The idea of contextualizing the gospel is not new to me. In his book Center Church, Timothy Keller cites a wonderful example of contextualization from the gospel narratives. In Matthew, the sower casts his mustard seed in a “field” (Mt 13:31); in Luke, the seed is sown in a “garden” (Lk 13:19); and in Mark, the seed is cast on the “ground” (Mk 4:31). According to scholar Craig Blomberg, the Jews grew mustard on the farm, while the Mediterranean Greeks grew mustard in gardens. Both Matthew and Luke were apparently contextualizing the generic wording of Jesus (“ground”) for their specific audiences, so that they received the “same impact as the original audience” (Keller 95).
When I site this example with college students, I often ask them, “What did Jesus actually say—field, garden, or ground?” The answer, of course, is none of the above. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and all those words from the gospel narratives are Greek words. Yes, the New Testament has accurate translation; and yes, the ipsissima vox of Jesus is present; but there is also cultural flexibility for different audiences, even if that meant that Jesus spoke the same parable at different times using different words and the gospel writers chose which version best suited their purpose.
The point to learn here is that the Gospel message—and even its very narrative—is not language-bound or culture-bound. While given to us in words, even inspired words, both from the lips of Jesus in Aramaic and from the gospel writers themselves, the gospel message itself is bigger than words. The transcendence of the gospel is necessary for the mission of the gospel. Jesus Christ is for all peoples and all languages. Even the inspired writings of the New Testament bear witness to this universal scope and transcultural ability of the gospel, which will ultimately triumph.
Surprisingly, this contextualizing flexibility is also found in the New Testament epistles. The apostle Paul, missionary to the Gentile par excellence, tailored his message for different thought worlds. We definitely see this practice in the book of Acts, where Paul speaks narratively in the Jewish synagogue but dialectically on Mars Hill; but until recently, I had not noticed the same thing happening in his letters. Please consider the following examples.
When the Judaizers were troubling the pagan converts from Galatia, Paul penned the letter to the Galatians. The style and emphases reflect the Jewish concerns for law, covenant, history, and righteousness. Later, Paul seems to have generalized this approach in writing a systematic and logical gospel to the Jewish-and-Gentile church at Rome. Here we have a specific letter (Galatians) followed by a generalized treatment of the same gospel (Romans), written in the same thought world or system of symbols.
Similarly, late in Paul’s career, he heard from Epaphras that the small church planted by this faithful pastor was troubled with Gnostic teachings about cosmic layers of deities in contrast to the one Christ, Jesus the Lord. In writing the letter to the Colossians, Paul appears to have utilized some Gnostic language of invisible powers to present “the cosmic Christ” (as one book, When Helping Hurts, labels Him). As with Galatians and Romans, Paul then took this specific letter of Colossians and generalized it into the letter of Ephesians, which may have been a circular letter (the opening address has some manuscript variants). What flexibility! Given two different thought worlds confronting the church—the Jewish world of the Judaizers and the pagan world of the Gnostics—Paul was enabled in the Spirit to articulate the same gospel using two different sets of language symbols. In fact, and this may be the most remarkable trait here, the same author accomplished this feat, and even systematized or generalized the message, but without changing the gospel one bit. Again, this flexibility in the gospel wording is necessary for the gospel mission, because it will triumph in all languages with all their thought worlds.
These examples from the New Testament challenge us to preach better. As pastors, do we know what thought worlds are troubling our people? Can we articulate the gospel using the language of those thought worlds? The Reformers did. The Bible does not speak of merit, but the Roman Catholics certainly did in the era of Trent, especially when they applied the “extra credit” from the treasury of the saints to the release of temporal punishment through indulgences. Ironically, such a transaction is a pure imputation; therefore, the Reformers could assert that we are saved eternally through the imputation of the merits of Christ. This is not the language of the New Testament, but it is the fundamental message of the New Testament gospel. We have an exciting challenge awaiting us in the pulpit this Sunday morning!