Gospel Communication, Presentation, and Purpose Within the First Century(Grade Recieved: 100%)

The social, political, and religious culture and mentality of the Greco-Roman world made for a surprisingly similar environment in which to convey the Gospel that we contend with today. Believers were spread over diverse populations and encountered pluralism, relativity, social needs, overcompensations, misunderstands, and skepticism. The first Christians had to rhetorically navigate through social and religious paradigms and false presupposed assumptions to convey the all-important truth both powerfully and relevantly. They presented the word in the Spirit of God with passion and purpose, succeeding in turning the known world on end and placing souls in the crown of the Lord, giving him the prize of his suffering. Throughout the New Testament the power and persuasion of words and skillful rhetoric is on display, occurring on both individual and communal fronts. We see an understanding that when worldviews collide, movements and souls hang in the balance.
Church and State
Before plunging into the intricacies of social discourse it may be beneficial to first take a brief look at the political-religious environment of first century Rome and some of the broader and looming obstacles it posed to Gospel communication. In the Greco-Roman world religious institutions were so intertwined with politics it would have been impossible to even comprehend that those elements could be separated (Hanson, p. 5). This set up a potentially intimidating obstacle for the early Christians and one that would inevitably provoke some degree of confrontation and rhetorical friction. The Roman government demanded honor as unwillingness to see the state as the source and the highest authority often resulted in some form of criminalization. Although there was no real policy or law suggesting an immense collaboration of violent persecution against the discourse of the first Christians, we can see the seeds of an underlying purposeful desire to halt or limit the influence of the message, or at least make certain it stayed in its place behind closed doors. During the latter part of the first century and into the second, those charged with being Christian had to offer prayer to Rome’s gods, denying their faith, which would in turn allow them to be set free (Ferguson, p. 20). The problem was not some physical doing, but rather their disposition and potential of offending the peace or other political religious elements by naming a name: Jesus. Perhaps this could be likened to hate crimes legislation today that has in some more secular cities has restricted or defined what, typically Christians, can or cannot proclaim. The political elite’s main interest was maintaining the statuesque, making tranquility a truly honorable thing (Hanson, p. 104). This complacency could not help but find its way into the religious speech of the day as well, but thankfully the early Christians did not concede and knew their message would not be delayed, deterred, or altered by a fear of political unrest or offence.
Further illustration of this difficult environment was demonstrated by a Jewish monotheist named Herod. His spiritual loyalties were overridden as a client to the emperor and built a temple honoring the emperor Augustus, showing Rome’s political agenda frequently infiltrated spiritual movements (Hanson, p. 77). This action would have been unacceptable in the countryside of Palestine, but clearly the cities were severely compromised morally and were even seen as separate from the land itself (Hanson, p. 77). This was perhaps further cause for Jesus to proclaim and establish his message in the countryside. Augustus sought policies to dilute or devalue the independent authority and influence of religious leaders and colleges, instead transferring favor to the emperor (Jeffers, p. 100). Quite emphatically the imperial secular religion of Rome was the state, with buildings being relegated as religious, yet baring the name of the emperor (Hanson, p. 78). Many early converts shrewdly used the culture to advance communication and obtain legal acceptance through voluntary associations, yet did not assimilate into a secular committee, or even adopt vocabulary of such associations at that time (Jeffers, p. 80). They also used apartments and homes as meeting places and a natural opportunity to share their beliefs (Jeffers, p. 56). Not only did this provided a location, but even in the political dominate surrounding environment, they knew they could not afford to forfeit spiritual discourse in the institution of the home as well as in the common marketplace. The fact is Jesus, Paul, and the apostles would call the so-called division of the secular and spiritual that exists today a manufactured one that would not prohibit or discourage their dialogue. Paul spoke almost militantly regarding casting down arguments and any high thing that exhausts itself against God (Corinthians 10:5). Too many freedoms, nations, and souls were at stake and everything was a candidate for change and redemption. Moving past the political situation, let us take a closer look at the early Christians gospel presentation and purpose pertaining to socio-religious discourse.
Toward Social and Religious Preservation
In the following section we discover Jesus laying a powerful Christian foundation for the social and religious validity for within his environment of first century Palestine. Some would say the gospel of Christ came at a precise time of flux regarding the individual verse the whole, religious nature verse revelation, and political versus personal ethic (Angus, p. 68). A revolutionary movement became necessary as the virtue and revelation of those affected by Christ demanded it. At this point, rhetorical concession and negotiation becomes void and conflict of some manner is inevitable. Granted we no longer live in a time where it is basically a social mandate to defend one’s speech, but image the refreshing impact Christians could have today if we took our apologetic discourse so seriously.
The culture of the first century Christians placed a vital emphasis on the honor or shame of an individual, his or her family, and his or her status in larger groups (Hanson, p. 6). The message of a new, seemingly radical faith like Christianity would most likely meet resistance as it questioned much of people’s tradition and the status quo. Further, this loyalty to the integrity of groups and institutions over one’s self, implies a limited sense of social mobility (Hanson, p. 7). Therefore they were highly dependant on these structures for social identity as well as economic safety and survival. Clearly early gospel communication would have to be presented in such a way as to overcome being seen as a threat to the people’s way of life. It was crucial for the gospel to place a clear emphasis on group and family responsibilities and some domestic code (Wedderburn, p. 192). The message of Christ was not about the elitist ambitions and objectives, but he had a rather social vision based on group orientated, human relationships (Hanson, p. 125). This would have added an attractive appeal to the common public, as life certainly did not revolve around the individual during this time. Jesus and apostles conveyed a message of being subject one another through Christ (Ephesians 5: 21), living honorably among Gentiles (1 Peter 2:12). Even while knowing Rome was wicked they exercised emotional intelligence with an emphasis on loyalty and respect, not political or social revolt. Being a Christian became less damaging and more honorable (Wedderburn, p. 193).
Even Jesus’ honor was attacked, yet by using nothing but words, he was able to reveal to his audience the dishonor and injustice of that same world and religious system. The Roman, and primarily the religious Jewish elite, saw a threat to their traditional kingship (Hanson, p.96). During Jesus’ conversations with the Pharisees he did not fall into the rhetorical trap laid for him of discussing man’s obligation to the state or the law, but rather he reframed the issues to focus on obligations to God. Jesus exposed the their main goal of discrediting someone they saw as a threat. He redefined the rhetorical playing field by a broadening of the issue allowing him to opportunity to point to God. Jesus’ message also caused eyes to be opened to the entrapment and manipulation of economic institutions and systems that were not working in their favor (Hanson, p. 126). He pointed to the love for Mammon as contributing to the hardship of many, while distinguishing that when the reign and purposes of God come to fruition, so too will the well-being of those that are his. (Hanson, p. 126).
Addressing Jesus’ discourse regarding the Pharisees and little further, Jesus uses a series of woes exposing the hypocritical nature and characteristics of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23: 2-23). This is an effort to warn his disciples as well as the crowds, and distinguishes the defining features that are outside the cause and kingdom of God (Gowler, p. 4). This exhortation, along with the Sermon on the Mount, is presented in order to refrain from merely speaking of righteousness and instead being diligent in doing and servitude to God as well as to brothers and sisters. This would be a key future argument for apostles looking to persuade those who sought to defy this pattern. The rationale of a not just speaking right but doing right becomes a plausible statement, portraying their deeds as undesirable, incapable of fulfilling the Spirit of the Law, and the need for inward righteousness (Gowler, p. 16). The rhetoric of Matthew’s Gospel, namely chapter 23, was strategic in that revealed a distinctive conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding which possessed the honorable means to holy wisdom and conduct (Gowler, p. 33). Jesus so absolutely defended himself, his honor, and his ethos against the Pharisees that they were literally left with nothing to say. In the culture of this era, this type of challenging retort was necessary as they understood and underscored the imperative value and honor of arguments, even associating with them as we might with sports teams today. When attacked in public discourse there was inevitably no choice but to inflict shame upon the ideals of the other party, thus exalting one guild to be trustworthy. The sect’s integrity and social boundaries are held firm by illuminating the unreliability of those who are outsiders to the group or faith (Gowler, p. 33).
Jesus’ riposte was evidence of his foreknowledge that the positive assurance of ideals was contingent upon exposing their virtue and truth. His statements were necessary to overcome the vice and malfunction of other religious concepts and called for a greater introspection of the scriptures (Gowler p32). There had to be an intolerance of those things opposite to the Kingdom as even a small amount of leaven could ruin the whole, particularly within the church. The gospel creates a culturally familiar metaphor between “leaven” and the unclean and corrupt (Matt. 13:33). As we now move on to discourse form Jesus’ followers, namely Paul, we see similar argumentative patterns as a way to relate to and mandate conduct in newly formed churches.
Battling for Ground and the Supremacy of Ideas
From apologetic to persuasive, Paul’s letters and speech outlined many purposes. Paul understood the framework of this time and the accompanying mindset of the unregenerate within it. The Greco-Roman world resembled a pluralistic society in which is housed different ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions under the a solitary roof of the Roman Empire. The Hellenist culture was following with ideas and Paul, like Jesus, was not ashamed to proclaim the gospel. They saw it as their cultural duty to defend and battle for the supremacy of their ideas. The apostle Paul sees only opportunity as he masterfully defines and distinguishes dogma while building bridges bringing moral clarity to various peoples. He understands the attributes that his audiences and environment holds dear and is able to linguistically relate that to their absolute need for Christ and his word. In the following section, we will examine some physical and metaphysical constructs that defined the fabric of the time. Also we find the early Christian message, mostly on behalf of Paul here, making emphatic rhetorical appeals and insights regarding the heart of the Christian faith and its profound impact on common religious paradigms and social purposes.
In the first century era, honor through earthy and spiritual deeds was a major facet by which to contrast and compare individuals and lectors (Gowler, p.143). Paul also understood that the Hellenistic culture had a longing for not only great discourse, precepts, and ideals, but also possessed a demand for living examples of conduct, drawing inspiration from spiritual icons (Angus, p. 82). In addition, the Greeks and Romans could not look to their gods regarding, how to live and die, leaving an innate hole upon which Christianity could seize. However without careful, deliberate, and precise presentation, steadfast in adherence to the Lord and his word, there existed the potential for a manmade, eschatological disaster. Paul portrays to his audience strength and courage by sharing his enduring of continuous and various internal and external hardships that he experienced throughout his ministry for the gospel (Gowler, p. 144). However, in a move counter to the culture, Paul proclaims his weakness and is certain to address that his strength, righteousness, and honor come from God the Father and his Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11: 29-31). Paul makes a concerted and frequent argument to deter the socially prevalent idea of personality worship by pointing to God and his Word (1 Corinthians 2:4,5). The well-known setting of Acts seventeen on Mars Hill, is an example of Paul starting from a spiritual reference point that the hearers were familiar with and then verbally pulling them to the learning of the one true God. Paul knew that even the perceived success of Greek acceptance of Christian teachings or mores would lead to heresy without the absolute belief in the one from which they came, leaving values as relative and still up for grabs.
Paul himself receives the knowledge of Christ despite his previous nurturing and training, and even without having to engage any of the known disciples (Gowler, p. 146). He explains the good news of the gospel by working through his own testimony, painting a picture of the new reality given to him (Galatians 1:15-17). This may work to covey that this is not a religious that one must receive through a process, institutions, or man, but can be received freely from the Lord. At the same time, his personal interaction with God may help establish his own honor and standing as a prophet perceived by the churches he seeks to build up, teach, and influence. Similar to Jesus’ earlier encounter with the Pharisees, Paul’s authority as an apostle of Christ comes under attack (Corinthians 10-13). Paul has no choice but to engage in an ideological discourse to reestablish his pastoral power and his influence over the community (Gowler, p. 208). However, Paul also makes certain to communicate the culturally significant virtue of justice by loyally fulfilling his commission and duties to God after his initial encounter (Gowler, p. 146). Paul made concessions to establish his impartiality and validate that he was not operating outside God and his church by setting out his preaching’s to the Gentiles before the elders of Jerusalem, finally winning honor from them (Galatians 2:2). The virtues discussed here are among those held high by Greco-Roman morality and were used by those of words and ideas to win favor of their worldview, just as Paul incorporates them in his discourse and gospel presentation (Gowler, p. 151).
Toward the end of the previous section, we begin to see shades of another vastly important social element to the culture and time that Paul also must rhetorically address: unity. Although it was important to preach what made this a distinct message, as we will see in following sections, Paul also notes the significance of unity. He use old testament texts, namely Psalms and Isaiah, to articulate that it was God’s purpose for Jews to worship him alongside Gentiles (Watson, p. 144). This appeals to a more social concept of hope, in that all individuals within the community could worship in the reality of a salvation that was largely rejected or unseen by most of society and thus potentially making it more difficult to maintain and harder for church members to endure persecution (Watson, p. 145). This hope would give the church and its members greater cohesion and defense from defection. Also, while the church was trying to find its footing after 70 C.E., great apostles like Mathew focused the message on Christ and salvation. This enabled different factions, such as Hebrews and Hellenists, to gain perspective and come together with a solitary vision and purpose. The book of First Peter also sought to draw Jew and Gentile Christian together by presenting Old Testament themes to compare to or extended to Gentile conversion. Paul uses his teachings to attempt to bridge parties together again by conveying the importance of obedience as needed for salvation (Romans 6). Teaching that grace must be met with a human response of obedience works not only to combat Gentiles from freely disposing of any true and real commitment to Christ, but also reassures the Jewish Christian that by leaving their own community they do not have to throw off moral standards, removing a major obstacle toward acceptance of the message (Watson, p. 148).
Unity was indeed an important social construct, yet the early Christians also understood using it to compromise the principle of the message would be just as detrimental. They needed to strongly establish and portray exactly where they and their message stood throughout the constructs of society, to prevent any falling away or disablement by way of an infiltration of apostasies (Watson, p. 40). Opposed to the other religious sects of the time, Christianity had to define itself against the culture, knowing that descending into cultural assimilation would indeed jeopardize the survival of the Christian movement and its verbal intentions and memorandums. They also had to combat against relativity and would not accept a predisposition that the practices of various forms of paganism were acceptable, tolerable, or possessed just a much merit as Christianity. It is interesting to note the reason why Rome was not concerned with pagans, Gnostics, and others (Ferguson, p. 38). The Christian’s speech was for all but was exclusive in principal and worship, while others sects like the Gnostics did not find it unconscionable to be a part of some pagan or imperial ceremony when ordered and consented to an all inclusive view of any god (Ferguson, p.39). Certainly there are many parallels to today’s new age tolerance that has been gaining ground in our own institutions. The early apostles understood it was essential to engage and appeal to a pluralistic society yet remain separate, keeping their identity and as followers of Christ and standing as a symbol for whom they believe.
Paul also conveys the cross as symbol of a new and unique cultural model (White, p. 99). He used it as a central and powerful means of discourse to alter comprehension and response to the natural world and its circumstances. An example comes from Paul’s frequent message to endure discomfort and overcome the self and flesh thus combating the old nature and disposition of the Corinthians. The body cannot be separated or checked at the door in root to higher spirituality but must be mortified and crucified through Christ. We are not able to overcome by means of our own intelligence or pride in being more spiritual than others, a precise hit to the cognitive schema of Greek dualistic thinking. Also by putting the cross at center stage Paul rhetorically exhibits an argumentative superiority over opposing beliefs by nullifying their precepts with the one construct and meaning of the cross. Paul wanted the message to be adored or hated based on the audience’s identification of and with Jesus.
To bring this assessment of Paul’s discourse to a close, let us expound upon the previously mentioned message of the cross but as it pertains to a more precise focus on Christ and salvation. Paul echoed Jesus’ stand against religious tradition and conveyed a plausible truth regarding the judgmental and hypocritical nature of those from the synagogue, thus distinguishing Christianity from such (Watson, p. 46). In doing so Paul puts a barrier between salvation through faith in Christ rather than works and the law (Watson, p. 47). Paul was, in effect, following his own testimony, as he forsook his Jewish ideology to cling to the message of Christ alone. Paul is continuing in the establishment of why Christianity and Christ himself relay a different message and method from other religions. Christianity spoke to the spiritual needs of the people by providing a more personal relationship, an afterlife, and the good news of Jesus’ once and for all atonement on the cross (Jeffers, p. 98). The early Christian communicators were endorsing an inward salvation producing a love for doing right and personal responsibility, while others at the time were fearfully dancing between perceived social or agricultural rewards and punishments form distant gods (Angus, p. 67). Salvation came by way of accepting the words of Christ and by doings produced by a new heart. We work because we have been saved, not in order to get saved. Any demand for the law or some path to God is impregnable, yet Paul freely used the law as a mirror or a temporary schoolmaster, making sin a death real to the unsaved, driving them to the cross (Galatians 3:19). He can then effectively draw others to Jesus in whom they must deal, either now or at the day of judgment. Paul coveys a message on hope and love that not only appeals to the deepest chasms of the human heart, but also works to distinguish some defining characteristics of Christianity as well. Unlike much of religious involvement of the day, hope is the facet that provides Christianity with a unique purpose and presentation (Watson, p. 144). It is a hope beyond the scope any human intervention. Having now completed the historical portion of this analysis of gospel communication, we can move on to a brief discussion of some more modern application.
A Paradigm Shift Needed
This section will be devoted to look at some obstacles and pitfalls that may be or are occurring in the realm of gospel discourse and presentation within the modern church. As seen above, expository communication has a profoundly Biblical and historical premise and we can certainly learn a great deal in our own communication from studying it (MacArthur, p. 28). There appears to be a missing link in today’s gospel communication. One could diagnose much of the church with cultural assimilation syndrome, as we continue to see a more predominately topical, personalized, and feelings-based message. Apostolic legacy hinges upon making the scripture’s content and context the central, driving theme of the message (MacArthur, p. 7). Unequivocally, we can see the mutually exclusive successes and are failures of each method and time period. Jesus and Paul exemplified the many models that should be a sought-after in apologetic and civil discourse. They spoke authoritatively, were culturally aware, carefully used scripture in explaining a position while making it plain enough for all, adhered to walking with integrity, and were unafraid to make a ruckus by declaring God’s truth (MacArthur, p. 29). The apostles used expository teaching not just to give a grammatical sense but to establish the doctrines which the scriptures were to convey (MacArthur, p. 9). Paul obviously was not content to simply draw a line around those already in temples or church houses calling them the church and everything outside that line the world (Long, p. 82). Rather there are a plethora of Gentiles where engagement is not only inevitable but commissioned to be done for Christ. Paul’s evangelistic preaching did not consist of a spiritual schematic of some seven step path or unreasonable laws but rather verbally placed the Christian matrix in an attractive and retrievable realm that all can accept or reject it (Long, p85). Gospel communicators must study and impress upon their listeners the social and physical location of Paul and others, adding a richer, more experiential impact and subsequent change (McMickle, p. 97).
Everyone in any given culture has a paradigm in which they filter and construct the world, stories, human action and potential (Eslinger, p. 39). In our all tolerant, personalized, and individualized society we are taken back by the rhetorical boldness of the first century church of both a communal and individual basis. The American church is experiencing a new dualism within itself between the interpreting lens of individualism and a belief that simply analyzing and creating the right institutional mix is the remedy (Eslinger, p. 40). Preaching, or any presentation of the gospel, must submit to the scripture’s acknowledgement of evil, sin, redemption, and change as having grand effects on both a individual and communal basis. If only part of these effects are confronted and conveyed, then both the involvement and understanding of the individual and the institution will fail to produce a Biblical worldview (Eslinger, p. 41).
Whether speaking to the postmodern coworker or the Islamic fundamentalist, the moral rhetoric, or lack there of, from those with the American church, and American itself, suggests that we do not comprehend that there is a real battle of wits, ideas, truths and corresponding discourse. When are faith is attacked we should be able to defend it from false presupposed assumptions in an intellectually stimulating way without necessary being hateful or intolerant. A person who remains silent and is neglectful of his commission and calling is just as useful as someone fleeing in battle. We do not have to hand back our Christian tenets of speech and bow to political correctness. In fact we have to become more studied and willing to preserve the definition of our own worldview or someone else will define it for us. Throughout our analysis of Jesus’ and Paul’s dealings within Rome, we realize that we must be able to discuss religion and society apologetically and relevantly, and not be shamed out of the pubic or even political arena. Morality has always been legislated, it is just matter of who’s. Opposed to common opinion, even among Christians, it is actually possible to lose this culture war, and doing so will result in a serious change within our culture in future generations.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ has more power to change the hearts of men than all the military might and legislative powers of any government. Early Christians were not looking to government as their source to change their society, but saw it is a war between light and dark, the truth of the Gospel and the lies of the devil, between the people of God and the children of the devil. They stuck to the basics of changing one person and home at a time with the gospel. They understood if they changed the hearts and minds of men then the social order of things would follow. We cannot afford to not be united in our cause when those on the other side are. Like Jesus and his followers, we must not be afraid to speak out and expose that which is not in favor of the people. Groups like the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are focused, united, and largely unrecognized and unchallenged as they attack our rhetorical liberties. Frankly, the sons of this world are becoming more shrewd than the suns of light (Luke 16:8).
In closing, the early Christian’s message regarding salvation and a Christian life is noticeably different from much of what we hear today. There is a common evangelistic message of believing upon Jesus as a point of salvation that stops short of experiencing God as a movement of continual fellowship and growth. Jesus and his followers taught to make disciples, not to simply go and make converts. Somewhere along the way, the church has changed the emphasis of this message from making disciples to people being born again, leaving discipleship for the “mature.” By making that the focus, we are actually lowering the standards, leaving people with the misconception that all they need to do is just be born again and discipleship is optional. If we understood that and acted on it, we would have much greater success evangelizing the world. Our speech has lost the desire and urgency that Paul possessed in making lasting and genuine followers of Christ. (pharagrah largely from awmi.net/teaching articles/discipleshipvsevangelism)
1.) Hanson, K.C., and Douglas E. Oakman. Palestine in the time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress. 1998.
2.) Watson, F. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach. SNTSMS 56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986.
3.) Gowler, David B., L. Gregory Bloomquist, and Duane F. Watson. Fabrics of Discourse: Essays in Honor of Vernon K. Robbins. Trinity Press International. Harrisburg, London, and New York. 2003.
4.) White, Michael L., and O. Larry Yarbrough. The Social World of the First Christians. Augsburg: Fortress. 1995.
5.) Ferguson, Everett, with David M. Scholer, and Paul Corby Finney. Church and State in the Early Church. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York and London. 1993.
6.) Angus, Samuel. The Environment of Early Christianity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son’s. 1951.
7.) Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Back round of Early Christianity. Dowers Grove: Intervarsity, 1999.
8.) Wedderburn, Alexander J. M. A History of the First Christians. London: T. & T. Clark, 2004.
9.) MacArthur, John. Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Thomas Nelson, 2005.
10.) McMickle, Marvin A. Living Water for Thirsty Souls. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2001.
11.) Eslinger, Richard L. Pitfalls in Preaching. WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids Michigan/Cambridge U.K., 1996.
12.) Long, Thomas G. and Neely Dixon McCarter. Preaching In and Out of Season. Westminster/John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky, 1990.

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