By Charles Gardner –
It was ten years ago last week that the world woke up to the tragic news of the alcohol-fuelled death of pop star Amy Winehouse, 27.
At a Christian conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, last weekend, one of Britain’s best-loved evangelists shared the equally tragic story of how he put off a clear call from God to visit and speak with her.
J John, of Greek parentage but with a special love for the Jewish people among whom he grew up in London, (Amy was Jewish too) was addressing the annual conference of the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ).
In a stirring call for delegates to recover their confidence in the gospel – to the Jew first, then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16) – and take every opportunity to share it, he confessed how he put off a persistent nudging from the Holy Spirit to speak to Miss Winehouse, who was renting his cousin’s home in Camden, north London.
“God told me to go, but I didn’t go,” he admitted to a shocked audience as he set out on a study of Jonah. But he repented of his disobedience and has never, to his knowledge, made the same mistake again.
When later led to write to a wealthy businessman of his need for the Lord, he received a flat “no” in reply – three times. Then the man rang him and announced he was an atheist, to which John responded: “God doesn’t believe in atheists,” and that they are twice labelled ‘fools’ in the Book of Psalms. They are now in regular touch.
“I want the whole world to come to Christ,” the evangelist said.
On a visit to Israel once, he spent time with the Chief Rabbi and together they read messianic prophecies, with John cheekily asking his friend if they reminded him of anyone.
“If we are to share the gospel with confidence, we have to have confidence in the gospel,” he asserted. When people ask us why we’re Christians, the answer we should give is simply “because it’s the truth”. As he pointed out, the “mathematical compound probability” of the Old Testament’s 322 messianic prophecies being fulfilled in one man is 1:84 followed by a hundred zeros.
Jonah was of course a most reluctant prophet who sailed off in the opposite direction when God told him to go to Nineveh because, as John put it, “he didn’t want God to forgive them” as they were so vicious and undeserving in his eyes. He had locked God into his own theological box and his heart was wrong.
“If your heart is closed to all people, it will hinder you from reaching a particular people,” he said, adding (with reference to Jonah catching a boat for Tarshish): “If you are ever running away from God, the devil will make sure you have transportation.”
It all comes down to hearing and obeying what God has called you to do. The wind, the storm and the fish all listened to God, but not Jonah. He was, however, given a second chance and his mission was eventually a roaring success. Even today (based on figures from 2019) there are 800,000 Assyrian Christians in modern Iraq, where Nineveh was located. The modern Christians of northern Iraq trace their spiritual lineage back to Jonah.
In light of Jonah’s underwater experience, it’s worth noting that the ancient Ninevites once worshipped a fish god.
“A missionary is not someone who crosses the sea,” John went on, “but someone who sees the cross.” And there were two reasons why people weren’t Christians today – either they have never met a Christian or they have met a Christian! By which he meant that we could either help or hinder their journey to faith.
Praying was also vital, he said. On one occasion in the depths of Africa, David Livingstone’s life was threatened by a man who duly came to murder him, but didn’t go through with it. When he was subsequently asked why, he said he had seen 39 giants surrounding the compound. It was later discovered that, at that very time, there were 39 people praying in a Scottish church for the legendary missionary.
Caring is also a vital piece of equipment for the evangelist. John told how on his very first day as a Christian back in 1975 he noticed, for the first time, a homeless man on his way to college and offered to help. He had walked past him every day for some time, but was not awakened to his need. “People don’t care how much we know; they want to know how much we care,” he quipped.
At a university mission in Sydney, Australia, he was afterwards button-holed by a very angry young lady not at all happy with this Christianity business. J John simply took her for a cup of coffee and kept inviting her back. On the fifth night, she was converted!
Her name is Christine Caine, now an evangelist, author and international speaker inspiring others to reach their God-given purpose and potential. With husband Nick, she founded the A21 campaign against human trafficking.
As Winston Churchill said, “Never give up!” You never know the extent to which you can make a difference.