Finally, we must observe that Jesus used culture to achieve the desired end of redeeming a people for God. The Incarnation was not about Jesus being any man, coming to any people, inhabiting any culture. There was an intentional aspect in the Godhead’s sending Jesus to Israel, as a Jew, to live among Jews. There is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in mind, there was the Jewishness of the Messiah in mind. God had set the stage for Jesus to come as a man, as a Jew, in Israel, at this point in history. That being so, Jesus then used that culture’s forms and mediums to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. He spoke in parables, he used analogies they could relate to and understand, he challenged their cultural views (i.e. the parable of the “Good Samaritan”). Jesus not only understood the people of Israel, and in fact all people, but He used expressly Jewish features to reach them. He passed this same concept onto his disciples. Again we turn to Paul who in Athens utilizes the cultural forms and expressions to proclaim the only true God and only true salvation. Luke records the scene for us.
Acts 17:16-34 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”- because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘ For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.Paul understood the culture he was in. He understood these people to be a “religious/spiritual” people. He used the quotes of their own poets and philosophers to urge them to see the truth. He greets them, like Aristotle, as “Men of Athens,” and he builds off of the common grace that was already in existence in their culture.
This is the ministry that we are to have. We are to understand the cultures in which we evangelize, we are to build off the common grace present in that culture, and we are to proclaim the un-altered message of the gospel. This was the practice of Jesus in his Incarnation, and it was the practice he passed on to the Apostle Paul.
I am reminded of the words of Francis Schaeffer as I think on these issues. Schaeffer wrote, “If we are to communicate the Christian faith effectively …we must know and understand the thought-forms of our own generation” (Escape from Reason). This is understanding the culture. And while I love Schaeffer, I must also think now of the words of our Lord and model Jesus Christ, who said, “As the Father sent me, even so I am sending you.” We have the same mission, though with obvious differences (i.e. we are not God, nor saviors, etc.). We have the same goal, and we are to imitate the Incarnational ministry of Jesus Christ. Our goal: to proclaim the gospel in the world, and through the culture.