Proclaiming Jesus Part II
One of the major themes of the book of Acts (and the Bible!) is that God wants all people, everywhere, to know, love, treasure, and worship him through Jesus Christ. He then sends those who have been gripped by the gospel to be the primary agents in spreading it. But, how do we best do that? We can learn much from Paul here in how contextualizes the gospel for those in Athens. What is contextualization? How do we do it?
Last week we unpacked Acts 17 as part of our larger study through the great book of Acts, which was written to record the earliest days of the Christian church and expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the Roman Empire. Specifically, we examined how the Apostle Paul proclaimed Jesus in three particular cities: Thessalonica (vs.1-9), Berea (vs.10-14) and Athens (vs.15-34). In each city we asked three questions related to his proclamation of Jesus: (1) What is the message of Jesus? (2) What is the method of delivering this message? (3) What should we expect as a result of proclaiming this message? Today we’re going to look at this passage again and focus in on Paul’s method. Last week we saw that he used words (vs. 2,3,13,17,22-31), scripture (vs. 2,11,13) and intellect (vs. 2,3,17). Yet, underlying these helpful principles, there is something else more fundamental that is crucial for us to grasp – especially as a newly forming church in the heart of downtown Seattle.
One of the major themes of the book of Acts (and the Bible!) is that God wants all people, everywhere, to know, love, treasure, and worship him through Jesus Christ.“[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4) The Bible tells us that we can know God through the gospel of Jesus Christ, by which our sins are forgiven, our guilt is removed, our shame is cleansed, our relationship is reconciled, and our worship is rightly aligned. This gospel message is then spread through those who have been gripped by its message. The question then becomes, how do we best spread, communicate, and articulate this news of Jesus Christ to all people, everywhere? If God wants all people, everywhere, to know him, how do we rightly participate with him? Is there a set formula that we are to follow? Are there specific principles to employ? We get insight into these questions in Acts 17, where we see the Apostle Paul contextualize the gospel to the story and dominant questions of the Athenian culture. What is contextualization and how do we do it?
Q: What is Contextualization?
To contextualize the gospel is to make it as culturally accessible as possible without compromising its truth. There is only one unchanging gospel, but there is not only one way to communicate it. Contextualization is not about making the gospel relevant, as some critics will argue. The gospel is relevant, but contextualization reveals its relevance. Paul could have stood up and said, “Men of Athens. You are sinners. Repent or perish. Love, Jesus. That is all.” True? Yes. But, he didn’t. What did he do?
vs22 “I perceive that in every way you are very religious…”
vs23 “I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown God’…”
vs28 “In him we live and move and have our being”
vs28 “For we are indeed his offspring”
vs29 “We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image…”
Paul works hard to show God as self-sufficient, Creator and Judge, but he works equally hard to connect with the Athenians and compassionately connect the dots for them. In a sense he’s trying to get his hearers to say, “Oh, ok, you get me…I’ll listen to what you have to say”. In other words, he leverages aspect of the culture at hand to serve as bridges for delivering the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two keys to contextualization:
#1 We must KEEP the essential elements of gospel: Jesus+Sin+Judgment+Repentance+Lost outside of Christ.
#2 At the same time, we must be FLEXIBLE with any non-essential elements that will confuse or offend those we’re trying to reach. The church has perpetually run into problems when it has made non-essential things, essential (e.g. music, instruments, clothing, pews)
Acts 13: Paul @ Antioch in Pisidia.
Acts 14: Paul @ Lystra.
Acts 16: Paul @ Philippi.
Acts 17: Paul in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law…that I might win those outside the law. 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. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Cor 9:19-23
Contextualization delivers Christian truth into a particular culture with a particular world-view in ways folks understand. As soon as we choose music, language, vocab, emotional intensity, illustrations, space, etc we are moving towards the cultural context of some, and moving away from others. This is one reason whe we believe, tangentially, that it takes lots of different kinds of churches to reach lots of different kinds of people.
Some will object and say, “All we need to do is preach the Bible”. I appreciate that, but our response should be, “Yes and no.” We forget that the Bible itself is an act of contextualization. John Calvin referred to it as God’s “baby talk”. In the Bible God accommodates himself to our finite thoughts so we can understand, in part, the infinit. Every book is written to be intelligible to specific people, time, situation, metaphors, images that applied Ex. Mt – Jewish; Mk – Romans; Luke – Gentiles; John – Greeks. In other words, God is the ultimate contextualizer.
Now there are certain dangers that we have to be aware of. One is over-contextualizing. The danger here is that, in attempts to reach the culture, the church loses all distinctiveness from the culture. Often, the gospel is lost and the primary message becomes social justice, community, etc. Those thigns are good, but not primary.
The equally dangerous, though opposite, danger is under-contextualization. Here, the culture is often viewed as bad and dangerous, to be avoided. This often results in the church retreating and isolating itself. The danger here isn’t in losing the gospel, but in hiding and hoarding it.
Q: How do we Contextualize?
GO. vs16 “while he was waiting…synagogues…marketplace…culture makers”
This is obvious, but needs to be said. It all starts here. Paul went into the synagogues, the marketplace and the areopagus. He went. Each audience he was going to was incredibly different, but they all needed the same gospel. Where has he sent you? Where are you to “go”? Religious types? Serious minded types? Pleasure-seeker types? Culture makers? How has he already positioned you to make that easy? What adjustments need to be made in your life to “go”?
SEE. vs16 “he saw the city was full of idols”
An idol is anything and everything that displaces the centrality of God in the human heart is idolatry. We’re not talking primarily about what Paul saw with his physical eyes, but with the eyes of his heart. He saw beyond the beauty to the brokenness. Rom 1:25 they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. What do you see in this city? Not just with your eyes, but with the eyes of your heart. Neighborhood, school, work? Do you pause long enough to see. Ask God to give you eyes to see? Do you study your city? A missional church is one that exegetes its culture so that we can enter into it and speak life by pointing to the person and work of Jesus.
How do people invest their time, money, energy, hopes, challenges, fears? Art, news, tv, theater? Common idols in Seattle; independence, beauty, music, sports, sex; pets, money; power, etc. Even in these, there are certain elements to affirm and certain elements to reject.
FEEL. vs16 “provoked”
What sort of a person will do this work of careful thinking about the spread of the gospel in their sphere? Only those whose hearts have been stirred, provoked. Unless God has stirred us, we don’t do anything. This is why the church tends to not be very stirred and therefore often ineffective in bringing the gospel. Have you been stirred, provoked?
Paul didn’t just go, see and feel. He didn’t just consign them to hell and therefore isolate himself. What did he do? He entered into their lives. You might think, “Well, I’m no Apostle Paul.” Me either. But, can you talk to people? Can you love them? Can you build new relatinoships? Can you ask questions? Can you just be yourself and try to better understand those people that God has placed around you? Eventually it will get around to Jesus. People are more willing to talk, than we are willing to ask.
After going, seeing, feeling and engaing, Paul was able to discern ways by which to deliver the gospel in thoughtful, culturally sensitive ways – without watering down the truth of the gospel. So, for example, Seattle has a passion for outdoors, environment, social justice, community. The truth is that these are all biblical values. We can accept and enter into human desire to connect, serve, justice, etc. These can serve as great gospel bridges in the lives of others. What is it that stirs the human heart to enjoy the outdoors, fight for justice or long for community? Ask yourself, what are the gospel bridges in the life of those around me? Much of contextualization is graciously connecting dots for folks and showing how their hopes are only and ultimatelly fulfilled in Jesus’ person/work.
The gospel is the message or our mission, but contextualization is the delivery vehicle for the gospel. Who is our ultimate model in all this? Jesus Christ: God became flesh in the incarnation. Jesus learned a language, culture, customs, trade, clothes, sandals, etc. Jesus is ultimate missionary who became all things to all people, that by all means they’d be saved. If Jesus did that, so must His people, the church.
There tend to be two kinds of churches:
“You can come to us, learn our language, our interests and meet our needs.”
Or, “We will come to you, learn your language, learn your interests, meet your needs.”
Which one most mirrors the incarnation of Jesus?
Jesus did all this so that you can know him, love him, sins forgiven, adopted, made right with God. “I love you, but I lost you. I love you too much to allow you to destroy yourself. I’m coming to get you.” This is why we are here, DCC.
Christian: Now Jesus sends you to love, serve and pursue as you’ve been loved, served and pursued by Jesus.
NonChristian: Your heart will never be at rest until it finds its rest in him. There are no amount of god-substitutes can fill the eternity-sized whole in your heart that only God can fill.
“I haven’t lived right”…but he did, and perfectly.
“I feel like I should be punished”…you’re right, but he took your punishment on himself for you.
“You don’t know what I’ve done”…but he does and he’s already dealt with it.
“My sin is too big”…bigger than God?
“I’m very smart I could never believe such a thing”…but your brain weighs 3lbs.
“I don’t have the strength”….yes, I will fill you w/ my spirit and empower you
Together…let’s become all things to all people [in this city], that by all means [we] might save some..[and] do it all for the sake of the gospel, that [we might] share with them in its blessings.” 1Cor9:19-23
“Contextualization is the dynamic and comprehensive process by which the gospel is incarnated within a concrete historical or cultural situation.” Flemming, Contextualization in the NT: Patterns for Theology and Mission, 19
“Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel.” Lesslie Newbigin, the Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 306
“Contextualization is adapting gospel ministry from one culture into another culture by 1) changing those aspects of ministry that are culturally conditioned, and 2) maintaining those aspect of ministry that are unchanging and Biblically required. Contextualization ‘incarnates’ the Christian faith in a particular culture. It is the process by which we present the gospel to people of a particular world-view, in forms that the ‘receptor-hearers’ can understand.” Tim Keller, Contextualization: Wisdom or Compromise?
“There is no universal, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity.” Keller
“No truth which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way, but that does not mean that the truth does not transcend culture.” DA Carson, Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern Society
“We now recognize that Western culture is not the realm of Christendom that must be brought to the rest of the world as a part of God’s mission; rather, the gospel must be addressed in fresh ways to a Western culture that no longer understands or discerns God’s gracious activity in the world. “ James Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: NT Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic, 4