Do You Read the Bible With Unbelievers?
The title question may have never crossed your mind, but it should. Trust me, there is biblical precedent for it.
In Acts 8, the reader is taken on a fascinating journey with Phillip. Phillip was a believer. In fact, he was named as one of the deacons in Jerusalem just a couple of chapters earlier. So we know he was a leader in service for the church, a man steeped in the faith. However, quite a bit had happened since his selection in Acts 6. Persecution exploded in Jerusalem and pushed many of the believers out of the city. Of course, this just spread the gospel even further, and in Acts 8 we see that Phillip is one of the perpetrators of the gospel’s growth.
How did he do it? By reading the Bible with unbelievers.
Acts 8 records several encounters Philip has with unbelievers, and in one such instance, God told Philip to go out into the middle of nowhere for a divine appointment. Along the way, Philip comes across an African caravan headed south from Jerusalem, and he hears something familiar emanating from that caravan. It’s the Old Testament book of Isaiah being read aloud.
God prompts Philip to approach the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading this scroll and begin a dialogue with him. Over the course of the conversation, Philip reads the Bible with this Ethiopian and explains it to him. The Ethiopian, upon confrontation with the Scriptures, is transformed.
Reading the Bible as Evangelism
Unfortunately, this practice is not too common in North America anymore. Perhaps it is because we have become accustomed to using presentations and other means. Maybe it is because we assume most Americans have a general understanding of the Bible, since it was a formative part of the worldview a few generations ago. Possibly it is a lack of biblical literacy on the part of the believers. Whatever the case, I am convinced it rarely crosses the mind of Christians in the West to use study of the Bible itself as a means of sharing the gospel.
And that is too bad. The Bible, after all, is the way we know the gospel in the first place. It is the revealed source of the good news. It tells a magnificent story, from cover to cover, that confronts every living, breathing human being and compels them to faith and repentance. We need to reclaim the practice of studying the Bible with unbelievers.
I have encouraged the use of evangelistic Bible studies as a means of starting small groups in your church. In “missionary speak” these are often called discovery Bible studies, because it allows someone who is not a Christian to discover the story and truths of Scripture in a way that calls them to faith in the gospel. I love that idea, and it is founded upon the practice of Bible study as evangelism.
This is precisely what I did when I was a missionary in Africa. We would travel from village to village, briefly present the story of the Bible from creation to new creation, and then we would offer to come back every week and walk them through all of the little stories that make up that one big story. Some villages refused, but others accepted the offer. Week after week, we would meet with unbelievers and walk through the Bible’s stories, building their knowledge of the biblical worldview so that they could understand the good news of the gospel. Some of those groups eventually rejected that truth, but others became churches.
If you are starting to get excited, then here are three main points pulled right out of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian.
“Go and join that chariot.”
After having Philip go to the wilderness and find this caravan, God commands Philip to go and join. Let those words sink in for a minute. Our command is no less. We are told to come alongside the caravans and join in. Ours is not a call to avoid lost people, but to engage with them in dialogue. However, we must be certain to see in the context that God would not have been satisfied with any dialogue. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian had a specific purpose, and so do our encounters.
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
What a powerful question! And note the Ethiopian’s answer, “How can I unless someone guides me?”
We call people to read the very words of God for themselves and then to comprehend the grace of God found in those pages. Two truths are revealed in these two significant questions. First, we have a responsibility to ask people if they understand. Second, we have a responsibility to guide people toward understanding.
Using the Bible itself in our evangelism allows for this kind of interaction. Often, it is less confrontational to ask people if they would like to explore what the Bible says with you than it is to try and argue your way to understanding. Let the Bible be the one that lays out the propositions, and you (along with the Holy Spirit!) can serve as the guide to understanding.
“Phillip proceeded to tell them the good news about Jesus.”
This last point is the one that requires much of us today. Philip was able to explain that passage in the Old Testament in such a way that it demonstrated the goods news of what Jesus Christ had done, hundreds of years after it was written. In order to use the Bible in evangelism, we actually have to understand it ourselves.
Truly, the Bible is the story of Jesus. After his resurrection, on the Emmaus road, Jesus demonstrated to some of his disciples how all the Old Testament was ultimately about him (Luke 24:27). We find that to be true in this passage as well. Our task in evangelistic Bible study is to point out that major crimson thread, as some have called it, that runs all the way through the Bible.
It is much easier to use the Bible as a handy set of moral beliefs, dos and don’ts, or just seek out uplifting words. However, all of this takes the most significant story every told and focuses it in a self-centered way on the desires of the hearer. No, the Bible is much more. It is the true story of the whole world that demands a response, and perhaps it is time to start reading it with your unbelieving friends.