What was Jesus' gospel?
This is a very broad-brush attempt to understand the gospel within the context of first-century Judaism. It is very incomplete as it stands - a fuller version can be found here. I’ve also no doubt it is mistaken in some of its details - but I think we need to get back to this sort of story before we can properly define a gospel for the emerging church.
Let’s start with a summary of the traditional evangelical gospel. It’s going to look something like this: we are all sinners; God sent his Son from heaven to die for us; if we repent of our sins, believe in Jesus, invite him into our hearts, we will be saved and will receive the Holy Spirit as an assurance that we will have eternal life with God when we die; if not - though we rather play down this aspect - we will go to hell.
What the heck, let’s deconstruct it!
What is wrong with this? There are a number of things that we might mention. The language can sound trite and complacent - certainly to the ear of the jaded evangelical but surely also to most people who are conscious of the fact that they live in a post-Christian culture. The argument takes no account of how problematic or irrelevant notions of sin, God, and heaven may be for people who do not already share basic Christian presuppositions - ironically, it only really sounds like ‘good news’ to believers. It fails to acknowledge the difficulty and mysteriousness of spiritual experience; it describes salvation in highly individualized and even self-centred terms.
Failings such as these have generally been recognized by the emerging church movement and much has been done to alleviate their effects. What I want to suggest in this essay, however, is that there is a more fundamental problem with the traditional evangelical gospel, which may well prove to be at the root of these distortions. It is that a synopsis such as this fails to take into account the landscape of history. It is played out instead against the backdrop of a simple existential requirement - the plight of the sinner who needs to be reconciled to God in order to be certain of eternal life. It is the ‘good news’ reduced to the terms of a universalized, standardized contract, almost entirely disengaged from its original narrative and historical context. If New Testament stories feature at all in the announcement of this gospel, they serve merely as illustrations for general spiritual truths. In effect we take as our frame of reference the over-refined end-product of a long process of interpretive rationalization rather than the raw material of the original historical narrative.
There are reasons why this has happened. i) Real history (rather than the processed history of popular piety) is difficult, messy, ambiguous, and controversial: it is poor material out of which to construct a system of universally applicable truth. ii) Being a pragmatic form of faith evangelicalism has always stressed the immediate relevance of the gospel whereas history creates intellectual and cultural distance: a thoroughly Jewish Jesus, embroiled in the religious and political conflicts of first century Israel, speaking the strange language of Jewish apocalyptic, appears as a daunting and inaccessible figure. iii) Post-enlightenment rationalism has persuaded us that absolute truth is better communicated in formal abstract categories than in story. iv) Various social and cultural factors have contributed to the production of a highly individualised and simplistic restatement of the gospel. These include: the evangelical reaction against religious formalism and the need to emphasize a personal relationship with God; the disintegration of community and the shift towards a culture of personal fulfilment; and the pressures of a mass-marketing ethos.
If we are to recover a gospel that is both biblical and credible, however, the message about Jesus must be relocated in the tumultuous landscape of first century Jewish belief and experience. There must be some conscious rediscovery of the fact that the gospel is the product of the narrative logic of Jewish eschatology. This approach relates closely to two recent developments in New Testament studies: the ‘Third Quest’ for the historical Jesus (Vermes, Borg, Sanders, Wright) and the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul (Sanders, Dunn, Wright).
At first glance this appears a very unpostmodern exercise: we have come to doubt that history can be told objectively or neutrally; we understand that the writing of history is always a political activity, a means by which a group justifies its behaviour or asserts its identity. I want to suggest, however, that the attempt to recover - to bring to the surface of ordinary Christian discourse - the historical dimension to the gospel in fact constitutes an intrinsically postmodern manoeuvre. Indeed, a proper historical understanding of the gospel may be found to confirm and reinforce many of the conclusions that postmodern Christians have already reached on intuitive or philosophical grounds.
Some general points are worth mentioning briefly, though they need development. i) Postmodern theology recognizes that one of the most effective antidotes to the formulaic propositionalism of modernist evangelical thinking is narrative. There is a real danger, however, that the emerging church will simply repeat the mistakes of modernism and subordinate the narrative - or worse, odd bits of disconnected narrative - to its own philosophical and cultural agenda. Only a consistent commitment to an historical hermeneutic, no matter how imperfectly conceived, offers us any real prospect of not simply repackaging the gospel according to a new set of prejudices. ii) The story about Jesus that is derived from this process of historical contextualization appears to correct, or at least reconfigure, many of the traditional notions that postmodern Christian thinking has reacted against. The language of judgment, forgiveness, salvation, mission, etc., makes better sense when restored to its original narrative context. iii) A return to history inevitably brings into view the limited concrete ‘particularity’ of the story, offering us a legitimate means of deconstructing our own meta-narrative: history gives us the narrative prior to the meta-narrative, the story before it is interpreted by faith, the disconcerting humanity of actors who have been transformed by tradition into quasi-mythical figures. Perhaps it is as simple as going back to the beginning and setting out again with a new set of interpretive tools.
The gospel of Jesus First the bad news
The story begins with bad news. Israel had failed to realize the potential inherent in its religious institutions and traditions, in its national identity and in its calling, to be a righteous, God-centred people and an authentic and effective ‘light’ to the peoples of the earth. This alienation from YHWH was apparent in various ways: creeping Hellenization, Roman occupation, the fragmentation of religious leadership and community, the loss of any prophetic voice, and the awareness that the return from exile in Babylon remained tragically incomplete.
This state of religious failure, however, would not continue indefinitely but would culminate in a devastating act of judgment against the people of Israel. John the Baptist first gave voice to this conviction: ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matt. 3:10; Lk. 3:9).
The renewed people of God
John the Baptist is also interpreted by the Gospel tradition as the messenger who cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mk. 1:2-3; Matt. 3:3; Lk. 3:4-6). The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 invokes a declaration of ‘good news’ to Jerusalem that the punishment of the exile is coming to an end, that her sins have been forgiven, and that the Lord God is about to return to Zion. Central to this prophecy is the description of a righteous ‘servant’, who is both an individual and ideal Israel, who will suffer, but who will be ‘a covenant to the people, a light to the nations’ (Is. 42:6).
This is the context in which Jesus begins his ministry. Like John he puts before the people two paths: one that leads to destruction, another that leads to life (Matt. 7:13-14; Lk. 13:24). This is not to be read as a universal religious choice: it was simply Israel’s choice at that moment. Jesus foresaw an appalling fate for the nation: foreign armies would invade, Jerusalem would be beseiged, many Jews would be killed or scattered, the temple would be destroyed, the religious life of the old covenant would be terminated. This would be the end of the age, a catastrophic ‘day of the Lord’; the weeds within Israel would be separated from the wheat and burned, the bad fish would be sorted from the good and thrown away (Matt. 13:40-42, 47-50); in the suffering and destruction was the gehenna of fire.
The pressing question was whether in the aftermath anything would be left of the ‘chosen people’. Devastation on this scale inevitably threatened the existence of the small, vulnerable ‘sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24:5) who were to be the nucleus of a restored people of God. Salvation, in the first place, therefore, was simply the survival of this community: for Israel to be ‘saved’ there had to be an historical continuation into the age to come. The flight of the disciples from Judea before the ‘end’, their steadfastness in the face of extreme opposition, and the preaching of the gospel throughout the known world were the practical means by which this salvation was assured.
The renewed community of God - Israel redeemed, forgiven, made righteous, rescued from destruction - was defined by a new covenant which recognized the significance of Jesus’ death for the formation of the community. Membership was no longer restricted to Jews but was open to all who were willing to be incorporated into this reconstituted people: a movement that took the death of Jesus in the place of the people as its starting point could hardly impose a system of religious apartheid. ‘Religious’ life would be determined not by Torah but by the Spirit of God manifested in the life of each believer. The plethora of rules and restrictions that made up the law of Moses was replaced by the single command to love. And where there was a real prospect of suffering and death, there was also the hope of sharing in the glory of the one who suffered before them.
The coming of the Son of man
The Old Testament motif of the restoration of the people following exile and the return of YHWH in glory to a rebuilt Zion determined the shape of the church that would emerge after the fires of judgment had died down. But this was never going to be a painless, uncontroversial process: the emergence of a renewed, energetic, missionary people of God was bound to provoke opposition not only from ‘old Israel’ but also from the wider pagan society: other very powerful forces claimed absolute sovereignty in the world. A second Old Testament motif is drawn upon, therefore, to give warning of this conflict and present the eventual vindication of those who would choose the path of life.
Daniel’s visionary drama of the conflict between the fourth beast with its little horn and the figure like a Son of man is, I think, of central importance for our understanding of the ‘gospel story’. These ‘prophecies’ originally depicted the crisis that was provoked in Israel by the intervention of Antiochus Epiphanes, who installed an abomination of desolation in the temple. In the New Testament they are reapplied to the situation of the community of Jesus’ followers facing hostility, first from Judaism then from Rome. Jesus repeatedly identifies himself with the Son of man figure who will suffer but will in the end receive ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ so that ‘all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him’ (Dan. 7:14; cf. 7:27). This is the meaning of the ‘coming of the Son of man’ on the clouds of heaven - the righteous one who is oppressed but is vindicated by God.
But the ‘Son of man’ is also the community: the saints of the Most High against whom a powerful and godless ruler will make war (cf. Dan. 7:24-26). In addition to the concrete ‘salvation’ of the community, therefore, there is the ‘mythical’ salvation (‘mythical’ only in the sense that this was not an historically observable event) of those who during this period suffer with Christ and are exalted with him. The belief surfaces at a number of points in the New Testament. For example, those who continue with Jesus in his trials will also be assigned a kingdom and will ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Lk. 22:28-30). Paul assures the Thessalonians that by their suffering they are ‘made worthy of the kingdom of God’ (2 Thess. 1:5). In the ‘first resurrection’ those who were killed ‘for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God’, are raised to life and ‘reign with Christ for a thousand years’ (Rev. 20:4-6).
At his ‘coming’, therefore, the Son of man, who is in the first place Christ but also those who suffer with him, receives the kingdom from the Ancient of Days. We should not make the mistake of assigning this vindication to an as yet unreached future: it is an eschatological event but it has taken place within real history. In this way, the restored kingdom of God centred on Zion has been transformed into the kingdom of the Son of man who reigns at the right hand of God.
The gospel that we preach
The church has passed through the eschatological crisis of the end of the age. On the rough ground of history this transition was marked by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the spread of Christian communities beyond Palestine, periods of intense persecution by Rome, and the eventual displacement of the imperial cult by a gospel that proclaimed Jesus as messiah and Lord. At the same time, it is the fulfilment of a prophetic narrative about judgment on Israel, judgment on Israel’s enemies, the restoration of the people of God under a new covenant, and the vindication and enthronement of one like a Son of man who comes with the clouds of heaven. What are the implications of this reconstruction for the gospel that we preach today?
In a post-eschatological situation the emphasis shifts from the apocalyptic notion of salvation as gaining life after death to ‘salvation’ as participation in a community of the Spirit that has been ‘chosen’ by God to fulfil the purpose originally given to Abraham (cf. Acts 3:25-26). The terminology of ‘saved’ and ‘lost’ has become less relevant; much of the imagery of ‘hell’ is seen to have historical rather than eternal application. What becomes significant instead is the idea of a ‘holy’ community and the question of its purpose. The point of ‘election’ for Israel was not that this nation was ‘saved’ whereas other nations were ‘lost’. The descendants of Abraham were chosen for the sake of an orientation towards the world, not out of the world: Israel was a holy nation in the midst of ordinary nations, to be a light and a blessing.
The purpose of the new community is not to be a holding pen prior to transhipment to heaven. Heaven hardly comes into it. Salvation in the Bible generally is a very worldly notion: it is enacted on the plane of history. It describes God’s intervention to rescue the people from a difficult or dangerous situation and restore them to wholeness: salvation is health, safety, peace, military victory, deliverance; it is the continuing well-being of the people. Only in extreme instances does salvation require rescue beyond death in the form of resurrection. The eschatological crisis that marked the transition between the old Israel and the new brought salvation as resurrection to the fore because the continuation of the community required faithfulness and steadfastness to the point of death. We should not lose sight of the fact that salvation is the response of God to a particular set of concrete circumstances.
The primary purpose of the new community is to be advocates of, propagandists for, exponents of a God-centred righteousness in the world. The invitation to be part of this community, which takes its identity from Jesus Christ, remains, and with it the prospect of sharing in the abundant life of the Spirit, which is the life of the age that has come, eternal life. But what I think we may need to make clear is, first, that we ‘win’ people (not the ‘lost’, just people) not so that they will go to heaven rather than to hell but so that they may be part of the people of God rather than not part of the people of God; and secondly, that membership of this community cannot be separated from the missionary task of embodying Godness and goodness in the world.
Christ died in the place of Israel - as a substitute, a final sacrifice for the sins of a persistently rebellious nation - so that there could be a continuation of the people of God, so that the covenant community did not have to be finally exterminated. The benefit that we have by grace, through faith, is that we too, as Gentiles, may inherit the promise of Abraham - we may share in the ‘richness of the olive tree’ (Rom. 11:17), we may experience the life of the age to come (cf. Acts 13:46-47). The assurance of reigning with Christ in glory, however, belongs to the ‘first resurrection’ of those who suffered for the sake of Christ. We may enjoy the goodness of God here and now as members of the covenant community; we are witnesses to that goodness in the world. But in the end we face judgment on the basis of what we have done (Rev. 20:12-13), which reintroduces a crucial ethical component into our understanding of the gospel. In fact, the distinction between entry into the community and final judgment may help us to resolve the long-standing tension between faith and works.
How do we talk about it?
The next step to take would be to consider how we might begin to preach this story. What sort of language do we need? What forms of discourse? How do we make sense of it for ordinary people today? How do we overcome the distance that we have created? I will make only one suggestion here. One way to connect the present with the past would be to say that we are a community of faith with a history, a community that has emerged from a story. Part of that history is where we are coming from as church-planters, as movement-makers, as Christian Associates, as evangelicals in transition; part of it is the long and not always glorious history of the church. But the key to understanding who we are as a community is the extraordinary period of crisis and reconstruction in the national life of Israel that is recounted in the New Testament, central to which was the death of Jesus and his vindication as the Son of man.