Contextualization Pt 1

Posted: March 6, 2013 by thoughtsfrommyshelf in Theology, Thoughts

What does it look like to talk about Jesus to people who are far from knowing Christ? How do you adapt the the message of the gospel without adjusting it? How much of our presentation can be changed without changing what we present? In theological terms, how do we contextualize the gospel? 

If you are thinking, “contextualla what?” Let me give you a brief definition of the word. Contextualization is taking the simplicity of the gospel and teaching that unchanging truth to a group of people in a way that would make sense to them. It is when we bridge the gap between the ancient world and ancient times with modern cultures. For the next couple of posts I want to look at 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and see what Paul says about gospel communication. As we study this passage, I want to make a case for why we should be presenting the gospel in a way that fits the context of our audience. As messengers of God, our goal is to communicate to people what God says in a way that would stir something in them for God, His people, and the world.
Here is the passage.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
1) Contextualization- faithful to Scripture, but relevant to the culture

If you notice what Paul is saying there are a lot of questions that should be going off in your head. Paul is saying that there is a way in which we can package the gospel so that other cultural contexts can be more receptive to the message. So what does it look like to communicate the message in a different way without compromising it? What does it look like to be faithful to Scripture?

Faithful to Scripture

I think that it is important that we make a distinction between good contextualization and bad contextualization. I mean how far can you go with this? What do you mean “become all things to all people”? Of course, there is a way that you can take this too far. Do we become an adulterer to the adulterer? A thief to win the thief? A drunkard to the drunk?

Look at the passage again. There is a way to export the message without compromising the message. Notice first, that Paul says he “became” all things. The hard work of removing the stumbling blocks and hindrances are on him. Paul took it upon himself to know the people, culture, and community he was reaching in order to preach to them. But Paul never was ruled by anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ. Paul remained faithful not only to the message, but to God. At times he uses the Law, “though not being under the law”, in order to win those under the Law. At other times he becomes as someone outside of the Law, though not “being outside of the law of Christ” in order to reach those outside of the law. Paul’s goal is to see people from these different groups or communities encountering the saving message of Jesus by embodying the message. Paul proclaimed the message of the kingdom without surrendering his allegiance to any other king.

The issue is not becoming all things. Paul made sure that though he became like them, he was able to draw the line. He wasn’t under the law. But he wasn’t outside of the law of Christ either. So, without giving up who he was in Christ, Paul became what he was not in order to win those he was identifying with. He is faithful to preach and faithful to the One he is preaching about. His message and method were faithful to God. His message and method came across in a way that was culturally understood. Paul’s message was true to the Bible and meaningful to the hearer. He didn’t just get it right, he got it across. 

Relevant to the culture

Paul shows us that the goal is not only about getting it right. It’s also about getting it across. He wanted to make the message he was preaching easy to understand. Paul seems to give himself to people. It’s a love for people that move him to study them. Look at verse 23 where he says that his goal is to “share with them in its blessing”. He is not only concerned with having his doctrine put together. He is also concerned about people who have yet to “share in its blessing”. He is wanting to win more of them. He wants people from all sort of backgrounds to come face to face with the gospel of Jesus. Paul wasn’t in anyway watering the message down. But he wasn’t keeping that all satisfying, living water to himself either.

There are many examples of how Paul sought to share the gospel with many different groups in Acts. We wont go too into it tonight but if you want, look at Acts 13 and then look compare it to chapter 17. Tonight we will only look at Acts 17. Let’s turn our Bibles to Act’s 17.
Paul was on mission with Silas and stops at Athens. There he begins to speak to people in the marketplace and reasons with them as much as he could. He then addresses them and affirms them for being religious. Even though they were a city full of idols, he encourages them for their spirituality. He connects Jesus to a statue labeled the unknown god. He quotes pagan philosophers. More than likely Epimendes of Crete and Aratus. He doesn’t quote Scripture or talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. In this story, Paul preaches a truth centered message in a culture oriented way. His message is faithful to what God has revealed, and it is culture specific. 

Paul teaches us exactly what it means to “become all things” that by all means we “might win more of them”. We need to take our cues from what this passage is communicating about our gospel presentations. Are they addressing the heart felt needs and intellectual objections of the hearer? Do we know what those needs, heart issues, and objections are? Or are we presenting the gospel in a structured way? 

Now, I don’t have a problem with tracks, structures, tools, and principles for evangelism. I thank God for many of them. But do the structures and tools in sharing the gospel become the substance of our message? Or do they serve as guidelines or categories to think through? Do we ponder about how to make the gospel shine? Are we constantly thinking of how our message is being received? Paul would exhort us to make this our job. An ambassador of Jesus should not only know the message of his King, he should also know how to communicate it to those he is addressing. Sometimes people don’t have a problem with the message, it is just that they have a hard time with the method we use. Let’s do the hard work of not making the method the problem. 


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