Jesus Modeled Multicultural Ministry
Jesus was a Jew. He was raised by a Jewish mother and a Jewish stepfather in a small Jewish town, Nazareth. He was born in a small hamlet on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, a member of the tribe of Judah, in the line of David. Jesus was given a Jewish name, Yeshua, and ate Jewish foods. He was taught in the synagogue, learned the Hebrew Scriptures, and celebrated the Jewish feasts.
I grew up in a town in northern New Jersey that was 50% Jewish. Our family were the only non-Jews on our street. I’ve attended my share of Bar Mitzvahs. Some notable Jewish celebrities attended my high school: Jason Alexander of Seinfeld, Chelsea Handler, and Danny Zucker of Modern Family. Many Jews today look more European than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. What color was Jesus? He was likely an olive-skinned Jew darkened by working in the sun as a tekton and traveling everywhere by foot. Billy Graham said it so well:
“Jesus was not a white man; He was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. Christianity is not a white man’s religion and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world.”
While Jesus might have been somewhat isolated in His small Jewish town as a child, He grew up surrounded by a great diversity of cultures. There were many Gentiles living throughout Israel, particularly those bringing both Roman and Greek culture to the region. The Via Maris (ancient trade route) passed through the Galilee region, bringing travelers and tradesmen of many cultures to transport the goods they were selling or buying. How was Jesus’ perspective on humanity shaped by the collection of cultures He encountered?
While the coming of the Messiah was a promise to the Jews, Jesus knew that He was for all people. Within the first several months of His ministry, Jesus proclaimed to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”
There are some key principles we can learn from Jesus’ mindset when it comes to multicultural ministry, and a great place to start is in Samaria.
The region of Samaria was within Israel, but was occupied by a people of mixed race. Samaria was made up of Jews who had intermarried with Assyrians when Israel had been overtaken by Assyria, making the Samaritans half-Jew, half-Gentile. As such, they created their own religion and cultural practices and were reviled by the Jews.
In His first year of ministry, before Jesus had called the Four to be fishers of people, before He had appointed the Twelve to be Apostles, He journeyed from Jerusalem through Judea and into Samaria on His way back home to Galilee. This was unusual because Jews avoided Samaria while traveling between Jerusalem and Galilee by journeying along the Jordan River Valley.
What can we learn from Jesus’ model? How can we adopt the multicultural mindset of Jesus?
- JESUS MADE MULTICULTURAL MINISTRY A PRIORITY.
“So He left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now He had to go through Samaria.”John 4:3-4
Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? Was it because that was the best route, or the shortest route, or the most commonly traveled route? No. He had to go because it was the Father’s will. He had to go because it was the Father’s priority. If we don’t make multicultural disciple-making a priority, multicultural disciple-making will not become a reality. We will allow the gravitational pull of what we have grown accustomed to to keep us in our cultural comfort zone.
- JESUS MOVED INTO THE SAMARITAN’S CULTURAL CONTEXT.
“So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”John 4:5
Jesus didn’t expect the Samaritans to find Him in His hometown of Nazareth. He went to their hometown of Sychar. He stepped into their world. He met them on their turf. By meeting the Samaritan woman on her turf, Jesus honored her culture.
- JESUS BUILT A RELATIONAL BRIDGE.
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ ”John 4:7
It’s no small thing that Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. Samaritans and Jews didn’t interact with one another. It would be culturally inappropriate for a man and a woman to share a private moment like this. Jesus was about to let His lips touch the cup of a Samaritan woman. By doing so, His actions were screaming, “Our cultural barriers aren’t going to stand in the way of relationship!” One of the simplest ways you can build a relational bridge and honor another person’s culture is by sharing a meal with them on their turf.
- JESUS ESTABLISHED COMMON GROUND.
“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon… Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”John 4:6,12
Jews and Samaritans did have a common lineage. They both could trace their ancestry back to Jacob. By beginning their conversation around the common history they shared with Jacob’s Well, Jesus was essentially communicating, “We might be different, but we’re not as different as you think.” When stepping into another cultural context, what are the commonalities that we share and can build upon?
- JESUS BALANCED CULTURAL SENSITIVITY WITH CULTURAL AUTHENTICITY.
“The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)John 4:9
Notice what the Samaritan woman said to Jesus. “You are a Jew.” How did this woman know that Jesus was Jewish? Was it His physical features, how His hair was kept, the clothes He wore, or the language or accent He spoke with? Whatever it was, something about Jesus made it very obvious. “You are a Jew.” He wasn’t trying to hide His Jewishness. He wasn’t pretending to be Samaritan. Jesus was Himself. People know when you’re faking it. A significant hindrance to multicultural effectiveness is inauthenticity.
- JESUS DIDN’T AVOID THE HARD TOPICS.
“I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”John 4:17-18
If we’re going to build authentic relationships where true disciple-making takes place, then we’re going to have to be willing to have hard conversations about where both of us might be wrong. We’ve got to listen, seeking to understand before being understood. What are the hurts we’ve experienced? Where is there brokenness and pain? What are the messes that need to be addressed? Relationships move at the speed of trust.
- JESUS DIDN’T COMPROMISE THE TRUTH.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.”John 4:21-22
While Jesus acknowledged and affirmed the common culture that the Samaritans and the Jews shared, when it got down to theology, He didn’t allow cultural preferences to overshadow Biblical truth. Multicultural disciple-making must be firmly anchored to God’s Word so our cultural preferences don’t compromise a Biblical worldview.
- JESUS KEPT THE GOSPEL THE MAIN THING.
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”JOHN 4:25-26
Jesus addressed the emotional and social needs the Samaritan woman had. She was at the well drawing water by herself in the middle of the day because she was likely ostracized by her community for her immoral lifestyle. Jesus offered acceptance to a woman who had faced a lifetime of rejection and loss. It’s important for us to remember when addressing very real and valid emotional, social, or physical needs, that we also prioritize the deep spiritual need that all people have. “What does it profit anyone if we solve all their earthly problems, but they lose their soul?”
By overcoming cultural barriers and building a relational bridge with the Samaritan woman, Jesus was able to impact an entire Samaritan community. Multicultural disciple-making, as with all disciple-making, is about relationships. Rather than trying to change systems and structures, begin by building authentic relationships, and see what amazing things God can do.
What relational steps am I taking to make multicultural disciple-making a priority like Jesus?