Once I was witnessing to a friend of my sister-in-law named Don*. We were having an engaging dialogue about spiritual things. After asking Don about his spiritual orientation, he said he leaned toward Hinduism, as was his parents orientation.
I asked Don if he wanted to experience nirvana, and he responded in the affirmative. In Hinduism and Buddhism, nirvana is the highest state that someone can attain, a state of enlightenment, meaning a person’s individual desires and suffering go away. Nirvana is a place of perfect peace and happiness, like heaven. And the way you attain nirvana is through reincarnation.
As I was explaining the gospel to Don, I mentioned that adherents to most religions desire to experience heaven, paradise, or nirvana. I asked him if he agreed with that statement, and he did. Then I quoted Jesus’ words from John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
Then I said to Don, “You know, most people want to experience nirvana, heaven or paradise. One difference between your belief and my belief is simply the vehicle by which we get there – your believe it’s through reincarnation, I believe it’s through faith in Jesus [The Incarnation]. Would you agree with that statement?” Don agreed.
In very simple terms, I was attempting to contextualize the gospel in my conversation with Don.
In these next two lessons from the book of Acts, we’ll briefly touch upon the topic of contextualizing the gospel using the ministry of the Apostle Paul as our example.
While there are certainly books written on contextualizing the gospel and much banter and thought associated with the subject, let’s begin with Paul’s own words from 1 Corinthians 9:22:
I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Paul desired to share the gospel in culturally relevant ways. Or in other words, he desired to share the gospel in a way his audience could understand. Paul contextualized without compromising the gospel. In one sense, to contextualize is to provide appropriate context for the audience.
The Jewish people will be Paul’s primary audience in Acts 13:13-52, for this lesson from Acts. Take a couple of minutes to read this passage, as it will provide context for our discussion.
In Acts 13:14 when Paul and his companions arrive in Pisidian Antioch, they went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Now we pick it up in verses 15-16:
And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen:
Understand your audience
The first lesson in contextualization is to understand who it is you speaking with. Whether you’re talking to a stranger or have a closer connection, it’s always helpful to understand their ‘God-paradigm.’ For this will inform your witness.
In this case, Paul obviously knew his audience well! For he had a been a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews and a Pharisee’ (Philippians 3:5).
For you and I, leading questions are a crucial way to know you’re audience. Asking Don about his spiritual orientation informed my witness and helped me discuss share something about Jesus in a context he could grasp. Here’s a link with lots of conversation starter questions – home.snu.edu/~hculbert/assess.htm.
Find points of connection
In Acts 13:17-23 Paul begins by sharing some of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament – culminating with his testimony that Jesus was Savior and the promised Messiah of Israel (Acts 13:23).
In Acts 13:24-25 Paul refers to the testimony of John the Baptist, whom the Jewish people would have known about prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Paul makes the connection by starting with the history of God’s dealings with Israel. He then connects God’s promises regarding Messiah with the claim the Jesus was the fulfillment of those promises, using the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament).
One of the ways I tried to find a point of connection with Don was to find consensus on both our desires to ultimately arrive at a place of complete happiness and peace.
Communicate the Gospel
This may be stating the obvious, yet it must be stated. To communicate the gospel without compromise, we must clearly communicate the gospel.
And this is exactly what Paul does in Acts 13:26-41.
He talks about the message of salvation (verse 26), the rejection and death of Messiah Jesus as foretold in the Scriptures (verses 27-29), the resurrection of Jesus (verses 30-37), and the exhortation to receive forgiveness of sins through faith in Him (verses 38-41).
Expect the Unexpected
Or in other words, be ready for any response! With this mindset, you’ll be prepared for complete acceptance or utter rejection of your witness, and everything in between. In this narrative, Paul witnessed salvation and rejection of the message, as they were encouraged and persecuted.
In Acts 13:42-43, many of the Jewish people and ‘God-fearing proselytes’ (Gentile converts to Judaism) encouraged Paul and Barnabas to ‘continue in the grace of God’ (Acts 13:43)
The next Sabbath we gaze upon the polarizing nature of the gospel, as Jewish people fight against the gospel, while many Gentiles embrace the message and believe (Acts 13:44-49).
As Paul and Barnabas are driven out of the district (Acts 13:50-51), they move on to Iconium with joy in their hearts:
And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:51).
As I ponder my Christian experience, I have experienced the great joy in simply being a vessel of God’s grace in delivering the most important message – the gospel message. We can’t and don’t control the response, but we can and should be joyful in communicating the gospel and providing people the opportunity to respond.
Contextualizing the gospel is important for the reasons stated. To add, when you examine the ministry of Jesus, you will find that he is continually communicating in ways the audience could connect with. One prime example is His use of agrarian illustrations in communicating truth, as in the Parable of the Soils (Luke 8:4-21). You see, ancient Israel was an agrarian economy – so Jesus often couched gospel truth in agrarian terms.
So, seek to know your audience, and connect with your audience through the contextualizing the gospel. Next time we’ll examine Paul’s gospel presentation among a completely different audience. For now, may you be filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit as you share the good news!
* not his real name.