Having a passion for disciple-making, one of my favorite narratives is that of the apostle John and the young man. The story is intriguing and compelling. It has plot twists, tension, insight, reflection, conviction, accountability, redemption, rescue, and love. Let me provide a summation and two primary observations if you’re unfamiliar with the story.
Clement of Alexandria records the account of John at the end of his writing, “Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved”? (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Clement, XLII). Clement notes that the account is “not a tale but a narrative handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John.” After John’s exile to Patmos, he returned to Ephesus.
Upon his arrival, he appoints bishops and sets the churches in order. In one of the nearby cities, John finds a young man and assigns him to the care and protection of a bishop. Clement records John’s words, “This [youth] I commit to you in all earnestness, in the presence of the Church, and with Christ as a witness.” The bishop accepted the responsibility, promising to lead the man in spiritual formation as a disciple.
For a time, the young man flourished. The bishop cared for the young man in his home. The man held the testimony of Christ to be true and was baptized. However, over time, the bishop’s protection and accountability for the young man eased; as Clement notes, “he relaxed his stricter care and guardianship, under the idea that the seal of the Lord he had set on him was a complete protection to him.” Unfortunately, the relaxation of care propelled the young man’s demise.
Gathering with other unregenerate youth of his age, the young man committed to an “evil course” that was “corrupt” and wicked. The once devout youth assembled a band of robbers that caused havoc on the nearby mountain highways. Clement asserts the young man “was the prompt captain of the bandits, the fiercest, the bloodiest, the cruelest.”
Time passes, and John returns to the bishop to receive his “reward”—the discipled young man. It is apparent from Clement’s account that John expected the young man to be discipled by the bishop, holding him accountable.
John exclaimed, “I demand the young man, and the soul of the brother!” [The bishop] groaning deeply, and bursting into tears, said, “He is dead.” [John replies] “How and what kind of death?” [The bishops responds] “He is dead, to God. For he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last [is] a robber; and now he has taken possession of the mountain in front of the church, along with a band like him.” Rending, his clothes, and striking his head with great lamentation, the apostle declared, “It was a fine guard of a brother’s soul I left! But let a horse be brought [to] me, and let some one be my guide on the way.”
As the story continues, John is “arrested” by the band of robbers when he reaches the mountain pass. Clement expounds, “neither fleeing nor entreating, [John cried out], “It was for this I came. Lead me to your captain.” When the young man catches a glimpse of the apostle John, he immediately recognizes him and hangs his head in shame. Clement’s words describe the kind of Christ-like love that John exuded:
“Why, my son, do you flee from me, your father, unarmed and old? Son, pity me. Fear not; you still have hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I am willingly to endure your death, as the Lord did death for us. For you, I will surrender my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.”
Of course, the narrative has a good ending. The young man trembles, weeps bitterly, and repents. He returns to the church and is placed back into the bishop’s care, providing him with a second chance. Clement concludes with the young man’s proclamation as a “great example of true repentance and a great token of regeneration, a trophy of the resurrection for which we hope.”
While disciple-making is multiplicative and reproducible, it is also two-sided. We know of the expectations for disciples, but there is an expectation that the disciple-maker is also accountable to the Lord. John’s expectation of the bishop indicates an entrusted care and “guard” of the soul. As Ezekiel’s watchman (Ezek. 33) or the parable of the ten talents (Matt 25), there is an expectancy of soul care for the believer.
Clement’s recording illustrates the early church held a view of accountability that probably does not exist today. As disciple-makers, what might we learn from the bishop’s relaxed care of the young man? What safeguards can we establish or develop in the hopes of preventing such a case from occurring? These are all excellent reflective observations.
Rescue & Restoration
Another observation is the selfless love of John regarding the rescue and restoration of the robber. While everyone seemed to accept the fate of the young man turned despicable marauder and “sinner,” John exemplifies the love of Christ—leaving the ninety-nine to rescue the one “lost sheep” (Lk. 15:4). Yet, the story is more than rescue and restoration to the church, it is an account of a man that loved Christ.
John labeled himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23). Apparently, John’s actions became empirical evidence of his words. When John proclaims, “I will surrender my life” for yours, he embodies the gospel. Laying down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13), John was willing to die for the lost.
How might this account of John apply to our lives? In what ways have we given up on people that seem “lost”? Again, the story is highly applicable, as are the questions. Yet, I cannot help but feel convicted, even though I have personally put myself in harm’s way for the gospel. The gospel requires us to continually “die” for others (or at least be willing). With that stated, here’s the last and final question: what compels or controls us (2 Cor. 5:14); is it the love for Christ?
In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul speaking to the Athenians, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers … said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The Greek word translated as babbler means “seed picker.” The philosophers assumed that Paul was creating a new religion by picking up pieces of various deities. However, all good missionaries (and church planters) understand how to “seed pick” cultural norms, values, and behaviors for cross-contextualization.
Recently, a social media meme said, “You cannot reason and rationalize a person from a faith that they never reasoned or rationalized themselves into.” I’m not sure who the individual was that devised the statement. However, while everyone should know that memes are not exactly the best forms of truthfulness, they sometimes contain a portion of the truth. I perceive that the originator of the social media meme had apologetics in mind when crafting their statement. While there are similarities between apologetics and contextualization, we’ll focus on the latter.
Contextualization principles are visible throughout the Scriptures. In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, it is recorded that the elders stood and “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8, emphasis added). The concept(s) of providing people with the ability to understand is essential to everyone’s daily conversations. We strive to ensure that we are understood.
For decades, missionaries have learned and applied the art of cross-contextualization. By employing specific techniques for understanding people groups, cross-contextualization helps a missionary or church planter relate and listen to a culture (hence, picking up seeds). A proverbial bridge to the gospel can be constructed by comprehending the culture’s sufferings, pains, and idolatries. Finally, contextualizing the gospel in a way people can understand is vital.
My desire in this article is to convey three essential principles of cross-contextualization. The objective is to provide practical insight and applications for reaching the unreached. The diagram below will be the basis of the three methods.
Michael Goheen rightly notes, “Contextualization will always be either ‘true’ if it is faithful or ‘false’ if it is not.”The biblical writers expressed the sinfulness of man, the need for redemptive salvation and restoration, along with God’s longsuffering, mercy, and steadfast love (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s longsuffering love for His creation is displayed in His words, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people … I know their sufferings” (Exo. 3:7). All people are created in the image of God, yet sin has distorted that image.
When viewing cultures, it is, therefore, essential to see them through the lens of Scripture—through an objective truth. We become conscious of the suffering of culture due to innate sin. Missionaries and church planters understand the plight and suffering of cultures because they first comprehend the suffering of Christ’s flight into Egypt as a newborn, no home for his head as a missionary, or His expression of Divine love with healing the diseased, marginalized, and broken-hearted.
The writer of Hebrews asserts:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb 2:9–10)
Thus, the gateway element begins with a view of culture seen through the lens of the biblical metanarrative. Consequently, at the forefront of the missionary mindset should exist a unique amalgamated trichotomy of human suffering due to sin, Christ’s suffering for sin, and man’s redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ. For cross-contextualization, a truthful view of the gateway provides a potential path.
Bridges are utilized to conjoin two separate entities. Likewise, building a contextualized bridge unites people but ultimately prepares a path of communication. Sometimes, good “exegetes” of culture utilize linguistics, demographics, sensory perception, or history to discern a diverse culture in order to build a bridge. Listening and observation are practical tools.
In Athens, Paul emphasizes, “I passed along and observed the objects of your worship” (Acts 17:23). The bridging stage is a discernment and internalization of viewing and dialoguing with the culture. For the bridge, the questions that need to be asked are: (1) Is there something the people cannot do without? (2) What do they love the most? (3) What do they worship?
The answers to the questions supply an internalization and discernment of the culture’s pains, sufferings, idolatries, and relationship with God or gods. Goheen asserts that within missionary observations, there should be the overall assumption of human brokenness because “the gospel will always be expressed in and therefore encounter a cultural story that is incompatible with it.” The bridge seeks to connect the culture’s brokenness to Christ’s wholeness.
Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost verify, “To contextualize is to understand the language, longings, lifestyle patterns, and worldview of the host community and to adjust our practices accordingly without compromising the gospel” Thus, contextualization is not a static process. Still, a dynamic one—it necessitates Holy Spirit illumination. For the most part, Holy Spirit-inspired contextualization relates to the missionary’s ability to receive particular wisdom concerning the Bible’s authorial texts, ascertain the text’s meaning, and then apply the appropriate meaning to the given situation. As the Holy Spirit utilized the apostles, we “can learn from the ways that [they] appropriated concepts and images from their world in order to shape audiences.” While this may seem like seed picking, it is intentional thought in order to communicate the gospel effectively.
For Paul in Athens, he reasons daily with the Epicureans and Stoics in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). He quotes a Greek philosopher and a poet during his contextualization. Subsequently, He utilizes general revelation (which he often does, cf. Acts 14:15-17). For Paul in Athens (and Lystra), he chooses to contextualize the God of heaven and earth by utilizing general revelation. General revelation refers to the understanding that God has provided humanity with a valid, rational, objective revelation of Himself to humanity through nature, history, and human personality; man does not need to observe, believe, or understand general revelation for it to be real.
Hence, the missionary’s ability to link together the host culture’s story with the biblical metanarrative isn’t merely that God created the heavens and earth, but that all things have been created through and for Christ (Rom. 11:36). General revelation expresses that God has always revealed Himself to humanity, while special revelation relates to “God’s manifestation of Himself to particular persons at definite times and places, enabling those persons to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.”
Nevertheless, the components of effective cross-contextualization possess three succinct categories (1) the gateway, (2) the bridge, and (3) the connection. All three of these components can find common ground in the incarnational redemption story of Christ. Contextualization is a process of understanding, discernment, and proclamation.
 Michael Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 142.