The Gospel Message: Contextualization (Acts 10)

The Colonial Era Model of missions continues to today according to Paul G. Hiebert’s essay, The Gospel in Human Context. “The Churches that were planted during the Colonial Era emulated western Churches in theology, worship and Church polity.” Critical Contextualization is necessary in missionary endeavors. “The gospel must be Biblical but relevant to the context. If the early missionaries adjusted too little, these missionaries in the twentieth century accommodated too freely and the result was syncretism.”[1] Every culture possesses both good and evil, and Christianity has the potential to transcend any cultural ethos if the missionaries are allowed by the Church to do so. Even in church-planting efforts, contextualization must be an active part of the planters’ consideration. A new paradigm, or a rediscovered paradigm, has emerged. According to Paul G. Hiebert’s essay, The Gospel in Human Context, “In recent years Evangelical missiologists, especially anthropologists, have emphasized the importance of contextual hermeneutics. A contextual hermeneutics seeks to interpret the scriptures in a way that is Biblically correct but also culturally appropriate and relevant. This approach reflects the importance of the two hermeneutical questions: what did the Biblical text mean originally and what does this text mean for us today.”[2] According to Hiebert, what we need is a more “contextual hermeneutics & critical contextualization that must be informed by Holy Scriptures, guided by the Holy Spirit and discerned by the Church” if we are going to be true to the Great Commission.

In the essay by Paul G. Hiebert, he identified several types of contextualization.[3] Hiebert posited that contextualization is a critical aspect of missions. I agree with him that all of us participate in some aspects of contextualization. The world is at our doorstep, and we have to minister to people within their context without losing the essence of the Biblical message. Hiebert argues that there are “changing perceptions of contextualization among missionaries and missions scholars. Missions must include social, historical, personal and other contexts in which people are living.” He maintained that minimal contextualization is when one is unaware of the contexts in which they live or the depth to which these contexts shape how and what they think.[4] He continues to define uncritical contextualization where there is a watered-down presentation of the gospel leading to syncretism[5] (“This would mean the “old religion” would become mixed in with the new Biblical faith and that culture would have more authority than revelation.[6] Critical contextualization tends to seek a balanced approach to which missionary interactions with societies is both true to the Bible and sensitive to the cultures of the particular people group”) and Divine revelation given in human context.

In Acts 10, we see that the Holy Spirit was the guiding hand in this missionary endeavor and that the message was all about Jesus Christ. Peter did not go to Cornelius with a message of cultural change, but one of spiritual revolution. Good deeds do not complete the conversion process, but a full acceptance of the person and work of Jesus does. It was at this point in the message that the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his friends and family who were present. Lawrence O. Richards in his book The Bible Readers Companion said,

The fact that Gentiles were given this gift, just as the apostles had been on Pentecost (cf. Acts 2), was proof of God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the Church. Peter’s phrase “at the beginning” (v. 15) suggests that this event was unusual because it involved Gentiles, and speaking in tongues, γλώσσαις (glossolalia), was not a common phenomenon in the early church.[7]

It was at the introduction of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scriptural prophecies that the Holy Spirit did what only He could do; He came into their hearts, anointing them with the evidence of other tongues, γλώσσαις (glossolalia). In Acts 10:43, Peter said about Jesus, “He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”

Before an invitation was given, the Spirit already readied the heart of Cornelius, filled him and anointing him. This process of the Anointing of the Holy Spirit began way back in Acts 10:1. It was evident in Matthew 4 at the introduction of Jesus’ ministry and at His baptism by John the Baptist. Cornelius saw something among the Jews that moved him. He practiced two out of the three virtues of the Jews at that time: prayer, alms giving, and fasting. He was obedient to the Holy Spirit and now as the full counsel of the gospel was being revealed he accepted and as a sign of God’s acceptance of this Gentile He gave them His Spirit with the sign of the γλώσσαις (glossolalia). Since these two men, the seeker and the messenger, were obedient to the direction of the Holy Spirit, Acts 12 indicated that The Good News spread rapidly, and many more became believers. The message Cornelius heard was the same message that was preached in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[8] This is the gospel message; that there is salvation only through Jesus Christ. This salvation requires that one repents as stated in Acts 3:19 and accept Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior as seen in Acts 4:12. Here we have seen the gospel being presented in context of the culture; however, the message did not change and the requirements remained.

When we examine the ministry of Paul, we can see that he was born in a Hellenistic Greek culture, Tarsus; he was a Jew and Roman citizen. To add to the complexity of contextualization as stated in Acts 22:3, “he was educated under Gamaliel as a strict Pharisee?”[9] Yet we can learn a lot from the apostle’s presentation of truth that was based on Jesus Christ, and he was more concerned, I think, with critical contextualization of the gospel. Paul did not stray from the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, and that He has provided a way for sinners to reconnect with God through conversion. In Acts 17, we witness Paul on Mars’ Hill, the pinnacle of philosophy, as he gently used their context to present the Gospel. Paul looked around and noticed how religious they were and pointed them to Jesus by speaking in their context. This method can be seen throughout the Pauline Epistles. It is very noticeable in Luke’s writings in Acts 15, about the story of Peter and Cornelius. On the Day of Pentecost Peter preached a sermon that had its basis in the life, work and teachings of Jesus Christ (Acts 3). What developed later was an institution that formed the basis of what we call Church today. The challenge that the early Church faced was how to contextualize the gospel. In the story of Peter and Cornelius this was evident. It took the revelation of the Holy Spirit to transform Peter.

Presenting the Gospel has to be strategic, holistic, and deliberate. This requires meeting persons in their context and applying the gospel contextually. There is a physical and a spiritual dimension to mission and the Church; if it is going to be effective we cannot continue to present a one-sided Gospel. I agree to some degree with Hoekendijk as he challenged missionaries to identify and integrate with the suffering masses, seeking to realize God’s shalom on earth, but he fell short of advocating for a holistic approach inclusive of the Church.[10] He went to the left of the evangelical community and focused on social, economic, and political liberation and less on the church as the vehicle to present the gospel message. Holistic approaches to mission are demonstrated in countries like Africa and Latin America; Asian church leaders have embraced Creation Care, an environment mission’s agency hosted by God and Creation conference in Kenya. In a recent article in the Christian Today magazine-July 2010, a “faith-based model”, in Mieze, Mozambique, they “teach rural poor how to use trade to rise out of poverty”. The founders of the program (Iris Ministries), Don Kantel and his wife, said, “We are determined to create a holistic model for transforming life among Africa’s poorest families through job creation and evangelistic outreach”.[11] Here, they were strategic and deliberate while maintaining a holistic approach to mission. They show the communities how to become self-sufficient economically and at the same time teach them about the life-transforming message of the Bible. In a unique way “the project brings together farming, animal husbandry, long-term orphan care, education, and newly planted church, all in a sustainable way with indigenous leaders”, a mission geared towards orphans and vulnerable children. As we bring the Gospel to the world we have to be aware of the context but we have to be anchored in a strong scriptural foundation.


[1] Paul G. Hiebert. The Gospel In Human Context, 100.

[2] Ibid., 101

[3] Paul G. Hiebert. The Gospel In Human Context, 82 – 94.

[4] Paul G. Hiebert. The Gospel In Human Context, 84.

[5] Ibid., 89 – 91 and 107

[6] A. Scott Moreau, Harold Netland and Charles van Engen, Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Baker Books; A. Scott Moreau, 2000), 226.

[7] Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991), 718.

[8] W. Hall Harris, III, The Lexham English Bible (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), Ac 2:36.

[9] Logos Bible Software. (Access 2010) – Make of Logos Bible Software.

[10] Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk, The Church Inside Out, (London: Scm Press, 1967), 25-31.

[11] Cassandra Soars, “A Hand Up,” Christian Today, July 2010, 13.

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