Why Contextualize? (Part 3) Pleasing God

As we continue to consider theological foundations for contextualization (there will be four in total before I’m finished), let me provide a third consideration today.  You’ll recall that already we’ve established that the imitation of Christ requires the imitation of Christ’s incarnation through the pursuit of contextualization.  Also, we’ve seen (last week) that the Bible believes that contextualization is necessary for reaching the lost.  A third Biblical motivation to pursue contextualization is found in our commitment to please God.

3. The Commitment to Please God
As followers of Jesus, we want to please God (Eph. 5:10). Now, this third theological impetus for contextualization is very closely related to the first two in that it is certainly pleasing to God when His people imitate Christ and it is pleasing that the lost be reached.  However, I wanted to list this as a separate reason for the pursuit of contextualization because I believe that the case can be sure that God is pleased with the preservation of cultural distinctiveness among the various people groups of the world.

My reasoning here is based primarily on John’s revelation of heaven/eternity.  Now, interpreting Revelation is not always considered a very straightforward thing to do.  But I’m not interested in pinning the tail on the antichrist or predicting when the Cubs might finally win the series.  I just want to consider a couple of ideas from Revelation very briefly and highlight in them some thoughts about the preservation of culture.  

“Every nation, tribe, people and language” 
Here is a recurring phraseology in the book of Revelation (e.g. 5:9-10, 7:9-10, 10:11, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15) that sometimes has positive and sometimes negative connotations.  Depending on the context, it either refers to the comprehensiveness of God’s salvation or else His judgment.  In either case, we are to note that there is not a people group, language, geographic location, village tribe, or political entity to which the reach of God’s unfolding redemptive plan does not extend.  Of particular interest to us are those positive references (especially 5:9-10 and 7:9-10) which highlight the extent of God’s salvation to all peoples.  These references have been famously (e.g. here) used by many as Scriptural foundations for developing mission strategies that focus on reaching all “people groups” (Piper, 1993).

The argument, which I too find compelling, is based on the fact that God has already revealed to John that a countless multitude consisting of those from every tribe, people, language and nation will be ultimately saved.  Thus we may with confidence state that it is God’s clearly revealed will to save some from every people group, and may have faith that our work among unreached people groups will not be in vain since the ultimate success of such endeavors is an already established fact.  That is, an assumption is made that John literally observed distinct ethno-linguistic groups in his revelation of heaven—that he didn’t just mean “a whole bunch of people.”

If we accept this assumption to be true, and I think we should, I believe it proper to consider another application.  For John to have observed distinct ethno-linguistic groups, he must have observed something that distinguished them from each other.  What was it? Of that we can’t be certain.  However, it seems to be the case that, on some level, God chooses to preserve cultural elements – at least to the point that John was able to marvel not at a homogenous, numberless mass, but at a gloriously diverse gathering of every nation, tribe, language and people.

"The Glory and Splendor of the Nations”
A second scene to consider is near the end of John’s revelation.  Here we have the dust of numerous plagues and judgments settling and the emergence of God’s final, glorified Church – His bride.  There is the New Jerusalem, a kind of eternal dwelling place for the redeemed of the Lord, described in breathtaking beauty.  And, at the end of chapter 21, we see a procession of the redeemed going into that city (21:24-27).  Light is emanating from the Lamb and the nations (read: “people groups”, Gk. “ἔθνη”) are walking by that light.  The mental image is something like a parade as each people group marches in.  They are accompanied by their leaders, the magnificent “kings of the earth” and each nation brings their own distinct glory and honor into the city of the King of Kings.  

I see in this image a pretty clear indication that the redeemed from every people group will bring elements of their distinct cultural heritage into God’s eternal Kingdom.  To be sure, these will be those elements, perfected by the Spirit’s sanctifying work, that reflect the manifold glories of God (cf. Eph. 3:10).  There is little Biblical evidence to suggest that after this procession, God will assimilate all this cultural distinctiveness into one culture par excellence.  However, even if this were the case, it remains that in what may be considered to be chronologically “preliminary” scenes of heaven, there is some preservation of cultural distinctiveness.  Does this mean that in heaven we can expect to taste Ethiopian injera, view Balinese painting, or dance to Nepali lok songs? I don’t know.  But I do enjoy the speculation.

“Because God Likes it”
My point in bringing out these Revelation texts is to seek to make the case that in God’s sovereign plan of redemption, He fully intends to preserve cultural distinctiveness on some identifiable level into at least the initial stages of eternity.  What Ralph Winters declared to the first Lausanne Congress proves true.  God has not intended:

"to merge the whole family into a single culture . . . . I see the world church as the gathering together of a great symphony orchestra where we don’t make every new person coming in play a violin in order to fit in with the rest.  We invite people to come in to play the same score – the Word of God – but to play their own instruments, and in this way there will issue forth a heavenly sound that will grow in splendor and glory to God as each new instrument is added.” (Winter, 1974)

And if we ask the reason why God is not trying to merge all cultures into one, we are compelled to believe that there is something about the distinct people groups of the world – each one of them – that He simply likes.  He likes the Beja, the Amdo, the Rajbansi, and the Karenni.  I don’t know what He likes about them.  If it is Beja coffee or Karenni clothes – I can see why.  But I’m eager to watch the parade on that great day when the Amdo of China and everyone else bring their sanctified, perfected and unique splendor before our common King.

From this perspective, we may find a great impetus for the pursuit of contextualization in mission rather than that more historically prevalent missionary impulse to reject and discard cultural forms deemed “pagan” by those who often don’t fully understand them.   If we go into a context with the assumption that there are things here that God likes – that there is a glory and splendor of this people that He wants to preserve—won’t we be more cautious about what we reject and more passionate in our pursuit of Christ’s incarnation?  
Okay, more next week when I explore a fourth and final (probably) theological impetus for pursuing contextualization in mission – our need for the whole Church.

Works Cited
Piper, J. (1993). Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremecy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Winter, R. D. (1974). The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism. The Lausanne Movement.

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