Hesselgrave (1991) defined communication in relation to culture as “the transfer of meaning through the use of symbols” (p. 55). This means that for a person to internalize communication, the received message must be processed from the understanding of the listener. Whether verbal or nonverbal symbols, Nida (1960) proposed that they come from culturally prescribed artifacts, words, phrases, gestures, or behaviors. If symbols are culturally determined by someone, then these symbols may influence how a person or people interprets God’s Word in the communication modes. In response to meaning, how is meaning of the inspired Word to be understood?
Jan Paron/October 21, 2014
Scripture shows that God communicated to His people in the Old and New Testaments using many different modes of expressions so that people would understand Him and make meaning of His message. He used verbal, visual, tactile, aural, and experiential modes relevant to the cultural context of an individual across the two testaments. In doing so, God varied His message indigent to the listener’s (or receiver of the message) beliefs, values, norms, social practices, surrounding circumstances, geographic location, and historical events. Though believers in Christ cannot replicate God’s divine communication means, they can look to them for guidance when speaking to the diverse audiences they encounter in ministry.
How God Speaks to Us Across the Ages
The Adamic, Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenants show examples of how God communicated His purpose and promise of salvation for humanity. God always has had a passion for communion and relationship with humanity with the desire to transform them into His image as holy (Rom 8:29). The Creator does so through the covenantal language of redemption that emanates from love for His creation (Conner, 1980; Norris, 2014). By examining each of the covenants, one sees instances of His expressional communication modes to individuals and collective bodies.
Edenic Covenant (Gen 1:26-31)
God made the Edenic Covenant with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before sin’s entrance. God revealed His purpose in Creation with this covenant (Gen 1:1; 2:25). Greene (2000) explained that the Genesis author wrote the Creation account in the context of the ancient Israelites’ language, using cultural symbols the original audience would understand (para. 3). During the Edenic Covenant, communication shows God’s verbal, visual, and aural communication with Adam and Eve.
Set to the backdrop of the mist that went up from the earth, Genesis provides metaphorical language that describes the perfection of God’s work (Gen 2:6-7). One reads in Gen 1:26-31 that God created man in His image and likeness as the centerpiece of all He created. He formed Adam from the dust of the ground (2:7a), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (v. 7b). Then, the first Adam became a living soul (v. 7c).
As the Creation account continues in the Edenic Covenant, the author recorded God’s first words to humankind that took place between the Lord and Adam. God’s words were simple and direct: Freely eat of any tree in the Garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or Adam would die (vv. 16-17). The statements in fact, reflect the terms of the Edenic Covenant. The tree of life itself standing in the middle of the Garden represents a visual symbol of the covenantal seal.
Through the unfolding covenant, one reads of close and intimate dialogue between God and Adam. God told Adam that he needs a suitable help meet (2:18b) and then brought him all the animals and birds to search for his companion, only to find none suitable. Therefore, God created woman and fashioned a wife called Eve from Adam’s rib (v. 22). The serpent (symbolic of Satan) then comes on the scene (3:4) and successfully tempts her with fruit from the forbidden tree. She ate the fruit, and gave one to her husband (v. 6). Now disobedient, God’s next communication to His Creation was aural. The Amplified Version describes that Adam and Eve heard the, “sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (v. 8). Then God calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” (v. 9) and follows it with a series of reprimands. One might imagine God as the disappointed parent standing face-to-face with His unruly children. God’s communication ended as it began–simple and direct to make Himself clear./
Adamic Covenant (Gen 3:14-19)
While God made the Edenic Covenant with Adam and Eve before sin’s entrance, He established the Adamic after it. God revealed His purpose in redemption (Paron, 2014). Here, God communicates verbally and visually. When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, they moved eastward from it (3:24). Eastward represented prosperity that Adam and Eve lost from the Fall (Martin, Beck, & Hansen, 2009). When Cain fled after murdering Abel, the nomadic son traveled further east (4:10), building the city of Nod (4:17a) signaling a greater loss of prosperity. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then God verbally painted a grim image of the land outside the Garden of Eden. He promised judgments of cursed ground (3:17b), land that would produce thistles and weeds (v. 18a); eating herbs of the field (v. 18b); sweat and toil of a cursed earth until death, “dust thou shalt return” (v. 19a King James Version). To add to this visual imagery, after God expelled Adam from the Garden He placed “Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way” to keep and guard the tree of life (v. 24). Though Adam and Eve lost close fellowship with the Lord, God gave humankind the promise of redemption to restore them to covenantal relationship. Along with the curse, God gave the seed promise (3:15a), which was bruising the serpent’s head–a messianic prophecy that God would progressively reveal through the Old Covenants and fulfill with the New (cf. Matt 1:20; Luke 1:30-31; Gal 4:4; Heb 4:14-17; 1 John 3:8). God created a vivid picture of life to come for Adam and Eve because of their disobedience.
Noahic Covenant (Gen 8:20-9:6)
God’s covenant with Noah after the flood involved all future generations of humankind and every creature on earth. Through it, He confirmed His purpose in redemption with a new beginning by replenishing all flesh by covenant grace. He spoke instructions for Noah to follow in preparation for the Flood (Gen 6:13; 7:1; 8:21; 9:12; 17). The Lord also displayed a rainbow to communicate the seal between Him and humankind as a remembrance of His everlasting covenant (9:15; cf. v. 17).
The Lord communicated to Noah in different forms such as visual with the water and dove. Could one have been experiential, too? How did Noah know to build an ark that would save future generations from the Flood? Lee (2014) proposed that God communicated non-audibly since the Garden of Eden, meaning that not all conversations between God and His people in biblical accounts were in out loud vocal mode. He based this on the meaning of ‘amar (Hebrew: אָמַר) translated to the English as said. Lee felt ‘amar can take on a range of meanings including “say in the heart” (Brown, Driver, & Briggs, p. 56). He believed that quite possibly Noah sensed or heard God’s voice in his heart and followed through by condition of faith. This could be true since God chose Noah because he found grace in the Lord’s eyes (6:8). Further, Noah was perfect in his generations and walked with God (v. 9). Noah stood on faith when he carried out God’s command to build an ark to save him and his family along with specified species from a flood that would destroy every living thing of all flesh (6:2; 7:4).
With God’s command to build an ark, it also showed social and geography factors connected to His directives and Noah’s obedience. Within a social structure, Noah was a patriarch. The early patriarchs were the heads of single-family units, having a special relationship with God (Finkelstein & Silverman, 2001). As a patriarch, the responsibility rested on Noah to heed the voice of God. Geographically, the waterways from the Near East and Mesopotamian region where the early patriarchs resided more than likely could not have held a boat the proportion of the ark (Miller, 2004). The ark size was well beyond the size of a normal shipping transport. Taking into consideration the scope of the command, God’s possible inaudible voice, and social and geographical circumstances, this communication mode shows that faith plays a role in how God speaks to us. Despite adaptations that give meaning to the promises of God, humankind must stand on God’s Word by faith. “For we live by believing and not by seeing” (2 Cor. 5:7 New Living Translation).
Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:1-4)
The Abrahamic Covenant concerned the nation of Israel, the seed Messiah, and believers of all nations (Conner & Malmin, 1983). The people having been scattered across the earth and experiencing their language confounded as a result of disobedience at Babel (Gen 11:7-8), had developed families into nations at the time of Abraham (11:10-28). Abraham, much like Noah, had to walk in faith because of the words God spoke to him (Heb. 11:8). How did God communicate with Abraham? God gave him direct verbal commands, such as departing from Haran to an unknown land with the promise of a great nation (Gen 11:31; 12:1), promise the entire land of Canaan (Gen 13), promise of an heir (15:2; 18:10), sacrifice his son (22:2). Also, God appeared to Abraham in some type of divine manifestation when He said, “I will give this land to your posterity” (12:7 AMP) and vision regarding the Lord as Abraham’s shield and great reward (15:1). He also spoke to Abraham through other people. One time a pharaoh asked Abraham to leave Egypt because God brought down plagues on him and his household after they took her into harem misled by Abraham that she was his sister (12:19). God additionally used imagery to make His message meaningful, comparing Abraham’s seed to the dust of the earth (13:16). In one last form of communication, God spoke to Abraham experientially through tests by living through famine (12:10), being asked to sacrifice his son (22:2) and surviving war (14:16). God did not limit the use of communication symbols to convey a message that Abraham would understand, all revolving around the Promise Land.
Mosaic Covenant (Exod 19-31)
The Mosaic covenant was conditional made with the children of Israel after God delivered them from Egypt. This schoolmaster covenant was a shadow of better things to come for Israel in Jesus Christ (Paron, 2014). God spoke Moses as well as Israelites in this covenant. People in this covenant experienced all forms of communication including verbal, visual, tactile, aural, and experiential. To bring the wayward Israelites backing into relationship with Him from sin, God caught their attention. He came down in a cloud, which He announced with lightning, trumpet’s noise and a smoking mountain (Exod 19:16-19 King James Version). This covenant records multiple conversations between God and Moses. It also shows God revealing Himself in the burning bush in a theophany (3:2). The Lord spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod 33:11; Deut. 5:4 New International Version). In contrast to God’s arresting communication with lightning, trumpet’s noise and a smoking mountain (Exod 19:16-19) that made the Israelites fearful of the Lord, Moses conversation with the Lord demonstrated the intimacy that comes with friendship. Propp (2006) said that Moses’ encounter with God differed from everyone else’s. Only Moses had this direct access with God. God’s communication during this covenant characterized wide-ranging symbols from the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that signified God’s presence to the children of Israel in the departure from Egypt (Exod 13:21–22) to the intricacies of the Tabernacle of Moses. Even the ten plagues on the Egyptians and the starkness of the desert were modes of God’s communication. Perhaps, God communicated in a demonstrative fashion to Moses and these first-generation children of Israel who provoked Him ten times and wandered in the desert to their death because of their disobedience (Num 13-14:22).
Palestinian Covenant (Deut 28-30)
Whereas the Mosaic Covenant was between first generation children of Israel, the Palestinian dealt with the second generation. It amplified the Mosaic Covenant with moral and civil codes as conditions for living in the Promised Land (Paron, 2014). This covenant pertains to the land. Much of the language relates to the land, mentioned about 180 times in the Book of Deuteronomy (Conner, 1983). The land showed a much different future. Rather than stark desert conditions, it promised milk and honey. These were visual symbols to the children of Israel of forthcoming prosperity. During this covenant, Moses spoke for God to the children of Israel (Deut 29:1; 29-30). However, God continued to dialogue with Moses. He showed Moses the whole land, but he could not cross over to it (34:1-4). Moreover, as the children of Israel went into Canaan to conquer the land under Joshua’s leadership, the Ark of the Covenant went before them (Josh. 1-3). It symbolized new beginnings. However, they Israelites did not keep their conditions and God expelled them from the land. Scripture communicated what awaited them as sickness, plagues, and cast out status (Deut 29: 16-29; Lev 18:24-28). This came to pass during the period of the judges.
Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:11-15)
In the last Old Testament covenant, which extended the Mosaic and Palestinian Covenants, God promised kingship from the lineage of David and the House of Judah (Paron, 2014) with a messianic nature. This covenant shows some different patterns of communication. First, David enquired of the Lord and the Lord in turn answered Him (1 Sam 23:2-4). This does not have the same tone as the intimacy shown with face to face dialogue between Moses and God (Exod 33:11; Deut 5:4), but David did communicate directly with Him. The Davidic Covenant also foretells the language of redemption with a number of seed promises (e.g., Isa 7:13-14; 9:6-9; Jer. 25:5-6; 33:15). Additionally, the sacrificial animals and blood typed greater spiritual sacrifices and atonement to come in the New Testament (e.g., burnt offerings to the Ark of the Covenant; 2 Sam 6:17, 18:1; 1 Chron 16:1-3). The seal was another symbol of the seed with the sun, moon, and stars as signs for the seasons, days, and years. While the heavens remained, the sun ruled the day, and moon and stars the night David’s throne would exist (Jer. 32:35-37; 33:19-26; Conners & Malmin, 1983). Jesus fulfills the seal.
New Covenant (Isa 11:1; Matt 1:1; John 1:17; Acts 2)
With the New Testament, Jesus, the Chief Cornerstone–God manifested in flesh walked and talked among the people freely teaching, healing and preaching among the marginalized. He reached the multitudes with stories, parables, and symbolic illustrations. When the Fulfilled Law outpoured His promised Spirit on the Day of Pentecost there came a sound from heaven like “a mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2a King James Version). Then, “cloven tongues like as of fire” (2:3) settled on each disciple and the Holy Ghost filled them. Each spoke as He gave them utterance (v. 4). Those dwelling in Jerusalem heard these utterances. The scattered with their confounded language (Gen 11:7-8) now understood what the disciples said each in their own dialect (Acts 2:6 Amplified). These expressions exemplify multisensory modes of communication by Jesus and through His Spirit. They serve to witness who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit continues today to manifest His presences through the speaking of tongues in believers.
The children of Israel despite their promise to obey God repeatedly turned from Him in the Old Testament, while the crowd rejected Jesus as the Messiah in the New. Scripture contains the hidden things that God’s indwelt Spirit reveals in the fullness of Godhead through His special revelation that only spiritual man discerns (1 Cor 2:6-13; Col 2:9). Conner (1980) compared these symbols to Jesus’ parables. While the crowd who listened to Jesus heard them as the language of Creation, the disciples understood it them as “the language of the symbols” or also called “the language of redemption” (p. 5). Thus, people in the natural cannot perceive the spiritual things of God. Also, learned behaviors such as beliefs, values, norms, and social practices behaviors that people acquire from a host of associated cultural groups, from family member to workplace colleagues affect how they make meaning (Lustig & Koestner, 2005). These behaviors influence how they perceive and interpret events, situations, and communications including the Gospel. How do leaders address the cultural perceptions of the listener, yet communicate in a way that spiritually transforms them?
God contextually communicated with humankind in the Old and New Testaments using multidimensional methods to transmit a message appropriate to the person/people. His intent was to transform them to holiness in redemption from salvation. Likewise, ministerial leaders also should pattern themselves using diverse communication methods to support His end. In a prior work, this author (Paron, 2013) discussed five communication axioms for ministry leaders to reach a broad multiethnic population for spiritual transformation. These axioms rest on the adaptation of cultural signs and symbols that promote sense-making meaning between the source and receiver during the messaging process, but anchor themselves in a Christian perspective in both theological function and principles. The five axioms show that transformational communication (1) supports God’s purpose and plan; (2) revolves around unconditional love; (3) generates from the Holy Spirit; (4) brings meaning; (5) and unifies the Body in diversity. These can serve as a starting place for understanding God’s intent for communication.
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