“So when they arrest you and hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say, but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been put on the spot to speak? Some people thrive in that kind of an environment. I’m not generally one of those. I’m the kind of guy who wants to have everything written out ahead of time. I’m much better on paper than in person. I’d rather put in the effort to memorize a sermon entirely than to walk into the pulpit with nothing more than an outline. In fact, I’ve done that. In seminary, our preaching classes all pushed us in the direction of preaching without notes. They wanted us to learn how to think from an outline. I refused to play ball. I wrote my sermons, memorized them word for word, and dutifully delivered them without notes. The thought of being expected to deliver more than a few words without some sort of heads up makes my stomach churn. Sometimes, though, you don’t get that chance. Sometimes you don’t get that chance and the words you’re expected to deliver are a defense of the Gospel in a pressure situation. Jesus here offers some hope for those situations.
We generally seek to share the Gospel on our terms. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a very good thing. It allows us to give careful thought and planning to our presentations. When we prepare ahead of time we are able to consider things like the culture and background of our target audience. We can shape our stories in just such a way the audience will connect and more readily listen to what we have to say.
There are times, though, when God moves in ways we were not prepared for ahead of time. Jesus here was talking with the disciples about a time in the future when the circumstances for His followers would get a whole lot rougher than they were at the moment. There was a day coming, He said, when everyone will turn on you because of me. The state will come after you. The culture will come after you. Even your friends and family – your own children or parents – will come after you. You will be arrested suddenly and handed over to be tried for crimes of belief; for crimes of not being willing to toe the line of the religious expectations of the world around you.
Hearing this no doubt caused all kinds of anxiety to bubble up in the disciples. What are we going to do in that situation? How can we hope to avoid it? And perhaps most of all, the thing you and I worry about most when it comes to evangelism (especially unexpected evangelism), what are we going to say? That’s perhaps the number one reason why followers of Jesus avoid evangelism entirely. They (we!) worry about what it is we are going to say when we are put on the spot. We haven’t honestly thought through our testimonies, much less a Gospel presentation of any kind. We haven’t taken up Peter’s command to be always ready to give an answer when anyone asks for the reason for the hope we have. We’re too afraid of freezing, of saying the wrong thing, of being asked a question we can’t answer and looking stupid, of accidentally saying something offensive and pushing the person away from Jesus instead of drawing them toward Him. Now, Jesus was telling them (and us) they were going to face times of persecution when they would be expected to give a defense of their faith not only without warning, but under the incredible pressure that if they said the wrong thing it could mean their very lives. If He was trying to alleviate anxiety, this was not the way to do it.
Yet alleviating anxiety was exactly His point here. Don’t worry beforehand about what you’ll say in these tense situations. Just simply say whatever comes to mind in the moment because it’s the Holy Spirit who is giving you the words and even speaking through you.
Now, just on its face, this promise from Jesus is incredible. The Holy Spirit is going to speak through us. He’ll be the one doing the thinking. We just have to open our mouths and let the words come out. Whatever is sitting on the top of our heads in that moment is going to be the right thing for the situation. Sure, He doesn’t tell us what that right thing is exactly. It could be words that help us avoid whatever trouble our hostile audience has planned for us. But it may be instead the words that cause the Gospel to rise up in their hearts later, after they’ve done whatever terrible things to us they were intending. But the words will be right for the situation because they are from the Holy Spirit, the source of all wisdom.
We have to be careful with this promise, though. This can easily be taken out of context and used in ways Jesus never intended for it to be taken. In fact, that’s happened a lot. Across the 20th century, and still in some places today, there are folks who aren’t much for learning. There are some strains of Christianity that are anti-intellectual. They believe wholeheartedly that the only thing they need to learn is the Bible and that will be enough. This is an inconsistently held belief, of course, and it sets them up for a much harder road through life than they might otherwise have. But what Jesus says here is one of the banner verses for this line of thinking. These folks will look at Jesus’ words here not as an encouragement, but as a command. We are not supposed to learn or even think about anything ahead of time when it comes to sharing the Gospel. We are simply supposed to share whatever is on the top of our minds in that moment and that will be what God wants communicated.
The trouble is, this is not at all what Jesus was saying. Jesus wasn’t talking about every situation we might face here. He was talking about times when we are in high pressure, persecution situations. He’s talking about a time when we have been suddenly arrested by hostile government forces, set before some sort of tribunal, and asked: What do you have to say for yourself? He’s talking about a circumstance when we are forced to offer an on the spot defense of our faith before an aggressively antagonistic audience that has the power to make our lives incredibly unpleasant or even end them. In those moments, Jesus wanted us to know we will not be alone. We are not going to be left high and dry. The Holy Spirit Himself will give us the words we need to speak in that moment.
For all the other Gospel sharing and evangelism moments we are in, we need to prepare like I do for my sermons. I don’t mean we need to write out everything ahead of time and memorize it verbatim. Neither do I mean we need to have a written up manuscript that we carry with us everywhere we go just in case we need it. I mean we need to think through our reason for hope ahead of time so that we are ready to offer it when asked. We need to study the various defenses of the Christian faith apologists have developed over the years. We need to think through the kinds of questions we might be asked and how we would answer those. We need to learn all we can about the various other religious worldviews we might encounter and how the Christian worldview provides a better alternative for life and reality than they do. We need to learn all we can so that we are as prepared as we can be.
But sometimes, we don’t get that opportunity. In those moments, Jesus offered this. Each persecution we face represents an opportunity to share the Gospel. In these situations, especially when they come fast and furious, we won’t be alone. The Holy Spirit Himself will be with us, giving us the words to say. This doesn’t mean we don’t still learn the sound arguments in support of the faith and do everything we can to make ourselves ready when the moment comes, but when we are in the thick of it, we can know with confidence that we aren’t alone. He will be with us to help us.