Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Is the gospel just good news?

Currently there's a little debate on the internet about what is the gospel. You will find summaries over at imonk. However for me there are some deeper issues that need addressing. In the four gospels the gospel is usually associated or called "the gospel of the Kingdom". What did the gospel writers mean by that phrase? Is it different to how many preachers speak today using the simplified or shortened phrase “the gospel"

At least in the four gospels this shortening has serious ramifications if one ignores the full phrase “of the kingdom” for the Jews had a specific expectation of the Messiah and the Kingdom, sometimes quite at odds with the Old Testament prophecy about the kingdom and the Messiah as Luke’s gospel reveals quite clearly.

I for one believe that so many preachers have not got a good biblical grasp on what the kingdom really is. That’s a whole series in itself, but for present it has big implications for those wishing to pursue the question of what is the Gospel as some evangelicals are doing. I don’t believe that some glib response such as the kingdom being now and not yet is adequate as Biblical teaching for the flock on this mater. It needs to be clearly exegeted, not some trite phrase trottered out like some show pony.

For example, in Luke’s gospel the Jews expected that the Messiah would come and throw out the Roman’s and make Israel to rule over the Nations. They expected a political salvation whereas Jesus is at pains to point out that their problem was spiritual bondage, not political bondage, they needed to repent. This is Why so many times early on Jesus would not accept their designating him as Messiah because their concept of Messiah wasn’t the biblical one!

In light of that we need to ask ourselves whether we are not in the church in danger of likewise redefining the gospel of the kingdom to something other that what God says. Isn't that what we see already with people pushing the prosperity gospel and the social gospel? What we need is the kingdom gospel! But even a phrase like “kingdom gospel” may be a little misleading.

Isn’t it more correct to say that in the gospels the gospel of the kingdom - literally “the good news of the Kingdom” puts the focus on “the kingdom”, not the word "gospel" / "good news"?

We are to see how the four gospel writers use the term gospel and in relation to what to get a proper grasp on what’s going on. In that case is the coming of God’s Kingdom, particularly in the arrival of the Messiah Jesus, all good news? In one sense it’s good news in the after 400 years of Silence from God, God’s plan of sending the Messiah to Israel is happening, but as you see throughout the gospels, it’s not all good! The leaders and many of the people had their own expectations concerning the Messiah and what he ought to do. As a Nation they actually reject the Messiah and it ends as “God predicted” in the Messiah being the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-66. We benefit in that Jesus goes to the Cross to pay the penalty for sin, and bring redemption, however in a true sense it wasn’t just good news in that the coming of the Messiah brought judgment also. My teacher and friend D. B Knox wrote a paper years ago in which he addressed this issue of the gospel as being good news. You can read it in the Briefing #343, the magazine by Matthias Press.
He wrote that “True to Moses and all the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostolic message about Jesus was set in the context of judgement. It was a message of escape from condemnation, a fleeing from the wrath to come”. Indeed this is what John the Baptist preached, the inauguration, the imminence of the Kingdom.
Again D. B. K writes:
"The message of Jesus was identical with the message of John. Like John, Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God and called his hearers to repent: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. At this point, it should be noted that the translation of gospel as ‘good news’ is a mistake. In the Bible, the Greek word ευαγγελια means ‘news’. The proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was not in itself good news to every hearer. Its imminence was, however, news—startling news which called for an immediate response, the response of repentance. For the news of the kingdom was the news of the judgement of God."
As D. B. K points out even in the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus’ teaching He points to a broad way and a narrow way and the choice is crucial for one leads to destruction. That is just one indication of the kind of judgment message that comes with the Kingdom announcement.

I cannot recommend the article enough as a balance to so much emphasis on the gospel as good news.

Now in that light we need to ascertain if when Paul speaks of the gospel is it the same as in the gospels? Is it perhaps a different perspective on the same thing?

Consider the opening chapter of Roman’s Paul speaks of “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” There judgment is again associated with the gospel, just as mentioned in the four gospels.

Yet sometimes Paul seems to speak of the gospel as the gospel message, as that of the cross, redemption and so on. Thus he says in Galatians in the context of some preaching a salvation by legalism,

“…if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9).

And this is again consistent with Peter preaching in Acts 10:36 where it is a message of the great news of peace “The gospel of peace,” as Peter described it to Cornelius.

And this concurs with Paul in 1 Cor:
But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, which is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Corinthians 4:3).

So although Paul doesn’t use the phrase “the gospel of the Kingdom” that I can recollect, it doesn’t seem to contradict at all with what is found in the gospels.

Now what about the current debate by evangelicals?
Much of what the guys on the panel at the Christian book Expo in Dallas said was well worth reflecting upon. However when Richard Stearns spoke his points though supposedly justified from particular Scripture passages, revealed instead a poor understanding of those passages, especially Matt 5. Of all the speakers I found Richard the most affable, likeable and encouraging, however that does not mean he handled Matt 5 well. In the end what he said gave emphasis to what we would call a social gospel instead of the Gospel as taught in Scripture. Now he did say things that we would want to applaud, such as “Jesus’ gospel brings radical social change. It begins between us and God, but culminates in social revolution. [ A revolution] to make good news available to all people. To lift up the poor and sick and be the salt of the earth and the light” We would indeed say one of the consequences of a life transformed by God is social influence and impact, it’s just that one doesn’t get that from Matthew 5. Those that mourn are those that mourn over their sin, not because of the evils and hardships of the world. The poor in spirit are those that recognise their spiritual bankruptcy. Likewise the salt imagery has an Old Testament background, of the Jewish Sacrifice, not the “modern” notion of a preservative, but rather the salt was used up, consumed in the offering. We would certainly affirm that the gospel comes and lifts up the abused and downtrodden. It’s just that that is not what Matthew 5 is saying. Even the moderator didn’t pick up on this when he summarised their positions after 30 minutes. He gave the following summation, with his point about mission being the problem point for me.
The gospel is:-
Transactional – The Cross deals with sin and God’s wrath etc. 1 Cor 15.
Relationships – New Life / Eternal Life John 3:16; 2 Cor 5:16-20.
Mission – Where we are representing or reflecting the Gospel by what we do. Matthew 5:14-16.

Whoever we read or listen to, we need to be careful and check out whether what they say comes from the passages they assert.

In Christ,

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