“Preach the Gospel”, the saying goes, “and use words if necessary”. Is it better to show the meaning of the Gospel in the way we live towards others, or do we actually have to spell it out with words?
The answer of course, is both.
Like a pair of scissors, deeds and words are ineffective without the other.
The two are supposed work together in harmony, two inseparable parts of the same tool. Someone might be very impressed with your actions, but unless they have understood and assented to the message of the Gospel, being impressed with you won’t help them much in the end. Similarly, our words ring empty and hypocritical unless our lives affirm the truth of the words we say.
God makes his loathing of words without action quite plain in the Scriptures. For example, see how he responds to the super spirituality of Israel while they ignored the affliction of the poor and oppressed in Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the fast I choose:
to release the bonds of wickedness,
to untie the cords of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to tear off every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the homeless poor into your house?
When you see the naked, to cover him,
and not hide yourself from your own flesh and blood?”
(verses 6-7, although the whole chapter is on the subject)
People are watching us and learning from our actions what it means to be a follower of Yeshua – whether we open our mouths or not – and they will inevitably draw conclusions based on what they see. In 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul exhorts the believers there to understand that they are a “living letter”, written by the Holy Spirit for others to “read” as they see our life of faith.
Similarly James, the brother of Yeshua, emphasises the need to live the complete life of faith – both in word and deed:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can such faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in shalom, keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is that? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.” (James 2:14-17)
He goes on makes the point that simply believing that Yeshua is the Messiah does not help demons (they know that truth perfectly well!) and then highlights heroes of the faith who put their faith into action, like Abraham and Rahab. Faith has got to be lived out, otherwise it’s dead and useless.
God is the Father to the Fatherless, defender of the poor and the widow, and we should seek to reflect his generous heart in the way we live. If we are to follow him, radical generosity and concern for the poor is part of that path.
But if our lives tell the story, why do words matter?
If people can see so much from a life poured out for others – if we really are a “living letter” – is articulation of a particular message really necessary?
Yes. This is how God has set things up.
Words are not irrelevant, but are an intrinsic part of creation. Indeed, it is by words that creation came to be. God did not “think” the world into existence. In fact, language is something that God has given to humanity that he has not given to any other part of his creation. He is a God who speaks, and as we are made in the image of God, he has shared this relational treasure with us. Words and language are how we build relationship with each other, and with God.
Neither did Yeshua breeze around just being a good example and leaving it at that. No – he had plenty to say. He demonstrated that he meant every word by his actions, all the way to the cross (and beyond!) but Yeshua also understood the vital importance of words, and used them with perfect wisdom. Every word he said was true and trustworthy, and I for one am extremely glad that we have it all written down for our reference. In John 15 Yeshua explains through his prayer to the Father that his words actually clean us, and that we need to be living in, abiding in those words. It is a living experience, because the Word is living and active. Indeed, John calls him “The Word” (John 1:1).
Reading through concentrated book of wisdom that is Proverbs, we see time and time again how much power there is in words for good or for evil, and in Romans, were are told plainly about the vital importance of proclaiming and hearing the message of the Gospel:
How then shall they call on the One in whom they have not trusted? And how shall they trust in the One they have not heard of? And how shall they hear without someone proclaiming? And how shall they proclaim unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim good news of good things!” But not all heeded the Good News. For Isaiah says, “Adonai, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Messiah. (Romans 10:14-17)
And what is this Gospel, this Good News?
What is the report that we are to proclaim? It has to centre on Yeshua’s work at Calvary – what was accomplished by his death and resurrection. Paul gets specific in 1 Corinthians 15, summarising it like this:
...”That Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
It is based on historical fact – Yeshua’s actual resurrection – and Paul urges us to live in the light of this glorious victory. It is very good news indeed! We have now have freedom and forgiveness! A way back to the Father has been opened for us, and all our sin has been paid for. Amazing. Amazing grace.
This great victory over sin and death was foretold in the Scriptures, as Paul emphasises twice over, with divinely inspired words spoken out and written down by the prophets. But it’s not a matter of assenting to the truth of these words: we must leave sin and selfishness, and live to serve God and others. Even as he makes quite clear that the message we are to communicate focuses on Yeshua’s resounding victory over death on our behalf he speaks passionately about the reality of the message in word and in deed. Paul ends the chapter with this exhortation:
Therefore, my dearly loved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord—because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
I think Paul would laugh at the very idea of leaving either words or good deeds behind when we go to share the Good News!