“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Acts 8:4
Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.” Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism. We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives. Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this. To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election. There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.
One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures. According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries. Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers. Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.
At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention. After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers? There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.” It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible. Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word.
The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word. In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.” Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always. Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.
What does it mean in Acts 8:4? Here we need to look at the context. Who were those scattered? That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem. Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison. This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles. So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4. In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.
In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria. There are two important things to note here. One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary. He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation. The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation. In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties. In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4. He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction. The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.
It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel. In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise. This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.
But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today? There are two angles we should explore. One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about. Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles. But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter. In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.” When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light. We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus. This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him. As Christians, we’re also united to Christ. What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.
The second angle is closely related. One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize. Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to. They couldn’t help themselves. They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them. When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get. And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities. If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.
Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling. There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old. But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church. Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.