Recovering the Gospel – II

The Gospel Through Jesus’ Eyes

In the companion piece to this, we looked at the case for uncoupling “the Gospel” from both its modern and its 15th century (Luther’s) adaptations. That is an exercise we can pursue as largely a historical analysis (as was done) with some degree of inevitable re-analysis of dependent doctrines that have grown up around these more recent interpretations (e.g. justification, etc.)

Here I want to look at, to the degree we can, how Jesus Himself thought about the Gospel He was bringing. What did He think the Gospel was that He was bringing, and, more importantly for our present situation, how did He see it being enacted?

My hope in this is to separate doing the Gospel from spreading the Gospel. In other words, if the Gospel is a set of facts that change everything for humanity for the better, and if it invites humanity to participate in this new reality; and we believe that it is true, trustworthy and reliable, then we have a couple of options. We can profess that new reality in seeking to have others believe it too (evangelism). And, we can live out how Jesus (and the disciples) prescribed or taught we should live given that new reality. The two are different responses to the good news, but are certainly not mutually exclusive. We’re called to both.

There is also a sense in which the Gospel is both a message – a good news, and a force that acts on its human hearers. We will look briefly at this characteristic of the Gospel.

In the previous piece, I made the statement:

So finally, through Jesus, God has made provision to live in communion with His Creation as He intended from the beginning. This is the Gospel.

We’ll look first at the basic prerequisites and mechanisms God has established for living among us. Then we’ll look at what Christ taught us about how we are to live with God among us, and what its effects are.

God With Us

As moderns, and Christians, we can find it easy to overlook the fact that God’s original plan for His interacting with his His Creation was to live with and in it. Starting with Eden, certainly, but even after, despite all of the apostasy of His chosen people, Israel – through leading them in the wilderness, ultimately delivering them to Israel, being repeatedly rejected by them, and ultimately removing His presence from their Temple – i.e., “moving out”. The Bible is full of the record of God’s living in and with His people (Joshua 1:9, Deut 31:6, Psalm 139:7-10, Isaiah 41:10, Zephaniah 3:17, Jeremiah 23:23-24, Jeremiah 29:11, etc.) However, ultimately God responded to Israel’s lack of faith and devotion by removing himself from their midst (Ezekiel 10:18). God’s desire to live with His Creation had not waned. But His inability to live amongst the sin and apostasy of His people had forced Him out – away from the people He loved. How would He repair this breach to allow Him to reestablish communion with them?

Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14, is perhaps the most direct biblical connection with the phrase “God with us”:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).”

There are at least two senses of the idea of God being “with us”. One is that He is for us, on our side, pulling for us to live full, healthy, rich lives in accordance with what He has told us is His will (Romans 8:31). The other is that He is literally with us – in our midst – among us — living in communion with us (see above).

There should be little disagreement that a huge part of God’s purpose in the redemption of Creation through the provision of Christ and His sacrifice was to bless those who sought Him. The preeminent blessing was Christ Himself, as Jesus attests: John 3:16

[16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

As we saw in the previous piece, Christ’s death and resurrection was the sacrifice required by God to defeat sin (that acted as a barrier to God’s communion with Israel) and death (that acted as a barrier to God’s perpetual communion with His children), making it possible for men to live in communion with Him – forever.

Additionally, Paul tells us that, having placed our dependence on Christ, God would provide for our needs: Romans 8:28

[28] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

These are the two signature statements (among many) of God’s enduring blessing on those who give their lives to Him in utter submission and dependence.

Immanuel

The most famous implementation of God living with us was the advent of Christ Himself, which had been prophesied, as Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15, in the Old Testament. We won’t belabor the importance of the incarnation here, other than to repeat that it represents the fulfillment and culmination of God’s plan of redeeming Creation to Himself, securing the ability for God to commune with it for eternity.

Jesus, of course, was God’s redeeming agent; His death was an atonement for the failure, specifically of Israel, to live in faithfulness before Him. But He was much, much more than that. His mission was to:

  1. Atone for Israel’s faithlessness so that those who placed their trust in Him could be redeemed to Him.
  2. Teach Israel how their treatment of God’s Law had departed from God’s intention for them and convict them to repentance (John 3:10).
  3. While Christ initially said He had come to redeem Israel ( 15:24), He commissioned His followers to take the Gospel to “all nations” (Mt 24:14), and again after His resurrection (Mt. 28:19), and claimed He was here to redeem more than just Israel (John 10:16).  Only later did the Spirit of Christ commission Saul of Tarsus to minister to the Gentiles.
  4. Christ performed miracles to demonstrate that He was from God (John 5:36), thus substantiating the authority of His message.
  5. Redeem those who trusted in Him to live eternally in God’s presence, in fulfillment of God’s plan.

The Spirit of God

The transformative result of Christ’s death and resurrection was the provision of His Spirit to all who trusted Him for their lives (John 15:26, John 16:7, John 16:13). This event was the demarcation between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31-31-34) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36: 24-28). As a consequence, it was the demarcation between the two ages of God’s interaction with His humanity, and the single most significant event in human history.

In Joel 2:28 God had informed the prophet that He was going to “pour out” His Spirit on “all people”, thus changing them, from faithless to faithful, from disobedient to desiring to be obedient, from the person they were to the person Christ desired them to be. Having cleansed those who would be faithful through Christ’s sacrifice, God was saying He Himself would inhabit those faithful. No longer would God stand apart from His humanity, sometimes sequestered in a Tabernacle or Temple. No. This was God’s realized plan for melding Heaven with Earth – for achieving “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven“ – through taking up residence in its people (1 Cor 3:16).

Now for those of us that have been Christians for a long time, we tend to either ignore this part of the Gospel (for reasons largely of doctrine that have neglected it) or because we’ve heard things like “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (e.g. Acts 4:31) so many times that it just doesn’t have much effect on us. We’ve numbed ourselves to it.

But of course, this is not the promise of God to be numb to. The Lord of the Universe; the Creator; the Eternal One; the Alpha and Omega; the Existent One, has declared that He will live inside of you if you place your trust in Him for your life. This isn’t just an intimate relationship, like a distant family member coming to live in your spare bedroom. This is God living in you; transforming you into Himself (2 Cor 3:18).

This is the most astounding, unimaginable thing that has ever happened to mankind. This is God in His timeless faithfulness assuring life with Him forever. This is God transforming us to salvation in Him. This is God, in His ultimate mercy and grace, assuring us that we will be glorified in Him forever.

He remakes us – our old selves are unmade bit by bit, while our new self in Him is built up, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, from His faith to our faith (Rom 1:17), into the glorious being fit for His habitation (2 Cor 3:18). This transformation is our salvation. It is our redemption into Him. It was God’s plan from the beginning. I have written elsewhere (here and here) about the Spirit and His transformative work in us. So if the subject is unfamiliar to you, have a look.

How, then, are we to Act?

The answer to this question is, I would argue, an integral part of the Gospel. We’ve been talking here about the Gospel – what it is, and what it means for us. The fact of Jesus’ incarnation is, in any way that makes any difference, the Gospel. So how did Jesus desire that we live lives transformed by His Spirit?

Fortunately, he paused (perhaps on several occasions) to articulate what pleased God in the Sermon on the Mount and its resultant “blessings” and cautions/curses (Mt. 5,6,7). I encourage you to (re-)read these words and meditate on the degree of transformation of your life that fulfilling them actually requires. Jesus here is not calling us to some confidence in our professed belief. He’s calling us to a radical transformation that is His work that we accept. If, as Paul says, “you have died with Christ” (Col 2:20, 2 Tim 2:11, Rom 6:8), then you will also live with Him. Who can imagine living with Christ while going about their normal, everyday routine interactions with their neighbors in the way normal people do?

Forget the deceit and guile and disingenuousness. This Gospel says that you are to be transformed so completely that Christ Himself lives in and through you – so that you are His face and hands and voice in your dealings with your fellows. This is so far from simply believing something to be true.

NT Wright says of these passages:

“Again and again the Sermon on the Mount calls and challenges us to a life of radical discipleship. Note: when Jesus says ‘Blessed are the . . . . merciful, peacmakers’, and so on, he doesn’t just mean that they themselves are blessed. He means that the blessing of God’s kingdom works precisely through those people into the wider world. That is how God’s kingdom comes. That’s one thing to hear afresh.”

But what if we resist this transformation? Paul and Peter remind us that this is indeed a real possibility (1 Cor 15:2, 1 Peter 2). Jesus Himself, in this same Sermon on the Mount, cautions us in Mt 7:

13Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.

and:

21Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’

23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’

Conclusions

The Gospel of God is that He has inaugurated, with the gift of His Son, Jesus, a New Covenant with His humanity, in which Christ reigns over His Kingdom on earth, and lives with and in His children. Those who are called into that Kingdom and accept that invitation (Mt. 22:1-14), will be transformed into ones who desire, more than anything in their worldly lives, simply to live for Christ.

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