what is the gospel?

At the end of last year I was criticised by the organiser of an event I was asked to speak at because of the gospel that I preached.

“We believe the gospel is the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus,” he said.

On the surface this assertion sounds good to many Christians. But is that really what the gospel is? Is the gospel really just the stating of a doctrinal belief (albeit one based in history) whereby voluntary assent leads to post mortem safety?

Such a caricature does not seem to make sense of the biblical narrative for me. In the Old Testament the phrase “good news” was used to describe the announcement of the people of God concerning the fact that God would bring them back from Exile in a manner similar to that of the Exodus, and that he would be king over them (e.g. Isaiah 40 esp. vv.9-11; 52 esp. vv.7-10). Such kingship obviously implies a kingdom, and so the ‘good news’ (gospel) was essentially an announcement of the coming kingdom of God, that is, God’s reign/rule over his people who are formed into an alternative society to those surrounding them in accordance with the Mosaic Law.

In this way the gospel was intricately linked to the narrative of the Old Testament; God had redeemed and rescued Israel to become an alternative society to empires like Egypt, though throughout their history Israel had eventually become like such empires. For this reason God would cleanse them through fire in the Exile, and the good news (gospel) was that they would be restored as the originally intended alternative kingdom.

In the New Testament the meaning of ‘gospel’ does not really change. By the time of Jesus two things will largely affect the definition of the Greek word euangelion;

1) Israel has once again transformed into an empire-like state inasmuch as it is ruled by a minority aristocracy who oppresses the poor and consolidates its power with an iron fist, and;
2) The Roman Empire is the major political force in the world.

The Roman Empire is a major factor in our definition of the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament. The word referred to the announcement of a new king/emperor; when a new emperor took the throne messengers would be sent all over the Empire to announce this news (for more on this see Tom Wright’s What St Paul Really Said). The word could also be used when a new region was conquered and included into the Roman Empire.

The emperor himself was known by many titles, including father (of the fatherland), son of god, saviour, prince of peace (that is, the kind of peace represented by the Pax Romana), lord etc. (do these words ring any bells?)

So when Jesus begins his ministry, he takes a term that refers to the coming of God to restore an alternative society/kingdom to that of empire (OT), a term that is also used by the major empire of his day (NT). The New Testament even clearly has him announcing the gospel as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven/God is at hand.” That is to say, the gospel is the announcement of the king and his kingdom.

Could it be any clearer? Jesus takes a term used by the imperialists of his day, subverts it and uses it to announce an alternative way of existence to that of empire.

How have we muddied this up? Perhaps it is because we are so caught up in dualist and modernist paradigms that we cannot fathom the idea that Jesus did not come to whisk Platonic souls away to heaven, but he came to announce something real and earthy and political –  a new world order; the kingdom of God.

Why is this important? Because it changes the whole Christian game…

The task of following Jesus does not allow us the safety or luxury to ignore what happens in our world in favour of the shallow piousness of a Sunday religion. Jesus’ gospel is the announcement of a reality diametrically opposed to that of empire. if empire stands for exploitation, then Jesus stands for liberty. If empire stands for war, murder and death, Jesus stands for peace, love and life. If empire stands for inequity then you can bet that Jesus stands for equity.

The list could go on, though I don’t think i need to insult your intelligence for you to work out the implications of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom.

MCA

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Posted on January 28, 2011, in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Love it dude. Especially the 2nd last para that was gold

  2. Interesting thoughts, with which I mostly agree. You need to be careful not to separate ‘kingdom’ from ‘death & resurrection’ though. It is in Jesus’ death and resurrection that all powers & authorities (spiritual and earthly) are overthrown and shown up for what they really are. Jesus certainly isn’t about ‘whisking Platonic souls away to heaven;’ but we make the same dualistic mistake if we separate spiritual and earthly kingdoms. Political authority is not invested just in the state and the people; rather, the spiritual activity of God and his enemies is political as well. Oliver O’Donovan’s book ‘The Desire Of The Nations’ is brilliant on this stuff.

    Anyway, if that’s true, then the gospel isn’t at all an either-or choice of definitions; not ‘kingdom’ or ‘death-resurrection,’ but one story, where the kingdom is announced, enacted and proclaimed in the death-resurrection (as well as incarnation and ascension) event.

  3. I agree that the gospel is about the good news of the coming of jesus, but this good new is only validated by his death and resurrection. If he didn’t die on a cross and wasn’t raised three days later the gospel wouldn’t be good news. if we over politicize the gospel we under play the divinity of Jesus.

    1 Corinthians 15

    1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
    3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve.

    Blessings,

    Ross

  4. Well said Mr Wright…I mean Mr Anslow…I mean..well said sir! : )

  5. Matt,

    I don’t see why you align the definition of the gospel as the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with dualism. Perhaps there is more to this background story than you have told here, but as it stands you seem to be making a pretty big logical jump. There are plenty of theologians who would define the gospel as precisely this proclamation – that God has raised Jesus from the dead – who are far from guilty of the claims you are making here.

    There is one more question that you might want to address in your thinking about this: did Jesus declare the gospel, or is the gospel declared about Jesus? The answer is important because if it is the former, then the content of the gospel is something other than Jesus. If the gospel centres around something other than Jesus, how then is it properly called “Christian”, particularly when it has been shown that little of his teaching is original?

    I don’t mean to downplay the talk of the kingdom; but if Jesus were not the risen lord the kingdom would be a pipe dream.

    Steve.

  6. Excellent posting! What bone head were you talking to that did not understand that the Kingdom of God is here on earth? However, in my opinion there is more to the gospel than just an announcement that the Kingdom of God has arrived.

    When I refer to the gospel, I am referring to the all-encompassing story of how Jesus brought about the Kingdom of God. The stories and prophesies in the Old Testament, Jesus birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection. The gospel permeates the entire Bible. Who brought about this new world order? Jesus. Why? GRACE… I’m not positive, but from your posting this might be where we part ways theologically. To me, grace is the gospel. No, we are not called to sit around and gaze at our navels after we receive our fire insurance policy.

    However, whatever good we do, whatever actions that are righteous only reflect the love that God has for us – the second that you do something to earn it, it stops being grace.

    Now – back to where we agree. ACTION – Does everyone forget that Jesus said that we are supposed to be light to the world so that the world might see God through our good WORKS. Somewhere along the way, some non-denominational marketer decided that Jesus really meant that the world would see God through our good WORDS. Because, that’s what we’ve become – words words words, but no works.

    That goes along with the short memory of those that think that the Great Commission was to go forth and make new Christians… NO – go forth and make DISCIPLES. What’s the difference? Christians sit on their butts and sing praise songs, listen to a guy who they agree with talk about theology and go home (repeat next Sunday). Disciples embody Christ in their lives – they are people of action.

    So, preach on! Let’s stop TALKING about social issues and morality and take a stand for justice, equality, peace…

  7. @Richard & Ross – You have pointed out something i should have made much clearer in my article with which I agree with you about – the death and resurrection of Jesus is indeed a key ingredient. As you said Ross, part of the resurrection is the validation of Jesus as true Messiah (king). the death and resurrection of Jesus has of course many implications and applications, though I would take Christus Victor as a dominant one inasmuch as Jesus defeats evil etc. and thus embodies the story of God.

    In regards to over politicising; I would argue that it is hard to do such a thing, unless of course you deny the divinity altogether (or something like that). I would also caution that focusing on Jesus’ divinity does not mean moving away from politics – if Jesus was indeed divine, and he indeed indeed engage in the political realm then it would make little sense to separate the two.

    Richard – I hear your point about going the other way on dualism, though I think we define “spiritual” and “spirituality” in platonic terms (i.e. non-materiality). I don’t think this is what biblical authors in both Testaments would think (though it’s hard to know in the case of OT people because there does not seem to be a word for ‘spiritual’, though Josh Dowton may have to correct me on that if I’m wrong).

    Matt

  8. Steve – you are right in that I have not really provided the full back story – it might get long and boring. You raise a good question, though if I were to answer it i would point to the testimony of Jesus himself having preached the gospel prior to his death and resurrection, a gospel which (as i said previously) is in my view clearly articulated to refer to the kingdom and not to the person of Christ per se. Inasmuch as Christ is the Messiah (king) of this kingdom, then great! However Jesus seems to have not articulated the kingdom in a way that referred to himself directly.

  9. Matt,

    I think this is precisely the point where we differ. When I think of the proclamation of the gospel, I don’t think of the teaching of Jesus. Instead, I think of Peter in Acts: “Jesus whom you killed… God has raised from the dead.” I think of Paul: “to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” So Jesus’ talk of the kingdom is not the content of the gospel, but Jesus talking of the kingdom is. This proclamation, it seems to me, is the basis of much of the NT writing. Apart from the gospels, the NT has little to say about the life and teaching of Jesus, but it has a lot to say about his death and resurrection. Talk of the kingdom features as an implication of Christ’s embodiment of the gospel, but I do not think that the gospel is distinct from the person of Jesus himself.

  10. Matt,

    Thanks for the clarification. I think we’re on the same page: politics includes both sides of what our inner dualist (!) would categorise as ‘spiritual’ and ‘material.’ It includes both because the two are not in fact distinct!

    Side note: the problem I haven’t been able to resolve with Christus Victor is that it seems to do exactly what it claims evangelicals have often done–paring down the work of Jesus to speak of it only in legal-righteousness terminology. While the defeat of evil is clearly a significant aspect of Jesus’ death & resurrection, it’s very much not the only one; neither is the legal-righteous aspect. It seems to me that strict proponents of both PSA and CV fail to grapple with the diversity of the gospel–it can’t be categorised in one way above all others.

    That’s not really what we’re talking about here, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about 🙂

  11. I’ve been drawn to the Christus Victor view and will be reading Some N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd in the near future to get my head around it.

    I have a feeling I may be misunderstanding you in this post.

    It would seem that you are almost doing away with the whole of Christian Hope, the resurrection to everlasting life, the new Jerusalem, the new heavens and the new earth. You’re not hinting at a Full Preteristic view point here are you?

    I’d say that all of the facts you presented about the subverted kingdom speak doesn’t discount the wider, future, heavenly hope at all but are the beginnings of it. You seem to be playing it off against this view. I’m wondering whether you are trying to provide a counterbalance to those that see no place for the Kingdom of God in this world (which of course there is). I’d be interested in your clarification. I think there are some very good critiques here amongst your responses.

  12. definately worth a listen if you take this that seriously
    God bless,
    Kyle

  13. @Steve – I hear what you are saying. While I disagree (on the grounds of Jesus’ own apparent definition of the gospel, and treating this as historically accurate), I don’t think the person of Jesus is totally disconnected from the gospel. Just as the gospel was the announcement coming *from* Caesar about a new kingdom, and hence a new king (himself), Jesus is obviously included in that. I have come to a point where I don’t read Paul in the way I used to, and so the gospel makes a lot more sense in his letters in this way.

    @Richard – Great point. I suppose part of the solution may be to consider the scope of evil that Jesus defeated – how much does this evil encompass?

    @Ben – The difficulty in saying anything is that you can never say everything! I in no way am opposed to belief in the Resurrection from the dead (though judging by how you put it we both have jettisoned belief in disembodied afterlife?) I apologise if it sounds as if I am speaking against resurrection – I am simply speaking against a Platonic view of it (i.e. escapist). I believe the coming resurrection to be incredibly important theologically as it gives much meat to the bones of our kingdom work now. Indeed, the New Jerusalem, heaven coming to earth et.al. should shape what we do here and now for we anticipate that reality in our action. Indeed I see the whole drama that has unfolded and is continuing to do so as just that – a story – stretching from creation to Jesus, up until now and through until the end. Of course the story would make no sense when you take out any of the important scenes…

    @Kyle – Obviously this is not the time to discuss this subject, though I will mention that I have discussed 1 Thessalonians with you previously (https://liferemixed.net/2010/11/22/jesus-apocalypse/#comments). I think the person in the video you posted makes an assumption at the beginning that is fatal to the remainder of their discourse – that 1 Thessalonians is speaking about “the rapture”. As I have stated, I don’t think this is the case. At the end of the video he talks about people who think we will basically rule the world before Jesus comes (often called a postmillenial position). I do not believe this by the way.
    Kyle, at the end of all this, I’m just not sure why the Rapture is so important for your theology. If it was in Scripture (which I don’t believe it is), there would only a couple of references to it. This doesn’t make it very central to our faith. On the other hand the issue of justice has over 2000 references to it. Which do you think God thinks is more important?

    Matt

  14. Get back to me once you have watched the whole video and its parts before you make false assumptions. I do not care about anyone’s beliefs when we have the word of God and it is so clear.
    I know how much you care about justice, i was at Drastic ’09, and God has a great heart for justice too. But too often we worry about the minor details and miss the big picture. I believe you when you say justice was mentioned in the bible frequently, But it mentions God’s justice and not ours.
    The bible talks about things yet to come that apply to our generation and christians rule it out as unimportant. So much of the bible concerns this ‘age’ and if we continue to ignore it then we might as well throw the bible out the window.
    If you consider yourself a christian and the bible says that all scripture is profitable; then either we believe all the bible or we only believe part which the bible says if we take anything away then our names will be taken from the lambs book of life or if we add anything the plagues of egypt will fall upon us. We cannot base our lives on Micah 6:8 when the bible has so much in store for us.
    I have spent my life denying the fact that Jesus is coming soon due to my wants. I have spent my life clinging onto my own form of christianity. I have spent my life living my own will not God’s. I have spent it thinking it was what God would want. No more.

  15. Matt.

    I think you have mixed up a couple of issues here. The gospel; “evangelion” is the actual message of good news. Yes the term is an ancient one and has secular meaning in the way a runner might take the news from a general in battle to the kind saying they have won the battle.

    Therefore the Gospel its self is the actual message to which we are to respond to. Many within Pentecostalism erroneously believe the whole Bible is the Gospel; which is not true….

    I believe that Scripture gives us a number of contextual ways of understanding the work of the cross… so to the Jew who understands the sacrificial system; the theory of Penal Substitution becomes understandable… to us who don’t understand this sacrificial system “Christ Victor” becomes more understandable…therefore both understandings are true.

    However; I believe the gist of your post is more so about what our response to the Gospel should be; this then is a different issue.

  16. @Craig – You are right, and this is what I have said, though perhaps I did not make it as clear as I should have. In response I’ve gone back and changed the wording of one sentence toward the end just to make my opinion clearer. Instead of “Jesus… uses (gospel) to refer to an alternative way of existence to that of empire.,” I’ve said “Jesus… uses (gospel) to *announce* an alternative way of existence to that of empire.” Thanks for the heads up.
    You are indeed correct, the gospel is not the Bible, nor the response, but the message/announcement of the kingdom and the king. I did, however, venture from a rough definition to the response because I think this is necessarily linked – a response was required from Rome, and also from God.

    @Kyle – Mate, I’m not denying Jesus is coming soon because of my wants – I don’t know when he is coming! Despite what you say, the Bible is not clear on that issue; you only assume that because you have made the pertinent biblical passages fit a pre-made interpretive mould. I would strongly recommend you look into the historical precedent for your model of interpreting the Bible, particularly the future. I think you will find that overall it is not very old…
    I would argue the opposite of what you have said. I would argue that Christians (and others) deny *justice* because of their wants. They make it into a minor issue (as you say) precisely because it requires the change of life God expects throughout both Testaments.
    I’m still not sure why a couple of unclear references to what you call “rapture” becomes the major issue and the “big picture”; you have not given a clear answer as to why the rapture is so important, nor why it is “so clear”.
    People have debated interpretation of the Bible for centuries. Are you saying that you, someone untrained in theology, understands the Bible so much better than all these people that it becomes “clear” to you? (I’m not saying untrained people can’t read the Bible, I’m simply pointing out the oddity of such a hyperbolic claim).
    Keep in mind also that the “Rapture” only showed up in doctrinal discourse around three hundred years ago. There is no discussion of it prior to this as far as I know.
    I appreciate your seriousness about doing God’s will. I agree that justice is not the only issue, though it is a *major* issue. I think love trumps justice, and there is no justice without love. But I also think that the Church today needs a big wake up call in regard to biblical justice which, as you said, is God’s justice, though of course he expects us to live that justice out.

    Matt

  17. Matt; Thanks for the clarification; its one I whole heartedly agree with.

    Regarding our response to the Gospel; I think that our eschatology and perception of heaven, influences our understanding and the way we respond to the Gospel message and even distorts what that message is.

    I would suggest that this then causes us to ignore the social plight of injustice and what it means for us to engage with the world as kingdom people.

  18. @Craig – Couldn’t agree more. Our eschatology shapes everything we do in the present. This is why I think Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” is such an important book.

  19. Matt, you have some seriously big words in here that as usual go way over my head. However I love your op and find it a significant challenge to my possible pious sunday religion to the point that I will have to ponder it more and act accordingly to God’s call. Keep posting stuff like this. God bless.

  20. Thanks Tinners. I see that you hooked into this post via one of my ‘fans’. We should get together real soon.

    Matt

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