Seeing God Through Cultural Lenses

By Mark D. Roberts

October 31, 2019

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (NIV)


If you’ve spent a lot of your life reading the Bible, as I have, you might forget that it wasn’t written directly for today’s world. The Bible can seem so familiar to us that we overlook ways in which its world is not like our own. But, if you’re relatively new to the Bible, sometimes it can sound like it was written “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . .” Well, okay, Scripture isn’t always quite as foreign as Star Wars, but certain passages give George Lucas a run for his money. Have you read Revelation recently?

A person looking at the world upside down through a glass ballThe fact is that God has chosen to make himself and his will known in the languages, beliefs, practices, and values of particular cultures. This is true of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, which comes through the writings of dozens of people representing several cultures and spanning many centuries. It is also true of God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, who came at a particular time in a particular place to a particular people speaking a particular language—through whom God intended to save the whole world.

The good news of God’s communicating within cultures is that we human beings, who cannot stand outside of human culture, can understand what God is saying to us. The words we use, the ways we think, the things we do, the assumptions we make, the loves we cherish . . . all of these reflect our own cultures. So, it’s good that God speaks within culture, in words and ways that we can understand.

The bad news of this mode of communication is that we can easily become confused by what God meant to say in a given culture that is not our own, as well as by what God means to say today. For example, when Ephesians 6:5 tells slaves to obey their earthly masters, rather than saying slavery is an abomination contradictory to God’s intentions for humanity, does this means that God actually approves of slavery? Or is God speaking into a particular cultural setting, assuming the existence of slavery without endorsing it, and helping slaves in that culture shape their lives according to the gospel—as well as helping masters to treat their slaves respectfully and to begin to see the wrongness of slavery itself?

We’ll consider these questions when we get to the passage on slavery. For now, I simply want to acknowledge the reality of the cultural challenge we face, something we’ll feel acutely as we work through the household code material in Ephesians. Yet I want to underscore the amazing truth that God seeks to communicate with us and does in fact reveal himself to us. God gives us Scripture as an essential element of his revelation. He also gives us resources to help us understand what Scripture means: scholarly experts in languages and cultures, traditions of Christian interpretation, and communities of discernment and discovery.

Though his communication within cultures makes things both easy and hard, God has also given us something else, something invaluable that transcends culture. More accurately, God has given us Someone who transcends culture—namely, the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. Remember what Jesus said, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). God’s Spirit will help us grasp the truth revealed in his written Word. This is not just good news; it’s great news. And it encourages us to seek God’s guidance through the Spirit as we come humbly before his Word.

Something to Think About:

Can you remember a time when you were reading the Bible and you felt as if Scripture came from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”? When did this happen? How did you feel? What did you do?

What has helped you to understand biblical passages that are difficult?

Something to Do:

Talk with a Christian friend or with your small group about the implications of culture when it comes to understanding Scripture. Share honestly any tensions you feel as you wrestle with biblical teaching that speaks to a culture quite different from your own.


Gracious God, it is truly good news that you desire to make yourself and your will known to us. If we were left on our own to figure you out, we’d be stuck in our confusion. So, thank you.

In your inscrutable wisdom, Lord, you have chosen to make yourself known within cultures. This means we can make sense of you, and that’s great. But it also means we can struggle to figure out who you are and what you want, especially when your revelation comes in cultures and languages that are distant and different from ours. Thank you, gracious God, for those who help us to understand your enculturated Word. Thank you for faithful linguists, historians, commentators, preachers, and teachers Thank you for visual artists, musicians, and poets.

Thank you, most of all, for your Spirit, who helps us to understand your Word, that we might know you and your will for us. May your Spirit guide us as we continue our devotional study of Ephesians. Amen.

Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
When People Look Like Trees

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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