Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul, who penned the verses above, saw the salvation of people the ultimate prize to present before Christ. Every fiber of his being was captive to the thought of influencing people to God through Christ. Paul is often referred to as the first New Testament missionary, primarily because of his attitude of flexibility toward a broad range of cultures. It is in this context that he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” What does this mean? Did his message change from group to group?
It is at this juncture that it would be helpful to introduce a term that encapsulates a very “missional” truth surrounding our calling as witnesses for Christ. The word is “contextualization.” Simply put, it is the process of making a truth understandable and relevant within a particular culture. It does not mean that the truth itself is changed. For example, if you were talking to someone from a culture that had no understanding of bread, it would be meaningless to that group to make the statement “Jesus is the bread of life.” How should the word “bread” be translated? If “sweet potato” was the staple food of the target culture, then the statement might be translated “Jesus is the sweet potato of life.” The truth contained in the statement is that Jesus is essential for life and is explained by a corresponding food metaphor.
In Paul’s case, he was taking the gospel not just to Jews (who had a very thorough understanding of the God of the Bible), but also to Greeks, Romans, Persians, Medes, Barbarians, Arabs, Egyptians, etc. Each of them had quite divergent views of God, man, sin, salvation, morality, idolatry, etc. Paul’s approach to each of these groups was different, based on where they were in terms of their understanding of the nature of the true God. (A great example of this can be found in Paul’s message to a group of Greek Philosophers in Athens – Acts 17:22-34 – a message that comes off quite differently than his language with Jewish audiences).
With this in mind, what “context” has God placed you in? What kind of culture has God called you to reach? Knowing this answer in a clear way can help bring to light ways to present the message of the gospel in ways that cause the hearers to connect with its truth. One culture I am called to is “Landscape Architects, rationalistic and post-modern influencers of outdoor style.” (A mouthful, I know!) When I get ready to share with a landscape designer or architect though, I usually start the conversation with a question, “Who was the first landscape architect in the Bible?” I can then show how God designed a garden space called Eden, developed hardscape, plantscape, symmetry, aesthetics, water features, irrigation and drainage, and human function and interaction. I can show that God used it as a place to have relationship with man and then present why mankind lost access to that garden. I can then show how the rest of the historic Old Testament had kings and cultures striving to regain a place back in that garden setting in fellowship with God. By the time you reach the New Testament, you find Jesus in His last night, in a garden, crucified on a tree (like a tree that delivered the curse to Adam & Eve), wearing a symbol of the garden curse on His head (thorns). He was buried in a garden tomb and mistaken by the first person to see Him after rising from the dead, as the “gardener” (John 20:15). Nutshell – God made man for fellowship in the context of a garden, but man lost that fellowship and lost the garden too. God sent Himself in the form of a man, to win back a place for us to fellowship with Him in the garden.
This is an introduction to the “gospel,” but told in a way to pique the interest of people (landscape architects) who may have very little interest in knowing or following God. Eventually, the message must swerve into what it means to be “sinful,” how to embrace God, how to forsake self, the significance of the cross, etc., but the message is “contextualized” so “that I might win some”!
Write out a short description of the “culture” that God has given to you to be His witness in:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, …
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.