What is the Gospel?

gospellukeLast week and the week before I was lecturing to the first year class of the Practical Theology course at ETS. My lectures were part of a module on the Great Commission, using a sentence from the Lausanne Covenant for its structure: ‘World evangelisation requires the Whole Church to take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.’ The Lausanne Covenant is worth a read, if you’ve not come across it, as is the Manila Manifesto. Anyhow, my lectures were on ‘The Whole Gospel.’

What is the Gospel? The Gospel is the Good News (that’s what Gospel means)of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. The Gospel is also the Gospel of the Kingdom – a summary that wraps up into the Gospel a load of context from the Old Testament. It’s the Gospel of Resurrection and New Creation too. The Gospel is multi-facetted and rich. We have a tendency to package it, to pare it down. Tom Wright recalls John Stott speaking at a NEAC meeting:

I remember a long time ago now in the 1970s when we had one of those NEAC conferences, and John Stott gave the summary speech and he said, “People are always saying: what is the irreducible minimum gospel?” And I remember him saying “I don’t want an irreducible minimum gospel, I want the whole gospel.”

As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, in their excellent The Drama of Scripture,

We cannot grasp the meaning of the story of Jesus until we begin to see that it is in fact the climactic episode of the great story of the Bible, the chronicle of God’s work in human history. 135

So, there’s a lot to say about the Gospel, a lot to explain, a lot that’s rooted in the backstory of God’s dealings with Israel – the covenants, the promises of the Kingdom. But Gospel summaries have their place. Paul summarises the Gospel in several places in his writings. One, in First Corinthians, goes like this:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached… By this gospel you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve… Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here, Paul summarises the events of the Good News of the coming of Jesus. But the hooks to the wider story are there: what does the title Messiah mean? What is the story the Old Testament scriptures relay? And, as Margaret Mitchell has pointed out, Paul wraps up his own encounter with the risen Jesus in this Gospel narrative.

If we are going to speak about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to know it. We need to know how to speak about it; how to summarise it as any particular situation demands; what language to use. Often these summaries just provide the ‘hooks’ for later, extended conversations about what Almighty God is doing through and as Jesus Christ. The more we understand the Gospel, the more effective our speaking of it will be (and not only so, but also our living out of the Gospel, and the formation of our lives and characters by the Gospel). And right there is the task of Christian discipleship and growth – to know the Gospel. Not some irreducible minimum, but the rich, full-orbed Gospel of the King and the Kingdom.

In the last lecture, we thought a little about how we might summarise the Gospel and I encouraged the class to give it a go. I’d encourage you to give it a go too. Here’s my quick effort in three short paragraphs.

The Gospel is the good news that God is keeping promises he made long ago. Promises to deal with all of the pain, evil and injustice in his world. Promises to save a broken and sinful humanity from itself, and promises to save a groaning planet from a broken and sinful humanity.

The Gospel is the good news that the human Jesus is God, come into his world to make these promises come true. He died on a cross to put people right, so that they could be forgiven for their sins. He rose from the dead, breaking death’s power, and is alive. So, he can give people a new start, a new kind of life in a new kind of community; and one day, in spite of death, to give them another life – an unending life – in a world put right and set free.

The Gospel is the good news that if you change your path, put your trust in Jesus, and follow his path, this can all be yours – as a gift; no payback required.

Jesus’s Ministry and Ours

matthewOver the last couple of Sundays, I’ve been speaking on Jesus’s message of ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom’ from Matthew 4 and 5. One thing that you notice about the first chapters dealing with Jesus’s ministry is that Matthew summarises it in two places. First in 4:23:

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.

Then again in 9:35:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.

Both summaries emphasise the same components to Jesus’s ministry: proclamation of good news, teaching, and healing.

The correspondence is striking between these two verses which are, let’s face it, quite far apart! That in itself reminds us that we need to be attentive when we read God’s word, and that only ever reading chapter-sized chunks can prevent us seeing these much broader connections. As I’ve said before, we need to read across the chapters, and we need to be able to pick out these significant ‘summary verses’. The Gospels are literature: they’ve been shaped, formed. The message isn’t just in the words themselves, it’s in the shape and the structure.

These two summaries in 4:23 and 9:35 point us to what lies between them. Between these two verses we find Jesus’s proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ in the Beatitudes (5:3-12); Jesus’s teaching on the Kingdom in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount (5:13-7:27); and then a series of stories about Jesus’s healing of the sick and those under the influence of evil spirits (chapters 8 and 9). Within the brackets of the summaries we find Jesus’s proclamation, teaching and healing.

Right after the second summary (the closing bracket) we find these words of Jesus:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”

Immediately afterward, The Twelve are sent out. The labourers are called to follow the example of their master. Jesus is the exemplar. Our ministry to the world should mirror that of Jesus: proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom (and of Jesus as King), teaching about the Kingdom (and about Jesus as King), and practical care through which we declare the coming reality and goal of the Kingdom (and the heart of the King) in the here and now.

This is how we bring in the harvest. This is how disciples are made.

Do Not Be Afraid

unknownLife continually throws up situations that make us anxious. We all know this. Yet, we don’t often share that basic human reality. Often, we are anxious about the future, about its hidden paths and unknown challenges. When Jesus addresses anxiety, this is the facet of life he focusses on: what will I eat? What will I drink? What will I wear? (For those into grammar, the verbs are subjunctives in the Greek, indicating the real possibility of not eating, drinking, wearing). But Jesus is clear: do not be anxious.

Isaiah 43:1-5 is a passage that also speaks comfort, this time in the face of danger.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.

This passage, addressed to the People of God, raises so many questions. Many of the People of God have been drowned and burned, with many of these being martyrs. And yet, the Word itself still brings powerful comfort: Do Not Be Afraid…I will be With You. Over the past weeks, I keep returning to this: Do Not Be Afraid. Most recently in Haggai 2:5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes (in Life Together):

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.

We live in the face of an unknown future; in the face of our insecurity; in the face of the dangers of the world; in the face of our enemies…this is The Way the World Is. It is our common human experience. Anxiety and fear seem entirely appropriate! And yet, into This World there comes this jarring word: Do Not Be Afraid. Walter Brueggemann captures this in his prayer ‘Salvation Oracles’, which begins by speaking the names of the threats we face: terror, cancer, loneliness, shame, death – ‘the list goes on’…

And in the midst of threat of every kind / you appear among us in your full power,

in your deep fidelity, / in your amazing compassion, / You speak among us the one word that could matter:

“Do not fear.”

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance.

On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true. / So give us good days by your rule,

free enough to rejoice, / open enough to change, / trusting enough to move out of new obedience,

grace enough to be forgiven and then forgive.

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 83

God Loves the World

johnJohn 3:16, one of the most-neglected parts of the Bible (although just last weekend I heard an excellent sermon on it). At least, the first part of it is. This part of the verse is so often skipped over en route to the ‘gospel in miniature’ (Luther) in the second part.

For God so loved the world…

God loved the world, the kosmos. God didn’t merely love the people of the world, as if kosmos here just means all people, whoever they are. God loved the kosmos. In John’s Gospel, the term kosmos is used with a degree of ambiguity (sometimes the weight of the term is on the world of human beings, sometimes it carries a negative connotation reflecting the fallenness of the world), but here in 3:16 it has to mean ‘world’ in the sense of 1:10: the kosmos was made through him. This is where this Gospel itself begins, with the theology of creation:

In the beginning was the logos…through him all things were made.

It ought not to surprise us that God loved, and still loves, the kosmos. Sometimes Christians struggle to explain God’s motivation for acting in salvation for a lost world: ‘why would God love such a sinful world? why would God go to such lengths for rebellious, sinful people?’ It must be just down to God’s gracious character… Yes, of course it’s in God’s character to love (‘God is love’ is one of the most profound statements in the Bible), but John’s Gospel points us to a more immediate answer, one rooted in the creation theology of the Old Testament. A proper appreciation of human sinfulness and the fallenness of the world must be balanced by a proper creation theology. The Bible as a whole begins with the same two words (in the Greek) as John’s Gospel…

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Here is the foundational truth, expounded in Psalm 24: ‘The earth belongs to Yahweh’. After the creative activity of God, in Gen 2:1 the whole kosmos is finished. God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good. The goodness of the kosmos is not extinguished by the Fall. God’s delight in, and love for, the kosmos does not cease at the Fall. God’s love for the kosmos persists, burning just as brightly. God loves the kosmos: its complex matter, its beauty, its long-fashioned geology, its intricate climate; its flora, from giant sequoias to the purple heather; its creatures – birds, mammals, fish, insects; and humans themselves, created to rule – their God-like qualities seen in creativity expressed in the arts and in design, and in their relationships. God loves the world, despite its fallenness. And God’s love for his creation is fundamental to his action in salvation. John’s Gospel begins with these fundamental truths: all things were made through the logos, and God so loved the kosmos which was made through the logos, that the logos himself became flesh, became a human being and came into the kosmos. Not in order to condemn the kosmos, but so that the kosmos might be saved through him.

The Gospel: In Short-hand and Long-hand

St Paul DamascusIs your gospel big enough? I’ve been told a few times that the whole gospel is seen at the cross. And, I’ve been told that the return of Christ is emphatically not part of the gospel. These views are more common than they ought to be. Just what is the Good News?

Recently I read a paper by Margaret Mitchell (‘Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Functions of “The Gospel” in the Corinthian Correspondence’) in which she argues that when Paul writes about the gospel he uses the term ‘the gospel’ (and synonymous terms and phrases) to represent the whole of what he understands to be the gospel. That might seem a prosaic point, but it’s linked to her second argument: that Paul uses single elements of the gospel narrative to evoke the wider whole; they are a kind of shorthand. So, for example, where Paul uses the phrase ‘the gospel of the cross’, this is not a definition of the gospel, but rather a synecdoche (a smaller part evoking a bigger whole).

The gospel is the gospel of the cross, but also the gospel of the resurrection and the gospel of the parousia. Where Paul singles out individual elements of the gospel as shorthand, he does so for rhetorical purposes. So, the cross might be emphasised where Paul’s readers need most to be reminded of the self-giving humility of Jesus. The resurrection might be emphasised where the new life of the believer or ultimate victory over the battles of this life are in view.

Mitchell makes a really important point as to what, in Paul’s mind, are the elements of the gospel. They include the key narrative events that he rehearses in 1 Cor 15, for example:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Cor 15:3-8

It’s worth noting that within this narrative gospel sweep, Paul includes his own encounter with the risen Lord. However, after writing the above, Paul quickly moves on to the return of the Christ and to the resurrection of God’s people. Mitchell writes about this:

In 15:23-28 Paul provides a fresh narrative of the events of the endtime, an example of the opposite literary tendency from shorthand: an expansion of the gospel narrative to respond to new questions which the gospel has engendered for those who seek to live it out in the present and look forward to the future. 74

For Paul, the elements of his gospel form a broad narrative sweep. Mitchell also concludes that the elements of the gospel cannot be easily separated, especially the cross and the resurrection. Writing abut 2 Corinthians 4, Mitchell concludes:

The synecdochical logic which lies behind 4:10-11 is that the death and resurrection of Christ are inseparable and constitute the indivisible unity of the kerygma. 78 (emphasis added)

I highlight this point (which can also be sustained by analysing the kerygmatic speeches of the apostles recorded in the New Testament) because evangelical understandings of the gospel have a tendency to neglect exactly this.

In 2 Corinthians 1:19 we find one of the most interesting uses of Pauline gospel shorthand. The gospel is here summarised as Jesus Christ himself as the Son of God.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy. 2 Cor 1:19

And that is why the gospel, in Paul’s mind, is not merely circumscribed by the events of the death, resurrection and parousia of the Messiah. Whilst the death and resurrection of Jesus are the indivisible unity at the heart of the gospel, the gospel itself is the consummation of the story of God’s dealings with Israel within which the promise of a Son of God, a Messiah came. This story is in fact the story of God’s dealings with his world – something that has become clear in the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

…the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom 1:1-4

The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah sits within, and embraces, an even broader narrative sweep. The gospel is the Good News of how in Jesus Christ, God the Creator is putting his world to rights, reversing the curse, securing redemption for a new humanity through the forgiveness of sins. The incarnation, the life, atoning death, resurrection and return of Jesus are all part of The Gospel. So are the results of God’s decisive intervention in his world: the resurrection of human beings, the redemption of the creation, and in the here and now the presence and action of the Church in the world. The gospel good news is the message that God’s rule is being, and will be, re-established in all the earth. And that is why the gospel is ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Lk 16:16).