One of the most powerfully convincing statements on the necessity for contextualizing the gospel can be found in The Convergent Church. When answering how we can take the timeless gospel and apply it in a timely manner and how we can speak the truth to a given culture without selling out, the authors write,
“Perhaps the Bible itself can give us a clue. The New Testament is composed of twenty-seven books. The first four we call the Gospels. There is, however, only one gospel message. So why are there four gospel records? It is because each gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – tells the same story to a different audience. Apparently the Holy Spirit believes it is okay to take the same message and contextualize the presentation to minister to a particular situation and circumstance. If that is not evidence enough of the importance of translating the message to a given audience, we don’t know how one could be convinced.” (p.275).
Amen. The New Testament itself indicates that contextualization is an evangelistic concern. But I’d also argue that the Pauline methodology in the book of Acts also demonstrates this. It’s quite obvious that the apostle Paul uses different methods depending upon who his audience is. When speaking to Jews, Paul elaborates upon the common theological heritage that they share. That is why you find Paul in Antioch mentioning the “fathers” and “Egypt” and the forty years in the wilderness, as well as Samuel, Saul, David, and Abraham (cf. Acts 13:13-41). Yet when Paul speaks to non-Jews, he isn’t afraid to find common ground while avoiding the use of theological terms and ideas that would be foreign. For example, Paul’s preaching in Athens is remarkably different than when he speaks in synagogues (cf. Acts 16:16-34). Paul, like the authors of the Gospels, contextualizes his message for the unique audience.
I’ve always found Paul’s speech in Athens somewhat problematic for hard-line Fundamentalists who appear to be completely opposed to any and all contextualization. The apostle must certainly be suspect since he quotes Cleanthes’ statement about Zeus to prove his point about Yahweh!!! Polhill explains why this is significant when he writes,
“It also serves the rather unique function of providing the “scriptural base” for the speech. In this instance it isn’t a matter of Scripture at all but rather a quote from a pagan philosopher. Scripture would have been meaningless to the Athenians. Paul still continued to address them as much as possible in their own terms.” (Acts, 375).
But back to the Gospels. I believe that the necessity of contextualization is demonstrated by the very fact that we have four unique perspectives about one unique person, Jesus. Matthew writes for a generally Jewish audience, Mark writes for Romans, Luke writes for Gentiles, and John writes for super-smart Jews and their proselytes (I find Carson convincing on this matter). Each of these audiences require different points of reference. In fact, we see this in the genealogies and ways that the authors begin:
- Matthew begins his genealogy with Abraham and David because they are primary figures within Judaism. Time after time, Matthew shows that Jesus is a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures because he’s attempting to convince Jews. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and king.
- Mark has no genealogy and it’s quite clear why. He focuses his attention on what Jesus did because he’s concerned with attracting Romans. His gospel reads almost like an action-packed newspaper! The focus on Jesus’ accomplishments is primary. Jesus is a faithful servant.
- Luke’s genealogy begins with Adam because he is showing that Jesus has relevance for all people, regardless of their ethnicity. Jesus was fully human who walked in the power of the Spirit. Furthermore, Luke explains many of the Jewish customs so that his readers will better understand. Jesus is the perfect man.
- John’s genealogy is simple: Jesus is God and has existed forever. John records the seven “I am” sayings and records a lot of Jesus’ teachings on his own personhood. Jesus is God.
Contextualization is found in the New Testament and most certainly should be found in our culturally-engaging evangelistic efforts today. The question we must ask ourselves is important. How can we communicate clearly the message of Jesus and the kingdom?