The Christian life is a life in pursuit of being like Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul even identifies his own life, and subsequently ours, with Christ in Galatians saying, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). The conclusive application of Paul’s identification with Christ is that we too are to live as Christ did, fully in the world, yet not of the world (John 17:11-15). Furthermore, our telos, namely our glorification, is fundamentally rooted in our sanctification or becoming like Christ (Romans 8:29-30).
The incarnation of the Son of God is a great mystery as the eternal Son of God became man (Philippians 2:8). Yet, the wondrous perplexity provides a vision for the incarnational and sanctified life we are called to lead. The perfect Son of God often found himself being identified with sinners. Luke records the charges of the people who describe Jesus as “A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). The foolishness of these charges is evident in light of Jesus’s death is received as the perfect sacrifice on behalf man and is then raised from the grave demonstrating his righteousness, despite associating with those far from God, the unrighteous.
The lifestyle that Jesus demonstrated provides two important examples for Christians throughout the ages that we need to investigate further. First, spending time with sinners does not mean one is a sinner. In the social media era of quick judgments, this idea pushes against the grain. Despite worldly claims of “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we inevitably do. In doing this, we act just as the Pharisees did and assume the party you keep is the lifestyle you lead. While the assumption that someone who spends time with sinners is probably a sinner is not always correct, it does bear some truth. So there is a fair warning for us as we engage in the world with non-believers. However, an incarnational lifestyle that engages with sinners where they were at allowed Jesus to proclaim, “repent and believe.”
The second important example for us is at the core about breaking the stereotype that if you hang with sinners, you are a sinner. To evangelize to the lost, we must be incarnational. Meaning we, too, must have relationships with those who do not know Christ. The idea of incarnational evangelism is rooted in the life pattern of Christ and his teaching. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, sinners” (Mark 2:17). Like the Pharisees and religious elite, if we only spend our time with the believer or even those who are not ostensibly far from God, we will neglect the lost and practice religiosity that is at the crux antithetical to James’s call not to show partiality in gospel proclamation (James 2:1). The lifestyle that ignores the wicked and remains with the outwardly righteous is, in fact, the exact opposite of the lifestyle in which Christ has called us to live. If it is Jesus living in us, then we, too, must live incarnationally, seeking to bring healing to the sick.
This idea of incarnational evangelism is evident in several places in the Gospels. John 4 provides a clear perspective on what incarnational evangelism looks like. The account of Jesus and the woman at the well is worth our investigation as we seek to exemplify the lifestyle of Christ. The narrative illustrates that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria and rest at a well. John states, “And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (John 4:4-6). The opening of this story illustrates an odd account. The Galilean and his companions were intentionally stopping in Samaria. Culturally, this would have been unfathomable, yet, Jesus was not looking to obey cultural norms. Instead, he was seeking to save the lost. Before even encountering anyone, Jesus is teaching that seeking the lost is intentional. If we are to share the gospel with those who do not know Christ, we must be willing to go where the lost are. We must have our eyes open for those who appear not to know Christ, for if we fail to do this, we shall only remain in our confined groups of religiosity that ignore those furthest from the Lord. Thus, the first point of incarnational evangelism is that we would go to the lost.
In verse seven, John introduces the sinner. She is a woman who is coming in shame and in hopeful hiddenness from the crowd to draw water. She is breaking norms by fetching water at the well during the middle of the day and is surprised to find out if anyone is at the well. Jesus’s appointment with her was not surprising to the Son of God, but she appears stunned that someone is there to speak with her, let alone a Galilean man. Likewise, we, too, should seek to be in places that would be startling to the unbeliever as we seek to share the good news with them.
John continues the account by starting with Jesus’s statement, “‘Give me a drink.'” She replied, “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’” (John 4:7-10). Her awareness illustrates just how counter-cultural Jesus’s request is, but this is the crux of incarnational evangelism. The evangelist’s work breaks all cultural norms, including secular, religious, and political ones. At the heart of this is the power of the gospel, which proclaims that there is neither“Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Jesus’s being there is not merely an example, though. If we spend time with sinners, then we are not fulfilling the task of actually caring for sinners, which is most exemplified in our proclamation of the gospel. Jesus shows us this by responding to the woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Of course, the woman is perplexed by the saying and rightly states, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (John 4:11). Her response, in many ways, is appropriate. Rarely do we walk into a place looking for goods or services and tell them what we can provide. Yet, this is precisely what Jesus does. He illustrates that her need is far beyond the physical water, which is our second point of application in our incarnational evangelism. We must point out that we have something that others need in Christ. Jesus continues illustrating the reality that he has something she needs in verses 13 and 14 by explaining that the water he offers will never run out. The teaching is clear, Jesus offers everlasting life that will fully satisfy. This is the good news we proclaim, yet it is only some of what we are shown to do in our incarnational evangelism.
Perplexed by Jesus’s teaching, the woman rightly asks for the water, but instead of telling her more, Jesus gives us the third point of incarnational evangelism, exposing sin. He says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here” (John 4:16). When she declares that she has no husband, he says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18). The most challenging part of evangelism is the task of calling out sin. Yet, Jesus illustrates that this is necessary for gospel proclamation. We must not be afraid of exposing sin, for it is in exposing sin that we demonstrate the greatness of God in his saving work as we show sinners their need for forgiveness and God’s willingness to give them grace and mercy through faith in Christ. Calling out sin is also vital for incarnational living as it demonstrates to sinners, and others, that you do not condone or affirm the life pattern of sin. If incarnational living is done without exposing sin, the true gospel has not been shared, and instead of pointing people to Christ, you have simply made people comfortable as they journey to hell. At the crux of our incarnational living must be Jesus’s example of calling people to turn from their sins and rest in Christ.
After a brief dialogue concerning worship, this story ends with the woman running from Jesus, leaving her bucket of water, and declaring that Jesus was the Messiah who had given her everlasting life. Jesus’s example is simple as we seek to live incarnationally, reaching the lost. We cannot ignore Jesus’s repeated actions in the Gospels of going to the lost if we are to allow Jesus to be Jesus in us truly.
Our application of being incarnational evangelists is simple. Go to unbelievers. Befriend them. Tell them of the everlasting life you have obtained. And expose them to the great need they have for the one who offers this life freely. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, but if we fail to be incarnational with unbelievers, we are like the man who takes a light and hides it. May that not be said of us, but rather may we proclaim the gospel of Christ boldly and perform incarnational evangelism singing,
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.