Three cultural realities relate to the gospel’s translatability. The first is language, which is the most obvious difference between cultures. Next are social conventions and customs, which always present challenges to spreading the gospel. Finally, there is race (or ethnicity) and the latent prejudices and reactions inherent here.1
Thus, as the people asked Peter when they first heard the gospel, “ ‘What does this mean?’ ” (Acts 2:12; NIV), questions linger in regard to how we can spread the message across the vast linguistic, ethnic, and cultural divides we face. Nevertheless, how the good news was presented and spread in the early days of the church reveals that the gospel’s translatability can transcend issues of language, custom, and race.
This article looks at how.
The inflexibility of the message
Despite all the narrative in Acts, “a third of the book is taken up with teaching: explaining what the gospel is, why we need it, and how we don’t
deserve it.”2 Thirty percent of the text is taken up with preaching that explains the meaning of the gospel.3 We can observe how carefully the church did this in the differing contexts of their Greco-Roman world. “Early Christians were contextually sensitive to the varying cultures of their day as we need to be in our own time.”4
And yet, despite the vast cultural divides, there was but one unadulterated gospel message throughout.5 Via the exposition of prophetic Scripture in light of concrete historical events in the life of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:16–36), Peter gives initial witness of the unchanging content and unswerving purpose of the gospel. He later asserts that “ ‘there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved’ ” (Acts 4:12, NASB), regardless of where they are from, the language they speak, or their cultural traditions.
This early preaching of the gospel included rejections of syncretism, relativism, legalism, or ethical compromise, which were seductive in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century (Acts 5:1–11; 8:9–24; 15:1–29; 16:16–18; 20:30).6 There was a willingness to dialogue, but they would give ground only for evangelistic persuasion (Acts 17:16–31).7 If one really believed that Jesus was both divine and atoning, they would not place Him on a shelf alongside other deities.8 The gospel asserts that the Absolute has come into the world of the relative, and the first gospel workers were not prepared to abdicate that claim.9
Unfortunately, we often turn it around. We have great fixity about how the gospel is to be translated and preached and great flexibility about its content.10 The certainty and the New Testament content of the gospel have been largely lost. Our flexibility of translation and preaching must always be consistent with the fixity of what is to be translated and proclaimed; otherwise, it is no longer the translatable gospel of which we bring witness.
I wonder whether much of this is so today because many of us are not really witnesses (the Greek word is used 18 times in Acts)11 of Jesus Christ—His person, life, death, resurrection, priestly service, and sovereign reign. The biblical reality of witness is an unambiguous, Christ-centered, personal experience and confession passionately demonstrated in one’s very own moral spiritual being, life, and word. Because we are so weak on Jesus—His incarnation, atonement, resurrection, priestly reign—we are weak on the gospel.12
Acts portrays an immense confidence in a biblically rooted gospel. As such, the gospel did not come “simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5, NIV). The first century gospel workers were faithful to the Word, the revelation that they had been given in Jesus. They were so persuaded of that Word, and so full of the Holy Spirit, that they came across with conviction.13 Thus, no matter the culture or context, the gospel message was consistent and exclusive—that is its character, its nature. “Truth is by definition exclusive: if a given statement is true it necessarily excludes its contradictory as false.”14
If, as Acts portrays, the gospel has a clear identity, it will inevitably place some limitations on theological development.15 It will always be rooted in Scripture, the realities of the human condition, the person and work of Jesus Christ, grace, and the purpose of God. The translatable gospel has “an ontological reference”—truth as actual state of divine and human affairs in relation to the resurrected Christ and, as such, tells us the identity of the realities to which it points.16 The key to knowing the identity of the gospel is knowing the identity of the realities to which the gospel points—fallen human beings, substitutionary death, resurrection, exaltation, outpouring of Holy Spirit in context of Joel 2, and so on.17
Again the big question is, How is the gospel translatable? Peter’s answer is personal, existential, penetrating, life transforming: “ ‘Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death’ ” (Acts 2:22, 23, NASB); “ ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified’ ” (v. 36, NASB).
Scripture records that “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart” (v. 37, NASB). Their response was personal, existential, self-disclosing, believing: “ ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ ” (v. 37, NASB). The answer was unequivocal: “ ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ ” (v. 38, NASB). These and other images from Acts point to human realities that transcend our questions of culture, language, and worldview. They bring us beneath the surface, deep down below the surface to the geography, culture, and worldview of the heart.
Ultimately, the gospel’s translatability pierces within the human soul down to the core of one’s being, self, and life. The gospel’s holistic nature, cosmic dimension, and universal application is not merely the transference of knowledge or the change of behavior, but worldview transformation, which results in personal redemption, conversion, and discipleship.
Led by the Holy Spirit, the disciples sought to understand the needs of those to whom they preached, and only when they had done that did they feel they had a platform for the gospel. But this is what the gospel is about—relating to the hunger for freedom, the disenchantment with authority, the absence of meaning and purpose, the quest for satisfaction, the emptiness of existentialism, and the perplexing nature of spirituality—not to mention, guilt and shame. The gospel addressed the mind, heart, conscience, and will leading to the radical transformation of conversion.18
In their preaching, early gospel workers concentrated on the person of Jesus Christ, and not a philosophy of life or system of morals. They spoke of Jesus as fulfillment of the existential quest (Acts 2:16ff.; 7:2–53). They told of the humanity of Jesus along with a firm declaration of his deity (Acts 2:22, 36). They proclaimed the crucifixion of Jesus, and thus implicating hearers in the guilt of putting Christ on the cross along with the offer of forgiveness (v. 38). They bore witness of the living resurrected Christ (v. 32) who can be known and loved and who calls now and holds accountable. They announced as well the reigning Jesus who shared the throne of God (v. 34) and will come again. And they proclaimed a contemporary Jesus, not someone of long ago but our contemporary Jesus who speaks now and can change one’s life even today: “Through the Holy Spirit Jesus has changed our lives,” they maintained, “He can do the same for you.”19
When gospel workers appeal to people’s needs, they are making connections that transcend a given culture. Gospel truth is relevant and translatable because gospel truth remains something that can be experienced in relation to the needs and longings of one’s very self.
Holy Spirit empowerment
Despite clear challenges, there were bridges that enabled the gospel’s phenomenal reach through the Mediterranean world. These included the Roman peace, pervasive Greek culture and language, and the ubiquitous Jewish presence and faith (Jews were everywhere with their monotheism,
LXX—OT in Greek, and regular synagogue worship).20 In addition, gospel workers served with passion, personal sacrifice, commitment, and flexibility. Following the Spirit’s lead and empowerment, they learned to be contextually sensitive to the cultures of their day.21
But this can never be the complete answer, or even the most significant reason for the gospel’s translatability or rapid expansion in the first century. The principle reason for the gospel’s translatability and rapid expansion lay in the supernatural activity and sovereign power of God.22
The book of Acts is often referred to as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” or “The Continuing Ministry of Jesus.”23 According to Luke, Acts continues what Jesus “began to do and teach” in his Gospel. The role and ministry of the Holy Spirit is intimately related to the ongoing ministry of Jesus. Pentecost was a “Christological event.”24 And the Holy Spirit—no matter the context, language, or culture—mediated and presided over the gospel’s translation: “When the day of Pentecost arrived . . . they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them this ability” (Acts 2:1, 4, paraphrased); “ ‘when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8, NLT).
The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts (Acts 2:4, 38; cf. 11:17). He mediates gospel truth and meaning (Acts 10:44). He opens hearts (Acts 2:37; 16:14, 30). He emboldens and empowers gospel workers (Acts 4:31). He leads gospel workers (Acts 11:12; 13:2–4; 16:6–10). He overrides cultural biases, limitations, and understandings (Acts 10:1–11:18; 15:1–29). He brings corroborating and convincing supernatural phenomenon that awakens faith and hope in the power of our living Lord (Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; cf. Heb. 2:4).
This divine empowerment through the Holy Spirit includes the power resident of God’s Word when shared with simplicity, clarity, and integrity. It is not so much what the missionary brings with their culture that makes the difference, but rather the translation of Scripture—the Word of God, the gospel of God’s grace, the Living Christ—in the vernacular (and culture) that is important. At bottom, the life transforming re-creative power of the Word of God itself is in view (1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:23). The power and presence of the Holy Spirit are experienced in the context of the faithful preaching of God’s Word—the translatable gospel.
Pentecost and the book of Acts project a translatable gospel of cultural (and linguistic) maturity and open-mindedness on a staggering scale. They reveal “a Gospel that by its very nature crosses barriers, transcends any single, normative cultural expression, and accepts all peoples as they are, within their concrete circumstances.”25 They offer both an overarching horizon of the gospel’s translatability and the patterns of Spirit-guided theological reflection for new situations.26
This translatability assumes that the implications of the gospel can be explored in different directions. No single person, culture, or rendition is capable of drawing out all the riches implicit in the eternal gospel.
This translatability affirms that gospel truth (1) is ever relevant (Rev. 14:6); (2) has an ontological reference (truth as actual state of divine and human affairs, reality); (3) is existential (truth as something knowable, experienced, and life transforming); and (4) is epistemological and linguistic (knowable, truth as true beliefs, judgments, propositions). They suggest that we are to realize the importance of language and culture and have a worldview in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ, reminding us that we can effectively communicate to the people of any given culture only to the extent that we understand that culture and its worldview. 27
Most of all, Acts and Pentecost remind us that it is the heart, the need of human beings, that this translatable gospel addresses, and that in the end this is what the gospel is all about: reaching and piercing each heart with the incredible truths and hope of a living Savior. Pentecost and Acts reveal the Holy Spirit as the real and only gospel translator. Human beings are merely instruments, living witnesses of just how the Holy Spirit translates the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ to one’s own heart.
1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 25–90.
2 Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2011).
3 Ibid., 4.
4 Ibid., 5.
5 The gospel, while culturally pluralistic, is exclusive in its focus, content, core, and purpose: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Gal. 1:6–9, NASB); “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12, NASB). “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared (1 Cor. 15:3–5a, NASB).
6 Michael Green, Thirty Years That Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002).
7 Ibid., 92.
10 Ibid., 92, 93.
11 Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 6:13; 7:58; 10:39, 41, 43; 11:23; 13:31; 14:17; 22:15; 22:20; 23:11 (2x); 26:16.
12 Green, 95.
13 Ibid., 96.
14 Harold Netland, “Religious Pluralism and Truth,” Trinity Journal 6, no. 1 (1985), 75. The idea of theological pluralism lends legitimacy to the entire theological spectrum—do we embrace theological pluralism or have a theology of pluralism that enables boundaries? Are all doctrinal opinions viable? What about doctrinal opinions, which contradict basic biblical beliefs, the gospel in particular?
15 Jerry L. Walls, “What is Theological Pluralism?,” Quarterly Review 5, no. 3 (1985), 57.
17 Ibid., 59. What is the nature of theological language—does it have an ontological reference, or is it only about human experience? I.e., when we speak of the resurrection of Jesus, are we talking about an event in which God actually raised Jesus from the dead? Or are we actually only talking about our response to Christ? The translatable gospel of Acts is unequivocal about the actuality of events and state of affairs.
18 Ibid., 75–83.
19 See ibid., 86.
20 Ibid., 11–17. And there were ditches that could hinder gospel workers. The gospel was foolish (to the Greeks), weakness (to the Romans), and an incredible affront (to the Jews). Christians most everywhere had bad press (ibid., 17–24.)
21 Thomas, 5.
23 See F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text With Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 21.
24 Thomas, 5.
25 Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 54.
27 David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 69.