Book Review: Jesus the Evangelist, by Richard Phillips
I will admit I cringed slightly when I read the title of Phillips' book, Jesus the Evangelist: Learning to share the gospel from the book of John. Maybe you've read a book or article whose premise was something along these lines: Jesus wore sandals and didn't own a horse, therefore we should do a lot of walking or at least take public transportation. Or, Moses used very colorful language when leading Israel, therefore we too should use image-rich, "milk and honey" communication. Or, the whole Old Testament was about land, God wants you to own real estate…I'll stop.
While Phillips offers much in the way of application and examples, he never flattens or reduces Jesus to merely an example. A constant refrain through the book is "the world's greatest need is for Christ," not politicians, physicians, economists, psychologists, or even role models. While Jesus led the ultimate exemplary life, he did so as our Savior.
Jesus the Evangelist is worth reading and recommending to others. Let me tell you why.
The book is practical without being too tied to our specific time or setting. Yes, Phillips does quote Bono, but he also quotes Spurgeon. (In case you don't know: Bono is a rock star with a growing influence as an activist.) Phillips is not overly dependent on movie quotes or YouTube videos. His application more generally exhorts believers to be more faithful in sharing the good news. He does not have axes to grind about particular methods of evangelizing, and he believes different methods should be used in different situations. There is a place for preaching, random conversations, and discussions with neighbors and family (46). It all depends. And we see examples of each of these in the first few chapters of John.
Early on Phillips admits his hesitancy about "giving your testimony," because Christianity's "usefulness does not prove that it is true" (14). Testimonies are not necessarily evangelism. Even so, Phillips does not deny the importance of testimonies. He only wants to emphasize that a "personal testimony does not replace a biblical proclamation about Jesus, but is an important complement" (50). In other words, the gospel isn't a means to getting off drugs or becoming a more likeable person. Those things are fruit of a deeper, more profound change.
Because the book is a series of expositions, it doesn't lend itself well to being something like a model that can be sketched out or diagrammed, nor does Phillips offer a presentation that might be useful early on to memorize (e.g., "Two Ways to Live"). Nonetheless, its broad strokes and advice are still useful to almost anyone.
AIMED AT THE HEART
At first I wondered if this was a book about evangelism or a series of expositions from John. It's both. Isn't that forcing John to be some sort of evangelism handbook? Sort of, but John's stated purpose for his gospel is "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ" (20:31). If John's gospel is evangelistic, then maybe we can learn from his presentation of Jesus' ministry.
At times I felt like Phillips was engaging me in conversation. He admits that the book is primarily intended for two audiences: 1) committed and biblically motivated Christians who do little in the way of evangelism and 2) zealous witnesses who would profit from strong biblical reflection on Jesus' own approach to evangelism. I have a feeling the first group describes more of us.
The book has 3 sections. The first lays out biblical teaching about Christ himself, focusing on John 1. The second section is all about Jesus and Nicodemus and has a theological emphasis, which I'm sure targets the latter group above. The third section looks at Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, with an eye on Jesus' practical emphasis, which is probably for all us who need to be "doers of the word."
Yet Phillips doesn't twist our puny evangelistic arms. He doesn't flex his evangelism muscle, looking down on us from the corner of his eye. Like a good pastor, he brings his reader to Christ, appealing to all that God is and what he has done for us.
One way to motivate yourself to care for others is to realize how much Jesus sacrificed to care for your own soul…If you have heard the gospel and believed, it was not by chance! Jesus cared for your soul, so He died on the cross for your sins, He sent His witnesses to you, and he commissioned the Holy Spirit to open your heart to believe (111-112).
Elsewhere Phillips suggests that our coldness in evangelism may be in part caused by our constant preoccupation with lesser things, which do not bring us joy. These preoccupations sap our desire to share the gospel with others. "Do you realize that the more self-centered we are, the more unhappy and unfulfilled we are?" (161). Our satisfaction in God will overflow into our evangelism.
Phillips also often points out the needed affective component of evangelism. I remember being a young believer in college and reading some apologetic books, thinking now I was equipped to use my exegetical judo on all the heathen of my campus. Phillips would have encouraged me to pursue my fellow students differently. Evangelism isn't winning arguments, but presenting Jesus Christ. He put it like this:
Jesus is altogether lovely in His person, and we need to present Him to others as such. Sometimes, when doctrinal explanations have failed to move a sinner's heart, a biblical portrait of Jesus' beautiful love will bring him or her to salvation. People are too proud to admit their sin. But seeing the person of Christ humbles them and draws them to His feet. Jesus is a kind Savior and tender minister of souls. So let us present Him in His purity, His humility, and His sympathy, and let us reveal how these virtues combine in Jesus' self-sacrifice on the cross, so that unbelieving hearts are drawn by God's Word to find their hope in Jesus. (41)
Embracing Christ at a heart level is necessary because we need to be saved at a heart level. One of the evidences he offers for conversion is a changed life (148ff). A person's refusal to give up a particular lifestyle or sin may in fact be evidence that their heart has not yet been transformed. Part of how we present the gospel must include a real call to turn away from sin.
BALANCED AND INFORMED
Sprinkled throughout the book are exhortations. Other books do this, too, but what is refreshing about this one is the way those exhortations are tied to doctrine. So, for example, Phillips encourages us to evangelize because the doctrine of election means that some will respond to the gospel. (He has an appendix entitled, "The Sovereignty of God in Evangelism," which is very good for its length). Repeatedly, Phillips urges us to pray because God is sovereign and the human condition requires a supernatural work (65). He urges us to raise our children wisely because of the value God places on their souls (90). Even his encouragement to live holy lives stems from realizing that God is omniscient (134).
One of the features of the book that surprised me was the emphasis Phillips placed on the Holy Spirit's work (pp. 37-40, 53, 63ff, 73-74, 78-79, 103, 141, 147). I shouldn't have been surprised since John teaches quite a lot about the Spirit. The Spirit, like the gospel, is needed for both non-Christians and Christians. He is the one who regenerates our heart, leading us to repentance and faith; and he is also the one who empowers us to speak to others, leading us in opportunities to communicate the gospel. Once again, Phillips's solution to our lack of evangelism isn't self-effort but a greater understanding, appreciation, and experience of God's provision through his Spirit.
Phillips wisely sprinkles in good theology throughout the book. You'll find small sections on assurance, sin, temptation, conversion, and various aspects of salvation including the intent of the atonement. He also includes thoughtful quotes or illustrations from an array of sources such as the Apostle's Creed, Bunyan, Calvin, and D. L. Moody. Phillips obviously has an opinion, but his book hardly feels like a polemic for such and such a group or such and such a denomination. He genuinely wants to see people take faithful steps in evangelism.
Here are some ways you might use this book, pastor:
- You could offer it to someone in your congregation that prefers to read only expositions of Scripture. The clear thrust of these expositions is about the gospel: what it is and how it is communicated.
- You could use it to supplement an adult Sunday School class on evangelism.
- You could use it in a small group or as a series of lunch discussions with a brother or sister. (Each chapter has several discussion questions.)
- You could read it simply for your own edification, hoping to be more faithful in your own witness.
- Similarly, you could read it for yourself, maybe to get better feel for doing an expositional series.
- You could buy a copy and donate it to your church's library.
If you've already read the book, I know there might be things here or there that you disagree with, but come on! If you quibbled too much with it, then you're probably like me—part of the first audience he wrote the book for, those committed and biblically motivated Christians who do little in the way of evangelism. You have to admit this is a useful book.