Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Gospel: What is it, and how might we proclaim it?

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News? Why have countless people devoted their lives to such a thing?

The question is always pertinent. In every age we have new contexts to wrestle with. New ideas, new products, new ways of doing things shape the methods in which we think and behave. Thus, old words like ‘sin’, ‘repentance’ and perhaps even ‘God’ change their meanings for many people. Our language changes its usage, and as such old phrases may not convey the same truths as they did when first written.

As such, trying to articulate the Gospel requires the community of faith to constantly reflect upon the concepts and language it uses to express the wonderful joy which has changed their lives. Indeed, upon writing this post I struggled to think of how one might explain the Gospel in a way which most people, if not all could understand in Britain today. Whilst those who are chosen may understand through the assurances of the Spirit, the actual witnessing of the person of Jesus is always difficult in some sense.

However, in this post I will seek to begin a series of articles on the Christian faith and how one might best explain the change in our lives Jesus has made to those of unbelief. So no better place to start then than the Good News!

First things first – pray to the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised Him to us, to empower us to witness and serve God in all we do. As Scripture states:

John 14:26

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

John 16:12-15

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

Romans 8:26 

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

As such, allow the Spirit to lead you when proclaiming the Gospel. In different contexts, He may decide to lead you in one direction with your words, and another way at another time. But I cannot stress enough how much we ought to ask for His leadership in our witness to Jesus. For the Spirit illuminates the teachings and works of Jesus that we are saved, and as such He is the true bearer of the Good News. He does this through Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17), signs (1 Corinthians 12:1-12, teaching (Matthew 10:20), and in any other way He pleases. So let us receive His blessing, just as the apostles did at Pentecost (Acts 1:8), and under His love and power sing out the Gospel.

So after all of this, what is the Good News that everyone is so excited about? And how are we supposed to testify to it to non-believers?

Given our secular culture, I believe that the witness of Christ in Paul provides perhaps the best starting place. He was the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, those who were not Jewish. As such, his articulation of what God has done was presented in such a way as to make sense to those who did not necessarily understand the finer points of Jewish religion. Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are heavily Jewish – they are laden with Old Testament allusions which the Galilean audience would have understood. Thus, when Jesus proclaimed the ‘Kingdom of God’ (Mark 1:15) the Jewish people he preached to could understand the term. Likewise, the other apostles speak primarily to Jewish audiences. However, our culture has no concept of covenant, kingship, exile and temple which are so intrinsic to His message. This is because the Gospel concerns the return of Yahweh to the world, bringing new life and creation through the Word who is a man, Jesus Christ. But such talk falls on deaf ears. Yet as God is wonderful, the Gospel is not limited to one formula or set of words, and the Spirit, who receives His teaching from Jesus, inspired Paul to communicate the Gospel to certain groups in a less Judaeo-centric way. As such, one is not diminishing the Gospel by not starting with the gospels – all Scripture testifies to Jesus, and as such we should not be ashamed to utilise it all to proclaim His wondrous person (Luke 24:13-35). Thus, the return of the Kingdom of God was taught by Christ in multiple ways, and it is His message through Paul which we may begin.

The passage I will focus upon is Acts 17:16-34 (I would encourage you to read it before you continue). In this extract, the apostle preaches to the Athenian intellectual elite. This was a pagan city, which embraced multiple gods, philosophies and ways of life. The community was by and large gentile, and the intellectuals scoffed at many Jewish ideas (such as the resurrection of the dead v.32). In many ways it was like our own: it understood itself as the beacon of hope as a progressive civilisation, with educated elite dispensing of personal gods in favour of their own wellbeing, seeking their own gratifications and as such worshiping themselves. Yet at the same time, the society continued to preserve religious rituals so as to engender favour from whatever deities they please – appealing to any spirit who may show favour upon the community. This was largely because belief in a deity did not matter in ancient pagan religion, but more the practice of rituals. As such, any god was acceptable, providing it does not infringe upon the Emperor’s rule. And in some ways we are like that too. You often hear people say it doesn’t really matter what you do or who you serve, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, or infringe their rights. So Paul was entering a similarly relativistic and self-centred arena as we do today.

Paul begins by remarking that in Athens they are religious people, as they worship a multitude of gods. Indeed, he even found an altar to AN UNKNOWN GOD (v.22-3). Paul, in a rather witty and clever remark, claims he will proclaim the nature of this unknown deity whom the Athenians worship. Of course, our society is not like that anymore: we do not observe people worshiping multiple gods. However, just as gods were relativistic in ancient paganism, the meaning of life has become a matter of subjectivity in the contemporary world. If you ask someone what the meaning of life is, they either answer they don’t know, it depends who you are or 42. It has become the norm to think that I have my purpose, you have yours and they don’t cross paths. And yet, we are aware we have a common good, a goal, an aim, which unites human values and aspirations. We do not just think our way of life is just for me, but we recognise that there are at least some principles which ought to direct all human life (i.e. the principle of not harming another). That is the whole source of conflict: we disagree about what is good. That is, we clash over the true nature of how we ought to behave. However, our culture does not know what this great meaning of life is. The Gospel is such a proclamation – just as it describes the unknown God, we might say that it is the story of the meaning of life.

Paul begins by teaching that there is only one God (v.24). There is not no God, as the atheist claims, nor is there more than one God, as the polytheist argues, but there is only one being deserving of worship, God, who is the greatest possible being (Anselm). And this God is the maker of heaven and earth. That is, this God created everything that exists apart from Godself – the universe and all its components included. Thus, God is not the universe either, as the pantheist claims. And neither are we God, as our sinful natures want us to extoll. No, everything which came into being is not God, for only the creator is worthy of worship. That means God is the creator of us too, giving us all we have had, all we have now and all we will have (v.25). From one man we are all descended (v.26) and our cultures and nations rise and fall at God’s bequest. God did all of this so that we may have a loving relationship with Him, giving Him the praise we owe Yahweh just because of who He is, and by extension so that we might embrace His love for us (v.27). That is, we are made to be in communion with the Lord. This is the univocal meaning of our lives – to love God with everything we have (Matthew 22:36-40).

Following this amazing set of truths, Paul recognises that the Athenians up to this point had not been worshiping the true God. They had treated God like gold, silver or stone, an idol (v.29). We too have done this; we have lived our lives according to our own prescribed meanings of how we ought to live, engaging in behaviour inconsistent with what it means to give yourself entirely for God. For example, lying is antithetical to loving God, as God is the source of all truth, and as such to lie is to slander the sacred nature of who God is, and thus blaspheme against what is holy (Exodus 20:16). Yet we as a community have lied because we have followed a meaning of life which seeks our own interest, mimicking ourselves as God by trying to create a false reality so as to achieve our own ends (I certainly have). By the grace of God, the Lord has passed over such ignorance, but we are now called to repent from such activity and follow Him (v.30) (to repent in the first century world meant to turn away, so it is primarily a decision to change one’s behaviour in light of a new commitment to the Lord).

Why has God called us to turn from following our own false purposes of life and devote ourselves to the true meaning of life? He has done this because He has set a day when He will judge the world through the man He has appointed (v.31). And He has proven this by raising this man from the dead (v.32). What does this mean? To help, it may be useful to turn to 1 Corinthians, chapter 15 verses 1 – 8. In this letter, Paul seeks to reprimand the Christian community in Corinth for multiple reasons, one being their presupposition that the resurrection of the dead has already happened. Thus, in this passage Paul is seeking to explain what it means to be risen from the dead by reference to the first to be raised, Jesus. He begins by reciting a creedal statement which has been dated back to at least five years after Jesus’ resurrection, perhaps earlier (see Hurtardo, Habermas, Ehrman etc.) Thus it is a statement of faith preceding Paul, and one of the earliest traditions of Christian confession. And it is the trust in the truth of this creed and the person it concerns which is saving (v.2).

In short, the creed states that Jesus, the Christ, died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was then buried, and then raised from death in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to a number of groups and individuals. The Scriptures are the Old Testament, and so the creed states that Jesus death and resurrection is consistent with the teaching and prophecy of the Torah. That is, His death on the cross and His conquest of death fulfils the message of the Old Testament. Hence, Jesus is the Jewish God returned, fulfilling His promises to the whole world. And He first did this through dying for our sins. You shall remember that in relation to the Athenians, Paul admonished them to turn away from their old practices and trust in the Lord. Those old practices God had passed over, but now that He has set a day for judgement, on that date those violations of what is right shall be brought to justice (Acts 17:31). Thus, all the evil things we have done, such as harming others, wreaking mass havoc and destruction and even the small curses are to be accounted for, and those who enacted them are to face the wrath of God. Our actions separated us from the Lord, and those things we have done must face punishment, as we have violated the sacred and absolutely good meaning of life – to worship God in the entirety of our lives. And the punishment for this is eternal separation from God, damned to hell.

Our situation is terrifying: on the one hand we ought to be in communion with God – that is why we are created. Yet on the other hand, we have no way of returning to that state by ourselves, for we have violated the meaning of life with our own mockeries, and as such are bound by our own misdeeds. However, the Good News of the Gospel is this: the Word of God descended in flesh (John 1:14), Jesus Christ, to take our place as the one man who did fulfil the meaning of life (to love God with one’s whole being), and as such is an adequate substitute for all of humanity, paying for their sins with His life (v.3). Thus, there is nothing we can do to acquire our salvation – only the action of Jesus could save us. This is incredible! The very God who we rebelled against did everything for us so that we might be returned to Him and fulfil our original purpose, which is to be in love with God. This should make us feel so grateful: it is not by our own works, deeds, actions or qualities we are saved (for if it were, we would be the masters of our own election and would be unable to achieve the meaning of life, which was articulated above), but by the righteousness and the love of Jesus. We are totally dependent upon His life, death and resurrection. Praise be all His.

Yet how do we know that this victory over sin and our freedom from it was achieved? This was displayed in God’s vindication of Jesus by raising Him from the death (v.4). That is, God affirmed Jesus’s that He came to save the world, bringing the Kingdom of God, and showed this by raising Him from death. Thus, we can know that we are saved because Jesus is alive and has conquered the evils of this world: death, sin, satan and all the other demons who plague this creation. And we know He is alive because many Christian brothers and sisters witnessed Him after death resurrected. Thus, the Good News is that God has procured our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that we might be restored to our primary function, which is to be in communion with God.

However, the story is not quite over. Jesus death and resurrection has saved the creation, bringing what He called the ‘Kingdom of God’. However, whilst this Kingdom has been inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it has not been completed, and hence the trials and sufferings a Christian must endure (Acts 14:22). The kingdom will be completed with the return of Jesus, who has been raised as proof that He will be the judge of those who have disobeyed the meaning of life. Thus our eternity depends upon whether turn away from our old lives and commit to the person of Jesus, whom through we may come before the Father (John 8:19). And it is through the Spirit we receive such faith – it is the gift of Himself which waters the seeds of belief planted by the Word (Romans 12:3). Thus, the Gospel provides us with hope; the hope that we will be restored to communion with God through the death of Jesus, and that we will be resurrected with Him enjoying life everlasting.

So the Gospel is certainly Good News: it proclaims that we are now able to return to God because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so that we may for an eternity be in fellowship with the Triune God, the author of the meaning of life which we had abandoned. I hope that these reflections on the meaning of life which the Father ordained long before we were born may help your own opportunities to witness the Gospel under the guidance and leadership of the Gospel. Till next time, God bless.

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