You are correct if you think this post is about the Gospel. It’s my favorite subject in the world. It’s the biggest and best news any soul who has ever lived could possibly hear. It’s not FAKE news, it’s truly GOOD NEWS about our world. The question which is always bubbling to the surface is: Just what exactly is the Gospel? If our answer to this question is: “Jesus died for our sins.”, or “The first four books of the New Testament,” or “God loves you and has a plan for your life.” Then I think it’s fair to say that we have “part” of it.
The Bible tells us that the gospel is “proclaimed and preached” which is a way of saying it’s a big announcement. The word in Greek is “eúaggéllion” which means “good news”, “message,” or information that causes one joy. While Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father) was the first to hear the “Good News” in the New Testament, we must not conclude that the Gospel is solely a New Testament idea, which is our first clue that the gospel is not exclusive to what we now call the Christian religion.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The Jews lived in anticipation for the arrival of the messenger who would bear this message of Good News and refine and restore the people of God. As I’ve shown over the past few weeks, the Gospel is first proclaimed to Jewish people because the good news is that Hebrew history has finally been realized. The wait is over. This was also essentially the message to Mary from the Angel (Luke 1:30-33)
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)
Within a few sentences we learn that the Gospel is bigger than most of us can conceive. It’s bigness however, does not diminish it’s smallness. This is a window into truly understanding the nature and essence of the Gospel. It is alway the third thing which includes and goes beyond a single thing. For example, it is both wide and inclusive, while at the same time it is narrow and exclusive. It is far off and coming to us while at the same time it is close and within us. It’s now and not yet. It is both fact and experience. It is both faith and life. As Rob Bell once put it, “The gospel is as wide as the universe and as narrow as Jesus.”
Therefore, when we try and sum the gospel up and say specifically what it is…. we are at the same time correct, while at the same time vastly understating it. But does that mean it is incomprehensible? NO. That is what makes it such good news to all comers. When we truncate the gospel, arguing only for its narrow exclusivity, we do it and our world a huge disservice. If I could offer you one thing, it is to begin widening your understanding of it so that it can be seen, loved and pointed out to all people, in all situations within the world. I fear the contemporary church’s presentation of the gospel has become wound so tight, that it turns off most people by strangulation and argument. By contrast, the promise from Isaiah was liberation. When John the Baptist preached the Good News of the Kingdom, and when Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom, the only people who found it unbelievable, were the religious minded. Compare that to much of what we see in the church today, where only the religious minded double down on it’s narrowness.
It’s also important to note that there is an evolution to the Gospel, while at the same time, it is un unchanging, unswerving message. Once we see the key theme, (namely the liberating power of restorative justice replacing retributive justice) then it becomes visible in and through the different lives of different people at different times in different cultures for different purposes with different applications. How is something so different, still the same?
I showed above the gospel of Isaiah. But the “Ethos” of the Gospel is found within every book of sacred text. Here are just a couple of examples:
The voice of “Wisdom” is calling out from all corners of the city. (Proverbs 8:8-11)
“All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to him who understands,
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
Or from Jeremiah 31:33-34
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Or Hosea 2:21-23
“And in that day I will answer, declares the Lord,
I will answer the heavens,
and they shall answer the earth,
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel,
and I will sow her for myself in the land.
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;
and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’”
I think you get the message. If you would like to see a bigger list, I have put together over 137 verses from every book in the bible and you can access it HERE.
If we begin to see the Gospel throughout Hebrew scripture and history, then we will be able to see it through other sacred texts and all human history. If your aren’t ready for that, then let’s focus on how it varies from John the Baptist, to Jesus, to the Disciples and then to Paul.
For John the Baptist, the Good News proclamation was that the long awaited promise for this restoration was here and now. For John, the gospel was a preparation for the arrival of this new world. In order to get ready, people were being called out of religion and irreligion alike, and invited to rethink/ reconsider or “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)
For Jesus, he is proclaiming a new administration, a new form of leadership, a gospel of a new Kingdom that isn’t like all the oppressive kingdoms that are in the world. For starters, this one has the power to heal all aspects of broken humanity. Furthermore, it was Good News because it was the beginning of Kingdom which included every nation, tribe, tongue (read religion) on earth.
“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
For Peter, the Good News is that even the lowest, most abased, unreligious person who denies Jesus to his face (Peter), can be restored by faith and not face retribution. For him the Gospel is all about believing Jesus is who he said he was, the promised messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. It has to be specific for Peter, because of his proximity to Jesus and the locality of its message to everyone around.
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)
For Paul, who was not an eye witness of Jesus, but one of the original persecutors of the Church, the Gospel holds the greatest breadth, depth, scope and scale of any New Testament writer. It is the basis for all his letters written to the churches he planted and served. As an astute Jewish scholar, he provides the pathway to understand Hebrew scripture through the lens of faith. His belief is most like ours in that there is no record of him ever knowing Jesus as a person, and if he did, he would certainly of opposed him.
Paul’s so-called “conversion” occurs in Acts chapter 9, the text doesn’t call it that. The story simply recounts the moment when it dawns on Paul (through an extraordinary experience) who Jesus actually was. The fact that God specifically tells Ananias though a vision that Paul is a “chosen instrument” allows us to reframe this event from him switching religions (which he clearly doesn’t do) into Paul life being completed by his new understanding and awareness of Christ. His Hebrew training and scholarship was a pre-requisite of his successful reasoning with Jewish communities throughout a very large region. His “relationship” to God through Christ (as a non eye-witness) becomes foundational for establishing new communities (ekklesia’s) everywhere he went. Again, these are Jewish communities who are being reformed by the awareness that their promised messiah had come.
Of course it didn’t stop there. Paul was essentially supercharging the wideness and inclusive scale of the gospel message which had hit Peter back in Acts 10. The Jews have always believed God would save them as the “chosen people” and now the Gospel proved to include non-jews as well, treating outsiders as insiders. This is a really big deal. It was a huge point of contention from the religious establishment. The God of the Jews, YHWY, through His messenger, Christ, was now saving non-jews, without them converting to Judaism. (Acts 15:22-35)
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
The pushback for the Jews was to insist that non-jews must uphold some parts of religious ritual, law, or compliance in order for God to be “OK” them (justified). It’s exactly the same today in all fundamental religions. They were adding rules to the message that God is freely saving all people by grace. God’s justice is no longer based in retribution, but in restoration, since retribution was place on Jesus. This is why Paul claims there are people trying to distort the Message.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8)
The Gospel for Paul is that God has, is and will freely save all people, through Grace. In fact, the bulk of the New Testament is comprised of letters from Paul, writing to communities who simply can’t completely understand how that is possible. As we apply our best scholarship to Paul’s grasp of the Gospel, he is clearly not arguing for conversion to a new religion, but a fresh revelation of how all people (religious and otherwise) can find themselves in God through the grace of Christ. Religious works, rituals and process, while helpful at times, are not the means for this grace. Paul’s gospel is not trying to get us to heaven one day when we die, it is enlarging the kingdom of heaven within each and every image bearer, as we incrementally grow, through failure, into the likeness of Christ.
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-16)
I could go on and on but I have to assume that for some reading or listening, there are emerging questions which are coming from years of cultural conditioning in or out of religion. My hope through this series is to free ourselves of these strongholds and affinities which Paul worked so hard to deconstruct in his day. The same religious allegiance exists today as it did for Paul. The question is whether we will press through it and discover the Gospel for ourselves. Here are some questions which may help start the process.
- What is the biggest objection to the idea that God will restore all people no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have done?
- Paul isn’t saying that the universal inclusion of all people doesn’t warrant a response, but he stops short of creating hard measures which define inclusion and exclusion. Does your understanding of the Gospel allow for this nuance, or do you see a clear requirement from each person to appropriate the work of Christ in their lives?
- Do you find yourself struggling with the idea of justice? Do you feel that the restorative justice of the Gospel is not as satisfying as the retributive justice of religion?
- Is it hard to let go of the idea of transactional conversion in favor of transformational completion?
The message of the church has certainly changed over the millennia. Our culture is not widely embracing the gospel offered today and in many cases, people are discarding it. What if the message of the Gospel sounded more like the early church? What if those who proclaimed it were not afraid of the religious establishment condemning them for including all comers without the need for conversion to a religion? What do you suppose would happen if people heard an invitation into grace and love rather than a threat for non belief?
I believe this would be really Good News. Perhaps not for the religious institutions who gain their power through exclusivity, but it would certainly be Good News to all who had faith to believe it. It’s a great message to those who no matter how hard they try, cannot rise above their besetting sins. It’s a great message to those who are no longer enamored with the exoskeleton of religion and who desire true divine union. It’s good news to a world which can’t seem to find its way through competitive religions and truth claims. It’s good news to those who have always felt like their own inner experience was deeply spiritual but who had no one who would validate it. It’s good news for those who have been abused or manipulated into the wedding chamber under threat of abandonment.
So I guess the biggest problem we each must resolve within our souls is whether the Good News is actually too good to be true. Now, who is brave enough to actually believe it?