Some Customary Context To Biblical Terms.
We tend to read the Bible within a modernist slant, and at times apply her linguistic terms willy-nilly in our own cultural context. However, different authors, who lived centuries in the past, wrote the Bible, and each epoch captured its own audiences, and cultural and linguistic nuisances. For example, when issues to do with marriage, slavery, or justice were dealt with, we would need to delve into the original and historical text to parse its context and cultural background, to disengage our over-familiarity with its modern connotations, before applying its lessons, if any. The cultural gap is obviously enormous and the less presumptuous we are, the less one-dimensional and ingenuous would be our application. I shall just mention three examples of such differences to highlight our divergent mental filters.
To many of us, “fellowship” represents a group meeting for worship, prayer, and/or studying the Scriptures, and may include partaking of a meal thereafter. Or it may just be a casual chitchat. The socializing and getting to know visitors after a church service seemed all too familiar. However, to first century Christians, the Greek word “koinonia” did not quite fit with these connotations. When the Apostle Paul spoke about the Philippians’ “participation (viz., koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now,” he was referring to their effective partnership for the furtherance of the gospel, from the first time it was preached to them by Paul himself (Phil 1:5). He explicated subsequently what he meant: that this fellowship by the Philippian church involved their acceptance of the gospel in faith, their identification with its aims, their co-operation in preaching and spreading it, their expression of sympathy with the apostle in all his afflictions for the sake of Christ, and their sending of pecuniary contributions for the relief of his needs in prison (Phil 1:7; 4:14-17), and for the benefit of other fellow believers (Rom 15:26). In brief, “fellowship” comprises our sympathetic attitude and practical action in the interest of the gospel – our co-operation, zeal, prayers, sacrificial giving, arising from our personal conviction of the gospel by faith. “Fellowship” is the personal and corporate ministry of our churches with the missionaries we support.
Soon, Christmas would be upon us, and with it comes the season of gift-giving, with its expectations and exchanges, surprises or disappointments. However, Near Eastern gift-giving is very different altogether, where each gift is part of a system of reciprocity in which the honour of the giver and recipient are engaged. In the Biblical world, Paul extrapolated the social context of this honourable practice with the reality of what it means in God’s eyes; where honour was not limited to a social claim to worth and identity that was publicly acknowledged, but was linked through God’s own exemplary action as He gave His unspeakable gift to mankind (2 Cor 9:15). Honour was, therefore, to be centred in God and Christ, not in anyone’s honour or dignity (2 Cor 3:2-3; 5:16-17). Can there be anything less when one’s honour is on the line? And in this respect, Paul urged the Corinthians towards gift-giving in honouring God for and through the ministry of the Word (2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:12-15; 11:8-9). In other words, Paul was obliged and free to give; the Corinthians were obliged and free to receive; and they were obliged and free to reciprocate; but this reciprocation is not to Paul, but to others, and through others, ultimately to God’s glory. Hence, gift-giving was a purposeful and considered God-honouring act; nothing unpremeditated or frivolous about it.
The hospitality among believers is perhaps legend as we enjoy and thrive on each other’s company. And generally, it is practiced among friends, and at the very least, acquaintances. Hospitality in the world of the Patriarchs and the Apostolic era was not what they did with and for friends, but specifically for absolute strangers. One such was Abraham’s encounter with the three men (Gen 18); where extending hospitality to itinerant travellers, aliens and the homeless was a mark of virtue, courtesy and respect for human life (Lev 25:35-36; Is 58:6-8). The Epistles are likewise replete with exhortations and examples towards Biblical hospitality to missionaries, visiting Christian workers, strangers, and the homeless (Matt 25:34-40; Acts 28:7; Rom 12:13; 1 Cor 16: 10-12; Col 4:10; Titus 1: 7-9; Heb 13:2).
Cultural differences vary within diverse epochs and people groups, and as we interpret languages and behaviours, there is a need to deliberately distinguish them as we study God’s Word. Thankfully, God’s wisdom is always available through His Holy Spirit, as we strive to understand and ultimately to obey Him in and through His Word.