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The Spread and Effects of the Gospel

After Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, the following verses unfold in an amazing display of the spread among and the effects of the gospel message on the townsfolk of Sychar. Viewed in isolation, it might seem like the gospel is supposed to meet with success after success as it is proclaimed in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. The rest of the Scriptures, however, provide a balanced and nuanced view of the spread and effects of the good news. So as not to dilute the power of what happened by Jacob’s well, I am using this reflection to nuance the main idea of my sermon that the refreshment found in Jesus Christ cannot be contained.

Beginning with the Old Testament prophets, it is important for us to remember that some of them were explicitly told that their message would fall on deaf ears, for example Isaiah.[1] For as powerful as God is, whose arm cannot be shortened, he will not overpower, coercively so, a cold, dead heart. Thus, Isaiah’s chilling commission: “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa 6:9-10 ESV).

We see something similar happen in Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 6. Back in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus’ teaching is met with skepticism, even rejection, on account of his very “ordinary” origins, at least on the surface. Mark concludes this section with a sad summary: “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6a ESV).

One commentator highlights the surprising (lack of) effect of Christ’s work as he himself spread the good news: “The concluding accent falls on the townspeople’s unwillingness to believe. We are again confronted with the mystery of the kingdom of God: some of those who have every opportunity to believe do not, and some who, like the Gerasene demoniac, would never be expected to believe do. No one can predict who will be insiders and outsiders…”[2] Paul as well, in addition to experiencing it firsthand, acknowledges this reality in 2 Corinthians as he touches on the two-edged effect of the spread of the gospel. As he preaches Christ, his gospel effects either the sweet smell of salvation or the odious stench of death. The point, though, is that the gospel continues to spread, even if the effects are uneven.

What this means is that the church must continue to be faithful to the great commission that Christ gave to her, even if the effect is negative or the yield is paltry. What we cannot do is turn pessimistic and give up spreading the seed of the gospel when it seems like the word is being scattered on unfertile ground. On the one hand, that sowing has its purpose, like Isaiah’s preaching, to bring about the revelation of God’s perfect justice. On the other hand, that sowing may end up yielding a great harvest for future reapers.

As a final thought on the sowing/reaping imagery in this text as it applies to the spread and effect of the gospel, we should not quickly pass over a given place as already sown with gospel seed. Just like a lawn needs occasional overseeding to build up the turf in patchy areas, there are places around the world, including our own local communities, where gospel “overseeding” is a sore need.

How can we do this? Consider how you can weave the basics of the Bible and the gospel message into your everyday life. There are opportunities when we engage with others to point out how many values in society today have roots in the gospel. For a good primer on such touchpoints, I encourage you to take up and read Glen Scrivener’s book, The Air We Breathe. For encouragement to engage your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers with the gospel, I recommend that you pick up Rico Tice’s book, Honest Evangelism. These two Anglicans have many good things to say to help us do our part as instruments in the spread of the uncontainable refreshment found in Christ.

[1] Many thanks to Joe Adrian for reminding me of this reality last week [2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Leicester: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 174.

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