The Gospels are full of accounts of Jesus teaching, healing and giving the Pharisees a drubbing. And one of the interesting things about those incidents was the place of the onlooker. We tend to think of evangelism as direct communication to a person or crowd. But quite often it’s those on the sideline who are responding and thus becoming the object of God’s blessing.
A personal experience of my own illustrates the point. Some time ago I was an onlooker at a birthday party of a man who was turning 60. Let’s call him Richard (for that is his name). Anyway, everyone was seated at this long banqueting table with Richard at the head.
During the meal, bottles of wine start turning up. Typically, a waiter would come around, open them and offer to fill each glass. But on this occasion, Richard (for that is his name) got up, opened each bottle himself and quietly went around the table offering each of his guests a glass of wine.
As an onlooker, what I saw brought a tear to my eye. There was something in this humble honouring of his guests—at an event in which he was the guest of honour—that seemed so beautifully and fully Christ-like. I said to myself, “I want to be like that man.”
In Luke 7:36, Jesus is having dinner with Simon the Pharisee and some of his mates. A woman of the city comes into the home. She is anointing the feet of Jesus with tears and precious ointment. Jesus declares the woman forgiven of her many sins. Jesus is interacting solely with the woman, but it’s the onlookers who are left convicted and astonished by His words to her.
Earlier, in Luke 7:11, Jesus is talking to a woman grieving the loss of her son. Jesus raises the son from the dead. There is no word from the woman in this situation but the onlookers all confess that Jesus is a prophet and they all glorify God.
Zaccheus was an onlooker. And, on the cross, it’s an onlooker, a centurion, who declares Jesus to be the Son of God (Mark 15:39).
In Acts, 18:27-28, Luke records that when Apollos came to Ephesus,
…he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
Notice how Apollos powerfully refuted one group but was a great encouragement to quite a different group. This principle is repeated in many places throughout the New Testament. Both Jesus and the Apostles are presenting the gospel to a group or an individual who is not open. But this turns out to be a very effective way of reaching a group of onlookers that are wide open.
This is especially important to remember in an age where just about anything we say and any defence of the faith we give is deemed offensive.
We are fast approaching the place where some candid and courageous Christian is going to maintain loudly that grass is green, and the professional whiners will react saying, “Don’t talk that way. Do you want to make them mad? Don’t you know that the Philistines rule over us (Judges 15:11)?”
It’s a fair question. Why argue with the hard-hearted? Why bother sharing the gospel with the hecklers, the mockers and the shushers? Because the onlookers are looking in. They are taking notes. They are listening and many of them are seeing the absurdity of the current culture as we have been pointing it out and they are coming to Christ in faith.
And this is why we can’t have some neat and tidy formula for our evangelism.
It may be the way you speak to your children in public that is overheard by an unbelieving parent or friend. It may be the way you talk to your wife or your congregation. It may be the defence you give of marriage, manhood or womanhood to some angry uni student who majored in gender-neutral basket weaving.
It may be the energetic debates you have with your mates in the pub or your feeding of the poor in your community, your comforting of the widow and providing for the orphan.
All of our charitable work and our evangelistic debates and conversations are seen and overheard by onlookers. Onlookers who may well begin to take stock, to think, to ponder.
Your conversation and your behaviour might be directed at one unripe target, yet it’ll hit fifty deliciously ripe targets all leaning in on what you are saying or doing.
This observation is obviously not your permission to play games with the audience. But it is an encouragement to not judge the results of our evangelism by the response directly in front of us. It’s a reason to keep sharing and living out the faith for the unknown benefits and blessings of those silently watching from the side.