Contextualizing the Gospel: The Example of Paul

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This is the second part of my study of contextualization, specifically of the Gospel. Check out the first half here.

In his sermon a few weeks ago, Jared broke down how Paul breaks down the gospel differently for a different culture while visiting the Greek city of Athens. His spirit was “provoked” by all the idols in the city, so the text says, “he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” In this one verse Paul covers his bases; he goes to the synagogue (a place of learning and religious teaching) to reason with both Jews and Gentiles (that is, all the learned people in the city) as well as the marketplace with men-on-the-street. (I imagine Paul doing one of those news pieces where he walks around a city interviewing random passersby and asking, “What do you think of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”) Through this debating he catches the eye of some Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who want to hear his teaching, giving him the perfect opportunity to preach the Gospel to them.

It’s interesting to see how Paul’s method of proclaiming the Gospel in Athens sounds a lot like either trying to debate people to Christianity (reasoning in the synagogues) or adopting modern “street preacher” methods (reasoning in the marketplace), both of which we tend to frown on today. I think this is part of the process of contextualization. Luke explains in verse 21 that “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it shows just how intellectual and philosophical the culture was in Athens. (Sounds like my kind of place!) So Paul’s contextualized presentation of the Gospel is in turn intellectual and philosophical. It reminds me of how he becomes “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)

We especially see this in his speech in verses 22-31. It’s fascinating to see how he builds off parts of the Athenians’ religion and culture (their altar to the unknown God, their poets, their preconceptions about the gods) and from there exposes their “cultural blind spots” and explains to them the Gospel of the true God. Their gods are represented by manmade idols, God made the race of men. Their gods need people to worship and serve them, God needs no one but gives us everything we need. Finally, he gets to the bombshell of his message, which would have been totally new and shocking to the Greeks: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Confronted by this message, some are dismissive, but others are intrigued and want to hear more. Whether they accept or reject the message, they have successfully understood it and what it means to them thanks to Paul’s contextualizing; they are accepting or rejecting real Christianity, not a caricature.

In one sense, the Gospel is truly a universal message; it is for all people, everywhere (Titus 2:11), speaking powerfully to our common condition of sin and our common need for a Savior. But in another sense, the Gospel is not one-size-fits-all. Different people and different cultures may understand it and come to know God in different ways, may have trouble accepting different parts of it (like the resurrection for the Athenians and Sadducees, or God’s wrath and justice for Americans). Different people might have trouble with certain terminology, need different things emphasized more strongly, or be fascinated by different things that become a “hook” to Christianity for them. As Cor likes to point out, both matter (the Gospel message) and manner (how we understand and present it) matter. Holding onto both may not be easy, but in our pluralistic society it’s more important than ever.

For application, feel free to think, journal, or comment:

  • What “blind spots” do I have or see in those around me that make it hard to understand and rejoice in parts of the Gospel?
  • What other examples of successfully contextualizing the Gospel have I seen in my life or in the Bible?

–David Pitchford

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