A theology of the gospelIntroduction
The gospel is a divine message from God to mankind, Rev.14:6. During the three years of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed this message to the Jewish people and then commissioned his disciples to take it into the whole world. The message is now ours to take.
The gospel concerns the Kingdom of God - the reign of God over a people freely blessed by his kindness. It is the announcement that the preliminary events that lead up to the establishment of the Kingdom of God have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus, and that therefore the Kingdom of God is now upon us. What the prophets foretold has come to pass in Christ, the Kingdom is now at hand. The most amazing aspect of this truth is that entrance into the Kingdom is freely offered all as a gift of God's grace. Even a thief on a cross can get in by asking. Jesus summarizes the gospel in these words, "the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel", Mk.1:14-15.
The content and structure of the gospel is firmly controlled by the theology of the Kingdom of God, and this because the message concerns the Kingdom of God.
The following diagrams serve to illustrate the theology of the Kingdom of God.
The structure, or pattern, of the establishment of the Kingdom of God has two basic parts:
i] The preliminary events leading up to the establishment of the Kingdom.
ii] The Kingdom established.
The content of the Biblical theology of the Kingdom of God is revealed in a series of events, both past and future. In the diagrams, this is represented in linear time from left to right. In our moment of time there is an overlap between the two different modes (Present and Heavenly) of the Kingdom.
The gospel message follows the pattern established in the history of the Jewish people from the Exodus to the formation of the Kingdom under David. The same pattern is repeated in the prophetic writings. By this means a series of key events is revealed which always proceed the coming of the Kingdom. This series of events were played out in Jesus' life.
The content of the gospel concerns these key events. The gospel proclaims that these events have actually occurred in Jesus' ministry in Palestine and that therefore the Kingdom, with all its blessings, is upon us. This is the main thrust of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and it is why they are called gospels.
The main complexity occurs when we realize that the Kingdom is now and not yet. We are in it, but not in it. We experience in part the outpouring of Kingdom blessings, but still await its fullness at the coming of Christ. Therefore, the gospel message deals with what it means to be in the Kingdom now and what it will mean then, and also what it means to be outside the Kingdom now and what it will mean then.
We can therefore summarize the gospel's structure and content as follows:
i] The time is fulfilled
ii] The Kingdom of God is at hand
iii] Repent and believe the gospel (The appropriate response)
To expand the content of the message it is helpful to study certain key books and passages, particularly the evangelistic sermons in Acts. We should not forget, of course, that the New Testament itself is an expansion of the basic gospel message. This therefore means that most New Testament teachings can be used to highlight, expand or deepen the gospel message. The extent of such expansion depends on the type of treatment we wish to give the gospel. We can spend 5 minutes or 5 hours telling a person the gospel.
It is worthwhile checking out the sermons in Acts, also 1 Corinthians 15 and the book of Romans. Note how both the structure and content of the gospel is repeated. Consider two examples:
a) Acts 2:14-42
i] The time is fulfilled: 2:14:32
ii] The Kingdom of God at hand
Now: 2:33-36, 38
Not yet: 2:34-36
iii] Repent: 2:38-40
b) Acts 3:11-26
i] The time is fulfilled: 3:11-18
ii] The Kingdom of God at hand
Not yet: 3:20-26
iii] Repent: 3:19
The gospel message expanded
In this expansion we will use Biblical terminology. A Jew of the first century would understand this message, although for secular people today, the message needs to be contextualized.
i] The time is fulfilled
The prophets foretold that prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of God certain things must take place. All these events were fulfilled in the life of Jesus the promised messiah. The key event to be fulfilled was Jesus' death. On the cross and in the empty tomb, Jesus was victorious over the power of sin in the life of mankind. He is the promised saviour who releases us from bondage and so makes it possible for us to enter the Kingdom.
Thus, because all the prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we can now say that:-
ii] The Kingdom of God is at hand
The Kingdom is NOW: For the Jews in Jesus' day who heard the message, the Kingdom was just around the corner. Yet, Jesus rose from the dead and is now at the right hand of God. He has established his Kingdom and rules it in power. This is the point of Peter's Pentecost sermon. The Kingdom is a present reality. Jesus the King is alive and well, ruling, blessing and caring for the citizens of his new heavenly community. Thus, we can now enter into this Kingdom. The doors are open and everyone, not just good people, or Jewish people, but everyone may enter.
The present reality of the Kingdom is both positive and negative:
a) Blessings:- If we choose to enter the Kingdom we receive the greatest of blessings, namely fellowship with God and each other, and this through the supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit. Along with these blessings we are bound by the responsibility to serve the King. In the power of the indwelling Spirit he enables us to do just that (albeit imperfectly).
b) Cursings:- If we choose not to enter the Kingdom, we place ourselves outside the sphere of God's blessings and under his judgement.
The Kingdom is NOT YET. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father and he is bringing all things into subjection to himself. He will soon return to earth to bring in his Kingdom and hand it over to the Father.
It is now possible to guarantee our membership through our identification with Jesus.
a) Blessings - If we identify with Jesus we will receive the greatest of blessings; we will be with God and see him face to face and dwell in peace with him for eternity.
b) Cursings - If we don't identify with Jesus we will find ourselves cast from his presence, under the judgement of eternal damnation.
iii] Repent and believe the gospel
The response to the gospel is simple in the extreme:
Accept the fact that in the sight of God we are sinners and so stand outside the Kingdom
Turn away from this state of loss
Turn to the Lord who in his gracious mercy is willing to forgive all who come to him and eternally welcome them into his heaven.
b) Believe, in the sense of trust Jesus the messiah.
Jesus through His death has established the Kingdom
He now rules it as Lord
He will give us membership if we ask.
Contextualizing the gospel
It is quite obvious that the gospel message we have just studied is completely unsuitable for people other than Jews. So, we now have to identify any problem areas and then shape the message into a relevant form. We must do that without actually changing the substance of the message itself. Let us consider some of the problem areas:
1. There was a tremendous amount of basic information that was simply assumed by Jesus and the early preachers and therefore just didn't get a mention. Yet, without this understanding, the gospel message becomes meaningless. Most people just don't have the biblical knowledge that a Palestinian Jew had and so we need to give some preliminary information about God and the human condition:-
a) God. Who is he? A personal, all powerful, moral being.
What has he done? Creator.
What does he expect of mankind? Perfect obedience (love).
b) Mankind. Who are we? A free being created in God's Image.
What have we become? Fallen and corrupted.
What is are greatest need? To know God and bask in his glory.
2. The idea of fulfilled prophecy is only of value to those who understand the Old Testament. Whereas the Jew can be shown that the events in Jesus' life are a fulfillment of prophecy and therefore a guarantee of the Kingdom's present reality, the non-Jew has to be shown why the events necessarily bring in the Kingdom. To verify the reality of the Kingdom, the events have to be explained.
The Jews understood the fall of mankind, of their separation from God, and of the promise of heaven (except the Sadducees), of eternally knowing God. They understood that God would solve this problem through his messiah. Therefore the gospel to Jews detailed the works of the messiah fulfilled in Jesus. "If I by the finger of God cast out Satan, then you know that the Kingdom of God has come close to you." Fulfilled prophecy was therefore a central element of a gospel message to Jews. Detailing the problem (our separation from God) and the solution (knowing God) was not central since it was common knowledge.
A gospel message to non-Jews cannot really develop the idea that Jesus the messiah has fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. The stress must be on the problem (our separation from God), the solution (fellowship with God), and the means (the person and work of Jesus: his death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly rule - the "gospel" story).
3. An important element in gospel communication to Jews concerns the sacrificial work of the messiah. The idea of a "suffering servant", a "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world", rests on the sacrificial theology of books such as Leviticus. The Jews understood their state of sin and of the necessary sacrifice to wash away that sin. A sinful person cannot stand before a righteous God and therefore sin must be atoned. Thus, Jesus is presented as the one who redeems his people though the sacrifice of his blood.
A gospel message presented to non-Jews which focuses on the theology of the atonement, is confusing in the extreme. It is not necessary to explain how Jesus has achieved the salvation of the world. The theological workings of the atonement is not integral to the message. We are in a mess and Jesus has promised to get us out of it; all we have to do is ask. How Jesus gets us from this age into eternity is something that can be explored later in a believer's journey. People don't need this information to enable them to repent and believe. In fact, when Paul speaks to Gentiles he doesn't even mention the crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrection is the focus, for if Jesus lives we can live. Jesus may have been taken by wicked men and crucified, but death could not hold him. On the third day he rose from the dead. His promise to us is that because he lives we can live also. All we need do is ask.
4. The central truth of the gospel, the Kingdom of God, can only be understood by someone who has a firm grounding in the Old Testament. This is something secular people don't have. We must therefore analyze the truths that go to make up the concept of the Kingdom of God and then relate those truths to our present experience.
Basically, what we mean by the Kingdom of God is the gathering together of God's people in his presence and under his rule. This involves experiencing eternal peace with self, community and God.
Obviously in different ages and to different cultures, this concept will vary in its presentation e.g.:-
a) A Palestinian Jew of the first century would simply say to his neighbor, "do you want to enter into the Kingdom of God?"
b) John, writing to the Greeks, said, "do you want to gain eternal life?"
c) We might say in our own age, "do you want to be with God in heaven?"
An outline gospel presentation
Exists as a personal, powerful, moral being,
Creator of a perfect universe.
Rebelled against our creator (sin)
Bringing disharmony to self and all creation,
Destroying the relationship between self and God,
Placing self under future annihilation.
i] The time is fulfilled
Jesus' life - truly God with us, well able to deal with our predicament.
Jesus' death and resurrection - the overcoming of our predicament in his cross and empty tomb.
ii] The Kingdom of God is at hand
Jesus (Lord), now risen from the dead, reigns in glory
The Kingdom is NOW
Peace with self
Peace with neighbor
Peace with God, now Father (through Spirit's presence)
But with the responsibilities of discipleship.
The Kingdom is NOT YET
To actually be with God forever in peace
Eternal annihilation to all who reject God's free salvation.
iii] Repent and believe
Respond to the message by:
Turning from self to God
Truly accepting that Jesus:
did rise from the dead
is now ruling
will freely give us eternal peace when we ask.
An example presentation
The following is a gospel presentation using the "language of the people". It follows the basic scheme above and can be easily reworked to suit different situations. It answers the question: " What are you Christians on about?"
We believe that when God created the world, he made it perfect, including human beings, but it's sure not perfect now. That's because the human race has turned its back on God, and that means you and me. So, we are now distant from God and are unable to reach him.
Now because of this we should be annihilated, but God doesn't want that to happen to us and so he has reached out to us. Jesus came to this earth to provide a way into God's heaven. He was only with us for 33 years, and all the wonderful things recorded about him took place in the last three years of his earthly life. Although he was taken by wicked men and crucified, on the third day he rose from the dead. "You can't keep a good man down". Because he lives we can live also.
When I say live, I don't just mean escape death. I mean live now. After Jesus' resurrection from the dead, he ascended into heaven. Right now he is gathering a group of friends to be with him in eternity, blessing them with his presence. As Jesus said to his disciples, "I will be with you always, even to the end of the age." If you take what God is offering you, Jesus will come to you right now. There will be a real spiritual change that will bring lasting joy into your life. You will slowly come to love God, love others and love yourself. Of course it means that you have got a new boss, Jesus, but he is better than the old one. Anyway, as Jesus said, "my load is light".
And there's still more. When your body finally cracks up and they plant you, God will welcome you into his heaven for eternity. You better know it, if you knock Jesus back, you put yourself outside of God's love and outside of his heaven.
Well, that's what Christians are on about. It's simple to become one of Jesus' friends, all you have to do is turn to Jesus, accepting that right now he is alive and well and will make you one of God's children forever. All you have to do is ask. "Ask and it will be given you".
There are many possible ways of presenting the gospel. Variation in length and language, rearrangement of structure, with an emphasis on some particular point, all are acceptable practices. Yet, it is important that the basic message is not tampered with. If the content is altered by deletion or addition then the message becomes other than the gospel.
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