“He took the blade. It was bright silver. He loved the way it glistened. It felt good in his hand. He cut deep into her chest again and again. He showed no emotion, no recognition of her humanity. She lay motionless, her life gone. He made no attempt to cover the body. Later that night over a beer he openly talked to a stranger in the bar about what he had done. The stranger felt ill.”
What does the paragraph mean? If the words refer to a serial killer boasting about his latest savage triumph, the sentences are pretty ghastly, and the man in the bar should call the police. On the other hand, if the words refer to a forensic pathologist who talks about his autopsy of a particularly interesting corpse, there is no criminality (though there may be a lack of professionalism in talking like this to a stranger). How you interpret the quoted lines depends entirely on the context.

That is the problem we face today when we talk about “Jesus.” For some, “Jesus” is no more than profanity. For others, he is a moralist who makes you feel bad if you start having fun. Or he is the founder of a world religion like other founders of world religions—Muhammad, for example. Or he is “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” who loves to turn the other cheek and who is never, ever, angry. Or he is the Jehovah’s Witness Jesus, a pretty impressive second-string god, but certainly not to be identified with the one, true God. Or he is an empty cipher with virtually no content at all. All of these different hearing groups constitute contexts in which what we say about Jesus will be understood (or misunderstood).

Where a church enjoys biblically faithful ministry, Scripture itself will gradually and decisively correct these contexts that are so far out of line with what the Bible says. But suppose you are just beginning to share your faith with someone who lives in one of these hearing contexts—what then? Where do you start?

The apostle Paul faced these challenges in the first century. When he was preaching in a synagogue (for ins tance, in Pisidian Antioch, Acts 13), he was dealing with people who believed there is one God, that this God is Creator of everything in heaven and earth, that he is sovereign and holy, that the problem with human beings is their rejection of their Maker, that salvation must first and foremost reconcile us to this God, that history is teleological (that is, that it is heading to a telos, an end, a climax), that there is a final judgment to be faced, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, that God alone prescribes how people are saved, and so forth. Paul did not have to establish any of these points: He and his hearers held them in common. In such contexts, Paul focused most of his attention on who the promised Messiah must be: He must be not only the long-awaited Davidic king, but he must suffer and die, and rise again. That was the most disputed point between unconverted synagogue attendees and Christians.

But when Paul finds himself preaching to pagans in Athens (Acts 17:16-31), not one of the propositions I’ve listed above is shared by Paul and his hearers. As a result, he takes time to establish all these points, and a few others, before introducing Jesus. Otherwise the Jesus he wants to proclaim will be misunderstood, because Jesus will be placed by Paul’s hearers in the wrong context.

Learning to evangelize men and women who know nothing about the Bible and who are bringing their own “baggage” or “context” with them does not require a super intellect or a Ph.D. in biblical theology. What it requires is learning to get across a lot of things that we Christians simply presuppose.

There are quite a lot of ways of doing this. One of them is to focus on a variety of biblical texts drawn from across the entire Bible and work through them with people. One might begin with Genesis 1-2: “The God who makes everything.” Genesis 3 becomes “The God who does not wipe out rebels.” We keep working through the Old Testament and eventually arrive at the New, coming to topics like “The God who becomes a human being” (John 1:1-18). The wonderful atonement passage in Romans 3 covers “The God who declares the guilty just.” Gradually the Bible becomes a coherent book. It establishes its own framework; it is the context in which alone Jesus, the real Jesus, makes sense.

-D. A. Carson

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