So what is the Gospel?
It is the good news. But what specifically is this good news? What makes up this good news? What are the essential elements we must have as part of the gospel message / story to be aligned with what Jesus and the early church knew, talked about and lived out?
What made this story so compelling and culture changing that the government of the day was intimidated and threatened to the extent that they embraced the church and made it the state religion? They put hierarchy in place and ultimately controlled the church and thus led the world into what history calls the dark ages.
Here we want to distil the message down to the must have parts, so we can keep it simple, easily talked about and communicated, AND easily understood and comprehended.
We have talked about what a Christian is, and also about what makes a disciple. Now we want to discuss and put a stake in the ground around this word "Gospel". What is the Gospel? Simple fishermen, a tax collector, a prophet, a carpenter's son, all understood what it is, and all lost their lives because of it.
Let's start with some of the references to gospel or "good news" that we have in the Bible. There are 14 references in the Old Testament and 30 in the New Testament (NIV). Some of these are simply recounting a historical story (7 verses from 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings), two are proverbs and tell us about the significant benefit good news brings to the hearer. The remaining five references are prophecies (4 in Isaiah and 1 in Nahum) that were fulfilled by Jesus and in essence quoted in two of the New Testament references. The best known one is in Luke 4:18, where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah (actually chapter 61 beginning at verse 1).
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, ...".
The other old testament references talk about the blessings that follow those who bring the good news and are also quoted in Romans 10:15. The remaining new testament references talk about the good news (gospel) being proclaimed, testified, told, brought, preached, and announced to the world. The hearers are also exhorted to believe this good news.
Thus we get a little closer to determining just what is this gospel that must be proclaimed, testified, told, brought, preached and announced throughout the world, and why did it become such a threat to the early church-age governments, that they persecuted the followers of the way and ultimately killed them.
For most of the last 60 years this gospel message has been "marketed" on the basis of "what's in it for me?". Thus we have had the "four spiritual laws" leading to saying the sinner's prayer, the benefit of avoiding eternal destruction (hell), and getting into heaven once we die.Also as part of the influence of marketing we began keeping score, how many people made a decision, prayed the sinner's prayer, with a focus on making converts and little or no attempt to make disciples.
We have in more recent decades realised that God is not angry at us, that He loves us, that He wants His creation to walk and function out of a real relationship with Him. All of the above are part of the gospel, yet each aspect adds complexity to our understanding and to the ultimate message we are so strongly encouraged to promulgate.
Before I continue, a word of warning from Mark 4, a passage of text that I have read and heard about many times, however I have just recently seen it with new eyes (or should that be hearing with new ears). We read the following:
9 And He said to them,“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
12 so that‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.’”
13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. 16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterwards, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. 18 Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, 19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”
23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. 25 For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Jesus is making a lot of statements about what we hear and more particularly, what we do with what we hear. Each of the ones in the parable heard, yet quite different results. The last verse in particular is often miss-quoted and used in contexts that have little to do with what is actually being talked about:- namely to those that hear, more will be given - specifically those that own what they hear, have let it impact and change them - more will be given. It's the "but" that has confronted me afresh: if we do not own and utilise what we hear, we will loose it and even have it taken from us. This is quite confronting in a western world context where we have had the opportunity to hear so much - what are we doing with all these words?
The earliest proclaimers of the gospel were John the Baptist and Jesus. In Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 they are each reported as going about preaching "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (NIV). Let me suggest that this simple phrase captures well the simplicity and essence of what the gospel message is all about.
The word "repent" is significant here as its core meaning is to turn around or leave one path and deliberately choose to go another way. We should remember that Jesus makes this hugely preposterous claim: "I am the way, the truth and the life, no man can come to the Father but by me" John 14:6. So here we hear about "the way", not just any way, but the way. The implication is critical and I believe was well understood by those referred to in the 1st century as "followers of the way". Even back then, there were many that called others to follow them, to walk a particular path and journey. Yet Jesus uses the same language and invites each of His disciples to "come, follow me" - to walk in His way. Here in 2016 the message of the gospel or good news is the same: Jesus says: "Come follow me, walk my way."
As we previously discussed under the heading "Christian?" the word means Christ like one, one who behaves just like Jesus did - i.e. walks in His way, thinks like He does, talks and behaves like He does, and very telling, Jesus said He only did and said what He saw the Father saying and doing.
So to summarise our thoughts thus far, the good news is about leaving whatever path we are journeying and choosing to follow a new path, one of His choosing, the only way, a path that mirrors what Jesus saw His Father saying and doing.
Now we will look at the second part: "... the kingdom of heaven has come near"' - I think this part of the gospel has not been talked about and understood sufficiently. As we know from what we call the Lord's Prayer (although it may more accurately be called the disciple's prayer) we are encouraged to ask our Heavenly Father that His "... kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven". The implications of this message of His kingdom being near and asking for it to come, are huge.
Firstly, we need to understand what a kingdom is. It is a place where an absolute monarch (a King or Queen usually) rules. They hold the power and authority to enact laws and enforce them as they see fit. There are few kingdoms like this in the 21st century, with our almost universal embrace of democracy and the power of the people, We find it difficult to grasp the magnitude and pervasiveness of a ruling monarch's power. We would do well to examine this further, but I will only briefly describe some of the aspects that we must understand in order to grasp the enormity of the gospel's power.
Secondly, this kingdom is near or as some versions describe it "at hand" or within reach. Thus not far away or out of reach. The power and effects of this kingdom can be accessed and experienced now. So how do we get to experience His kingdom like it is near or at hand?
Let me try and paint a picture of something I heard recently from Veron Ashe. We are quick to discern if someone has an issue, particularly where the other does not fit or match our perspective of life or a situation. We are so much slower, or totally ignore the fact that someone has no transport, insufficient money to buy the kids a meal at McDonald's, or clothe themselves. It is here that we have the opportunity to bring the kingdom of heaven near to someone. What if we would move out of our comfort zone, maybe inconvenience ourselves a little, maybe even spend some of our hard earned money (its not ours anyway) and make someone's day. Jesus' brother James has much to say on this .... worth reading and allowing our thinking to be transformed in alignment with what God is saying and doing.
Everywhere we think and then take actions that align with the truth (remember Jesus claims to be THE truth) we are bringing the kingdom down from heaven and displaying it on earth. Thus each one of us that is on the journey of becoming Christian has countless opportunities to bring His kingdom within reach of others, those that do not yet know and love Him. Selah.
So, this gospel is indeed good news, transformative, and attractional. Upon reading the history of the early church, begin in Acts for a sample, we see that folk decided to turn from their own way of doing life and follow THE way. They lived in community, pooled resources and hugely impacted their world. We too have the possibility of impacting our world in 2017 .... will we allow the gospel to so transform us?