“What’s the best Bible translation for someone who isn’t saved?” my colleague Tara asked me one day.
“My Aunt Jill,” she replied.
Tara’s Aunt Jill didn’t know the Lord, didn’t go to church, didn’t own a Bible and didn’t attend any Sunday children’s activities when young. She was walking in the dark, as far as we could tell, and Tara ached for her. She knew Jill needed Jesus in her life, like we all do, and she wanted to spend eternity with her beloved aunt.
Don’t we all long for the salvation of those in our family?
Giving someone a Bible when they don’t know Jesus (yet) is a great idea, but by itself it may not be as effective at saving souls as we’d think. After all, if evangelism was as simple as getting God’s word into the hands of the unsaved, we’d simply rain Bibles from the sky and all of humanity would have faith in Christ in a matter of weeks. Distributing Bibles that each person can understand is vitally important, but there’s more to evangelism than gifting a book, even if that book contains living water. If you give someone a chest full of treasure but they don’t have the key to open it, the true purpose of the gift will never be fulfilled.
For those of us who know God and are familiar with his Scripture, opening a Bible is like sitting down to dinner with an old friend. We can flip open nearly anywhere and know the context. We know who Melchizedek, Darius and Philip are, albeit vaguely. We understand how the words we’re reading explain God’s heart for us. The Bible speaks to our soul because we can understand it, thanks to the Holy Spirit. But for those without God’s Spirit inside them, it’s like dining with someone who speaks a different language; like reading someone else’s mail. They don’t understand the meaning of what they’re reading and subsequently feel completely lost.
I got a sense of this when I visited with Mormon missionaries. They were wonderful young men who tried to teach me about their beliefs. They gave me a Book of Mormon and directed me to where to read. Now, I’m familiar with the Bible and have no trouble reading and enjoying ‘thick’ translations like the King James Version, but reading the Book of Mormon was like wandering lost in the woods with a map I couldn’t read. It helped me understand why all those Bibles I gave to unsaved friends didn’t seem to amount to anything (as far as I knew).
Don’t we see this in the book of Acts? Philip meets an official from Ethiopia who is struggling to understand the scriptures.
So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31)
The man was hopelessly lost trying to understand a foreign religion with a heart of stone and without anyone to light the way. He needed help. But when Philip opened his mouth and explained the truth of Jesus, the Ethiopian was overwhelmed: “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (v. 36).
Now, the Bible is powerful by itself since it is God’s word. There have been many who’ve been saved just by reading its words. After all, God’s word never returns unfruitful (Isa 55:11). But for most of us, didn’t the Lord choose to save us through someone patiently explaining things?
Let’s be real: evangelism is scary. Witnessing to a stranger is difficult, but witnessing to a relative or an old friend is terrifying. “What if they laugh? What if I make Jesus sound foolish?” Don’t be naïve: everything about Jesus already seems foolish to the unsaved (1 Cor 1:18)! And it doesn’t matter what Bible translation you give them or how you explain the gospel: it’s about as enlightening as your grandma trying to read computer code without God’s Holy Spirit opening their heart. Indeed, the believers at Pentecost were assumed to be drunk (Acts 2:13). But God has a way of making words that sound like nonsense take root and flourish in a hurting soul.
My point is this: God uses his people to explain his word to others. And you might begin with your testimony rather than a direct explanation of a specific passage. Especially to someone who knows you, the intimate story of what Jesus did for you is irreplaceable in God’s plan to make his kingdom come. You might feel completely inadequate, untrained, uninteresting—and you wouldn’t be the first to feel that way (Exod 4:1,10; Jer 1:6). But the story of God rescuing you from darkness is none of those things.
You don’t need any special training to share the gospel by starting with your story; we all know how to talk about ourselves! Just keep in mind that it’s not your job to save anyone: share what God has done for you and let him do the rest. You might feel like a fool, and you might damage a relationship you value, but what if, through prayer and God’s Holy Spirit, your words take root in the hurting soul of someone you love? Isn’t that how you were saved? Ninety-nine out of a hundred people might brush you off, but it’s the start of eternal life for one.
The gift of a Bible is a wonderful idea, but chances are nothing will be understood unless you shine your God-given light on its pages. Only after they know the author will the book start to come alive.