One of the interesting items of the incarnation of God is His engagement with human culture. Jesus came into the world controlled by the cultures of two opposing worldviews. The Jewish worldview with history shaped by the prophetic word of their kings and prophets tended to be more future-oriented on the success of their nation by the hand of God. The day of God’s deliverance was coming. The Roman worldview was very present-oriented with laws and armies. The future was only important as a continuation of the glories of Rome and the reign of the Caesars.
Into this bi-cultural world (at least in Palestine), God sent His Son in the fullness of time, (Gal.4:4). Even though Jesus is God, He still had to learn the culture of the people He came to save. (Luke 2:52) What was Jesus’ reaction to the culture of Israel in His day? Did He embrace the culture, avoid contact with the culture, oppose the culture, or try to replace the culture of the people with the Kingdom of God culture? It appears that Jesus, at times, responded to the culture in all these various ways.
God has only one Son and He was a missionary
David Livingstone, the great African missionary, stated that God has only one Son and He was a missionary. If Jesus is the missionary par excellence, then what can we learn from His example as we live in cross-cultural worlds? He was the Word made flesh and lived among men coming from a heavenly culture and crossing into a world of man’s complex cultures. Some might doubt the difficulty of this venture for God, but it was the Father’s plan that Jesus be truly human: “taking on the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness.” (Phil.2: 6-8) Even more strangely, He came unto His own, but they did not recognize or receive Him. (John 1:11) God knows the rejection that many cross-cultural workers face.
Let’s consider a few of Jesus’ reactions to the culture of His day. First, He received and enjoyed some of the cultures He experienced. The marriage in Cana was a grand feast and celebration and it appears that Jesus enjoyed it with His friends. Marriage feasts and celebrations are major events in most cultures of the world. That Jesus participated in this ceremony and even gave the major gift to the wedding party, gives us the insight that some things in the culture of a people group are good and should be accepted and embraced.
Jesus also adapted some of the mores of the cultures he encountered. One of the challenges of cross-cultural living is the concept of authority. Who is responsible to whom? Should the missionary be under the authority of another even though he may have more wisdom and understanding? In many cases, the answer is yes. As long as a person is not doing harm to the missionaries calling, he may have to respond to the authority of another. When Joseph and Mary left Jesus in Jerusalem thinking He was with others in their caravan and didn’t find Him, they made a quick return trip to the city. They found Jesus in the Temple teaching and dialoguing with some religious scholars. Mary and Joseph then scolded Him for not joining with them on the trip home.
Jesus gave a soft answer saying what He thought his parents should have known…He must be about His Father’s business. Most interestingly, Jesus could have thought that He didn’t have to be under the authority of others since He was doing the Lord’s work in Jerusalem. Didn’t Samuel, the anointed prophet, spend his life in the Temple? But Jesus, God’s missionary, made the decision to be under authority and adapt to the culture of His day.
Jesus embraced the culture of His day by understanding people and living at their level of life.
He was constantly with people asking questions, pushing them to a position of understanding God’s ways. He used stories to illustrate the “culture” of the Kingdom of God. His best-known message was given on the mount (Matthew 5) in much the same way the most admired man in Jewish history gave the Ten Commandments. Jesus’ message was counter-cultural for both the Jews as well as the Romans. It demonstrated a way of life from another Kingdom. Even though, it shook the cultures of the day, Jesus gave the message in a manner that is understandable and challenging. His kind manner is the model for cross-cultural workers.
In John 9, Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth. After settling the theological issues with His disciples, Jesus spit on the ground and made some mud and placed it on the man’s eyes, saying to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man came back seeing, but Jesus had moved on. The healed man was questioned by the Pharisees and finally thrown out of his own community. The estranged man, healed yet confused, didn’t know completely what had just happened. When Jesus heard he was thrown out, He found the man and revealed Himself to him. The kindness and gentleness of the Master is the model for all missionaries. The work of God isn’t finished until the blind see the Savior…”You have now seen Him, in fact, he is the one speaking to you.”
More is accomplished for God by kindness then by Western power models.
The gentleness of the Master was revealed as He touched the children who came to Him, as He spoke to the woman by the well looking for living water, and certainly with the two sisters who had lost their brother. His question still rings in the ears of all his people: “Do you believe this?”(Jn. 11:26b). Cross-cultural workers must understand the cultural context of the persons they are ministering to and do it with a grace and understanding that reveals God’s heart for all peoples.
Lessons we may learn from the Master cross-cultural worker may include:
- The Power of Silence: We don’t always have to talk.
- The Power of Observation: We need to keep our eyes and ears wide open.
- The Power of Affirmation: We need to keep a positive attitude.
- The Power of Resilience: We need to keep flexible.
- The Power of Presence: We must reveal God’s presence by acts of kindness.
The lost may not always accept our message or us, but if we imitate the Master, the living Word will do the work of God.
This blog on missions is just one post in a series of mission related articles. To read more about ideas on missions click here.