Posted by: Brian Musser | July 12, 2016

Translating the Gospel

Presented at the Vietnamese Baptist Church of Philadelphia on May 1, 2016

If we know the Gospel perfectly we might still miscommunicate it if we don’t know the audience. Sometimes I don’t think we understand the importance of cultural relevance in actually communicating the Gospel. I’m not saying that if we want more people to like us or think Christianity is cool or to be part of our church we need to share the Gospel in new, hip and fresh ways. I’m not saying that we should bend the Gospel to fit into our culture so that it is palatable for those who are listening. What I am saying is that if we are not careful we might be sharing the Gospel in such a way that our audience hears something entirely different than what we are trying to communicate. They may not hear the Gospel at all or hear something different than Gospel. We may share the Gospel and they may hear heresy. Communication has two pieces to it, what you say and what people hear. We need to be diligent that each of those areas are as close to the truth as humanly possible.

Within evangelical Christianity I think we have done fairly well at making sure that the words that come out of our mouths are Biblically accurate. I’m not so sure that we have been paying as careful attention to the message that our audience is hearing.

Today we are going to look at one of Paul’s learning experiences as he transitioned from being a Jewish Pharisee to being the apostle sent to the Gentiles. We are going to compare a story of Peter and John in Jerusalem with one of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. I believe you will find it very interesting with how these things relate to the necessity of the Christian message to be culturally relevant. Today, hopefully my words will encourage you in this endeavor and give some theological support to what you may have already intuitively sensed. Let’s start by reading Acts chapter 3. I am going to be reading a lot of Scripture today and only briefly commenting. I will be reading from the HCSB. Please follow along in your Bible if you have them.

Acts 3-4:4 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
3 Now Peter and John were going up together to the temple complex at the hour of prayer at three in the afternoon.
Peter and John were in the midst of their normal spiritual routine.
2 And a man who was lame from birth was carried there and placed every day at the temple gate called Beautiful, so he could beg from those entering the temple complex.
This man was already at the temple when Peter and John encountered him.
3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter the temple complex, he asked for help.
This man asked Peter and John for something. He initiated the conversation.
4 Peter, along with John, looked at him intently and said, “Look at us.” 5 So he turned to them, expecting to get something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I don’t have silver or gold, but what I have, I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!” 7 Then, taking him by the right hand he raised him up, and at once his feet and ankles became strong. 8 So he jumped up, stood, and started to walk, and he entered the temple complex with them—walking, leaping, and praising God.
After being healed the man immediately starts praising God.
9 All the people saw him walking and praising God,
After seeing the miracle the crowd immediately notices him praising God.
10 and they recognized that he was the one who used to sit and beg at the Beautiful Gate of the temple complex. So they were filled with awe and astonishment at what had happened to him. 11 While he was holding on to Peter and John, all the people, greatly amazed, ran toward them in what is called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this? Or why do you stare at us, as though we had made him walk by our own power or godliness?
Peter can scold them because they were thinking things that they knew were wrong.     And Peter knew they knew.
13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers,
Peter is able to reference the God that they already believed in.
has glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you. 15 You killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in His name, His name has made this man strong, whom you see and know. So the faith that comes through Him has given him this perfect health in front of all of you.
17 “And now, brothers, I know that you did it in ignorance, just as your leaders also did. 18 But what God predicted through the mouth of all the prophets—that His Messiah would suffer—He has fulfilled in this way.
Peter is able to reference a long history of common religious beliefs that the Gospel is interpreted in light of.
19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that He may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah. 21 Heaven must welcome Him until the times of the restoration of all things, which God spoke about by the mouth of His holy prophets from the beginning. 22 Moses said:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to Him in everything He will say to you. 23 And everyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from the people.
24 “In addition, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, have also announced these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, And all the families of the earth will be blessed through your offspring. 26 God raised up His Servant and sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.”
Peter uses a common and understood religious history. Peter is able to do this because their history is the same as his history. He is talking to people that think exactly the same as he does. Peter is ministering to those who are within his same cultural context.
4 Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, 2 because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example. 3 So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000.
Peter and John get thrown in jail for preaching the Gospel about Jesus’ Resurrection and many believe and become Christ followers.

Acts 14:8 – 19 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
8 In Lystra a man without strength in his feet, lame from birth, and who had never walked, sat 9 and heard Paul speaking. After observing him closely and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet!” And he jumped up and started to walk around.
This part of the story sounds very familiar. Paul and Barnabas’s miracle in Lystra seems to be very similar to Peter and John’s in Jerusalem. So what do you expect to happen after this amazing miracle?
11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the form of men!” 12 And they started to call Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the main speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the town, brought oxen and garlands to the gates. He, with the crowds, intended to offer sacrifice.
But wait a minute that’s not right. They are supposed to praise God not think Paul and Barnabas are gods. Because of Paul’s miracle the Lystrans are about to sin greatly. Paul’s miracle actually leads to idolatry. The people get it wrong. Why do they get it wrong? What’s wrong with them? You have to wonder how long it took Paul and Barnabas to figure out what was going on because they were speaking in the Lycaonian language and not Greek or Aramaic?
14 The apostles Barnabas and Paul tore their robes when they heard this and rushed into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 16 In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way, 17 although He did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.”
Paul tries to challenge the crowd as Peter did. Asking them why they are doing these things. For Peter it was just thoughts but for Paul they have already turned into actions.
18 Even though they said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them.
And Paul is basically unsuccessful. He gets them to not sacrifice to them but it doesn’t seem that he is able to get them to understand the true message of Christ and how they were able to do the miracle. Why was Paul so ineffective? Was he just that poor of a speaker compared to Peter? Was the Holy Spirit less active in Lystra than Jerusalem?
19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they had won over the crowds and stoned Paul, they dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. 20 After the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.
I’m sure because of the chaos and confusion it was pretty easy to get the crowd to doubt Paul and Barnabas. Paul gets stoned and from what we read for no good reason. Nobody comes to Christ. A church is not started. The Gospel may not have even been able to be presented. And if it was it was definitely not understood. So what is the difference in these stories? Why is one miracle so successful and the other such a failure?

In Jerusalem Peter and John heal a man who was born lame. This miracle directly leads to an awesome ministry opportunity that saw many come to Christ. In Lystra healing of the lame brought idol worship, strife and ultimately Paul being stoned and left for dead. What was the difference? Why did one miracle lead to great ministry and the other lead to great chaos? Do you think the difference in results had anything to do with the spirituality of Peter and John versus that of Paul and Barnabas? If you were a Paul dissenter you could easily use this as evidence for why he is not ministering properly. Was it due to better prayer or better preaching? Was Peter just a better communicator? Obviously Peter was able to more effectively communicate the Gospel to the crowd that had gathered. Paul barely got a chance to say anything. Was it a sign that the Holy Spirit was just moving more powerfully in Jerusalem back in the early days than it was in Lystra at this time? Do you think some used the chaos in Lystra to prove their point that Paul should have never gone to take the Gospel to the Gentiles in the first place? Or even worse, do you think they used it as evidence to discredit the Gospel as a whole? Do you think Paul and Barnabas longed back to a time when ministry was easier? Oh, if we could just be back in the early days in Jerusalem. What was the difference that made the results so varied?

The difference is not between the ministries of Paul and Barnabas versus Peter and John. They do things exactly the same way. The difference isn’t in the Gospel presented or the spiritual lives or even the ministry tactics. And that is the problem. The key difference is within the cultures. Jerusalem and Lystra are different cultures. Doing ministry in Lystra exactly like they did it back in Jerusalem produces vastly different results. One major difference in culture was to blame. In Jerusalem doing a miracle meant you were God’s messenger. In Lystra it meant you were a god. Jerusalem had an extended history of the Old Testament prophets, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, etc. Their miracles validated their messages. There was a history of persons doing great things and then saying don’t pay attention to me. Pay attention to the God who sent me.

Lystra was part of the Greco-Roman tradition and mythology where the gods themselves came and toyed with humans. In Lystra miracles demonstrated divinity. In Ovid’s, Metamorphoses 8.626ff there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality.  When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could.  As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.”  The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed.

I’m not just saying that Paul and Barnabas could have had a more successful ministry in Lystra if he was a little cooler. I am saying that Paul’s lack of cultural relevance, that he did ministry in Lystra exactly like it was being done in Jerusalem, directly led to the people getting close to committing idolatry, gave the Jewish dissenters fuel to criticize and resulted in Paul being stoned. This literally “rocked” Paul’s world. Fortunately for Paul and the Church he doesn’t crawl under one of those stones and hide. He gets up. Brushes himself off and learns from this experience. Like Paul moving forward we have two fundamental questions.

Are there ways to more accurately communicate the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to our culture? Are there ways that we are currently trying to share the Gospel that were designed for a different context and are no longer accurately communicating today? What does it mean to communicate the Gospel into an American culture? A Vietnamese culture? A Vietnamese-American culture? Do we need to say things differently when we are talking to second generation Vietnamese-Americans? How do we communicate the Gospel to the younger generations? The answer is communication 101: know your message (the Gospel) and know your audience (the culture).


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