These days, we often view our faith as something private, something that’s just between us and God. We go to Church on Sundays, we say our prayers every night, and we do our charitable deeds, but all too often, those practices stay hidden from the people around us. We live our lives according to the Church’s teachings, and we let others live however they like. If we talk about evangelization or spreading the Gospel, we usually envision either Jehovah’s Witnesses going door-to-door or missionaries going to faraway lands to preach to people who have never heard the Gospel. One thing we often do not think about, though, is that each and every one of us is called to evangelize.
However, this view of the Catholic life is seriously deficient. Vatican II taught that “[E]very disciple of Christ, as far in him lies, has the duty of spreading the Faith” (Ad Gentes 23), and a few years later, Pope Paul VI went so far as to say that the Church “exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14). This means that each and every one of us, not just those with a special calling to be missionaries, has to evangelize. If we don’t, then we are failing in our vocation as Christians. Period. We simply cannot live out our faith without trying at least in some way to bring others to Christ.
God’s Plan of Salvation
To see why evangelization is so important, we need to understand God’s plan of salvation in Scripture. We often imagine that this plan started with the birth of Jesus, but it actually stretches back much further than that. The opening chapters of Genesis (chapters 1-3) tell us that God created the world good, but Adam and Eve messed it all up when they committed mankind’s first sin. After that, the next several chapters (chapters 4-11) tell us about how the human race descended deeper and deeper into sin, and it seemed like there was no way out of the predicament humanity had gotten itself into.
However, God had a plan. He called a man named Abram, who would later be renamed Abraham, and told him, “[B]y you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3). At first glance, this may not seem all that important, but the New Testament tells us that it was a foretelling of the Gospel (Galatians 3:8). In other words, the blessing that the human race would receive through Abraham was eternal salvation, the reversal of the sin of Adam and Eve and all its consequences. God later repeated this promise, and he explained that the worldwide blessing would actually come through Abraham’s descendants, not Abraham himself (Genesis 22:18). He also reiterated this same promise to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:3-4) and Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:13-14).
The Purpose of Israel in God’s Plan
Jacob then had twelve sons, and they became the immediate forefathers of the nation of Israel. Israel was made up of twelve tribes, and each tribe traced its lineage back to one of the sons of Jacob. As a result, when God promised to save the world through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he was actually promising to save the world through the nation of Israel.
Once we understand this, God’s choice of Israel as his special people begins to make sense. He didn’t choose them to the exclusion of the other nations; rather, he chose them precisely for the sake of those other nations. He didn’t choose Israel because he disliked the rest of mankind; instead, he did it precisely because he loved humanity so much. He was going to use the Israelites to be his instruments to save the entire human race from sin and death.
A Kingdom of Priests
While the Old Testament does not explain exactly how God planned to do this, it does give us a few hints. For example, right before he gave Israel his law at Mt. Sinai, he told them:
Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
The key here is that Israel was supposed to be “a kingdom of priests.” Priests are essential mediators between God and humanity; they bring people to God and God to the people. More specifically, in ancient Israel, priests taught people God’s laws (Leviticus 10:11) and blessed them (Numbers 6:22-27), so that is what the Israelites were supposed to do. As God’s priestly people, they were supposed to mediate between him and the surrounding nations, teaching them his laws and imparting his blessing to them.
An Example to the Nations
Later on in the Old Testament, Moses explained a bit more precisely how exactly the people were supposed to fulfill this vocation:
“Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
In this passage, Moses explained that the Israelites were supposed to be an example for the surrounding nations to follow. They were supposed to live out the laws God had given them, and their neighbors would then see their way of life and be impressed by it. Now, Moses didn’t explicitly say that the Israelites’ example would lead those nations back to God, but when we read this passage in the context of the entire story of the Bible, it is easy to draw that further conclusion. Not only would the other nations be impressed by the Israelites’ laws and their way of life, but they would also want to join them in worshipping the God who gave them those laws.
God’s Faithful Servant
We find this vocation of Israel explicitly laid out in other Old Testament texts as well. For example, the book of Isaiah speaks about God’s servant, who is Israel (Isaiah 43:10), and gives him this exact same role:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations…
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:1, 6-7)
“And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified…
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:3, 6)
Israel, God’s servant, was supposed to be “a light to the nations.” In other words, Isaiah was speaking about the promise God made when he first called Abraham. The Israelites were supposed to impart his blessing, his salvation, to the rest of mankind.
The New Israel
Unfortunately, Israel didn’t live up to this high calling. Rather than bringing God’s blessing to the nations, they instead let the nations corrupt them, so God had to rescue them before he could use them to rescue the rest of humanity. He sent his son Jesus to save us from our sins, and the first recipients of that salvation, the first disciples of Jesus, were Jews, members of the nation of Israel. Those disciples formed the first generation of the Church, and with the graces won for them by Jesus on the cross, they went out and preached the Gospel to the rest of the world, finally fulfilling the vocation of Israel to impart God’s blessing to the other nations.
However, Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation did not end there. When the first Christians spread the Gospel throughout the world, that was only the beginning of Israel’s fulfillment of its vocation. The Church is the new Israel, the new people of God made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 11:13-24, Galatians 6:16), so the role of Israel in the Old Testament has now been given to us.
Just as Israel was God’s “own possession among all peoples…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6) so too is the Church “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Just as Israel was called to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), so too is the Church “the light of the world” that is supposed to “shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). In other words, just as Israel was supposed to bring God’s blessing, his salvation, to the ends of the earth, so too is the Church called to bring the Gospel and the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ to the rest of humanity.
We’re All Missionaries
That is why the Church “exists in order to evangelize,” as Pope Paul VI said, and why each of us is called to spread the Gospel, as Vatican II said. Evangelization is the reason why God set apart a special people for himself in the first place. He chose Israel precisely so they could be his instruments to bring his salvation to the rest of mankind, and he now chooses the new Israel, the Church, for that same exact reason. Simply put, evangelization is part of the very fabric of Christianity, so if we don’t evangelize, then we are failing at what it means to be Christian.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we all need to be professional missionaries and go to faraway lands to preach the Gospel to people who have never heard it before. Some people are called to do that, but others can spread the Gospel in much more modest ways. For example, like the ancient Israelites, we are all called to evangelize by our example. People should see our Christian way of life and be attracted by its beauty. However, evangelizing solely by example is not enough. There are times when we will need to use our words as well, like when people ask about our Christian way of life, and we can never back down from explicitly preaching the Gospel when necessary. We need to prudently discern when we need to use our words and when we can simply evangelize by example, but one thing we can never discern is whether to evangelize at all. We are all called to spread the Gospel one way or another. That is part of what it means to be a Christian, so we cannot shirk that responsibility.