesus sought people. In Luke 19, we read how Jesus sought Zacchaeus. He intentionally set out to meet him and even made an appointment to meet him at the tax collector’s house. He met Zacchaeus where he was (v. 5) as he sat in a tree. He identified with a sinner, regardless of the consequences (v. 7). Jesus further convicted Zacchaeus of his sin. Finally, this account shows us Jesus did not just meet sinners, he sought to save them (vv. 9–10). Who are you currently seeking for the cause of Christ? Do you have names of people for whom you are praying, people with whom you are establishing friendships who do not know Christ? I recently took part in a survey of pastors. One of the questions asked the pastors how many times they had an unchurched family in their home and how many times they were in unchurched friends’ homes in the past year. Several of the pastors’ commented how the survey made them realize what a low priority they put on seeking those without Christ.
Next, Jesus was approachable. In John 3, we read of Nicodemus approaching Jesus by night. Nicodemus was searching for truth (v. 2). The reply of Jesus was direct. He boldly confronted Nicodemus (v. 3). A dialogue ensued concerning the gospel, but no immediate change was indicated (vv. 4-21). However, there is evidence of Nicodemus’s possible change (see John 7:50–52). He brought gifts to anoint the body of Jesus after his death (see John 19:39). Are you approachable? If a lost neighbor, family member, or coworker suddenly began to think of spiritual things, would they think of you as the person to speak with about their questions?
Third, Jesus made the most of every opportunity. While every example of the witness of Jesus is critical, his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is especially enlightening. In John 4 we read of Jesus’ account with the unnamed woman of Samaria. Compare Jesus’ approach to this broken and ostracized woman to the way he spoke to Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus crept in at night, was a religious leader, and flattered Jesus. Jesus’ replied to him directly, admonishing him to be born again. Jesus tended to be very direct with openly religious people, by the way.
But He approached the woman of Samaria with great care and kindness, despite her failture and sin. She had after all been married and divorced five times and was currently living with a man. Yet Jesus spoke to her in a way that compelled her to consider His truth. His witnees can be summarized:
Intentional–He had to go to Samaria (4:4) even though centuries of enmity existed between Jews and Samaritans. Even though weary from the journey, our Lord made time to speak to others.
Conversational–He built rapport with someone very different by finding a common need, for water (4:7).
Respectful–though the Son of God, a Jew, and a man, He spoke kindly to her, asking for her help (4:7).
Directional–He quickly moved from trivial matters to spiritual issues, relating the water at the well to living water (4:10-15). In addition, He refused to be sidetracked by secondary discussions about worship location, etc (4:19-24).
Convictional–He did not deny her sin, but sensing her brokenness He did not dwell on it either (4:16-18). We must be careful to know when to challenge people at the point of sin when they are self-righteous, and when to show the grace of God when they admit their need for God.
Confrontational–While not a popular word today, our Lord ultimately confronted her with the truth of who He is (4:26). She ultimately had to decide whether or not He was the Messiah she sought.
Missional–Not only did Jesus share His message in a missional context, but she immediately became one of the first missionaries in the New Testament, telling others of the Christ (4:28-30). Ironically, His own disciples missed the missional moment, thinking only of physical needs (4:27-38).
Yesterday I had a student talk to me about sharing Christ with a friend who is a homosexual, and lives with a lot of shame. This man does not need one more Christian telling him how wicked he is—he is aware. But like the Samaritan woman, he needs to understand the grace of God. We tend not to be too good at sharing with the broken. Reading through the Gospels it seems to me we see our Lord’s attitude toward different people is clear. Jesus had at least three general dispositions toward three groups:
To the common people, broken and wearied by sin, He consistently showed compassion (as noted above).
To the religious crowd, particularly the hypocritical and the legalists, He often demonstrated anger or unacceptance of them; at the very least He confronted them directly. Read Matthew 23 and see His denunciation of the Pharisees, for example.
Finally, toward those who would follow Him, He expected nothing less than absolute surrender (Luke 9:23).
We tend to be patient and gracious toward the self-righteous and the religious, but unaccepting toward those who are broken or alienated from the church. I would encourage you to study the Gospels for yourself and learn from our Lord how to be more faithful and effective in sharing Good News with others.
Note: the above is adapted from my Evangelism Handbook: Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional (B&H, 2009).