Language of Culture

A City Fit for the Herods

There is no biblical record of Jesus teaching in Sepphoris, but we know that he grew up in the nearby village of Nazareth. From his hometown, Jesus could probably see the impressive city, which covered nearly five hundred acres and was home to almost thirty thousand people.

Shortly after his death in 4 BC, Herod's sons traveled to Rome to contest their father's will, which had split Israel between them. Each son asked the emperor to give him exclusive control of the land.

While Herod's sons were in Rome, a group of Jews revolted. Not wanting Herod's brutal son, Archelaus, to gain control of Israel, they sent a delegation to Rome and asked the emperor to give power to someone else.

But the emperor chose to honor Herod the Great's will. When Archelaus returned to Judea, he destroyed the people and families who had revolted against him.

Another of Herod's sons, Antipas, created a more peaceful kingdom in the Galilee area. Shortly after returning from Rome, he decided to create his administrative capital at Sepphoris. The sophisticated city was built with modern streets, a magnificent palace, a gymnasium, theater, and beautiful mosaic floors.

A Tekton of Nazereth

Growing up in nearby Nazareth, Jesus was trained as a tekton, a craftsman who often worked with stone.

When Jesus' parents returned from Egypt, they abandoned their plans to settle in Bethlehem because it was located in Herod Archelaus' region. Instead, they settled in Nazareth, a Galilean town just one or two miles from Sepphoris.

Nazareth was a rural Jewish community of about three hundred people, probably all from the same extended family. But it was not a sheltered retreat. As he grew up, Jesus could see the construction of nearby Sepphoris. And a bustling trade route%u2014the Via Maris%u2014passed nearby.

Jesus likely attended the synagogue school during his childhood. But as he grew older, he also learned a trade from his father, who was a tekton (Mark 6:3). The Greek word tekton has been translated as "carpenter" in many English Bibles, but the word actually means "a craftsman who builds."

Given that Israel's buildings were constructed of stones and rocks, Jesus likely worked as a stonemason rather than a carpenter. He probably spent hours helping his father shape and cut stones.

Jesus may have even helped with the construction in Sepphoris, which occurred at the very same time he was living in Nazareth.

A Ministry to the Powerful

Jesus didn't limit his message to the needy and religious; he also interacted with those who had wealth and influence.

As a Jewish rabbi, Jesus often interacted with devout Jews. And he ministered to the sick and poor. But Jesus didn't limit his message to the needy and religious; he also interacted with people from cities like Sepphoris%u2014people with wealth and influence.

Jesus shared meals and conversation with influential leaders and was financially supported by them as well. Joanna, the wife of Herod Antipas; finance minister, used her own funds to support Jesus' teaching ministry (Luke 8:3).

Though Jesus often spoke against greed and the dishonest acquisition of wealth, he did not degrade those who honestly acquired wealth. Rather, he seemed to appreciate people who used their wealth as a tool for God's kingdom.

Jesus also befriended political leaders in first-century Israel. Though some religious leaders derided Jesus' decision to interact with tax collectors%u2014administrative officials who often wielded political influence%u2014he was not afraid to talk with them.

As he interacted with the upper echelons of society, Jesus shared the same message he had given to religious Jews and peasants. He recognized that both rich and poor needed the spiritual freedom of God, and he challenged both groups to live a life of service to God.

Speaking the Language of Culture

Jesus used the language of secular culture, communicating in a way that his nonreligious audiences would understand.

We do not know if Jesus visited secular cities like Sepphoris. But we do know that he understood their Hellenistic culture. He knew the day-to-day experiences and concerns of people who lived in a pagan world. And he used word pictures and stories that they would easily understand.

For example, Jesus frequently used the term "hypocrite," a word describing actors. In one case, he encouraged people to avoid praying and fasting like actors, who put on an exaggerated face and performed for the audience's applause (Matthew 6:5,16).

Jesus also told parables about kings, wedding banquets, and rulers%u2014all familiar pictures to a secular audience. And he even used pictures from political history to convey truths about the kingdom of God.

When telling the parable of the ten minas, Jesus spoke of a man who "went to a distant country to have himself appointed king" and his subjects who said, "We don't want this man to be our king?" (Luke 19:12, 14). No doubt this parable brought a vivid picture of Herod Archelaus and the Jewish revolts to listeners' minds.

By using pictures from secular culture, Jesus did not alienate the nonreligious or isolate himself from the pagan world. Instead, he spoke the language of their culture and greatly impacted his world.

A Path for the Powerful

Whether rich or poor, Jesus looked into the heart of each person and saw their need for God. Today, many Christians struggle to follow his example.

We often look at politicians and business leaders, thinking their corruption is beyond repair. Or we belittle the lives of the wealthy, assuming that they don't work hard or deal with the problems of "average'people.

As a result, many of our churches focus exclusively on the needs of the underprivileged, forgetting that the rich and powerful need our love and prayers as well. In our schools, Christian students long for popularity rather than sharing God's love with the popular.

As we learn the language of culture, we must remember that God's path of righteousness is not closed to the rich or powerful. He's eager to use their influence and power for his own glory.

Impacting Our World

Jesus was not afraid to use secular pictures to convey God's truth. In his day, images from the theater and ancient politics created an avenue for him to reach people who would not understand "religious" language.

Today's culture shares different pictures. Current events, television, politics, the economy%u2014these are the concepts that our world understands. As Christians minister to our secular friends and neighbors, we should draw on these everyday experiences to teach the message of salvation in a powerful way.

Some Christians are tempted to retreat to their religious communities, ignoring secular trends altogether. But they alienate nonbelievers and miss the opportunity to preach God's message in a culturally relevant way. Isolation from culture fails to bring cultural change.

Without modifying God's message, we can communicate his truth in ways that resonate with our secular culture. And if we follow Jesus' example in speaking the language of culture, we too can make a lasting impact on the world.

Do you use words and ideas that your culture understands as you communicate Jesus' message?