Friday, December 17, 2010

A Missionary's Perspective of the Incarnation (Galatians 4:4-5)

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God in human flesh.  What a marvel!  We know the story of Christmas well.  My purpose here is to give a cross cultural perspective of the Incarnation, to describe the birth and life of Christ through the eyes of a missionary.

To do this, the terms of missionary and culture must be defined.  First, what do we mean by culture?  One online dictionary describes culture as “a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior” ( December 16, 2010).  The culture in which we are raised is like a pair of eyeglasses through which we see the world.  The challenge is that since these eyeglasses begin to form on our face the moment we are born, most people go through life without even being aware of them.  Furthermore, both the missionary and the person from the other culture are wearing different prescriptions in their cultural glasses.

The second term to be defined is missionary.  While numerous definitions of the term abound, the classical definition of a missionary, which will be used here, is one who crosses cultural and sometimes linguistic boundaries in order to proclaim the gospel, just as Jesus himself did.  The first missionary was God himself.

The compelling basis of missions is that God sent his Son, for the purpose of redemption, across a number of boundaries.  The first one was cultural.  Think about it.  The Bible doesn’t tell us much about heaven, but one can be sure that no one who has ever been there would want to leave, even if they could.  Yet Jesus left the splendor of God’s presence and entered the squalor of sin.  He swapped the throne room for manger and ultimately a Roman cross.  He traded the care of angels for the nurture of a woman.  He said goodbye his heavenly Father to come under the tutelage of an earthly man.  This particular cultural chasm was so large only God could cross it.

Galatians 4:4 says that he was “born under the law.” What does this mean?  Every society has a matrix of laws, customs, traditions, and behaviors that serve as a framework for everyday life.  When God put on human flesh, he became a first century Jew and was subject to its laws and traditions.  Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in obedience to Caesar’s degree that they register for the purpose of taxation.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and participated in the Jewish feasts in accordance with Jewish law and custom.  His itinerant teaching style with disciples following was common in his day.  In every sense of the word, both in his personal life and the way in which he ministered, Jesus was a Jew. 

In similar manner, missionaries are called by God to leave their home cultures and enter cultures that are strange to them in order to be Christ’s ambassador.  Crossing cultural boundaries as a child is relatively easy since children easily adapt to changing circumstances.  For an adult, however, the situation can be quite different.  For many new missionaries, culture shock is a common result.  Culture shock can be defined as “a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes” (, December 10, 2010).  Culture shock is normally experienced in several stages.  In the first stage, everything about the new culture looks great, perhaps even better than home.  Going deeper into the new culture, the newly inducted discover that not everything is perfect and suddenly the home culture looks better.  In time, one learns a more balanced approach, recognizing that there is good and bad in both the new and home cultures, and they learn to roll with the punches.

When I first moved to the Philippines in 1994, I took the submarine approach to the new culture and language and dove right in.  Single at the time, I lived with a Filipino family, ate what they ate, and went to work on learning the language and culture.  At first, it was an odd fit—about as easy as pounding a square peg in a round hole.  From driving in Manila’s traffic jams, which are among the worst in Asia, to learning the ways Filipinos that relate to each other, I had to stretch and grow—complete with all of the exhilaration and frustration that this entailed. 

For example, I noticed that pastors would not approach me directly when they needed to discuss a problem.  They preferred to talk to my assistant or some other mutually trusted individual, who would bring the problem to me.  This made me angry, since I was raised with the idea that problems should be confronted.  This approach was supported by the Matthew 18:15 principle.  But I eventually reasoned that since I was a guest in the country and that Filipinos had a right to be different, and that being different does not mean being wrong.  As I began to adjust my attitude and use the same mediator to send my response back to the pastors, both my stress and conflict levels decreased.  Later on, I recognized that when God wanted to resolve the greatest conflict in history, the one between man and God, he did not use the Matthew 18:15 principle!  He used a mediator—the same one I was preaching to the Filipinos!        

But not only did God send his son across cultural boundaries, he also sent him across linguistic and boundaries.  Think about it, when Jesus came to earth, did he come speaking the language of heaven, whatever that may be, or did he communicate in the languages of his day—Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic?  The answer is obvious from the fact that people understood him.  In many countries missionaries have to learn the language to communicate with the people, so the case for learning the language is easy to make.  In the Philippines, however, the situation is not so easy because English is widely spoken.  Debbie and I have many friends that speak English quite well but, in spite of this, prefer to speak to us in Tagalog, the national language.  The reasons are quite simple.  First, they are more fluent in Tagalog and so are more at ease with it.  Second, language is the window of the soul.  When it comes to talking about spiritual things and sharing what is on their hearts, Tagalog is normally their language of choice.

 Language learning comes easy for a child, but adults tend to struggle. Mistakes are common and sometimes hilarious.  One time, I wanted to tell a lady she was honest but instead I told her she was fat!  I was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely.  But she wasn’t offended because fat is seen as a sign of health and wealth.   And besides, she really was fat!  On another occasion, Debbie failed to make the distinction between the Tagalog word for heart, puso, and the word for cat, pusa, and preached a whole sermon about having Jesus in your cat!  Her listeners still remember that message in which, fortunately, they discerned the correct message.  But practice led to proficiency and, over the years, by the grace of God, we have preached hundreds of times in Tagalog, prayed with thousands of people to receive Christ and raised up men and women to pastor them.

Not only is learning the language critical to communicating God’s message, so is understanding the thought processes of the culture we are called to serve.  The ancient Greeks, like most Americans and other Westerners, for example, were linear thinkers.  Paul’s message to the philosophers on Mar’s Hill in Acts 17 is an excellent example of using the principles of Western logic to preach the gospel.  The outline of this article follows much the same line of thought.

On the other hand, the first century Jews, like a majority of the world’s population today, could be described as concrete-relational thinkers.  In short, they thought in terms of narratives or stories.  The ancient Hebrews were master storytellers, as one can easily see from the written accounts of the patriarchs and Joseph in Genesis and Moses’ own autobiography in Exodus.  As much as seventy percent of the Bible uses narrative for teaching doctrine.  Jesus embodied this tradition well, as the stories of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the Prodigal son (Luke 15), and his penchant for teaching in parables clearly reveal.  Jesus also used simple methods to teach large contents of truth.  He used things they did understand, like his analogy of the mustard seed, to explain abstract ideas that they didn’t readily grasp, like the Kingdom of God.  He also normally taught in small words, no more than two to three syllables, to teach major theological doctrines—an example that today’s theologians often do not follow!  In other words, when God put on human flesh, he communicated not only in the languages of his hearers, he also conveyed God’s revelation of redemption in thought forms and concepts that his hearers could understand.

Missionaries and, for that matter, anyone teaching the Bible, need to follow Christ’s example.  Filipinos, like the hearers of Jesus, are concrete relational thinkers.  They think in terms of concrete images, like stories, rather than in abstract ideas.  This means that preaching through storytelling is much more powerful.  In Bible school, I was taught that stories or illustrations should be used to support the points of my message, which reflects the Western tradition in which I was raised.  But among Filipinos, I am much more effective when I reverse the process and preach the story and extract biblical principles from it.  A good example, and one of my personal favorites, is the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18.   Since many, perhaps most, Filipinos are involved in witchcraft at some point in their lives, this story of the power of God over the Old Testament witchcraft practitioners, the prophets of Baal being only one of a number of examples, presents the biblical message in a potent, relevant, and vividly clear manner.  Also, like Jesus, I need to make sure I express these truths clearly and simply, not an easy task for a man with three academic degrees in theology and missions!

Motivated by indescribable love, God sent his son across cultural, linguistic, and thought process boundaries.  But to what purpose?  Galatians 4:5 explains that God’s reason was redemption.  From the manger to the resurrection God was in Christ, reconciling this world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  In order to provide for our forgiveness, God had to become man, and he did so gladly, crossing the boundary of heaven and earth, following Jewish custom and law, speaking the languages of the day, and teaching God’s redemptive message in concepts and thought patterns familiar to his audience.  Missionaries are commanded to do likewise.

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