How Our Cultural Context Impacts the Way We Interpret Scripture (2023)

What Pentecost can teach us about cultural context and the Holy Spirit

As we think this through, I want to point to Acts 2 and the famous event of Pentecost. I think there’s something going on here that we don’t usually recognize.

People who speak different languages and hail from different cultures all hear the Word of God through this amazing, miraculous event:

“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” (Acts 2:5-9).

Those in the crowd on Pentecost were hearing powerful testimonies to the wonders of God in their native languages.This is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes upon people and speaks in all different languages at Pentecost to spread the gospel.

But there’s something subtle going on here. Different languages have different views of culture within them. If you know Spanish and English, for example, you know that there are certain words that you can’t exactly translate between the two.

There’s sometimes a better way to say something in one language than another. But the Spirit actually comes upon people and takes up this process of translating the gospel, translating the good news into all different languages, even though it will result in differences.

All interpretations of Scripture which are distinctively Christian will lead us deeper into the life and the way of Jesus Christ because that is our identity: people who have been united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Cultural differences in the early church

A central confession of both Jews and Gentiles within the Book of Acts is that Jesus is Lord. But they had different cultural conceptions of what this central confession would mean.

For Jews, to say, “Jesus is Lord” meant Jesus was the Lord of the universe in the Old Testament, who created and chose them as God’s people.

Among Gentiles, the same word for Lord in Greek was used to speak about the caesars, the worldly rulers who would often ask for homage. And somehow, in his mysterious way, Jesus was the true Lord now.

So even within the early church, there are different cultural conceptions of the gospel that complement each other.

Allowing Spirit-inspired cultural differences

The amazing thing about Pentecost is that it’s actually attributing these differences to the Holy Spirit. And it gives us a certain boldness in translating the Bible into different languages, even though there will be different cultural understandings of the Bible.

There’s an organization today called Audio Scripture Ministries, which translates the Bible into the heart languages of different people around the world. Translation to new languages leads to different cultural conceptions of passages of Scripture.

But because of the Spirit’s work at Pentecost, we can have confidence that even when there are differences in interpretation, those can be Spirit-inspired differences, because God is speaking his Word to people of all cultures around the world.

Holding onto the core messages of Scripture

On the other hand, there are limits to the differences of interpretation Scripture can support.

Paul speaks about the Holy Spirit’s work in terms of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness. It’s not possible, in Paul’s view, for a culture to say, well, love is not fashionable. Kindness is not fashionable in our culture. So we’re just going to reject that part. We’re going to opt for our own cultural view, which prizes hostility and retribution. And we’ll do that instead of love, joy, and peace.

That is outside the limit of what the Spirit is doing. The Spirit is conforming people to Jesus Christ. The Spirit has a definite work. There is a range to the Spirit’s work, even as it has a specificity to it across different contexts.

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