Definition and Implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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Back in October of 2015 I completed my master’s thesis @ Wesley Seminary. It’s one of those things that resides on my computer and sits in the stacks at Indiana Wesleyan University Library, but isn’t easily exposed to the light of day. So I thought I would post some of my thesis’ content. The full thesis (Wesley Seminary calls it a “Capstone Project”) is available on this site: jeremymavis.com/capstone-project

My thesis has three components:

  1. A cultural and religious exegesis of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI
  2. The definition and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  3. A sort of homogenized praxis of engagement with the Gospel to the current post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI culture. It seeks to discern best practices to the transmission and outworking of the Gospel among the existing culture of Hayward’s high school students.

This post concentrates on the second component:

the-gospel

The definition and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Recently, the church has seen a resurgence of study and interpretive effort on the core message of Jesus in his historical setting. As a result of this resurgence, the message of the Gospel seemingly has been brought from black and white into greater color than ever before. It is not a “new” Gospel, but rather a deeply more understood and robust Gospel in light of its Jewish roots and the surrounding pagan culture. It seems our current “post-Christian” culture is very similar to the rampant paganism of the first century and thus an accurate understanding of the historical nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ could really speak to this recent cultural shift (especially its high school students).

In Learning to Read the Gospel Again, author Anthony Baker (2011) suggests that even though things in our culture are shifting, it is vitally important that the core message of the Gospel be clearly articulated. Baker (2011) reminds Christians that the Gospel and the Gospel alone is what saves us. Jesus, not our trendy practices, saves sinners, and it is important in our current post-Christian culture to engage participants wisely.

Perhaps it is important to ask what the word “gospel” means in order to better understand how it is understood across the ecclesial and theological landscape of history, particularly in its Jewish and Roman contexts. Michael Pahl (2006) explores the early Christian patterns of the use of the word “gospel.” In essence, Pahl shares that the connotation surrounding the word “gospel” had two intonations: 1) it is “good news of God’s kingship and his sovereign deliverance of his exiled people” (2006, p. 211), and 2) it borrows from the contemporary language of an imperial decree that Caesar is Lord in the Roman Empire. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar, and this Messiah (Christ) is the God-designated sovereign ruler who rescues His exiled people. Pahl (2006) reminds the reader that “gospel” brings the theological richness of the Jewish narrative of redemption from exile in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) as well as the relevant news that a crucified and risen Savior is now Lord over and against the current rulers of the world.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright gives weight to Pahl’s argument that “the gospel” relates to both its Jewishness and its Roman-ness in Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire. “This royal announcement fulfils the prophecies of scripture and subverts the imperial gospel of Caesar” (Wright, 2000). Wright spends considerable time demarcating the implications of a Jewish Savior rescuing the world who is now proclaimed as its reigning Lord. Wright (2000) offers one of the clearest explanations of the gospel: “For Paul ‘the gospel’ is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.” In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord: Jesus, the historical figure who lived, Christ, the long-awaited Jewish messiah sent to redeem and atone for the sins of God’s people and by extension the world, is, meaning alive, resurrected, and Lord, who has ascended to the right hand of the Father and reigns as king. Paul’s “missionary work…must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth” (Wright, 2000).

Gavin Drew (2010) reviewed N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope in an article entitled So, if Christians don’t understand the gospel, how can the rest of the world? Drew (2010) articulates Wright’s emphasis on living in light of the life of Jesus, his death, resurrection and lordship as a sense of missional activity in the world. Question: What would a world look like if Jesus were king? Answer: Let’s follow this king named Jesus who is the Jewish messiah that saved the world, is resurrected, and is an actual reigning king. Let’s follow the rule of this reigning king and change the world. In essence, this is the implication of the gospel: not simply the transformation of an individual, but the transformation of the whole world. In The Public Meaning of the Gospels: Kingdom Come, N.T. Wright (2008) posits a similar question: “What would it look like if God were running the show?” (p. 29). Answer: the revealed kingdom of God as witnessed and chronicled in the four canonical Gospels. Jesus introduces and reveals the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15).

Stepping outside of Wright’s influential impact on New Testament scholarship, Jack Gabig (2011) offers a few implications of the Gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord in Exceeding Human Culture: A Christology that Transcends. First, a passage from the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16 NIV). At its core, the Gospel works because God the Father so loved the world and specifically the people he had created. The Trinity operates out of an abiding love for each other as well as for creation (as is evident by God’s continued graciousness and compassionate throughout Israel’s history). Second, is the incarnation itself where the second person of the Trinity stepped into human flesh and dwelt among humanity. Again, from the Gospel according to John: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14a, NIV). Jesus put on human skin and succumbed to human weakness and limitations. In essence, he humbled himself to relate and sympathize with our humanness. It is rather difficult to reason why Jesus Christ is Lord is one that does not see the great love of the Father and the humility of the Son.

In Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids, Jack Klumpenhower (2014) spends time emphasizing that the gospel is not merely about getting into the kingdom, but it is the means by which one engages as a kingdom citizen. Klumpenhower uses the idea of a “framework” (2014, p. 15) to describe the gospel’s effect throughout the life of a Christian. In computer terms, the gospel is not merely the boot up process to the Christian life, but the actual operating system that runs the Christian life. Klumpenhower (2014) adds an important point about the gospel: it is good news about what God has already done, not what you need to do to earn it. “The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you’ve done to prove yourself worthy” (Klumpenhower, 2014, p. 17). The gospel declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord is good news that I am not Lord, nor that I have to be a perfect Jesus-like figure to earn my way to life in the resurrected order. I am wholly unworthy and yet God loved me anyway. Jesus Christ’s lordship calls for a lived response every minute of the day and not just a once-and-done prayer. The gospel is the Christian’s operating system for life in God’s kingdom amidst a fallen and broken world that needs to know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Tim Keller (2009) in the Centrality of the Gospel warns of what he calls the two thieves of the gospel: moralism and relativism. Put another way, the two errors of the gospel can be called religion and irreligion. “On the one hand, moralism/religion stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, relativism/irreligion stresses grace without truth, for it says that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us” (Keller, 2009). Moralism and religion seek to perform their way to God’s holiness instead of depend on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Relativism and irreligion seeks to downplay the sinfulness of man and depend on themselves instead of God. According to Keller (2009), “they are both ways to avoid Jesus as Savior and keep control of their lives.”

In his book The Hole In Our Gospel, Richard Stearns (2009) reveals an important corrective to what has popularly been perceived as the goal of the gospel: heaven. “In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of ‘fire insurance’ that one can buy…then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living…we’ve got our ‘ticket’ to the next life” (p. 17). The hole in our gospel, as Stearns (2009) puts it, is Christians’ emphasis on getting people saved in order to get to heaven without much thought for what we are currently saved for here on earth. In other words, is the goal of the gospel a secured destination or an alternative and counter-cultural life here on earth as a subversive agent of God’s kingdom that proclaims: Jesus Christ is Lord?

In the 1950s, Joe Bayly used a narrative form called parables to critique popular Christianity of his day. Bayly (1983) is best known for his parable called The Gospel Blimp. It is a story of a collective group of Christians who had a wonderful idea of creating a blimp which would float around their city and display a trailing message on the back. The message was the gospel…or so they thought. The message that trailed behind the blimp as it traversed the city said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Bayly, 1983, p. 4). An organization was created to manage donations and make decisions for the blimp. Additions such as loudspeaker were made for the blimp so someone could preach the Gospel from the blimp as well as dropping fire bombs with tracks inside of them onto people’s lawns. Bayly’s story humorously and adeptly highlights an important part in the transmission of the gospel proclamation: incarnational relationships. Trailing a sign or preaching from a floating blimp and littering tracks on someone’s lawn is not going to awaken someone’s need live in light of Jesus Christ being Lord. The irony in Bayly’s story of the gospel blimp was the very reason the idea came from for the blimp was because George’s neighbors were not Christians and they needed to be evangelized. Instead of relationally interacting with them like Jesus modeled in the incarnation, it was decided to float a large balloon over the neighbor’s heads until they thought the need to repent. It was not until George resigned from the board of the International Gospel Blimps, Inc. did he begin a relationship with his neighbors like what should have happened in the first place. Bayly’s (1983) last dig in the story is the Christians who ran the blimp’s organization are worried about George because he was spending time with non-Christians.

Photo credit: Creation Swap