“Preach the Gospel.”
It’s a phrase we hear all the time in Christian circles. We find it in church mission statements, Bible studies, Christian t-shirts. But how often do we put a lot of thought into what that phrase means?
In a collaborative effort, all the bloggers here on Misfits are to write a reflection on this quote: “Preach the Gospel to yourself every day.” The idea is that we’ll end up with a beautiful mosaic about what the Gospel is and what it means to preach it. What you’re about to read is my own view. I do not claim it to be the correct view, and I’m not trying to convince you that it should be your view. No, all I’m doing is adding my own little tile to the mosaic. My own small piece to the much larger puzzle. [Insert your own cheesy metaphor here.] In the end, my prayer is that you won’t see my view over against the other views on this blog. Only that you see the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
This is part two of my three-part response. If you haven’t already, click here to read part one and click here to read part three.
The Message Inside the Envelope
Alright, let’s continue with our metaphor. In my previous post, we took a look at the envelope and tried to come up with a working definition for “the Gospel.” Today we’re going to open up the envelope and take a look at the content of this Gospel. What exactly is this good news?
Something you should know about me is that I’m a language nerd. So before we get into it, let’s g(r)eek out a little bit.
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, ESV).
I alluded to this in my last post, but let’s go into a bit more detail on the linguistic structure of this sentence. In Greek, sentence order doesn’t matter. It’s an inflected language, meaning Greek nouns have different cases depending on the noun’s function in the sentence. A noun will change form whether it’s a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, etc.
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The words Jesus Christ are in the genitive case. A lot of times, a word in the genitive can be translated by adding the word “of.” This is how we get “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But the genitive case is more versatile than that. I’m not going to get into all the different functions of the genitive case. The two functions I want to focus on are the objective and the subjective genitive.
The Greek noun translated as Gospel is a verbal noun, meaning it’s a noun (euangelion, good news) that has a verbal cognate (euangelizo, I proclaim the good news). When these kinds of nouns appear with another noun in the genitive case, the noun in the genitive is either objective (the object receiving the verbal idea) or subjective (the subject giving the verbal idea).
In our example here, we have a verbal noun (Gospel) with another noun in the genitive case (Jesus). That means Jesus can either be the object of good news sharing or the subject of good news sharing. So we can translate this phrase two ways.
Subjective Genitive: “The good news from Jesus.” Jesus is the subject of the verb. He is the one doing the good news sharing.
Objective Genitive: “The good news about Jesus.” Jesus is the object the good news sharing. Jesus himself is the good news.
So which is it? I don’t think this is a translation decision that we have to make because I think it’s both. Jesus is at once the source and the subject of the Good News.
Jesus is the source of the good news. By this I mean the good news is the content of the message preached by Jesus. It’s not a message that originated with Jesus, but a message that he picked up and developed.
In the last post, we traced the good news through the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, up to John the Baptist. So let’s pick up where we left off.
Jesus and John the Baptist
All the Gospels make it clear that Jesus didn’t start his ministry in a vacuum. His ministry was a continuation of the ministry of John the Baptist. Well, more accurately, John the Baptist’s ministry was a precursor to the ministry of Jesus. Nevertheless, we can see that Jesus’ ministry is intimately connected to John’s.
For our purposes here, we’ll zone in on the Gospel of Luke, as we find more details about this transition here than we do in the other Gospels.
The (Other) Gospel of John
The Gospel of Luke is unique for a number of reasons, one of which is the lengthy introductory material. Imagine a Christian in the first century listening to the words of this Gospel read publicly for the first time. They’ve probably already heard Mark’s Gospel, and maybe even Matthew’s. Even if they haven’t, they know the stories of Jesus pretty well. And then they get to Luke 1:5, the beginning of the narrative: “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah.”
What? Who is Zechariah? This isn’t the beginning of the Jesus story!
The story continues and we learn that this is the father of John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him about the birth of his son, who will be great in the sight of the Lord and will turn many of the children of Israel back to the Lord their God.
“How can I know this?” asks Zechariah.
“I am Gabriel,” the angel answers, “and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news” (Luke 1:19).
I was sent to speak to you and tell you this gospel.
So, what’s the good news the angel was sent to deliver?
The angel was sent to tell Zechariah that he would have a son named John. Is this the good news? I don’t believe so. People have sons named John every day, and angels don’t typically show up to congratulate the father beforehand.
The angel was sent to tell him that his son would be great in the Lord’s sight, never drink alcohol, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. We’re getting somewhere. I do think this is part of the good news. But the birth of a great, godly, Spirit-filled man still does not warrant the visit of an angel. There must be more.
The angel was sent to tell him that his son would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people. Bingo.
An angel appears to Zechariah, not only to declare the good news of the birth of a son but also the good news that Israel’s exile is about to be over. Disobedient, unrighteous hearts would soon be turned. God would once again be the god of Israel, and Israel would once again be the people of God. And somehow Zechariah’s son would play a big part in this good news.
Fast forwarding. John is born, grows strong in the Spirit, and devotes himself to solitude in the wilderness. Now at the beginning of chapter three, John is still in isolation. He has not yet begun his public ministry. But then something happens. When Herod was tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, the Word of God came to John. That’s it. In the next sentence, John is traveling throughout the entire region preaching the same sermon everywhere he goes: baptism, repentance, forgiveness of sins.
In Luke 3:7–17, we get an example of one of these sermons. We learn that a baptism of repentance isn’t a dip-and-done kind of deal. In order to truly have one’s sins forgiven, one must show fruits of repentance. If you have two shirts, for instance, you should share one. If you have more food than you need, you should share it. If you’re a tax collector, you shouldn’t take any more than you had to. If you’re a soldier, you shouldn’t take advantage of other people.
“Then, along with many other exhortations he proclaimed good news to the people.”
He proclaimed the gospel.
Let’s take a step back and review a little bit. What is the message in our envelope so far?
The gospel proclaimed by John the Baptist is the same gospel proclaimed by the angel to Zechariah, and it is repentance. Not repentance in a moral sense, although morality is a part of it. Repentance in the sense that God is making a way for his people to turn back to him.
With all this in mind, let’s get to Jesus.
The Gospel of Jesus
John’s ministry is short-lived. He takes a couple of shots at Herod, which leads to his imprisonment and, ultimately, his death. But John was preaching a gospel, a message of repentance, that was bigger than himself. John started a movement. And when Herod chops the head off the movement, like Hydra, it only grows back stronger.
Enter Jesus, the two-headed water serpent. Okay, maybe the Hydra metaphor falls apart at this point. But you get the idea.
When John the Baptist was imprisoned and Jesus started walking around “proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom,” people knew exactly what was happening. This had to be the one greater than John, the one baptizing with fire and the Spirit. John had passed the baton.
While Jesus’ gospel of repentance was basically the same as that of John, Jesus’ message came with a twist.
Let’s pick up with Luke’s story in chapter four. We get the first snippet of one of Jesus’ teachings in the sermon he delivers in his hometown, Nazareth.
Go read Luke 4:16–30 before you continue. Even if you think you know the story.
Jesus stands up in the Nazareth synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61, a scripture about the Israelite return from exile, and proclaims that the scripture had been fulfilled. What happens next?
A) They were all speaking well of him and were amazed by all the gracious words that came from his mouth.
B) Everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They got up, drove him out of town, and brought him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl him over the cliff.
If you answered B, go back and read Luke 4:16–30 one more time.
They were all amazed at his preaching! But Jesus hadn’t finished his sermon yet. By the time he did finish, just a few sentences later, everyone in the synagogue was ready to kill him.
So let’s take a few minutes to look at what Jesus said between the crowd’s awe and anger.
Here Jesus changes texts. He’s no longer preaching from Isaiah, but 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah is called to Zarephath, where he meets a widow. He obeys and ends up miraculously supplying her with an endless supply of flour and oil. In 2 Kings 5, Elisha heals a leper named Namaan. Jesus’ point in bringing up these stories has to do with their nationalities. The Widow was from Sidon and Namaan was from Syria. There were plenty of Israelite widows and lepers, Jesus points out. Why did the prophets of the Lord feel compelled to help outsiders?
Because, Jesus seems to suggest, they weren’t welcome in Israel.
And that was the end of his hometown sermon! 3,000 were added to his number that day. Wait, no. That’s not until the sequel. They forcibly remove Jesus from the synagogue, and although they fail to throw him off the cliff, they prove Jesus’ point. He is not welcome there. Not in Nazareth. Not in Israel. But like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus had plans for his message of good news to extend beyond the reach of God’s chosen nation.
Se here’s where Jesus begins to differ from his predecessor. The message is the same: a new way of living, repentance, restoration, an end to the exile. But the audience is expanded. This isn’t just good news for Israel. This is good news for the world.
The Gospel So Far
So let’s summarize.
The Gospel is a counter-cultural, political, controversial message of victory. This message declares that God has made a way for his people to come back to him. Exile has ended. Enemies have been defeated. God has made a way for peoples’ hearts to return to their creator. Not just for Israel, but for the whole world. This is the gospel of Isaiah, John the Baptist, and most importantly of Jesus.
But this begs the question, how does this repentance take place? How exactly has this message of victory come to pass?
This is where we have to move from Jesus as the source of the Gospel to Jesus as the subject of the Gospel. The words that Jesus preached were fulfilled in the work that Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection.
So far, we have looked at Jesus’ message of good news, the Gospel that Jesus preached. Typically in the four Gospels, whenever the word “Gospel” is used, it’s referring to the content of Jesus’ message.
If we look at the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, we can see that the word euangelion and its cognates appears five times. The first four times, the word refers to the content of Jesus’ message. But the fifth time, a shift happens.
It’s passion week. Jesus had already made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He’s spent some time teaching and telling parables. Now we get to Matthew chapter 26. Just a few paragraphs before the last supper, Jesus is in Bethany visiting his leper friend Simon. You know the story. A woman approaches, pours expensive perfume on his head, and the disciples get upset. “That could have been sold and given to the poor!” But pay attention to Jesus’ response:
“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:10–13)
In referring to the gospel, Jesus uses a demonstrative. He’s not talking about a gospel, or the gospel, but this gospel. Every demonstrative needs an antecedent, so what is the this to which Jesus refers?
We may be tempted to look at the other four uses of gospel in the book to understand this use. Would it make sense in this context that Jesus is talking about the content of his message? The gospel of the kingdom of God? No, not really.
A more natural place to look would be in the immediate context of the this. And in the preceding sentence, I think we find the answer. Jesus is talking about his death.
His words could be paraphrased like this: “This woman has done this thing to prepare me for my burial. And whenever this good news–my burial–is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
This is where the good news starts to get a bit paradoxical. Yes, it’s easy for us to imagine the death of Jesus as good news. Because we know the end of the story. Jesus’ resurrection trumps his death. But it’s still a paradox. How is it that through the death of Christ, the good and victorious news of God’s Kingdom has come to fruition?
To expound upon this paradox, I want to bring in some of my favorite words written by the Apostle Paul. In my next and final post on this subject, we’ll look more fully at the words of Paul. We’ll examine his understanding of the Gospel as we seek to understand what it means to deliver the envelope and preach the Gospel. But these words will be helpful for setting up a frame for the rest of our discussion. This is from 1 Corinthians chapter one.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:17–25)
I think these words help get us into the proper humble mindset as we move this discussion from a lexical study to a more abstract, theological discussion. God’s foolishness is wiser than our understanding; God’s weakness is stronger than our abilities.
The Usefulness and Limitations of the Metaphor
As we move into the more technical aspects of how the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection enact the good news of God’s Kingdom, I must begin with a disclaimer. This is where I get less confident in my discussion of the Gospel. Partly because we humans are fallible and quite limited in the knowledge of the supernatural. But mostly because my training is in biblical studies and not systematic theology.
Typically, a discussion like this would go into the different theories of atonement, which is what we’re about to do. But since I’m not comfortable placing a stake in any of the theories of atonement, I’m going to use different terminology.
I think the word “metaphor” is more useful than the term “theory” for a couple of different reasons. First, these theories are all based on metaphors used by Paul and other New Testament writers to help the reader understand what happened on the cross. Second, the term “theory” seems to indicate that you have to pick one. With metaphors, on the other hand, you can embrace and appreciate a wide range of word pictures, as each one helps us to come closer to understanding Christ’s work.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into what I like to call the metaphors of atonement.
I don’t want to go super in depth here. If you are interested in going deeper into any of these metaphors, there are plenty of resources out there for you. Personally, I’m afraid of summarizing the views of other Christians with my own biases. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone. I’m going to try to list out the metaphors as simplistically as I can, linking to more helpful resources, and listing some of the metaphor’s strengths and weaknesses.
This is probably the most common metaphor in our own church culture today. At least this is the metaphor I hear given the most. We are in a lawsuit with God and we have been found guilty. There’s no way we can win. So Jesus, who is innocent, takes on our guilt and our punishment.
Strengths: The judicial court scene helps us to understand our own sins and weaknesses as well as our need for a savior. We cannot win the case on our own. We need an advocate. We need Jesus.
Weaknesses: If one were to hold to the judicial metaphor too tightly, one might come to a misunderstanding of who God is. God can be understood as a judge sitting on his bench in some aspects, but God is so much more than a judge sitting on a bench. Moreover, this metaphor alone could lead to using Jesus as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Key New Testament words: justification, righteousness.
Theories to study: Penal substitution. Arguments for it and arguments against it.
Similar to the courtroom metaphor, the sacrificial metaphor compares the work of Christ to the ancient Jewish sacrificial system. In this metaphor, Jesus was the lamb of God sacrificed to take away the sins of the world.
Strengths: The same strengths as the judicial metaphor but without the weaknesses. This metaphor helps us to understand Jesus’ role in the metanarrative of scripture.
Weaknesses: Limits Christ’s work to a human scale. Limits salvation to taking away our sins.
Key New Testament words: propitiation, atonement.
Theories to study: Satisfaction. Here’s a good summary of arguments for and against.
War Zone Metaphor
Our world is a battlefield and we are engaged in spiritual warfare. We are not strong enough to win the battle, but Jesus is. He defeats our enemies and ends the battle.
Strengths: I think the biggest strength of this metaphor is that it brings the focus off of us. By saying we are a part of a battle, we acknowledge that we are a small part of something much bigger than us. It also helps us to acknowledge the spiritual forces around us.
Weaknesses: This metaphor, while it shifts the focus off of us, also tends to shift the blame off of us. We are victims in need of rescuing, not sinners in need of saving.
Key New Testament words: victory, triumph.
Theories to study: Christus Victor. Supporting arguments and debunking arguments
Previously our lives were owned by Satan. God has purchased us with the blood of Christ and given us a new role.
Strengths: The same strengths as the battlefield metaphor without the weaknesses. Often times, this metaphor stresses our own sin in the process of coming into the possession of Satan.
Weaknesses: Perhaps this gives Satan more credit than Satan is due. Kinda like how the United States refuses to negotiate with terrorists, I have a hard time coming to terms with God compromising with the father of lies.
Key New Testament words: redemption, ransom.
Theories to study: Ransom. Why you should reject it and why you shouldn’t outright dismiss it.
Which is Correct?
There are many other metaphors and theories to study surrounding Jesus’ work on the cross. A short blog post here can’t come close to doing justice to this topic. I’m convinced, like the writer of the fourth Gospel, that not enough paper or hard drive storage exists in the world to record everything that Christ accomplished.
So with all these different metaphors floating around, our post-enlightenment mind is itching to ask the question, “Which metaphor is true?”
At the same time, all of them are true and none of them are true.
Think about it. Are we actually engaged in a legal battle with the God of creation? Are we really a commodity up for sale in some divine auction? Was Jesus a talking lamb? Literally, the answer to all of these questions is no. But I think we all agree that it’s on a deeper, more literary sense that these statements portray the deepest of realities. That God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has stooped down into our humanity, taken on our weaknesses and failures, and provided a way for us to turn back to him.
Which just leaves us with a giant question mark. Which is the perfect note on which to leave this post. The fact that there are so many metaphors and so many theories is evidence that there is not one correct way to understand atonement or to summarize the Gospel. In fact, we need to hold all of them in tension. Together, they help to complete the picture.
As Christians, we need to grow comfortable with the idea that God’s truth is so complex, so undefinable, so infinite, that we will never be able to grasp it in its fullness. Let’s embrace the question marks of our faith, for in them we find the abundance of God’s truth.
I’ll leave you with an abridged, yet still lengthy, selection from one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, writes:
“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.
I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But the modern theory of nourishment–all about the vitamins and proteins–is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same.
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works…We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be–the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning.
You may ask what good will it be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Stay tuned. Next we’ll drop our metophorical envelope in the mail and talk about the act of preaching. Until then, let’s discuss the different theories and metaphors of atonement in the comments below. Which picture helps you best understand the work of Christ’s death and resurrection and why?
When you’re ready for the final installment, you can click here to read part three.