I’m sure that my last letter raised more questions than it answered with regard to the way I define the term “gospel” these days. For that reason, I wanted to get this follow-up letter off to you with dispatch.
I don’t mean to suggest that everybody gets to define the word for himself or herself. What I do mean is that it’s possible we have not fully understood the meaning of the word in its original context in the New Testament, specifically in those first four books that we call “the Gospels.”
When most evangelicals define the term, using a description similar to one I summarized in my previous letter, they (we) depend more on the language of Paul than on the words of Jesus and the narrative of the Gospels. Now, I don’t mean to set Jesus and Paul against one another in their teaching about what constitutes the heart of genuine Christian faith and discipleship. If, however, there is any difference between them in the way they address an issue, it seems to me we should read Paul in light of Jesus rather than the other way around. Wouldn’t you agree?
Because of the order of the “books” of the New Testament, we generally assume that Paul’s letters, which follow the Gospels and Acts, should be read as commentary upon the content of the Gospels or descriptions of how the message of Jesus should be interpreted and applied in the life of the church. Some contemporary writers, whose numbers are growing every day, and who, in many cases used to be evangelicals themselves, are beginning to question that way of looking at the New Testament.
What if we read the Gospels, most of which appear in the church a full generation after Paul’s earliest letters, as a way of setting Paul’s teaching in its proper theological and spiritual context? That is, what if the early church compiled (or discovered or authorized or approved, depending on your viewpoint) the Gospels as a way of establishing an “official” account of the life and teaching of Jesus?
What if the purpose of the Gospels was, at least in part, to clarify the message of Jesus by reflecting on his own words and deeds? In that case, wouldn’t the use of the term “gospel” within the context of Jesus’ own life and ministry set the standard by which to gauge the “good news” which the church would share with the world?
I certainly think so, although I must admit it is a fairly new way for me to think about these things. Still, the more I think about it, and the more I push the idea out with respect to the content of the entire New Testament, the more sense it makes to me. Here, then, is what I have come to believe Jesus meant by “the gospel.”
At the very beginning of his ministry, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news (the gospel) of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (i.e. change your way of thinking), and believe in the good news.”
That’s the gospel, Kathryn! That’s the undeniably good news that Jesus announced: the time has come, and the kingdom of God is here! Now, you’ve heard me talk about the kingdom for a very long time. I’m just surprised that it took so long for me to realize that the announcement about the kingdom among us is at the heart of the Christian’s message of good news to the world.
As you know, Kathryn, “the kingdom of God” is not a reference to a specific geographical realm. It means the place where God rules, which is to say everywhere! As one well-known scholar writes, “the kingdom of God is what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge.”
At present, much of the world does not recognize the authority of God. For now, God has chosen not to overpower the forces that stand in opposition, at least not physically or militarily. God’s purposes are served through the infiltration of the world’s systems by a community of people who live and move in the power of God’s spirit, energized by love and characterized by their pursuit of peace and justice.
The kingdom (or rule or reign) of God will one day be acknowledged in all the universe. Until then, the reality of that kingdom makes itself known through the influence of people who are empowered by God to live lives marked by mercy and faith and love. This new way of life is the good news Jesus came to announce. It remains the heart of the gospel for the church two thousand years later.
It’s important to emphasize that the kingdom is already here! And that may be the most important aspect of Jesus’s announcement of the good news of the kingdom. That truth affects and influences the way we, as Christians, live our lives right now. Here’s how Brian McLaren puts it in his book called A New Kind of Christianity.
The most striking single element of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom may have been “The time has come!” The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now. Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday. But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets—of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted—was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future; the dream was being fulfilled today (Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!
That’s what I mean when I talk about the gospel, Kathryn. The good news that the kingdom of God has come, that Jesus is king, that his values and his character should permeate the life of the church and the lives of all who claim to follow him as teacher and example and Lord. That is the reality that shapes and guides all that we do as disciples of Jesus in every aspect of our lives—religious, political, social, economic.
Yes, Jesus is also Savior, and I will speak to that in a future letter. But for now, I’ll close and give you time to think about what I’ve written so far. Let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you.