When we talk about the Gospel, what do we mean? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Yesterday after my post, I went back to David Wood’s page where there was a debate on ecumenism and whether Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ or not. Now I am not Catholic of course, but I do ministry at times with Catholics and with Orthodox as well, but Catholics are usually the favorite target. We have no problem accepting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Normally, I don’t enter this debate at all, but this time, I figured I’d do it since it involved the defense of a friend.
So when the charge comes up and the Gospel is mentioned, I notice that it looks like we all think we know what the Gospel is, so I ask first if Jesus and Paul preached the same Gospel. I know where I’m going and I think this is problematic for some of these and I get told yes. I ask what that Gospel is and I get told the message of justification through faith. Wonderful. So I ask, where exactly do you see Jesus teaching this? After all, in Mark 1:15, Jesus shows up on the scene telling people to repent and believe the Gospel. Is He telling them to repent and believe that they are justified through faith?
Of course, if you know the Gospels, this isn’t a central theme of Jesus’s. Of course, Jesus does point to internal realities more than external ones, but the main teaching of His life is the Kingdom of God. In fact, I’m told that the words of Jesus aren’t just limited to red so you go and look at Paul and you see that this is what Jesus taught. I find this problematic. If we want to understand the Gospel, shouldn’t we start with Jesus? I don’t disparage Paul after all. Paul is immensely valuable and sacred Scripture as well, but isn’t Jesus the original teacher we should look to first?
I found it sad that no one could point this out to me. Here I am supposed to be told that justification by faith is the Gospel that Jesus taught and yet nowhere do I see this being His teaching. Nowhere do I see this being a point of debate between Him and the Pharisees. Of course I know about “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and I know about the tax collector and the Pharisee, but you don’t see an out and out soteriology in Jesus. In fact, we all know he has some statements such as “Sell all you have and give to the poor.” We also know he has “Believe on the one whom God sent”, but the whole Pauline emphasis is not really there.
So finally after having these guys who were all about the Gospel being unable to answer enough, they finally turned to ask me. Interestingly, I was also asked such questions as if do I believe Jesus is God. After all, if you fellowship with Catholics, well your whole doctrine entirely needs to be called into question. (And I don’t even like “Is Jesus God?” That could be easily mistaken for modalism. I prefer to say Jesus possesses fully the nature of God and man as the second person of the Trinity, but I understand the theological shorthand.)
So what is the Gospel?
God created Adam and Eve to live in union with Him. He would be their God and they would be His people. Unfortunately, they decided to go it their own way and partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In response, God kicked them out of the garden and they were separated from Him.
Then Jesus came and……wait….that sure seemed to skip a lot didn’t it? I mean, do we really need all that stuff from Genesis 4 to Malachi 4? Is that really relevant to the story of Jesus?
Maybe, just maybe, maybe it is.
Tell you what. Let’s go through and see.
After Adam and Eve fall, mankind gets wickeder and wickeder. Their own children have a case of one brother killing the other. Eventually, God decides he will flood the world save for one man and his three sons and their wives and start anew.
After this, mankind decides to build a tower. Can’t have that happening again. God decides to confuse their languages and send them out as different peoples then. He chooses one person from one group of people and makes a covenant with him. That man was Abraham. God promises that all the peoples on Earth will be blessed through him.
Through miraculous means, this old man has a son and he is promised that through his son the promise will be fulfilled. God then tells Abraham to sacrifice this son named Isaac. Abraham is willing and God stops him. Abraham showed that he believed God would fulfill the promise even if he had to kill Isaac. God showed Abraham meanwhile how different He is from all the pagan gods. They would have demanded child sacrifice. YHWH puts a stop to it.
Isaac does grow up and have descendants and the story of Abraham is passed on until eventually, the people arrive in Egypt due to a famine. 400 years later, the people are in slavery and cry out to return to the land of Abraham. God hears them and sends them Moses. Moses delivers them through the Red Sea and takes them to Mount Sinai where they form a covenant relationship with YHWH through His Law. The Law will be how the people show the world that they are a unique people of God.
The people enter the land, but soon become unfaithful. God sends judges to them to return them to YHWH, but that is not enough. Eventually, a king is installed. The first one is a failure, but the second one is David, who is seen as the best king Israel ever had. God makes a covenant with David that one of his descendants will sit on his throne forever. This is in response to David wanting to build a house for God. God says David will not do that, but that his son will.
David’s next descendant, Solomon, does indeed build a temple. This is where God dwells with His people again. The temple becomes a symbol of the presence of God with the people, but the people grow arrogant and complacent about it. They think that God will never abandon it, as if He needs His temple. God sends them prophets when they neglect His Law, but they do not listen. Eventually, the people are sent into exile and the temple is destroyed.
About seventy years after that, the people are allowed to return to the land and build a new temple. The people are back and they have a temple, but something is wrong. Foreigners are in charge of the land. At the time of Jesus, it is Rome. How could it be that God is with His people and yet He lets pagan people rule the land? When is the Kingdom of David going to return? The people might be in the land geographically, but they do not have the charge of the land. It is still incomplete. Has God abandoned His people? Will He return?
Then Jesus came.
When Jesus shows up, He speaks about the Kingdom of God and even says it is right there. He asks people to believe the Gospel. What is the Gospel? God has returned to His people. God is present in Jesus. Even more startling, Jesus does signs to show that He is the Messiah of Israel and the one who will sit on the throne of David and through whom God will reign.
The rulers don’t like Jesus coming in on their turf and they fear a revolution. In a series of political events, they crucify Jesus. This will silence the claims of Him being a Messiah. If He is the Messiah, He will not be crucified. God will rescue Him. Unfortunately for His followers watching, Jesus dies. He is not rescued. He is buried in a tomb. Done. Kaput. Game Over. Let’s move on with our lives now.
But the game is not done. The story is not ended. The tomb is found empty and Jesus is alive again. What does this mean? If true (And it is), it means that God has vindicated Jesus. Jesus is indeed the Messiah. He is the one through whom God will reign.
This is why resurrection is so central to Paul. The resurrection is how God has shown who Jesus is. It’s more than “Jesus is alive and therefore He’s the Messiah.” It’s just as much about what Jesus did before the cross as what happened after. After all, as N.T. Wright says, if one of the thieves next to Jesus had been raised the Jews would say “YHWH is doing some strange things.” They would not say “The Messiah has come!”
This is why Paul does preach the same Gospel. The good news is God has come to be with His people. Jesus says it beforehand promising He will be that one. Paul says it after showing that by His resurrection, Jesus is the promised Messiah. God has returned to be with His people through Jesus. It was not just the land that was to be redeemed. It was indeed all the nations of the world.
Okay. So what about justification through faith? What does that have to do with it?
As I said earlier, in the past, you obeyed the Law not to be justified, but to show that you were. We often have this idea that Paul wrestled with the Law. Not at all. Go read his autobiography in Philippians 3. He was faultless before it. Yes. But what about Romans 7?
I don’t see that as autobiographical. I see that as Paul playing out a part. This is not a new view. Even Origen held this view. How would Paul describe himself as alive apart from the Law for instance? He never knew a life apart from it. I also think it’s problematic if you interpret this text as the Christian struggle. If you identify yourself with Romans 7, you will likely miss out your real identity in Romans 8.
Here’s the real deal then. Paul never wrestled with the Law and then said “Oh! Following Christ! I’m free from this burden!” No. Instead he said that he was blameless before the Law, but he counted that all as rubbish. The Greek word here is Skubalon and I have even been told that that can be translated as if it were something I would not say on this blog. That is how strong Paul’s language is.
The new marker then for showing you’re one of God’s is not keeping the Law. It is if you trust in Christ. Of course, this trust will result in good works. No one should oppose good works, but those good works are not done to obtain salvation but because you have already been given it. This is where justification comes in. It is not the faith that saves you so much as the object that you put your faith in. If you say “Justification by faith” I have to ask “Faith in what?” Then we get to the meat of the Gospel.
Now some might think this went long. It should. Israel was not something God tried for awhile and then said “Forget this. I’m going with the church.” Israel is part of the Gospel just as much. It is essential to know that Jesus is the Messiah. It’s so essential that Paul references it so much that some people, ignorantly of course, have thought that Christ was a last name as if Jesus was born to Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Today, we treat it as an afterthought. Oh yeah. Jesus is the Messiah. Paul didn’t treat it that way. Paul saw it as central.
And for that to be central, Jesus has to be the Messiah of Israel. For that to matter, we have to know Israel’s story. We dare not leave it out. Israel’s story is ours. We are just as much the people of God.
This is the good news. This is the Gospel. It reaches its full fulfillment in Revelation, but we are ambassadors of this good news for now. Jesus is not just the savior. He is not just the forgiver of your sins. He is the Messiah. He is your King. He is THE King.