Clive Staples Lewis was a celebrated Anglo-Irish novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, lay theologian and Christian apologist whose impact and influence lives on.

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They Were Astonished: Learning How to Communicate the Gospel

November 28th, 2012 | Skip to comments

by Bruce L. Edwards

Last month I had the privilege of doing a C. S. Lewis Workshop for a dynamic church in the east Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills, OH. They used this seminar as a way to introduce neighbors and unplanted area church members to their congregation. They calculated that a weekend seminar covering the life and teaching of Lewis, who is beloved by audiences across the spectrum of Christendom, would be successful. They were right.

What is always interesting to me is the high quality of knowledgeable believers that a workshop like this draws, drawn by Lewis, of course, but more drawn to Jesus. For Lewis’s own faith, and his metaphorically rich way of expressing it, his use of reason and imagination, argument and story, enlighten the eyes of their hearts and lifts their spirits (EPH 1:18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe).

I’ve never done one of these workshops, maybe 100 over the past 30 years, and had someone tell me afterwards, “spending time with Lewis really depresses me. . .”


Because Lewis always reveals the enthralling, unpredictable, wild Jesus who compels our adulation and raises our expectations. He brings hope.

The only reason I have made a virtual profession out of talking about Lewis is that it allows me to talk about Jesus, who is not only Lewis’s model for living, but also his model for teaching.

The reason Lewis is so good at communicating the majesty of God, the incomparable love of Jesus, the irresistible power of the Holy Spirit, is that he has learned from the best, learned from he “in whom all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom dwell” (Col. 2:3-4).

We will do well to follow the example of Lewis in learning how to communicate like Jesus, how to “love until our hands bleed.” I want to stop talking about Lewis now and starting talking about Jesus. What does it mean to communicate, teach, love like Jesus?

In our theme verse, there is a curious report that Matthew makes at the end of chapter 7, which brings closure to what we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Here it is: When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Have you ever had anyone say at the end of something you had performed or accomplished that they were astonished, amazed, turned inside out?

Wouldn’t it be something if they say said, “you did that with authority, with confidence, and not like the other guys who do this. . .”

You’d be thrilled. But what if you could do this all the time? What if every time you opened your mouth you could express wisdom and knowledge, from the very environment in which you dwell, “in whom it is hidden,” that could address each situation in a poignant and profound way? What if, in other words, you could be like Jesus?

You’re supposed to be like Jesus. You’re supposed to look and act like him more everyday. Is that your aspiration? Does that sound too lofty and impossible?

It’s not that easy you say. No, it’s not.

If you spend the time alone He spent with the Father, if you spend the time he did in prayer about his people and his disciples, if you surround yourself with a community of like-minded souls who are determined to be like him every day — you would find yourself expressing yourself more and more with wit and cunning about His impact on your life, and the impact he could have on the lives of others.

But this comes from intention. This comes from practice.

But we at least have to understand something about what accounts for his impact, and how it can inspire us to emulate him. How we might be able to astonish our friends and family and neighbors by speaking with authority, and not like the other guys?

We need to look at a few passages and ending with the Sermon on the Mount that depict Jesus engaging the crowds as well as specific individuals among them. When we look closely what we find is that Jesus is always doing three things that express his love for God, his respect for his audience, and his determination to challenge his hearers to think of God and themselves in a different way.

Here are those three things:

  1. He never speaks in clichés or trite phrases people have heard a 1000 times; he wants to arrest the imaginations of his hearers, not put them to sleep. He wants an encounter with him not just to be memorable, but unforgettable.
  2. He always speaks with audacity and authority, founded upon an intimacy with the Father than makes every conversation a natural and decisive moment in the lives of his audience, not a painful or elongated sermon that goes on and on.
  3. His tempo, his thematic flow has a currency with his audience; he knows how they think, what they’ve been through, their vocabulary. He never leaves his audience with a burden of low expectations or an oppression attack on their God-given dignity and hope. He doesn’t give them more to do. He wants them to come back another day for more conversation. He doesn’t have to tell them everything. He’s conscious of the time. He’s succinct, epigrammatic, He’s the Son of God, but he takes himself lightly, he makes jokes, he answers questions with questions. He’s not like the other Messiahs. Because he’s the only One. And there is no one to whom he can be compared.

To accomplish this, Jesus uses three devices primarily as a teacher: puzzle, paradox (Matt. 10:39 –Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it), and parable. They are all related to the power of his metaphors—his ability to use one kind of thing to explain another, his ability to stretch our imagination to the breaking point, to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. This is a talent we need to develop and emulate and that Lewis had par excellence.

(Scottish statesman Andrew Fletcher allegedly said, “Let me write the songs of a nation; I don’t care who writes its laws.” Let’s amend this: Jesus says, “Let my metaphors rule the nations and their laws will take care of themselves. . .”)

Case Study #1

Think of poor Nicodemus:

John 3 1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?

What’s the metaphor here: Being born again. What does that mean. Starting over. Clean slate. A puzzle, a riddle, a metaphor. Nicodemus is confounded, upset, Jesus is not being clear. He doesn’t intend to be. Remember, “Let him who has eyes to see and ears to hear” pay attention. The disciples are angry. These riddles are no way to bring the kingdom of Heaven to earth. No, in fact, they are the only way. These riddles about who we not to be, not who we presently are. But Jesus see us as we are destined to be.

Case study #2

John 4
4 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Jesus talks to the woman at the well as a confidant, as if she’s capable of bearing the secrets of the universe, because she is, like she’s been waiting all her life for a man to come into her life and whisper something in her ear that is so momentous and important, both to her personally and to the world, that blesses her in her dignity and person, and isn’t a come on to use her or exploit her. She has.

And here He comes, asking for a drink of water, bold, confident, like Gary Cooper sauntering up to Vera Miles at an old ranch house, in an old forgotten Western whose very conversation with her empowers her to be the beautiful woman he already thinks she is. He’s doesn’t need the water, she does. He’s picked up on the gossip and the shame, but doesn’t dwell on it, doesn’t bring it up, until she does. And he uses it, not to judge, but to bless, to enfranchise. That’s not her, that’s not who she is. Jesus sees her as she is, who see wants to be.

Who needs prophets when you have a woman like her, when the person she has been, has been transformed into the person Jesus needs? She woke up a jaded woman with five husbands, and a live in love, and by the end of the day she’s an evangelist for the Messiah. Do you think she’d have given Jesus the time of day if he’d come to her as a marriage counselor or a lawyer acquainting her with Samaritan divorce laws? You could get the impression, as the Pharisees did, that Jesus is soft on sin. No, the truth is, he’s soft on us, everyone of us, because he loves us, and was about to die for us.

Case study #3

Luke 19:1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

He doesn’t look at him as a corrupt, politically driven tax collector, selfish and greedy as the day is long. He sees him and treats him as a generous, guileless, people-loving party-thrower who in his heart of hearts is that man, is desperate to be that man. Jesus declares him to be so. Liberation. Astonishment. Zacchaeus evidently believes Him.

Case Study #4

Matthew 5: The Sermon on the Mount

5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Here Jesus commandingly offers the crowds a new image of themselves, not as oppressed and victimized, but as valiant and triumphant. All the things they could never attribute to themselves—overcomers, inheritors, light posts—Jesus does for them.

By contrast, He speaks harshly to the Pharisees for their oppression, those brutal of heart and mind, who fear God for all the wrong reasons, captive to the father of lies, and he calls them out, names their true characteristics: boastfully self-righteous, full of fury, fearful of the future, haters of Rome and occupation, unable to see themselves as God does—hopeless, hapless, hell-bound, unable to break out of the bonds of lawfulness that is really lawlessness, because if your life is centered in keeping the law, then you don’t understand the lawgiver, who gave you the law so that you’d understand godly character and how to treat the world with compassion.


We need to develop Jesus’s winsomeness, his “I got a secret drift,” his wistfulness that suggests he knows more than he’s telling you, knows more than he CAN tell you. We succeed in making Christianity pat, settled, boring. Jesus always makes it mysterious, risky, wild, adventurous—we have been let in on how the world really is and how it will really end; we are his compatriots, inviting to ride beside him to the ends of the earth.

How do we do what Jesus does?

We listen.

When it’s time to speak, we don’t speak in clichés or according to expectations set by “the other guys,” we do so with authority—like we know what we’re talking about because it’s not a theory to us, but because it’s a life we indwell, it’s not a rehearsed monologue; we expect it to me an extended dialogue that doesn’t run to closure too soon, and that we must keep the other person and his or her needs in mind.

The best compliment as a believer you can likely ever overhear: “he’s a Christian, but he’s not like any Christian I’ve ever met.” It means you’re disarmingly real, it means you speak their language, it means you’re free of judgmentalism, that you have a quiet confidence, a sense of humor, a way of carrying yourself that says, “come and see,” not “this or else.”

We sometimes think our purpose to remove mystery; if I read Jesus correctly, our purpose is to deepen it, not to make the gospel less clear, but more attractive, worthy of our investment, compelling in its ability to help us receive who we are in God’s eyes and help us believe it: beloved, beautiful, destined for glory, made for eternity.

The church too often teaches us how to grovel, how to live with “honorary mention,” enough faith to be miserable, to be content with “being right,” but unable to embrace the abundant life, with burying our one talent fearing it will be taken away. It will.

To whom much is given much will be expected. People there is not a soul in this place to whom much has not been given.

But Jesus addresses not as sinners but as friends. Friends don’t let friends live in despair.

The gospel is the great anecdote to despair and this is seen in the Matthew 5-7. From opening to close, Jesus is asking them to accept to different version of reality, of making strange the world, or helping them find a way out of the cave of their low estimation of their abilities and their selfhood.

We don’t have to put on the hostile garment that our environment has taught us. We must not live out of pure duty, of begrudging sentiment. The Christian world easily succumbs to a fatalistic view of the universe and that creates despair. God’s universe is one of diversity and difference, of endless possibilities. Of second and third starts. Here’s a paradox: Nothing is inevitable, but everything is destiny. God has a plan, you have choices. The Sermon on the Mount, if it teaches anything, is that even if your environment tells you are a duck, you don’t have to quack.

So, it’s no wonder then Matthew 7 ends this way: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

Be astonished, because He is the one who is teaching you and saving you and resurrecting you and he has authority, unlike our teachers of the law.


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