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The Gospel?

Do we even know what the New Testament means by "the gospel?"  I'm not so sure.

Do we even know what the New Testament means by "the gospel?"  I'm not so sure.

Ask most evangelicals to define the "Good News" (or "Gospel") and you will likely get a quick and confident answer.  But, however much the common-sense everybody-knows-that definitions pour out of our mouths, it would do well to hold them up against the actual biblical material.

Whatever "the Good News" entails, it did not wait until after the death and resurrection of Jesus to be articulated and understood (Mt. 4:23; 9:35; 11:5; Mk. 1:14-15; Lk. 4:43; 8:1; 9:6).  Also, whatever the "Good News" is, it will surely be reflected in the only recorded divinely inspired "evangelistic" sermons we possess, those within the Book of Acts.

The startling challenge this presents, of course, is that much of our widely-held presumed understanding of the central message of the gospel simply cannot be substantiated by this material.  The common ideas we seem to have are largely drawn from selective passages we glean from Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians - and even then the material is often distorted by presuppositions rooted in sixteenth-century theological controversies, rather than the world of the New Testament.  It is not so much a matter of error as an appalling displacement of primary emphases.

The Gospel, if we want a definition that actually fits, must be centered on the realization and proclamation that the rightful King has come and invites those both near (ethnic Jews) and far (the nations) to become part of the covenant people (or "nation" or "kingdom") of God.  This does not set aside the cross or atonement, but it rightly elevates Kingship (which we should always insert any time we read the word "Christ" or "Lord" related to Jesus) to its primary position.  Thus, the "Good News" did not wait until the cross, but could be proclaimed upon the coronation of the King (one reason both the baptism of Jesus and the "triumphal entry" are referenced in all four gospels).

It also explains one of the more perplexing well-known phrases in regard to Christ's work.  Since Christ was always creator, always Logos, always with God, always God - in what sense could it possibly be said that it was only through the incarnation and obedience to the point of death that Christ was given the "name above all names?" (Philippians 2:6-11)  What name would be given to Christ post-incarnation and post-crucifixion that was not already His? Of course, this refers to the rightful dynastic (requires being both a human being and a direct descendent of David) title and position: King.  In fact, through this Christ becomes what Adam alone had briefly been: a human being who is also the rightful king of the world.  The king of all other kings, in fact.  Although the modern mind tends to discount or ignore the whole notion of rightful kingship (rooted in such archaic notions as bloodline), the New Testament demonstrate quite the opposite (as in Romans 1:3).

The Christian message is not centrally reduced to the offering of a tremendous blessing (removal of legal guilt) based on minimal conditions, it is the more challenging call to abandon all other loyalties and citizenships.  Do you want to go to heaven is not a sermonic theme in Acts.  Kingship is.

That is why the central commands to follow given by Jesus (Matthew 10:32-39; Luke 14:25-33) and in the book of Acts center on Kingship, not an offer of divine forgiveness.  In fact, even the well-known "Great Commission" is not rooted in some pitiful description of human lostness (although a true concept).  The notion of forgiveness is not mentioned.  It is grounded in an unambiguous claim of kingly rights: "All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore..."

Does the work of Christ include atonement for sin?  Absolutely.  Reducing the Christian message to forensic categories may make it more marketable, but it ultimately undermines and weakens the central ideas inherent in the "Good News" of the Kingdom of God.

And that is why the issue on which the early church found compromise so impossible was the question of ultimate monarchical loyalty.  To say "Caesar is Lord" was not an ontological statement (what kind of being is "Caesar").  It was an affirmation of positional authority and loyalty: one that many Christians found impossible to make.

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