Paul: The Missionary And Contextualizer

In Newbigin And Cultural Embodied Gospel article, I began a series of short articles that exploring the truthfulness of Newbigin’s claim, namely contextualizing the Gospel. In this second article series I attempt to explore a master contextualizer Paul of Tarsus, a leading cross-cultural missionary we encounter in Luke’s Acts of Apostles, way of doing cross-cultural mission.

Paul: A Missionary To All and For All

Apostle Paul was a church planter who was aware of what God was already doing in the cultures he was trying to reach. In each cultural context, Paul labored to communicate the Gospel truth into a language, beliefs, values, symbols, traditions and practices that were already familiar in that given culture.

In Thessalonica, as Paul and Silas were passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia in a Jewish synagogue, Luke reported that Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:1-3), while in Athens, Paul reasoned with Athenian’s using their own inscription, “To an Unknown God”, and their love of spending time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21).

Longenecker, a prominent New Testament scholar, correctly captures Paul’s art of contextualization as he explained that:

Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. 13:16–41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart, as he did at Lystra (cf. 14:15–17). Instead, he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription Agnōstō Theō (“To an Unknown God”).(Longenecker 1981: 475)

Paul utilized what God had already place in each cultural context. With God-fearing Greeks and Jews, Paul made use of their Jewish beliefs and their expectation of Christ, to persuaded them that the Jesus he proclaimed is the waited Christ and with the Athenians, Paul enter into their own world by identifying with their own, symbols, traditions and practices. Paul simply became “all things to all people” that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:19-23) by taking to consideration the context of worldviews he found himself in.

Newbigin understood and practiced Paul method of doing mission. After spending most of his working life as a missionary in India, he learned that he had to express the Gospel in a way, which his Hindu listeners would recognize in their own language. Newbigin argued:

“You obviously had to take seriously the whole Hindu worldview, with its great elements of rationality and strength, which I found enormously impressive. In that kind of situation you have to ask yourself, not ‘How can we fit the gospel into this?’, but, ‘At what points does the gospel illuminate this, at what points does it question it, at what points does it contradict it?’

As Paul, Newbigin chose to accept the way of his cultural context’s understanding, namely the Hindu worldview, to which he committed himself to a certain point with the aim of challenging it with the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

Next: Becoming All Things To All


How would you contextualize the Gospel to your atheist/skeptic friend in your local area?

[1] The passage’s context is the discussion whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols.

[2] Torah: Laws of Moses

Newbigin: A Missionary and A Theologian Biography


Gaebelein, F. E., Tenney, M. C., & Longenecker, R. N. (1981). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9: John and Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

2 thoughts on “Paul: The Missionary And Contextualizer

  1. Hey brother,
    Would you say that in Acts 17, Paul was also addressing the presuppositions the Athenians had in misunderstanding his previous discussion about God, Christ and the resurrection? I’ve always thought of Acts 17 having more to do with his address of what are the right presuppositions to adopt in understanding his previous gospel presentation.

    • I believe you are right Jim,

      Paul wanted them explain the Christ Jesus and God the Father, a “foreign divinities” redemptive drama of that includes the resurrection.

      To the Jews in a synagogue, the waited Messiah is not a foreign concept but to the Athenians it was, that is why, I believe, that Paul contextualize what the Athenians already knew “Unknown God” to familiarized his message to the Athenians.

      Thanks Jim.


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