The man who walked away
James F. Borgwardt
Imagine this scenario. You’ve been planning to invite your neighbor Dave to an upcoming service at your church. He’s gone through some dark times recently, and you know it’s time that you finally work up the nerve to ask him. It’s a Saturday morning, and you see that he’s out working in his yard.
You’ve rehearsed different ways the conversation might go. Something like: “Dave, do you have any plans for Christmas Eve? If not, we’d love for you to join us for candlelight worship at Redeemer. It’s one of our favorite services of the year. It’s a beautiful service that tells how God brought light into this dark world when Jesus was born. I think you’d enjoy it.”
You say a quick prayer and walk over to your neighbor. The conversation begins with some natural small talk before you transition into the invitation.
Dave pauses. He hadn’t expected this from you. When he does speak, his disjointed thoughts meander back to his experience in the church he last attended as a teenager.
He didn’t have many fond memories. You acknowledge that your church isn’t perfect, either, but the messages you hear and the friendships you’ve found there have been a great blessing.
He politely ends the conversation by stating that he’s not very religious and then adds that he needs to finish some work before the football game starts. Before you can reply, he walks away.
Was that a failed witness?
I suppose that depends on how you understand your witnessing goals. If the goal for your witness is to bring an unbeliever to saving faith in Christ, then get ready for endless failure. You’ll never accomplish your goal. Ever. You cannot change a person’s heart. That task is reserved for someone far more powerful—God the Holy Spirit.
If the goal for your dialogue is to prove the truth of the Bible, you may win some arguments. But the poor soul that you embarrassed with your superior debating skills may still turn away. You could win the argument and lose a soul.
Jesus never send us into the world with the words, “You will be my lawyers.” Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).
When you have another opportunity to witness, make sure you are clear that your goal is not to convert anyone. It’s not even to convince anyone. It’s simply to converse with them—to talk with them about your gracious God.
And if someone walks away from you, don’t get down. It wasn’t a failure. After all, people walked away from Jesus too. And Jesus was not a failure.
Two examples from Jesus
People responded in all sorts of ways to the Savior’s witness. Sure, some came to saving faith that very day, like the Samaritan woman at the well, the tax collector, Zacchaeus; and even the criminal on the cross.
But not everyone was converted on the spot. Consider Nicodemus in John chapter 3.
In this profound nighttime conversation, the Pharisee was the first to hear the beautiful gospel summary of John 3:16. How did he respond to Jesus? We don’t know. John doesn’t record the man’s reaction. John simply leaves Nicodemus in the darkness as the gospel account moves forward.
But if we’re patient and keep reading, we see clear evidence of saving faith many months later. When the beaten body of Jesus hung from the cross outside of Jerusalem, Nicodemus must have watched the events all unfold. No doubt he recalled Jesus’ words from that private conversation: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14,15).
John reveals Nicodemus as the believer who stepped out of the shadows, lowered Jesus’ lifeless body to the ground, and helped lay him in the tomb. I love how John tells us the rest of the story with Nicodemus.
In Matthew 19, there was another man who, like Nicodemus, enjoyed a life of privilege in Jewish society. And like Nicodemus, Jesus lovingly engaged him in a conversation about eternal life. But unlike Nicodemus’ story, we only hear of this man’s initial conversation with Jesus. Without a name given, he is often referred to by Matthew’s description as the rich young man.
The account of Jesus’ conversation with this man teaches us lessons in evangelism that we’ll study the next couple of months. For now, we’ll begin with the ending. Jesus’ last words to him were an invitation: “ ‘Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad” (Matthew 19:21,22).
The man walked away.
We don’t hear about him again. He walked away and may well have stayed away. Jesus told us in a dozen different ways that this will happen for many people who will listen to our witness of Christ and will ultimately reject him and remain lost.
The rest of the story
Yet there will be plenty of others who may walk away at first, but—like Nicodemus—will have a “rest of the story.”
Allow me to share one of those stories.
J.T. was a man who had some Christian background from childhood, but he hadn’t been to worship in many years. In his young adult life, he even developed a strong aversion to preachers and the church. He once told his wife he wouldn’t give them the time of day. Yet, on a sweltering night in Georgia in July, he answered a knock at the door. The young pastor on the doorstep had just been ordained the week before and was meeting the neighbors in his early efforts to establish a new Lutheran church.
When something like this happened in the past, J.T. would quickly close the door and walk away. That’s what his wife, Paige, expected him to do on this occasion. Instead, he listened. More than that, he invited the stranger inside. A few months later, J.T. and Paige finished our mission congregation’s first adult instruction class and Paige was baptized.
Paige and I both found out why J.T. was willing to listen to me that night. During his last military deployment in Europe, he had hit a noticeable rough patch. A caring chaplain approached him and sat down with him. That Christian man shared compassion and God’s Word with J.T. at a time he needed both. Afterward, J.T. told himself that the next time he came across a preacher he would handle it differently. He would listen to the next pastor who wanted to speak with him. The next evangelist just happened to be me.
Only God knows where he may put us in a line of witnesses on someone else’s path So be ready with your witness. And be ready for some to walk away. If it happened to Jesus, it’ll happen to you. But also pray another Christian down the road will witness again.
Not all who walk away will stay away.
James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
This is the first article in a three-part series on evangelism lessons from the account of the rich young man in Matthew chapter 19.
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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018
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