Saturday, June 11, 2011

What is the Gospel?

1 Cor. 15:1-3

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…

What is the core message of the “gospel”?  Although we will find competing theologies and understandings as to the core message, I believe that if we look to Scripture and interpret Scripture through the appropriate socio-historical lens then we ought to get a pretty clear picture of what the biblical writers understood when using these terms.

In fact, the specific term used for gospel, euangelion (also translated as “good news”), was deeply rooted in the socio-historical context of Jesus and Paul’s time.  In other words, before it was a biblical term it was a secular term, and we need to try and unpack its “secular” meaning before we can fully grasp its biblical meaning.  

Quickly, though, a side note on the importance of context: I recently had someone tell me that, “you don’t NEED to know socio-historical context, although it can sometimes be helpful”.  This seems to me an odd statement.  I often remember my Prolegomena/Bibliology professor stress that “context is King”.  But why?  Who cares about context?  Perhaps we ought to let Fee and Stuart expound on this:

[T]he crucial thing to note in reading and interpreting them: [t]hey are all what are technically called occasional documents (i.e., arising out of and intended for a specific occasion)…[t]his means that they were occasioned, or called forth, by some special circumstance, either from the reader’s side or the author’s…[m]ost of our problems in interpreting epistles are due to this fact of their being occasional.  We have the answers, but we do not always know what the questions or problems were – or even if there was a problem…[In other words, the] first thing one must try to do with any of the epistles [and all Scripture]is to form a tentative but informed reconstruction of the situation that the author is speaking to.[1]

This is why knowing context is so important in our exegesis; for, if we do not understand and correctly interpret the context of a passage, then we will simply be able to take any passage of Scripture and manipulate it to advance any particular position we are espousing.

Therefore, it is my hope that the following discussion, in part, will help demonstrate the importance of knowing context. 

Throughout my biblical studies there seems to be two primary uses for the term euangelion.  Its first usage was identifying “the reward given a messenger who brought good news – of military victory, perhaps, or of escape from danger.  By an obvious transfer, it came to refer to the good news itself.”[2]  However, there is another, perhaps more pertinent, contextual understanding that needs to be discussed; namely, that in the Roman Empire, which was the ruling empire during the lives of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul, whenever a new Emperor came to power (perhaps through the death or supplanting of the former), a royal herald would announce the euangelion of the new Emperor.

Among other courses, I teach logic at a local community college, and we recently discussed the difference between cognitive and emotive terminology.  Primarily, cognitive terminology is used for simply conveying information, whereas emotive terminology conveys information whilst attempting to stir the emotions (either positively or negatively) of its recipient(s).  It seems to be clear that this usage of euangelion was emotive in that, although information was certainly conveyed, the primary purpose of using this term was to relieve the Roman citizens of their fear that their empire would not be leaderless, that their seas would not be ruled by pirates or their streets by mobs.  In other words, it was an attempt to persuade Roman citizens that their new Emperor was going to bring peace and prosperity to the empire, although Roman citizens knew that their new ruler was simply another power-hungry aristocrat, caring less about his subjects and more about the luxuries of his newly acquired “god-ness”.[3]

Paul, however, in stark contrast to the cultic euangelion of the new Emperor, cuts through the declarations of the royal heralds and exclaims that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the Messiah to the Gentiles, and, thereby, the Lord of the universe!

Rom. 1:16

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Therefore, Paul’s declaration that the gospel is the power of God for salvation indicates, in other words, his affirmation that the gospel is “the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ.”[4]  We ought to certainly join Paul and Wright in declaring, affirming and rejoicing in the total sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ over the entire universe.

But is this enough? 

What if the gospel, the good news, the euangelion, ended here…what if the gospel ended with a declaration that the crucified and risen Jesus was Lord of the universe? 

Is that really good news?

My answer would be no…

Here is why my answer would be no: “The announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the imperial Lord of the universe, is not good news, but is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution”.[5]

Rom. 6:23

            For the wages of sin is death…

Paul certainly seems to affirm the message that your treason (i.e. the wages of your sin) brings death.  In fact, our sentence from the imperial Lord of the universe seems to have already been declared…

1 Cor. 1:18

            For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…

Another helpful quote:

Why should a guilty sinner who has committed treason against Jesus consider it good news when he hears the announcement that this Jesus has been raised from the dead with absolute sovereign right over all human beings? . . . If the gospel has no answer for this sinner, the mere facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus are not good news.  But if the gospel has an answer, it would have to be a message about how the rebel against God can be saved – indeed, how he can be right with God and become part of the covenant people.[6]

Therefore, to quote Sir Mix-a-lot: “I like big butts…” 

Now, we can clearly see that Sir Mix-a-lot’s “butt” is a noun and that Piper’s “but” is a conjunction; nevertheless, the “but” is HUGE here…because the gospel does have an answer!

Consider the following texts:

Eph. 2:4-10

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

1 Tim. 1:15-16

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.  But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life (cf. Gal. 1:13).

John 3:16

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

Rom. 8:1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

In other words, Jesus came to pay the penalty for this treason, for our sin…and this is truly euangelion!

[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 58-59.
[2] D.A. Carson, “The Biblical Gospel.” in For Such a Time as This: Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present and Future (London: Evangelical Alliance, 1996), 75.
[3] Much could be said regarding the Roman Imperial Cult.  However, due to spatial and time constraints this topic will not be addressed here.  For further information regarding the RIC, please consult the following: Kim, Seyoon, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke, Eerdmans, 2008; Wright, N.T., What Saint Paul Really Said, Eerdmans, 1997.
[4] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 46.
[5] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 88.
[6] Ibid., 89.

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