In the first part of this blog, we saw how the shepherds heard the angels’ message, saw the Christ child and went out to proclaim what they had seen. We too should pass on the entire gospel message, not just parts of it. But there is a second application for the Christian, one that pushes us past superficial application of Luke’s gospel:
II. We should tell the message in a way that will be understood
In this case, we will not simply imitate what the shepherds did, but will honor their spirit and intention. Please notice that the shepherds were Jewish, and the people they told about Jesus would also have been Jewish. In fact, the angel spoke in terms that a Jewish person would have understood, using words like city of David, a Savior, Christ, the Lord, “Glory to God in the highest”.
Let’s play a game of “what if.” As far as we know, the shepherds did not speak to non-Jews, that is, gentiles. If the gentiles had heard the same message in the same language they would have understood it very differently than the Jews did. For example, “Savior” was one of the titles used by the Roman emperor – Caesar Augustus was “Savior” of the world, the one who brought it peace. “Christ” means “the Anointed One,” that is, a royal figure. The pagans also applied the terms “lord” and “god” to their idols. This means that if gentiles had accidentally heard their message, they would not have heard it the way it was intended. To them it would have come across as badly distorted: “A new king has been born, he is a divine offspring of the Greek god Zeus, may Zeus be highly praised!”
If you and I are not speaking to people just like us, with our background, they will likely misunderstand us. Whose job is it to make him- or herself understood? One fundamental rule of communication is that it is the speaker, the person who is trying to communicate a message, who is responsible to make the message understandable. One of the things we do when someone doesn’t speak English is we speak louder, under the assumption that the message will get through with higher volume. Christians do the same thing, with equally poor results.
I hear Christian people say: Well, I just tell people the truth, and leave the results to God. But that’s not what the Bible says. For example, the apostle Paul faithfully preached one and the same gospel wherever he went. Yet read the book of Acts and you will see that when he preached to other Jews, he preached it one way; and when he spoke to gentiles, he presented one and the same gospel but in a very different form. “Leaving the results to God” is not an excuse for disengagement – I see people in the Scriptures praying that God will change people who hear his gospel, even though they have not communicated it.
I’ve read evangelistic tracts where I’ve thought, Now, that was an excellent, truthful presentation of the gospel…BUT, unless you were a Christian already you wouldn’t understand what it was saying. It would come across as static, or worse, be misunderstood.
If you are sharing the gospel today, you can’t be sure the person you’re talking to means the same thing you mean by some of our key words – God; salvation; resurrection; eternal life; peace with God – let alone words like incarnation, atonement, justification. The little word sin is widely misunderstood in the world, and in the church as well. It’s not their responsibility to buy a dictionary of Christian terminology, it’s our job to make ourselves clear. That’s what Jesus did: notice how he talked about the gospel in a way that small-town folk in Galilee could understand, referencing the farm, the kitchen, the fishermen, the king. He did not say that the kingdom of God was like a microchip, or the Eiffel Tower, or a flat Coca-Cola.
Some of the evangelizing I’ve done has been with street people, usually around 6 or 7 on Sunday morning. They were drinking or smoking drugs the night before, and they haven’t started drinking or smoking yet today, so there’s a window of opportunity where they will have a clear enough mind. So, here’s a man who lives in a cardboard box; I kneel down on the sidewalk next to him, introduce myself, tell him that I’m a Christian worker and, to use the Spanish, “a gospel person” (evangélico). Then I will say: Bueno, I imagine your mom used to take you to Sunday School, true? (I know from experience that this method is workable in this type of situation – it’s a method I wouldn’t necessarily use in Pennsylvania). Usually they say they went to Sunday School in the Catholic church, sometimes the evangelical. Most of the time I get an affirmation, Sí, sí. So, that’s where we’ll start. And what did you learn there? You know about Christ dying on the cross for sin, true? And off we go… I start with things he understands, and we move on from there. It’s not precisely what the shepherds did, but I think it honors the spirit of their mission.
In other cases I select another method in order to make myself understood, to find a bridge between myself and the other person. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door and tell me I should read the Bible as they do, that’s the “in” that I use to begin: I see that you are dedicated to reading the Bible; that’s excellent, I read the Bible every day, and I’m glad to see you agree. Some day I’ll blog on what precise method I use.
Last week I went to cash a check at the local bank. The teller I spoke to wished me Happy Holidays, and then the other teller did too; on the way out, a woman with Muslim scarf smiled and said Happy Holidays; another woman – who looked like she might be Indian, thus Hindu – said Happy Holidays. Let’s say, there was a Hindu, a Muslim, and concerning the other two I have no idea, they could have been Jewish or Jehovah’s Witnesses or atheists for all I know. I guess I could have insisted that they say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” but I’m not sure that would have been a clear message on the one hand, nor would it have been enough on the other. But that’s our audience, folks, and it’s our work to figure out how to speak the good news for people who didn’t go to Sunday School.
If you are making resolutions for 2012, maybe this is a good one: I’ll do what the shepherds did. Calvin said “they honestly delivered to others what they had received from the Lord”. The shepherds remind us to accurately pass along what we have received. And to honor the spirit of what the shepherds did, we don’t simply repeat after them, word for word – we “translate” the gospel into terms that people who aren’t 1st-century Jews would understand.
If you are a careless Christian you might conclude, Well, if they don’t understand, it’s their own fault. If people reject the gospel because their minds are darkened, that’s to be expected; in fact, my theology informs me that it is guaranteed that without the direct intervention of the Spirit, they will reject God. But how can I pray for the Spirit to intervene, if I am a sloppy communicator of the gospel? If they reject the gospel because they didn’t understand half the words we use, that’s an unacceptable practice on our part.
If you are a caring believer you will translate our special language into terms that the hearer will understand. Only in this way will we, as the angels said, bring glory to God in the highest.
“‘Twas the Day after Christmas (Luke 2:8-20) – Part II,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
Thanks, quite timely. I’ve been contemplating this very thing for a couple weeks, this is like a confirmation.
Thanks, Jim! It’s also available as an mp3 here: http://www.woodlynbaptist.org/sermons.html