Context, Culture, and Communication

Posted on March 26, 2013 by


Minolta DSCIn John Chapter 7, the Jewish people were celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles.  The yearly Feast commemorated the 40 years of Israel’s wanderings through the desert.  The high point of the Feast occurred each night when water was brought up from the Pool of Siloam and delivered to the Temple.  The Jews celebrated God’s provision and the hope for God’s provision throughout the coming year.  John tells us that:  “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow within him.’”  (John 7: 37-38)

What a moment!  What an outrageous statement!  Jesus declared himself as a replacement to the centerpiece of the Feast.  In essence:  “Don’t look for life in the ritual, in the water.  I am the fulfillment of what you are celebrating – find your life in me!”

This proclamation is reminiscent of the Prophet Jeremiah who exclaimed:

“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

Beyond the actual words declared by Jesus in John 7, we can learn a few other things from this event in Scripture.

First, for Jesus, context was important and added to the meaning of his message.  Oftentimes, we can reduce the quality of Jesus’ words to a Hallmark-card level.  For sure, Jesus’ offer for living water is powerful and it’s mirrored in His offer to the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.  However, how much more powerful are Jesus’ words when we understand that they were offered at a desert watering hole or at the high point of a religious festival where water was celebrated?  Jesus was a master at context; whether it was the story of the Good Samaritan (told in Samaria) or the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee.  Jesus’ methodology should inform our proclamation:  are we speaking the truth of Jesus into the context of kids and leaders’ lives?  Do we re-cycle yesterday’s stories, illustrations, and anecdotes even as they become more devoid of meaning to a changing world?  Are we willing to do the digging and difficult work of discovering the universal truth (Jesus is living water) and then place it within the context of the world we are seeking to reach?

Second, Jesus was at the Festival.  In all the stories we referred to here, Jesus was present.  Though He was living water, He sat at Jacob’s well.  Though He was the fulfillment of the ritual in the Feast of the Tabernacles, He was with the crowds in Jerusalem.  When he told the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was in Samaria.  For Jesus context was important. He understood the context and culture of His listeners by living with them. He literally immersed Himself in their world, their ritual, their lives so he could speak to their need for Him.  What a refreshing challenge for us!  Has crafting our message become a solitary affair or are we aware of the dynamics of the people’s lives that we’re trying to serve?  Beyond spending time with the Lord to hear His Word, are we balanced by spending enough time in the lives of the kids, leaders and the families we are hoping to lead?  When we do, we will be more effective at making the abstract become concrete.   If Jesus did it, we should too.