Jesus and the disciples saw a man who was born blind, and Jesus made this a learning experience for His twelve missionary candidates. Throughout their lives, the disciples had been locked in one culture. To succeed as missionaries, they needed to expand their thinking. This is true of missionaries today. Actually, a missionary must consider three cultures: his culture, the native culture, and most importantly, God’s culture. He knows his culture well. But his culture is sometimes a problem because it is not necessarily God’s culture (although he probably thinks it is). Some of our western culture is based on the Bible (and thus is God’s culture) but much of it isn’t. The missionary must distinguish between his culture and God’s, and then attempt to pass on to the native audience only God’s culture.
Seeing the blind man, the missionaries-in-training thought that congenital blindness is always a result of sin, but they wondered whose sin it was. They asked Jesus, “. . . Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their culture gave answers to important questions, but some were wrong answers. In their minds, it was clear this man was being punished for sin. Everyone, including the Pharisees who were the recognized religious experts, believed this. Later in the chapter, they told the formerly blind man, “. . . Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out” (v. 34).
According to the Jewish cultural beliefs of the day, God will punish certain sins. The more egregious sins receive greater punishment—perhaps having a child born with a severe deformity such as blindness. It is difficult for us to understand how a man could sin before birth and then be punished at birth. But what seems strange or unbelievable to us can make perfect sense to the people we are trying to reach. The Jews reasoned that since God knows the future, He could see that the man would later commit a sin worthy of this punishment. God simply sent the punishment before the man committed the sin; either way the man or his parents deserved it.
This account is a good example of what missionaries encounter. People believe things that are unbiblical. He can overlook or delay dealing with some errors, but some false beliefs must be corrected in order for the people to be saved. The sad fact is the devil has really corrupted man’s culture. Fortunately, Jesus came to undo the works of the devil. “. . . For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). God wants to use his missionaries to destroy the works of the devil in the places where He sends them. The task is very difficult but not impossible. To succeed, the missionary must recognize the error in the native culture and then teach the truth of God’s culture.
The task of pointing out and correcting error is complicated by the fact that the messenger is a foreigner, and the people did not ask him to come and educate them. The missionary will have a much better chance to communicate truth if he and his message appear less foreign. He dare not change the message, but he can make himself less foreign by speaking and acting like the people. He can also make his message less foreign by presenting it with illustrations from the native culture and by using native teaching methods.
It is always better to learn a language and its culture from childhood. The missionary, learning as an adult, is greatly disadvantaged. Pre-field training in language and culture learning, however, can make a world of difference and help to overcome the difficulties of adult learning.
When confronted with a false belief, such as we see in John nine, the missionary without specialized training might simply say, “What you believe is wrong. The Bible says so. Now stop believing what you have always believed and believe what I am telling you.” The better prepared missionary wants the same change, but he goes after it differently. He might say, “That is interesting; tell me about this. Do you have stories about people who sinned and then were punished by having a child born blind? What other sins are bad enough to deserve this punishment? How often does a person need to commit these sins for this to happen? Are these sins equally bad for both men and women? Are there spiritual beings that are offended by these sins and must be appeased? Is there any remedy or sacrifice that can prevent the punishment or gain forgiveness for the guilty? Who must perform this ritual? What does it cost? Is a person punished for sin only in this life, or will he also be punished after he dies?” Answers reveal the people’s worldview and social control.
Now, equipped with a vast amount of cultural knowledge, the missionary can reason intelligently with the people. He doesn’t agree with much of their beliefs, but at least he understands what they believe and why. He can be sympathetic and respectful as he patiently teaches them the difference between what they believe and what God says. It will help tremendously if he translates God’s Word into their language rather than try to prove his point with a foreign Bible.
Just as Jesus dispelled blindness that day (both physical and cultural), God will dispel spiritual blindness when the glorious gospel of Christ is preached and understood! “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:” (2 Corinthians 4:3). God help us to not inadvertently hide the gospel of Christ by our cultural ignorance.