In the New Testament we see two levels of contextualization. The level at which Jesus functioned and the level at which the Apostles functioned. We will first take a look at Jesus. From the human perspective, Jesus lived his life as a righteous Jew and experienced everything that his fellow Jews did, including exile to Egypt. Remember, Joseph had to flee to Egypt with Mary and the child Jesus to avoid the death trap of Herod. (Matt. 2:13-14) Jesus had his exodus as well, back to Nazareth. (Matt. 2:19-23) He spent 40 days wandering in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2) just as the Jews 40 years doing the same thing earlier in history. The Jews were in diaspora. Jesus, the Son of Man, had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). He was like man in all things except sin. (1John 3:5) He understood mankind in all its complexities and frailties. When he went about doing his Father’s will, he related to all people he had an encounter with at their level and in their reality. Jesus never placed himself above those he served (Matt. 20:26-28) and to whom he spread the Good News. At the age of 30 he officially began his preaching and teaching career. Those to whom he preached were attracted to his word by his wisdom and authority. (Mark 1:22) He left people amazed and always proved the veracity of his words through works. (Mark 1:27)
When people responded to Jesus and became his disciples, they automatically entered a new world. They no longer belonged to this world but rather, spiritually, to the Kingdom of God that Jesus was announcing. This alone created a contextual problem for Jesus’ followers. In overarching terms, faith in Christ put the believer outside of the world, outside of their daily cultural context. (John 15:19) The natural and spiritual worlds in which they lived were pitted against each other. Jesus needed to teach them a Kingdom view of the world which inherently challenged their cultural conceptions. (1Cor. 2:12). Jesus challenged everything in their existence. He challenged them to the very core of what they held so dear, their vision of God, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus had to appeal to them in sort of a transcendental model of contextualization. He stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:16-18 NIV). In this statement, Jesus affirmed their cultural and religious obligations. He did not challenge or call into question their beliefs. What he did do was to appeal to them for a higher level of understand and thinking. He consistently but gently guided them and made leaders from among the people (his Apostles) who guided the church with their spiritual reflection of things after Jesus departed from this world. Jesus used the guiding principles for contextualization that Sanchez talked about. Jesus was teaching them a new world view, a view of his Father’s kingdom, and how to live in that world until they claimed their reward of eternal life with God the Father in Heaven. Jesus turned the world of those who heard him completely upside down. The change that he was espousing was radical. Everything that they had learned from childhood was now called to be re-evaluated. As Jesus went around teaching, he always made a connection between the old ways and his new ways. He practiced what he preached and he validated his teaching with powerful outward deeds. He spoke with authority but not supremacy.
The course, Teaching Tactics, from Harvestime International Institute examines the teaching methods of Jesus as he went about preaching. These methods are: miracles, authority, love and compassion, association and imitation, response, delegation, environment, visual demonstration, principles of gradual learning and grouping of students, known to unknown, general to specific, object lessons, questions and answers, parables, case histories, use of Scripture, contrasts, problems and occasions.1
Jesus’ use of miracles was not for his own personal embellishment, but rather to demonstrate the power of God. Through the miracles he performed he touched the hearts of people. His miracles always filled a deep need of the people, whether physical, material or spiritual. Through the use of miracles his message spread to those who had trouble believing or who were against him. The use of miracles was so important that he empowered his apostles to perform them when he sent them to preach. “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matt. 10:7-8 NIV).
Scripture tells us the Jesus taught with authority. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:22 NIV). Jesus’ authority was not an authority that imposed or obligated his listeners. It was a power, an assurance, an indisputable fact, a permission that came directly from God. The aura of authority in Jesus was so pronounced that even the pagan Centurion noticed it. “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”” (Luke 7:8 NIV).
Love and Compassion
Condemnation was never on the lips of Jesus for those to whom he taught, whether they accepted his words or not. His every action and interaction with people was an act of love and compassion. Scripture is filled with examples. The Apostles were not always as understanding and patient as Jesus was. It took them time to learn and put this concept into practice. Paul expresses the primacy of love in his letter to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 13).
Association and Imitation
When Jesus called those twelve men to follow him he told Peter and Andrew that he would make the fisher’s on men. He invited his Apostles “to come and see”. Jesus taught his disciples first by having them spend time with him. They observed what Jesus said and did. They questioned. As they gained experience with Jesus, he began to teach them. Jesus’ strongest, most provocative but passive teaching technique was that he lived what he taught. He taught by his own example.
When Jesus made the invitation to “come and see”, and when he told his disciples “to follow me”, he also elicited an active response from those who followed him. He wanted active participation in learning through hearing, seeing and doing so that his teaching would take firm root.
From the very first stories of Genesis in the Old Testament, in God’s interaction with man, he gave man tasks to do. Adam had to give a name to all the animals, Moses had to lead the people out of Egypt, Noah had to build a boat to very exact specifications. Jesus did likewise. On one occasion he told the apostles to feed the people, on another he sent them out to preach. All of this delegation by Jesus was to prepare the Apostles spiritually to carry on God’s work after the ascension.
Jesus’ classroom was the world. Anywhere a person was, in whatever situation or place that a person was in, Jesus made use of the environment to teach the truths of the Kingdom. At work, at play, at home, it didn’t matter.
Like most teachers, Jesus used realia to stimulate the senses and aid learning. He made use of things in nature; flowers, birds, a fig tree. He used children when he wanted to teach about having a child-like attitude. He washed feet during the Passover Feast to teach a lesson on humility.
The Principle of Gradual Learning
Jesus did not overwhelm his listeners. He taught only as much as they could absorb. The Gospel of Mark reads “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.” (Mark 4:33 NIV)
Grouping of Students
When preaching or teaching a large crowd, Jesus employed a lecture style. We can see examples of this in Chapters 5- 7 of Matthew. For small groups, Jesus engaged the people and encouraged participation. See Mark 8:10-12 for an example. Finally, when Jesus was one-on-one, he simply conversed with the individual.
Known to Unknown
Often Jesus would use the Jewish scriptures that were very familiar to the people as a springboard for new or expanded teaching.
General to Specific
A very common teaching technique, Jesus would introduce a new idea, let the people think about it for a bit and then provide more specific information. God’s revelation to humanity was done this way in the Old Testament, general statements followed later by specific prophetic statements.
Jesus used common everyday objects as illustrations in his teaching to demonstrate God’s care for people or for the need for laborers.
Questions and Answers
The master teacher employed this technique often in his teaching. He did so not just to get an answer but to provoke thought, reflection, understanding, clarification and analysis by the people. Oftentimes Jesus would answer a question with a question, sometimes he would provide no answer at all and let the individual do his/her spiritual homework to come up with the answer.
Parables were perhaps Jesus’ most used method of teaching. He used parables that were designed for the people and the situation. His parables contained elements that his listeners could relate to. The teaching in some parables was obvious, other times it was not. It depended on the spiritual receptivity of the listener. There are 41 recorded parables in the Gospels. For a list of the parables see: http://www.access-jesus.com/parables-of-jesus-bible-list.html In them you can see how Jesus used elements from common every- day living to teach a spiritual truth.
Jesus used real facts to illustrate truths. Two cases Jesus referred to were Lazarus and John the Baptist.
Use of Scripture
As already referenced, Jesus used the Old Testament as a way to introduce something new but he also quoted it to support his teachings.
Often times Jesus used words and concepts in juxtaposition in his teaching.
Jesus took advantage of problems that befell him or life’s problems in general to teach a spiritual truth.
Similar to environment, Jesus taught when a specific occasion provided the opportunity. When he met the Samaritan women at Jacob’s well, he took the opportunity to teach about living water. Jesus’ way of teaching and preaching was contextualization at its finest.
As discussed, delegation was one of Jesus’ methods. He prepared his church to carry on Missio Dei after he was gone. The last consideration in our discussion on contextualization will be how it was employed after Jesus’ ascension back to the Father.
“So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20 NRSV)
The book, Acts of the Apostles, is the transition narrative from Jesus’ ministry to the ministry of the Apostles. Acts recounts the tremendous growth of the church. Expanding the church beyond Jerusalem, Luke, the author of Acts, focuses on Paul and his mission to the Gentiles. The notable speech that Paul gives to the Athenians at the Council of the Areopagus stands out for its contextual approach. Paul did have a cultural advantage. He was a Hellenized Jew and a Roman citizen. Paul understood Greek culture very well. His time in Athens and his speech to the Athenians is recorded in Act 17:16-34. The Athenians were lovers of philosophy and they often engaged in philosophical debate as a way of learning, reasoning and teaching. While Paul was in the city, he saw a multitude of idols to their many gods. The Gospel tells us that he began to have daily contact with the Jews and the Greeks in the plaza. Eventually some Epicureans and Stoics heard about his preaching of the resurrection. They were intrigued and took him to a meeting of the Areopagus, “the highest judicial and legislative council of ancient Athens.”2 When Paul stood up to speak, he knew just how to approach this very prominent governing body. “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23 NRSV). Paul, instead of attacking or directly criticizing them for using idols and their polytheistic beliefs, he uses that to his advantage. He presents the God of Jesus to them as the God that they worship as the ‘unknown god’. He then uses an apologetic that opens a door for them to learn, debate and logically reason for acceptance or rejection of this new god. He explains God to them by making reference to their poets. In the end, some accepted Paul’s words and embraced the faith, others did not. So did Paul contextualize? Yes.
“What can be said to be unique in the Areopagus speech is its appeal to Greek philosophical thought. Paul attempts to build bridges with the intellectuals and the masses in Athens in the hope of reaching them in a relevant way. As such, his speech becomes a model for the Christian apologists, who later attempt to present the faith to the pagan intellectuals of a later day. It should be noted that Paul never compromises the basic Christian principles of God as Creator, Judge and Christ’s resurrection. There could be no accommodation made on these concepts even though these are difficult notions for the Athenians to grasp.” 3
To summarize, in your ministry it is necessary to teach and preach as Jesus and Paul did. You must find a way to connect with the people where they are in their life’s journey and in a way that is relevant to their situation and environment. This is especially true in ministry to Hispanics in the United States, in particular for new immigrants who may be undocumented. The undocumented form a subculture in their own right. They look for ways to work and to survive while “staying under the radar”. While maintaining themselves, they try to support a family back home. Necessity causes them to live in conditions that most Americans would shun. The Gospel message and God’s love for them must be made contemporary and pertinent to the world in which they live.
1. Harvestime International Institute. “Teaching Tactics.” 59-78 Accessed February 27, 2013. http://www.harvestime.org/EnglishCourses/TeachingTactics.pdf.
2. American Heritage Dictionary. Accessed April 18, 2013. http://www.answers.com/topic/areopagus#ixzz2Qml8Dykx.
3. Luca, Philip J. “Paul’s Contextualization of the Gospel before the Areopagus in Acts 17.” 31 Liberty University. Digital Commons (1082). Accessed March 30, 2013. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=honors&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2Furl%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dpaul%2520and%2520the%2520contextualizat.
Bishop Tom Shortell, OSFC, D.Min. is the Bishop Ordinary for Mexico for the United American Catholic Church and currently resides in Guerrero, Mexico.