I try never to get in online arguments. I don’t think they are a good witness, I don’t think they are productive and I don’t think they change anyone’s mind. In other words, I think they are counterproductive. (I readily admit that I am not perfect in this, but I’m trying. I’ve committed Proverbs 26:17 to memory and to heart.) So many times I won’t engage in debate, but make a general statement that is directed at no one in particular that I believe to biblical wisdom.
This is what I was doing when I tweeted what I thought was an exceedingly non-controversial statement “Fulfilling the great commission and mocking the lost are mutually exclusive activities.” But apparently, I was wrong, according to the internet, Stephen was stoned for mocking unbelievers, Paul mocked unbelievers during his Aeropagus address, and Jesus was a regular mocker of unbelievers during his earthly ministry. This pushback was coming from a student at a well-respected seminary. So I think it is worth looking at these claims and ultimately asking the question “is mockery compatible with the great commission?”
In order to really answer this question we must first answer the question, what is mockery? Accoring to Mirriam-Webster Mockery is:
1: insulting or contemptuous action or speech: derision.
2: a subject of laughter, derision, or sport.
With that definition in mind we can rightly evaluate the claims that Stephen, Paul, and Jesus Himself were mockers.
The first claim made was that Stephen was stoned for mocking unbelievers, but, simply put, that is preposterous. Stephen was killed for preaching Christ. The story of Stephen spans Acts 6:8-7:60, and he is the first Christian martyr. But what started the martyrdom ball rolling? Stephen being full of grace and power was doing signs and wonders among the people (Acts 6:8). And when members of a local synagogue could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking (Acts 6:10) when they disputed with him, they instigated men to bear false witness against him and accuse him of blasphemy (6:11). So, assuming that the origins of his stoning started here, its root was not mockery but graceful and wise speech.
And once arrested, Stephen’s gracefulness continues. He begins his evangelistic tour through the history of Israel, by addressing his interlocutors as “brothers and fathers” (Acts 7:2) and lest you think those words were dripping with sarcasm, his words are immediately preceded by a report that all who sat on the Sanhedrin saw that his face was “like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). And immediately preceding his actual stoning his speech turned very pointed and direct when he stated that they were stiff necked (stubborn) and owners of uncircumcised hearts (Acts 7:51) and it is because of these things that he was seized and stoned (Acts 7:54-58). Simply put there is not one iota of mockery in the speech or any of the events that led up to his stoning. As one commentator said Stephen was stoned for his courageous testimony, not for his mockery.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
I fail to see any mockery at all there, if anything it seems like an overtly formal and respectful address, while in no way compromising the gospel. Which I think is exactly what you would expect from the man who wrote “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9:22).” Paul by no means mocks the lost on Mars Hill.
I think it is more than fair to say that there is no mocking of the lost in those two passages from Acts (and although it is beyond the scope of this post to examine all of Acts, I think mockery of the lost is entirely absent from Acts), but what of the ministry of Jesus? Does he mock unbelievers?
To be fair and nuanced, broadly speaking Jesus interacted with three varieties of unbelievers, those who are irreligious, those who are religiously deceived, and those who are religious deceivers.
An exemplar of Jesus’ typical interaction with irreligious unbelievers is His interaction with the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus is identified in the text as a chief tax collector. In the first century Jewish culture, a tax collector was an arch sinner, not welcome in synagogues and completely cut off from the community of faith. In fact Jesus himself says that to be cut off from the faith community is to be treated as a tax collector (Matt 18:17). Zacchaeus is a rank unbeliever, so if Jesus mocked irreligious unbelievers we would expect Zacchaeus to be mocked. Here is the story:
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:1-10
This encounter is entirely mockery free, Jesus calls Zacchaeus with absolutely no comment. His other encounters with irreligious unbelievers such as His encounters with the women at the well, Herod Antipas, Pilate and others are also mockery free.
The second category of unbeliever that Jesus interacted with are the religiously deceived, and I think an excellent exemplar of this group is the rich young ruler. This young man was a ruler of a synagogue, and had imbibed the teaching of 1st century Judaism that a sinful man could keep the Law. Although this story is recorded in all of the synoptic Gospels, it is most fully told in the Gospel of Mark.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” – Mark 10:17-27
Again, this encounter is entirely mockery free, in fact Jesus looked on the young man with love. He exposed the idol of his heart, his wealth, and he sent him away unhappy, but He never mocked. Nor did He share a private joke at the young man’s expense with His disciples after the man went away.
The third group of unbelievers that Jesus interacted with during his earthly ministry was religious deceivers, those responsible for deceiving others. Although Jesus was moved to anger against them at times (see Mark 3:5) and was very direct even telling them they were hell bound. But He never mocked. Of course, the primary exemplars of this group are the scribes and Pharisees, and in His longest address to them, he pulls no punches but He never mocks.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – Matthew 23:1-36
The seven woes Jesus pronounces against the Scribes and Pharisees are fiery, condemnatory and very direct, but they are certainly not mocking.
In fact, I can’t think of one interaction between believers, much less Christ, and unbelievers in the New Testament that includes believers mocking the lost. Although Elijah mocks the false God Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40), and the prophets (or God through the prophets) mock the very concept of idol worship (see Isa 44:6-23), and Paul has some biting, sarcastic comments about Judaizers (Gal 5:12) I can’t think of one place in scripture where an unbeliever is mocked.
I am honestly baffled that anyone would think mocking members of the mission field is in anyway compatible with proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Especially since we are given explicit instructions about how to interact with unbelievers. We are to be gracious, we are to honor them, and we are to love them.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:5-6
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:17
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. – James 2:8
There is simply no room biblically to argue that mockery should be part of or is in any way compatible with evangelism and fulfilling the great commission. It is never commanded, it is never modeled, and it is counter to what is commanded. So before mocking an unbeliever, or even retweeting a celebrity pastor/blogger who is mocking an unbeliever (even if it is via a meme), pause and ponder if that is really a christlike thing to do. Let your conduct toward outsiders be wise and let you speech (and social media posts) be richly seasoned with salt.
 David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles in The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. P267