Friday, January 4, 2013

The Gospel: First Take

After reading all the various definitions of the gospel here, I thought I'd try writing my own definition. Couldn't be all that hard, right? I thought it would be important to be brief, but as a first draft I tried to just say everything that came to mind, and it wound up being 3 pages in length! It will be good to cut this way down in size and strip it of all trace of jargon and Christianese, but for now, here's what I would up with:

If I were to explain the gospel I would begin in Genesis, with what is commonly called the proto-gospel. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, they were cast out from the presence of God. They were cast from a garden into a wilderness, from, from tranquility to contention, from health and life to sickness and death. All this was the consequence of their disobedience to God. It was the Serpent, Satan, who understood what would tempt them and played them like a riverboat card-shark. So God, whose plan from the beginning was a perfect creation that would have at its pinnacle mankind, casts them out. He tells them a little about what to expect in the wilderness outside the garden, and it will not be pretty. But he does give them one ray of hope. He says that someday a a descendent of theirs will crush the head of the serpent. That is to say, the serpent, who for the time being has won the day, is doomed. That is the broadest and in its way the least detailed rendering of the gospel message. But it is Jesus who fulfills this prophecy.

But what of it? What does the defeat of Satan mean? We might say that this conflict between God and Satan is a contest of wills and a contest of plans. Satan had a plan for creation, just as God did. Both of them planned to reign over creation. Satan's plan entailed, essentially, an act of cosmic theft. Deceiving Adam and Eve, he would doom them, the intended pinnacle of creation, to life apart from God. They would fall into his clutches. The world of men would be his dominion.

So if someone is going to come along, sent from God, to crush the head of Satan, that would be an ultimate victory of God. Creation, in effect, would be taken back. The enemy of God is the enemy of man, and instead of Satan's will being done, Satan's plan being consummated, God's plan would be restored, God's will would be consummated. Creation would be returned to its intended course. The defeat of Satan, in other words has universe-wide implications. This would be, to put it lightly, good news.

But in the course of time God would grant a more detailed vision of this restoration. Taken together these amount to a complete reversal of all the consequences of Adam and Eve's disobedience: from sickness and death to health and life, from contention to peace, from the denial of God's presence to communion with him forever. One of these Old Testament prophecies, one that Jesus himself referred to at the inauguration if his own ministry, is found at Isaiah 61. On a personal level, this restoration will mean that broken hearts will be healed, captives will be liberated, debts paid, mourners comforted, and joy and righteousness shall be the order of things forever. This is a vision of a world completely unlike our world, of a world turned upside-down you might say, we might say, and when Jesus read this prophecy in the synagogue at the start of his ministry he sugggested that it was in him, in his coming, in his presence, his deeds, that these prophetic words were being fulfilled.

So we're getting a sense here that the gospel is great good news and it is, as I mentioned earlier, universe-wide. The effects of the fall from paradise, which is to say, ultimate separation from God, is being reversed. To take one example that is strongly implied in the Isaiah prophecy, death will be no more. Death comes as a result of sin, as Genesis tells us, but with Satan crushed the descendent of Eve who will do the crushing will reign supreme, and even death, as the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15, will be defeated. That is what Isaiah's prophecy meant, after all, when it said that the oil of gladness will replace mourning. There will no longer be any cause for mourning.

All this sounds quite unreasonable, but some in Israel, through many centuries, faithfully waited to see the fulfillment of this vision. Through warfare and exile, through the oppressive reign of evil kings, they waited and longed. Simeon, whom we read about him the Gospel of Luke, is one example. Luke says that he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” He was waiting, in other words, for the prophetic expectations of the reign of God to be fulfilled. Ahe was waiting for the one, sent from God, who would crush the head of the serpent. He was waiting for gladness to replace mourning. And when he sees Jesus, whom Mary and Joseph had brought to the Temple shortly after his birth, he knows that in this boy the “consolation of Israel” will be fulfilled. He says in worshipful joy, “now my eyes have seen salvation!”

We should pause here for a moment to note a few things. First, the gospel was not some new thing introduced by followers of Jesus in the first century. It went all the way back to Genesis, and it was re-stated in various ways over the centuries by the prophets of Israel, not only Isaiah but many others. We should note also that the fulfillment of these prophecies, prophecies that had to do with the reversal of all the effects of the Fall, were going to be brought to pass by someone: by a descendent of Adam and Eve, according to Genesis, but more often referred to as the Christ, a figure who will arrive on the scene and bring salvation. “Salvation” is the word Simeon used. People – but not only people but creation itself – will be saved. And the figure who will bring salvation, this figure whom the prophets sometimes referred to as the Christ, the Messiah, or even the Son of God, this figure was born in Bethlehem, in Galilee, roughly two thousand years ago. His name was Jesus. Jesus was, and is, the long-awaited savior.

We are getting now to the very core of the gospel now, one might say the key part, the part that we dare not overlook. The gospel has to do with the grand-scale fulfillment of prophecy, yes, but it is all fulfilled in a man. This is why it is possible to say that Jesus is the gospel, and this is why the early followers of Jesus called their four written biographies of Jesus, Gospels: The Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. In these are collected the stories about Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, and most importantly perhaps the facts about his death and his resurrection. It is all gospel, all good news. In his life, death, and resurrection he demonstrated that in truth he was the long-awaited messiah, and that yes, the kingdom of God, the realm in which the will of God is done, was being made available to fallen humanity. In the Fall men and women were separated from God, but in Jesus the separation was reversed. Jesus was God with us.

But even that is not the whole of the good news. It is not all past tense, you see. To simply say that Jesus was God is not enough. It by no means covers the height and breadth of the good news. We can go further and say that Jesus is Lord, even now. That is to say, he lives and reigns. He rules. The creation is his. And because he is God and reigns we can be assured that the plan of God for creation will be consummated. All those prophecies of a new heaven and new earth, and new hearts, will ultimately be fulfilled. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can be certain of all these things.

The time in which we live is the time in which we who have believed this good news wait in eager anticipation for all this to come to pass, but we do not wait in isolation, hanging on to ancient prophecies to bolster our waning hope. Because Jesus is still with us – he is still Emmanuel. God with us – we do not wait in fearful uncertainty. We have the living spirit of God with us: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not some sort of dispensable footnote to the gospel, but an integral part of it. We have seen the Father's role in this good news, and we have seen that Jesus is central to it all, and now we have the third member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. God is triune, and this is a foundational part of what makes the good news good. We have the Spirit of the living God with us as a kind of down-payment or foretaste of God's ultimate presence with his redeemed people in his restored creation.

This is big, and it will take some explaining. When Jesus first began his ministry, his message was, the kingdom of God has come. The kingdom of God is the realm in which God's will is done. It is also called heaven, and in the Book of the Revelation of John it is called the new heaven and new earth. It is the creation as it was intended to be from the beginning. When Jesus left this world he gave his followers a mission. Tell everyone about me, he said. You'll be like aliens in this world, citizens of a foreign kingdom, and so sometimes you'll be persecuted here, but don't worry. My Spirit will be with you, to guide you and comfort you. To show you the way you should go, and to be, in some sense, a kind of active and experiential foretaste of the wonderful things that are to come. So go and tell others this good news, as many as you can. This is your mission.

Well, so that took longer than I expected, but perhaps I still haven't said enough. Let me say one more thing about this kingdom of God, this realm in which God's will is done. God is love, so the realm in which his will is done will be a realm of love, and the people who have his Spirit within them as a down-payment of that realm will be a people of love. Love is the mark of the kingdom, and the mark of the Jesus-follower.

This gets us to a final point about the kingdom of God. You will expect that a people who have the Spirit of Jesus residing in them will have a distinct difference about them. The Apostle Paul called it an aroma, the aroma of Jesus. The mark of this ought to be love. God is love, and the people of God, carrying in them in seed form, as it were, the very kingdom of God, ought to be loving people. This ought to be the most distinct thing about them. They will form a community of love that is in essence a colony of the coming kingdom. To the extent that we who have trusted this good news do manifest that community here and now, that too is a major part of the good news.

Let me summarize. God's plan has always been to reverse the effects of the Fall and restore his creation. That plan was set in motion in the coming of Jesus, in his manner of life, his teaching, his death on a cross, and his resurrection from death. The reign of love, the love of God, is available to men and women everywhere. The natural response of anyone who hears this good news and believes it would be to repent of all the ways of living and thinking which would keep him or her from being a part of this kingdom, and then to follow Jesus. For those that do, the expression of their love for the triune God, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, will be much on their lips and much on their minds. Our word for that is worship. In short, worship is the natural response of men and women to the good news. Worship, the expression of love for God, is another primary trait of the community of love that is formed by God's redeemed people, who are the advance guard of his redeemed creation.

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