What is the Gospel?
To answer that question, I’m going to read not from the Bible but from a typical piece of political propaganda from the Greco-Roman world. Listen as I read from an inscription about the birthday of Augustus Caesar the emperor of Rome that was dates from 9BC.
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a deliverer for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . . ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him [found in What Saint Paul Really Said by N. T. Wright].
THE TERM GOSPEL IS a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word godspell. It is used to translate the Greek word evangel which means “good news,” “glad tidings,” or “joyful message.” And it is a word with an important use in the pagan politics of the first century. It refers to a royal proclamation or an imperial announcement. It is used to describe a report of the birth, or the ascension to the throne, or the victory of a king. In some cases it can refer to more than one of these, since the victory of an aspiring prince can also count as his coronation. By defeating his enemy, he inherits the kingdom and thus becomes a king. Such a declaration is described as a gospel in the ancient world of the first-century Mediterranean region.
But why spend time in pagan literature? What does the Bible have to say?
Well the Bible has something rather similar to say. Let me read a rather literalistic translation of what the angel said to the shepherds at the first Christmas:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you the gospel of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a deliverer, who is Christ the Lord.
Don’t let centuries of privatized piety obscure the incredible public nature, indeed, the political nature of that declaration. What does the angel say? The angel speaks of one born in the city of David, the ancestral home of the foremost king in Israel’s history. Remember, God had promised that David’s dynasty would rule forever. These shepherds live in a time when Judah is occupied by a foreign pagan empire. To hear of a baby born in the city of David who will be a deliverer at such a time as that had hair-raising implications. Just ask Herod.
Furthermore, this child is said to be Christ the Lord. Lord is an imperial title. It was claimed by Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Christ means “anointed one.” In Israel, Kings were appointed to office by prophets acting as God’s agents who anointed the candidate with oil. Anointing was the Hebrew coronation ceremony. To call a baby “Christ” is to claim that he is God’s promised king.
And the angel describes this announcement he is making as a gospel. Actually, he uses it as a verb. “Behold,” he says, “I evangelize you with great joy.” That’s not exactly the way we think of evangelism today, is it? When we speak of evangelism, we typically think of a sales pitch. But the world picture of the ancients involved a different perspective. The announcement of the birth of Jesus was called a gospel for exactly the same reasons that the birth of Augustus Caesar was called a gospel. It was the announcement of a new king. Except that, in the case of Jesus, the gospel happened to be true.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF GLAD tidings that a king has been born or begun to reign or has conquered his enemies is not only in the ancient world of the New Testament, but also in the Old Testament. We can take our cue from Jesus himself when, in Luke 4, he quotes Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospelto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
Again, don’t let centuries of internalizing and spiritualizing rob you of the electrifying meaning of these words for those who first heard them spoken. To use the term gospelin the context of releasing captives and setting free the downtrodden was like setting off dynamite. This was a royal proclamation that could only be understood as revolutionary by those who were hoping that God would liberate Israel from her enemies.
The prophecy Jesus read, by the way, was understood as a prophecy of a return from exile. Isaiah prophesied that God would judge Israel by allowing a foreign empire to invade the land and deport the Israelites. But Isaiah prophesied an eventual restoration when the foreign powers would no longer have the upper hand and the Israelites would be free. And in the Greek translations of these prophecies, the term gospel is used. Consider Isaiah 40.9:
Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of the gospel.
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of the gospel;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your god!”
And now listen to Isaiah 52.7:
How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings the gospel,
Who announces peace
And brings the gospel of happiness,
Who announces deliverance,
And says to Zion, “Your god reigns!”
Your God reigns! Israel was conquered and deported by Gentile empires. The temple, where Israel’s god resided, was destroyed. These political events had incredible religious implications for the Hebrews. After all, Israel’s god was the true king of Israel. The word translated as “temple” in the Hebrew Scriptures is exactly the same as the word for the king’s house which is translated into English as “palace.” The fact that God gave up his kingdom in Israel with his palace in Jerusalem, and permitted his people, the Israelites, to be taken away from the land he had given them was a horrible thing. But eventually, it was prophesied, God would again reveal his kingship. He would restore the Israelites to the land and would once again reign among his people in Jerusalem in his palace where he sat enthroned above the Cherubim.
These passages referred to a change in political fortunes–the return from exile. They were not only religious sayings, but political dynamite at the time of Jesus when Israel was suffering under pagan oppression in the form of the occupying Roman Empire and the puppet regime in Palestine which ruled on its behalf.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT the gospel is really about is it? Don’t you expect me to tell you that Jesus had nothing to do with a worldly kingdom? Wasn’t he only concerned with an inward, “spiritual” kingdom, rather than a public political regime?
Well, think of the Corinthians. They have shown themselves throughout this letter to be concerned with their individual spiritual attainments. They are obsessed with acquiring wisdom and knowledge and attaining to the heights of spirituality. Some judge themselves to have enough knowledge to eat forbidden food without thinking about how their behavior might affect others. Some think that they should abstain from sex with their spouses because of their great spirituality, without thinking about their marital obligations or the effect of their behavior on their partners. Others actually think that what they do with their bodies is completely unimportant because only the “spiritual” matters–so they don’t hesitate to visit prostitutes. Still others believe they have the right to eat their own meals at the Lord’s Supper irrespective of the public nature of the sacrament in the Church. I could go on and on. Constantly Paul has emphasized the public nature of the Church and our obligations to the Church. And he has also emphasized that we are waiting for the resurrection. No matter what knowledge or spirituality we claim to possess, it is only partial and we are still awaiting the resurrection.
And now the problem is dealt with explicitly. The Corinthians are so satisfied with what they have attained, that the belief in the resurrection of the dead has become irrelevant to their faith. Some among them actually deny that the dead will be raised.
The Gentile world was filled with philosophies which presented inward transformation and privatized experience as the key to wisdom and spirituality. For the Corinthians the gospel had been refashioned to fit inside that sort of framework. In that framework, the resurrection of the dead when we will all be restored to our bodies made no sense. Why should we be concerned about such messy things as bodies when what really matters is the inward, “spiritual,” private reality?
But Paul has a different gospel–a gospel which proclaims the very public fact of the resurrection of Jesus, and, furthermore, fits Jesus’ resurrection into the context of a general resurrection and final judgment. That is what Paul tells the Corinthians here: That the death and resurrection were public events and that the risen Christ showed himself to official witnesses. And that this was all done “according to the Scriptures.”
SO HOW ARE WE to understand the Gospel? Does it deal with public, political matters or private, “spiritual” concerns?
Well, obviously, Jesus did not want a kingdom of the sort that the Pharisees and zealots imagined. But just because Jesus rejected the nationalistic zeal of the conservative Israelites does not mean he was merely concerned with a private, “spiritual” phenomena. The Jews wanted to see God defeat the evil forces which held them in bondage–the pagan empire of Rome. their client kings the Herodians, and the compromised priesthood of the Sadducees. By destroying their enemies and vindicating Israel God would reveal his reign. To announce that his reign was beginning was indeed good news–a gospel in every sense of the world. And that is what Jesus did.
But far from turning the kingdom into an inward private reality, Jesus was even more concerned with public issues than the conservative Israelites who eventually handed him over to Rome. After all, what was the power of any tyrant except the power to kill? Death, not Caesar is public enemy number one. And instead of wasting time leading a rebellion against local politicians, Jesus decided to set his sites a little higher. Instead of delivering Israel from foreign powers, he delivered them from death.
He defeated death. His resurrection was his birth as a new king. His resurrection was his ascension to the throne. His resurrection was the victory that won him a kingdom that would never end. And the announcement of that birth, coronation, and victory can only be called the gospel–the good news that the king has come to his kingdom and deliverance has been won from the power of death. The author of Hebrews put it this way:
since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.
THAT THE DEATH AND resurrection of Jesus is the very heart and soul of the gospel is made abundantly clear from the way Paul writes here. He states that this report is what he had received and delivered to the Corinthians. This is the same language he used to describe how he had passed on the way to do the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11. This is not simply something Paul came up with, it is the memorized gospel which he is given to them.
And there is plenty of other evidence that the resurrection was the centerpiece of the gospel. To just give one example, consider Acts 17.18 where we are told that the Greeks in Athens thought Paul was propounding new deities–plural. Why would someone mistake a monotheist for preaching more than one god? Was he talking about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? No. Acts tells us that they mistook Paul’s message as one proclaiming new gods because (quote) “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” Given how this would sound in Greek, it is likely they mangled Paul’s message and heard him proclaim Jesus and Anastasia. The resurrection was so central to Paul’s message that they actually though Paul was talking about a goddess.
And there are plenty of other passages which show us that all the preaching of the Gospel involved preaching the resurrection. In fact, it is not uncommon for good Protestants, when they first start reading the sermons in the book of Acts, to complain that no one explains the reason for Christ’s substitutionary suffering. The major point reiterated in all these sermons is that Jesus is king because he was victorious over death.
IF JESUS HAS DEFEATED death, what does that mean? As we continue through this chapter we will mention several things, but I want to list a few preliminary points. Some of these I hope some of us are familiar with, but even so we can never hear these things too often. Let me begin by saying that when Paul emphatically states that Jesus died for our sins and rose again “according to the Scriptures” he is not merely pointing out that the Scriptures predicted this event, but that the Scriptures provide the comprehensive interpretation of this event. We’ll see next week that Paul’s argument about how the resurrection of Jesus is related to the resurrection of everyone at the final judgment presupposes Biblical categories which directly challenge the Corinthians.
So what is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection? A basic point both because it is simple and because it is incredibly important: If God raised up Jesus from the grave then death must be a bad thing. When you proclaim the resurrection to someone, don’t forget to make this implication clear. If death needed to defeated, then it must be an enemy. It is not a gentle sleep. It is not a doorway to a better world. It is horrible. It is to be feared. To say otherwise is to make a mockery of the sacrifice which Jesus made for us.
And if death is so horrible, why is it a part of God’s good world? If you want to prove to people that we all disobey God and are alienated from him, then you need to get them to face up to death. God has put the world under the curse of death. A righteous God could only do that for a good reason. By rebelling against God from the time of the first human being, we have brought God’s anger upon ourselves. By showing how Jesus resurrection is the solution to our problem, we can demonstrate what the nature of the problem really is. God is altogether good, but we are evil.
But despite that, God in Jesus, who was not evil, joined us in our cursed existence, suffered under the full effects of the curse and then attained to new life. Preaching the resurrection means preaching the forgiveness of our sins. That’s why Paul could dare to be confident as a called Apostle even though he had persecuted the church. If Jesus conquered death than even the most horrendous sins are not beyond Jesus. He can liberate us from our sins, both in pardoning them and in giving us the power to more and more live in service to God rather than disobedience to him.
HAVING SAID THAT, LET’S tie this to another important theme in the Bible: Faith.
If Jesus died and rose again, then we can trust him to forgive our violations of God’s commands, and to liberate us from the effects of the curse which are all around us and in our very selves. Going back to Isaiah’s prophecies which ultimately point to Jesus, two characteristics in God are singled out that differentiate God from all false gods and pretenders: According to Isaiah 45.24, the true God is righteous or faithful and the true God is strong. That’s why he is trustworthy. He can be trusted to keep his promise to forgive his people all their sins and he can be trusted to be powerful enough to forgive our sins. Both those two characteristics are demonstrated in the resurrection. Jesus died and rose again to provide us, who were alienated from God and doomed to die eternally, complete liberation from all our sins. He wouldn’t have bothered if he wasn’t willing to actually rescue us. Secondly, in his resurrection we see that God, through the weakness of crucified human flesh, ironically enough, is strong enough to rescue us. He has defeated death. He has defeated death because he was faithful to keep his promise to us to do so, and because he was stronger than death.
So you can trust him. That’s all that faith means, after all; simply trust. If you believe that Jesus defeated death you know he is willing and able to help you. There is no wrong you have done which he is unwilling to forgive. There is no problem you face which he cannot conquer. There is no amount of hardship you face which won’t end up resulting in your glorification if you trust the one who endured the ultimate hardship so that he could gain glory for us.
So we see the entire gospel unfolding from the resurrection. The resurrection means that death is a result of our own wickedness, but that God has overcome that wickedness by suffering death in Jesus and then rising from the dead. The resurrection means that Jesus has defeated death after dying in our place so that all our sins can be forgiven and all our problems can be overcome. And the resurrection therefore means that we must have faith, we must believe, we must trust God to forgive our sins and rescue us from the curse of death and all other curses as well.
BUT THERE’S MORE. IF you truly believe that God conquered death in Jesus Christ, then you must realize that he is the king over all. He is not simply a small voice in your conscience. He is not merely an invisible friend. He is not simply the object of your private meditation. No, he is the man who killed death. No conqueror on earth can ever come close to his accomplishment. He has become the ruler of all the kings of the earth. He is just as much a force in the universe as any world leader you can think of, except that any world leader you can think of must eventually bow his or her knee to him.
And that means that if you truly believe. If you have faith. If you trust in the gospel, you will “bow the knee” now–and not bother to wait for some future confrontation. If death can’t withstand Jesus, neither can you. He is your rightful king and you need to surrender your heart promptly and sincerely. He has vanquished death; let him rule your life. There is no attitude in your heart, no thought in hour head, no habit in your hands that you should not be willing to change or abolish or develop according to what Jesus tells you in His Word, the gospel. The gospel is a royal summons given to you by heralds for the king. The Bible scholar, N. T. Wright puts it this way:
When the herald makes a royal proclamation, he says, “Nero (or whoever) has become emperor.” He does not say “If you would like to have an experience of living under an emperor, you might care to try Nero” The proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience–in Paul’s case, to what he calls “the obedience of faith” [quoting from Romans 1.5].
Whom you trust and whom you serve will always be bound together. If you believe that Jesus is the high king, you will want to be bound to his service. You will want to be numbered among his people–those whom he has promised to save. You will want to join and remain in the institutional church which was established on the foundation of the prophets and Apostles, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone–not because you think that can somehow earn you new life (New life is completely a free gift of the resurrection), but because you will want to express your loyalty to the emperor of the world and be marked off before God and others as one of his followers.
THERE IS ONE FINAL thing to say about the nature of the gospel of the resurrection. Actually there are many things to say, and we’ll see in the next few sundays that Paul has some things to say, but I will just make one more general point. If we realize that the gospel is centered on the resurrection, then we must realize that it is therefore centered on the person of Jesus himself. Compare verse 1 to verse 12:
Now I make known to you brothers the gospel which I preached to you.Now if Christ is preached to you . . .
Preaching the gospel is preaching Christ. The gospel, as a royal announcement, is not simply a history lesson. To announce the birth of Augustus Caesar is not intended to simply inform you of an important date in history. It is intended to introduce you to an extremely important person. The point of proclaiming the resurrection is not simply to let you know that someone rose from the dead, one more strange fact in the universe, but rather to introduce you to the king of the universe. The gospel presents us with Jesus the risen deliverer. He is the center of our message and should be the center of our lives. He is the resurrection and the life. When we present the resurrection we are not merely describing an event but explaining why a person is now king by telling of his victory.
UNLIKE THE CORINTHIANS, NONE of us denies the resurrection. Or do we. How many times this week have I denied my Lord and denied the power of his new life in what I have thought, felt, said, or done? All I’ve given you this morning is simply the basic gospel. But we can never hear the gospel enough. We continue in the faith the same way we come to faith–by hearing the word preached, placing anew our trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead, and repenting of our sins. May God grant us all to do this faithfully in response to the royal proclamation that Jesus is Lord.