Contextualization is a big deal in missions. Knowing how to make the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context requires training. But more than just classroom training, it requires an example to follow.
So, if you could have anyone to show you how to contextualize the gospel message, who would be your first pick? Many of us might immediately imagine the apostle Paul at the front of the class, scribbling the words “I have become all things to all people . . . .” (1 Cor. 9:22 ESV) across the dry erase board. And for good reason. Paul blessed the church with an inspiring example of how to “do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:23 NASB).
Yet, there is another figure that Paul himself gave as the ultimate prototype for contextualizing the gospel message. Professor Paul, in conclusion to his lectures on the ninth and tenth chapters of 1 Corinthians, emphasized in his benediction to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 ESV). In other words, Christ was Paul’s ideal model of contextualization.
Contextualization is the work of communicating unchanging truths in understandable ways to ever-changing cultural contexts with the expectation that God will save. Though the Gospel of John says the least with regards to the historical details surrounding the birth of Christ, John does give us the fullest picture of the significance of that miraculous night. And it is in the incarnation of the Son of God that we have the perfect model of contextualization. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV).
Spanning the Creator-Creation Divide
The work of contextualization involves the collision of two alien worlds in an effort to communicate clearly. The more alien, the harder the work necessary to make what is understood in one world understandable in the other. These barriers to clear communication are not merely linguistic but can also include cultural, historical, and moral chasms that must be bridged in order to allow the transport of the gospel from one side to the other. And make no mistake, for there are no two worlds more alien than those on opposing ends of the Creator-Creation divide.
“The Creator-Creation divide would be better described as an abysmal chasm, were it not for the Incarnate Son. In Christ we see one bridging a seemingly impossible expanse.”
John’s Gospel begins by telling us that the divine Word was in the beginning (John 1:2) and responsible for the creation of everything (John 1:3). Everything about how John describes this scene emphasizes that it was a bold, communicative act, intended to make something vastly incomprehensible coherent in the creature’s context. The identification of the Son of God as the Word itself implies that there is something important that needs to be said, something about the glory of God. Creation was the means by which the eternal conversation between the members of the Trinity could be shared with a larger audience. But how?
How do you take something infinite and put it into finite phrases? How do you go about describing the likeness of something that is by nature invisible? How do you wrap eternal truths in temporal terms? The Creator-Creation divide would be better described as an abysmal chasm, were it not for the Incarnate Son. He is the eternal Word of God (John 1:1), the image of the invisible deity (Col. 1:15), and the radiance of God’s glorious nature (Heb. 1:3). In Christ we see one bridging a seemingly impossible expanse, taking the divine conversation and putting it in the vernacular of creation. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV).
Bridging the Barrier of Sin
Unfortunately, the endeavor to contextualize the gospel message is not merely a matter of vocabulary. In making the message understandable, often the culture into which we are preaching will not find it agreeable. This reality is, by far, the greatest human hurdle in any effort to contextualize the truth. The incarnate Word brought a message of life into a world described as darkness (John 1:5). This divine way of life has, throughout redemptive history, served to shed light on the ravages of sin in every culture’s competing ways of doing things the world over. And that revelation is not readily received (John 1:10–11).
The apostle John described the firsthand effect such glory and holiness had upon him at the beginning of the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:12–16), saying “When I saw him [Jesus], I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17 ESV). And if that is the testimony of the elect and beloved disciple, it is no wonder that every nation, tribe, and tongue of mankind would not readily or willingly come to the light (John 3:19–20). Thus, the work of contextualization does not end in making things clear but includes taking that clarity into conflict as far as the curse is found. Contextualization requires the realization that the messenger must take the initiative.
The incarnation of the Word of God is militant contextualization. When John declared that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, ESV) it should not be difficult to deduce the deadly seriousness on display. The Creator of the universe gave up his divine rights, privileges, and comforts (Phil. 2:6-8) and became the servant of sinners being held captive by the devil (Heb. 2:14–18). And all of this was to be done, not through his holy omnipotence but through sharing in the mortal limitations and temptations of the ones he came to save, ultimately culminating in his mortal death at the hands of his enemies. But that death, in that context, would be the victory for an innumerable host from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
Truth Leading to Worship
The incarnation of Christ is the greatest model of someone adapting faithfully to a context with the aim of communicating unchanging truths in an understandable way. But this isn’t merely a fact to be known, but a truth leading to worship.
We celebrate Christ’s incarnation during the Christmas season most faithfully when our hearts respond with the kind of wonder, love, and praise that Augustine of Hippo expressed in his Christmas sermon centuries ago.
Our Lord came down from life to suffer death; the Bread came down, to hunger; the Way came down, on the way to weariness; the Fount came down, to thirst. He so loved us that, for our sake, he was made man, who made man. He was created of a mother whom he created. He was carried by hands that he formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.” —Augustine, Sermon 188, “On the Feast of the Nativity (Quotation taken from 1001 Quotations that Connect, by Craig Brian Larson and Brian Lowery, © 2009, Zondervan)
John Rimmer serves the International Mission Board as a maintenance technician. He and his wife, Mary Ann, have four young sons and a baby girl on the way. They are members of Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia.