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March 20, 2024
By Bassam Michael Madany

Recently, I became aware of organizations that claim that the mere distribution of the Scriptures constituted Christian Missions.

I am not referring to the American Bible Society (1816) or, to the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804.) These organizations work as auxiliaries to the Church’s Mission, by supporting the translation and publication of the Scriptures in many languages.

The availability of the Bible, both in print and in digitized form, is a great blessing for Missions. But it’s important to remember that historically, it is a modern phenomenon and dates to Gutenberg’s invention of the press in 1455. Centuries before, Bibles existed as “manuscripts,” a Latin term that means “handwritten.”

Great as the achievements of the press have been, the sermon remains the basic means for spreading the Christian faith. Christianity was born on Pentecost Sunday when the apostle Peter preached his inaugural message. These are excerpts recorded in Acts 2:

“Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and said, ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. … This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy…. Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesús, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

Similar, but shorter sermons, are found in Acts 3: 11-26; Acts 4: 5-12; 27-32. The Epistles of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John are replete with sermonic materials that played a basic role in the Mission of the Church.

From the New Testament’s sermonic materials, the following are historical/theological works that elucidate this subject.

Professor R. V. G. Tasker’s The Gospel Behind the Gospels, (Chapter 1 of “The Nature and Purpose of the Gospels.” SCM PRESS LTD 1957.

“The four Gospels though they are found at the beginning of the New Testament, were not the first literary products of the Christian religion. They were written almost certainly between the years AD 65 to 100; though they embody sources written sometimes earlier. In any chronological arrangement of the New Testament books, the Gospels would have to be placed after the letters of Saint Paul, this is a fact of great significance and is of vital importance to a true understanding of the Gospels themselves.

“There were at least thirty-five years of Christian teaching and Christian missionary activity, before the believers were in possession of the written records of Christ’s life and teaching, which we know as the Four Gospels, and which ever since they received general recognition, that is, before the middle of the second century, have played an indispensable part in all subsequent Christianity. Our faith today is bound to be conditioned by the four Gospels. The faith of the earliest Christians was independent of them.

“Early Christendom began by the preaching or proclamation of a series of statements, which together made-up what was called the Good-News or Gospel; and a person was a Christian in so far as he accepted by faith those statements as true. The statements were concerned with Jesus of Nazareth, but they were not primarily statements about anything He had said, merely because he had said it, or almost about his manner of life while on earth, merely because it was His manner of life, or about his personality or indeed about any of the kind of things that are of interest to our modern biographer. The uniqueness of Christianity lay in the unique character of the statements which were proclaimed as the Gospel. As to the content of these statements there is remarkable agreement in the summaries of them given in the Epistles of Saint Paul, and in the early chapters of Acts.

“Here we see that what was proclaimed as the Gospel was, to quote from the Epistle to the Romans, ‘the Good News that's what God had promised by his prophets in the Holy Scriptures, that is in the Old Testament, concerning a blessed age to be inaugurated by God's anointed messenger, or Christ, had been fulfilled in Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the divine guarantee that such a fulfillment had taken place. It was indeed the Resurrection of Jesus which set a divine seal upon his life and death and gave it a unique significance. Jesus was ‘declared to be the son of God as Paul asserts by his resurrection from the dead.’” Pp. 9-11

Another Biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, referred to the necessity of reading the Scriptures in the light of the historic Christian Tradition. In his book, Tradition Old & New, he wrote:

“Hold fast to the traditions,” wrote Paul to the Christians in Corinth. Yet some would regard freedom from any kind of tradition as the sign of spiritual maturity and emancipation. That is because of the mistaken idea that tradition is always bad.

“Yet the living tradition, the continuity of Christian life, is indispensable. Without it, Scripture would have had no context. If we could suppose that the church had been wiped out in the Diocletian persecution and the church’s scripture lost, to be rediscovered in our own day like the Dead Sea Scrolls, would the rediscovered scriptures once more have the effect which we know them to have in experience, or would they, like the Scrolls, be an archeological curiosity and a subject of historical debate? On the other hand, the living tradition without the constant corrective of Scripture, (or, in more modern language, without the possibility of ‘reformation according to the Word of God’), might have developed out of all recognition if it did not have indeed slowly faded and died.” P. 128 Tradition, Old & New, The Paternoster Press, Exeter, Devon EX2 4JW

I trust that the Biblical and theological materials I presented are sufficient to show the inadequacy of the claim that the mere distribution of the Scriptures constituted Christian Missions.

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