GOOD FRIDAY: Swords into Plowshares | Steve Berman

If I were writing an episode of “How Not to Evangelize,” I’d point you to the man in the video selling Bibles. Get yours, because it’s got the Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution, and probably the lyrics to “I’m Proud to be an American” in its pages.

“Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ’em!”

Selling Bibles is about the lowest form of evangelism. I mean, sure someone might buy that Lee Greenwood Bible, in the original King James language (“the same Bible Jesus carried”) and open it, read, say, Matthew 27, and find God. More likely, those Bibles are going to go to the same people who buy steak knives at 2 a.m., or who have three sets of “The Best of Roger Whittaker”—in vinyl—sitting on the shelf next to a turntable that hasn’t dropped a needle in a quarter century.

Easter is coming up, which means millions of people who own a Bible they never open will be dusting theirs off, putting on a suit and tie, or a pretty dress, and heading to the church they attend twice a year this Sunday. A smaller number will go to church because they go every week, and make sure they give those members who show up on Easter and Christmas a firm handshake and a side hug.

Pastors are preparing their Easter sermons: about the love of God, the sacrifice of the cross, the horrific death and glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. How you too can experience the joy and freedom of salvation. Look this way, now close your eyes. No looking around. All around the room, we have sinners. If that’s you, and you want to accept Jesus into your heart, raise your hand. Thank you, thank you. The young woman in the front, thank you.

This is the ritual in many evangelical churches. The sheep raise their hands, then the prayer team comes to the front. Folks file up the aisle for a hug and a commitment card, which they gladly complete. They have their name registered in heaven, and can go back to their lives with the blessed assurance of Jesus when they die, and their prayers answered when they’re in trouble.

I’m sorry, but this is not evangelism.

The butcher makes his living slaughtering animals—steers, cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys. His tools are the apron, the leather strop, the cleaver, the boning knife, the carving blade. A happy butcher finds self-actualization in his work. He takes pride in producing fine cuts of meat, steaks, sides of bacon, and strings of sausages. He whistles as he trims away fat. The thought of the living animal before the work of the blade barely dents his consciousness.

Then the vegetable farmer comes into the butcher shop. Normally the farmer gets his meat order, pays, mutters a happy greeting, and leaves, satisfied with the butcher’s work. But today, the farmer enters and proclaims he has become a vegetarian and no longer requires the butcher’s wares. Well then, good for you, Mr. Farmer, says the butcher, but may I then ask why you’re here?

I’m here to tell you it’s wrong to kill these helpless animals, carve them up and sell their flesh to others for them to consume. It’s wrong to eat them because you will get colon cancer from eating meat. It’s wrong because these animals deserve to live, not to be slaughtered by your hand. It’s wrong because we were meant to eat plants and vegetables on God’s green earth. Repent of your ways, Mr. Butcher!

The butcher listens to the farmer, stands quiet and thoughtful. Then he speaks. Mr. Farmer, you make a very good case. But let me ask you, who created these living beings I spend my time chopping, trimming and carving into roasts, steaks, sausages and stew meat? Where do they roam the earth? Do they live and die without our help? What happens when a steer dies of old age? Do not the vultures come and take the meat?

Isn’t God, who made the crops you tend, the same God who made the cow, the bull, the pig, and the chicken? Do they not reproduce on their own? Surely you have seed for your crops, and fertilizer for your soil. Do you make those by your own hand? Do you make the carrots grow, or the corn to ripen in the field? You only plant and harvest. Should I ask you to abandon your plows and spades to take up the blade with me?

The farmer, clearly agitated, responds. But the animals live horrible lives, penned up, grown only for the slaughterhouse. You are a proprietor of suffering! You are a sinner and you are bringing all who enter your shop with you to a terrible end! Repent and find peace in being a vegetarian!

The butcher remembers the eyes of the animals as they die. He says to the farmer: you have touched my heart. You speak truth, and I commit myself to being a vegetarian. I will let God take care of the animals, put down my butcher tools and take up the spade and the plow.

The farmer is ecstatic! He hugs the butcher, smearing blood from the butcher’s apron all over his shirt. Oh, brother, welcome! You will see how this life is peaceful and fulfilling. Your heart has been made new! Whistling a tune, the farmer leaves, feeling successful in his evangelism.

Smiling, the butcher watches the farmer leave, turns back to the side of beef he was trimming, and runs his blade across his strop.

Our church evangelism is vegetarians visiting happy butchers.

Sinners sin because they enjoy the lives they are living. They value money, or their job, or carnal pleasure, or chasing success, more than the things the Bible teaches. They don’t even know what they believe about the Bible, other than it’s a bunch of stories about God and Jesus, lions, kings, prostitutes, and occasionally, dragons, prisons, earthquakes, plagues and fire.

A sermon by a pastor has as much chance of changing the hearts of sinners as the vegetable farmer’s concern for animal rights has in getting the butcher to give up his living. So why do pastors continue to preach?

They preach because evangelism is something beyond preaching, yet preaching is just one part of it. Pastors who properly understand their role know that.

One thing we’ve all heard from people who get accused of being sinners: “God knows my heart.” Oh yes, He does. You bet He does. God knows the hearts of all people, because He’s omniscient and omnipresent: He knows all, and is everywhere by His nature. God even knows if you are ready to hear about Him and what He has done for you. It is the job of the evangelist to listen to God, scatter seed into the wind, and into some waiting ears, so that the one person who God know is ready to hear, hears and responds.

The preacher at church doesn’t know who that is, as much as they like to know. (Yes, pastors watch the seats. They see who is listening, who is playing on their phone, who is sleeping, and who is new. Pastors are very aware.)

But pastors want to preach their message to the widest possible net, because it makes them feel like maybe the ears God wants them to reach have a better chance of hearing if the crowd is big. Jesus preached to big crowds too. But there is only one person to whom He said “today you will be with me in Paradise.” A thief, on a cross, who was destined to die in agony next to Jesus. An audience of one with ears to hear. There were two hanging on crosses with Jesus, and one of them blasphemed. Even Jesus only got half of a crowd in an execution to respond.

I’ve heard Dr. Mark Rutland tell this story a few times. He’s preached in prisons, and he’s preached in civic clubs. In prisons, many respond to the Gospel message. Some of them, it’s just “jailhouse religion,” but some, it’s genuine. In civic clubs, Rutland said he never got a single response, except in one case a sheriff gave his life to Jesus, but that sheriff was under indictment. It’s as if, by faith, the guy was seeing prison. Rutland’s record was a whole lot better than Jesus.

And this the the way it’s supposed to be. Jesus told His disciples, “he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” (John 14:12.) At the end, on the cross, Jesus had His mother, and his best friend John. All the rest had abandoned Him, except for the women who watched “from a distance.”

When Jesus died, for three hours, “darkness came over all the land.” He cried in Hebrew, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He cried out, then He died.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:51-53.)

In June 1999, I read those verses for the first time. I had grown up Jewish, had my Bar Mitzvah in an orthodox shul, and then fallen away from my faith. I lived as a heathen, only celebrating the “big” Jewish holidays, and then only because of family.

I ran a company, and on a business trip to Denver, I became sick and came home early. I took the red-eye and had not slept all night. An employee had previously asked me to come to a local talent show, and for some reason I went. They were a Christian band, and after the show, at about one in the morning, I joined them at the local Waffle House. Don’t ask me why—I could have gone home. I mocked their faith. I asked why this employee of mine believed in Jesus. He answered: “I don’t believe. I know.” I asked him how he knew, and he told me to ask God.

On my way home in my pickup truck, I audibly said “okay God, if you exist, show me.” Instantly, I found myself hanging by a thread in a dark cistern. I could not touch the sides. It was damp, dark, and quiet. Above me, there was only the vaguest sense of light. Below me, there was pitch darkness. I knew the pit was endless—don’t ask me how because I can’t tell you. I hung there by that thread, knowing if it broke, or if I fell, I would fall forever in the darkness and silence. I was terrified.

I don’t know how long I hung there. Then I heard a voice. It wasn’t a booming, thunderous voice, but it wasn’t a whisper. The voice said “this is your condition.” Four words. It was God. Don’t ask me how I knew it was God—I can’t tell you. Then, as quickly as it began, I was back in my pickup truck. No time had passed. I nearly ran off the road. I went home and cried my eyes out.

Not knowing what to do, I called my employee. He said I should go to synagogue. I had no desire to go to church, or know Jesus or have much to do with Christians. That was simply not part of my life—I had never read the New Testament. I began going to temple every time the doors were open. It took me four months to decide to read the New Testament. I was a miserable basket case during that time—ask anyone who knew me then.

A friend who was a churchgoing Christian as a teen but hadn’t darkened the door of a church in decades took me for a beer, told me I was a basket case, and that I needed to know what I believed. Either I believed Christianity or I didn’t, but I was never going to know until I read the New Testament.

So I did. I had timidly stepped into a church a few times during my four month journey to faith. I sat in the back. I played golf with the pastor, who gave me a Paul Wilbur CD “Shalom Jerusalem.” I listened to it but skipped the parts about Yeshua. Then I read the book of Matthew, because it was the first book of the New Testament. Nobody told me about the “Roman road.”

When I read those words in Matthew 27, I knew I had found truth. The Spirit of God does not reside in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He resides in the hearts of believers who have been “born again” through the blood of Jesus, and His resurrection. 

But we are not omniscient, and we are not omnipresent—we live, we die. It’s sad to me that a number of people who led me to faith, including the pastor who gave me that Paul Wilbur album, no longer believe. But I do.

Pastors cannot preach people in to the Kingdom. Nobody on their own can deliver a message that induces hearts to come running to Christ. At best, they can preach to prisoners who have a vested interest in proclaiming faith. They can preach to those who are hopeless, helpless, and friendless. They can proclaim words because “Folks’re lookin’ for answers” and sell “the only book that’s got ’em!”

At best, on our own, we are all Bible salesman, no better than the guy on video, or Big Dan Teague. It is only the Holy Spirit who knows the hearts of mankind—ourselves and those who are listening—who can save. “God has a plan for your life,” says the pastor. I say “God has a plan.” It’s our job to go along with it.

Evangelicals are too much like vegetarians walking into the butcher shop. We bring a sword and ask sinners to drop theirs for the plowshare. But all of evangelism is turning your own sword into a plowshare.

Yes, there must be preaching. But God has a plan. He sent His son to earth, to die on a cross, and to live, so that we might have ears to hear, and hearts to believe, and minds to know, and faith to continue, and strength to finish strong. This is what we are here for on this very, very Good Friday.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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