Considering the Gospel: Introduction

And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

Why study the gospel? Don’t we already know it by heart?  Isn’t it all about God sending Jesus to die for our sins so we can go to heaven after we die?  What is there to study?

But what if we’ve got it wrong?  What if the gospel message that has been proliferated since the the Reformation and especially since the advent of evangelicalism has misappropriated the message of the Kingdom, mutated it into something less, different, or fractured, and then spread this diluted gospel as if it is whole, adulterated, and cannot be amended or corrected?

Do you hear what I am saying?  What if the gospel message you have preached, or that has been preached to you, isn’t even the gospel message from the Scriptures?  We indeed have some studying to do, because this is precisely what has happened.  And it has happened not out of spite or intention, but rather from ignorance and pride borne out of manipulation by the Enemy.  The gospel message in its power and glory has been stripped away down to a simplistic expression that robs it of its greatest and most effective component: the redemption of all Creation and the kingship of Messiah on earth, reigning from his throne in Jerusalem.  The gospel is so much bigger than individual salvation, and our failure to see that has been the Enemy’s greatest strategy to rob believers of their innate responsibility to manifest the Kingdom here and now.

So let’s take a journey together to rediscover and reinstate the gospel as it was intended.  Join me over the next several months as we embark on a study to understand what the message was, what the message must remain, and how we are responsible to spread it to the world around us.

A Dry Spell?

I’ve been taking some time since my last blog series. It has probably been too much time. No, it has definitely been too much time. But as it is, I have been considering what to write. That’s where I hit a snag, because I don’t think I’ve fully considered or expressed some of the concerns I raised in my initial series, especially the major issues of the Biblical gospel message and its implications for modern Christianity, and the nature and function of grace, sanctification, justification, and discipleship for the contemporary God-follower.

I guess you could say I’ve got my work cut out for me. So I’ve been studying a lot lately, working my way through some resources that I will [hopefully] reference as we work through these difficult concepts. I say difficult because, unlike many would prefer, this thing we call being a Christian cannot be reduced to a 30-second sound byte. Look at the Bible. It’s thick. It has lots of words in it. If you think you can compress that story into a 30-second elevator pitch, then you’re leaving something important out. And if you think that people really want something that simplistic, then you’re wrong.

“Simplistic” is why people are leaving the church in droves. They want something real, even if that means complicated and difficult to understand. What we take for granted as the “elementary doctrine of Christ” (Heb 6:1), we must consider to be of far more significance and a greater mystery to not just those outside the faith, but to a great majority within it as well.

So I thank you for your patience and covet your prayers as we will soon begin this new study. In the meantime, I would encourage you to carefully consider how you would explain these concepts: the gospel, grace, sanctification, justification, and discipleship. They are all different but cohesive, co-reliant and yet distinct. Kind of like people.

The Euphoria of Indifference

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? The Master provides his own commentary in Luke 6:40, “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” The relationship of a disciple to his rabbi is even deeper than that of a student and teacher. A disciple studies to be just like his rabbi. He learns his habits, how he dresses, his words, his opinions and beliefs. Above all, a disciple learns the way his Master interprets the word of God and applies it to his life.

Our Master, our Messiah, is a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. He is zealous for God’s word (Torah). He is passionate about repairing the world (tikkun olam). He longs to see all creation reconciled to the Creator. What are you passionate about?

As I walk through my daily routine, I am struck by an abundance of indifference that seems to have captured the hearts of believers. Not all. But many. Are you relishing the languor that comes from not taking a risk? Not passionately seeking to follow after God’s ways and proclaiming him to the lost? There is a euphoria that overtakes us when we lose our passion. When we forget that we are disciples of the Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, we become disciples of our own ideas and sensibilities. In our minds, we then fabricate what we want Jesus to look like based on our own desires. We become disciples of our own imagination, walking with blinders on, indifferent to the hurt and need that surrounds us and ineffective at bringing the hope and change our Master desires.

We have a living Master to serve whose words and deeds have been passed down for two thousand years. Will you embrace his teaching and pursue his example? Or will you languish in inaction and indifference to a fallen world that desperately needs the message he brought?

The Dilemma of Choice

Did you know that it has been scientifically proven that having more options to choose from actually makes the decision-making more difficult?

That plays deeply into the idea of why children who receive discipline and structure while growing up tend to end up as better behaved children and better adjusted adults. It is by design that we need limits, whether children or adults. Arguably, the United States boasts one of the freest societies in the world, yet we have more laws imposed upon us here than in most other countries. It seems oxymoronic that freedom comes through limitation. But that’s a paradox woven into the fabric of our existence.

One of the greatest lies of the Enemy is the idea that freedom means no restriction, no limitation, and no penalty. That idea was foreign to our religious forebears, within their Jewish mindset. To Jesus and his disciples, decisions were to be based on God’s eternal and unwavering counsel: the Torah (law). They operated within the freedom given by the safety and well-defined boundaries within God’s law–even after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul refers to this function of the law as a pedagogue (Gal 3:24).

But how does knowing what standard of living Jesus and his Jewish disciples kept help a Gentile believer 2000 years later? I guess that depends on how you see the value of your relationship to God through his son. I think we all agree that salvation comes through faith leading to good works (Eph 2:8-10), but defining the nature of Biblical faith is essential in determining how our redemption leads to a change of mindset and behavior. Biblical faith is faith in action. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for faith can also be translated as faithfulness, with implied action. Faith is not a synonym for belief. James, the brother of the Master, says you do well to believe, but that is not enough (Jas 2:19).

So if faith leads to good works, as the Apostle Paul and James the Righteous both agree, then how do we choose the right over the wrong? The righteous over the unrighteous? We find the answer in the early Second Century non-canonical document called the Didache, or in English The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles: “For if thou art able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou shalt be perfect; but if thou art not able, do that which thou art able” (Didache 6:2).

This presents us with a dilemma. The early Gentile believers from the generation of the apostles actually understood their standard of living, the measure of their faith, the example to be lived out before the world, as the same law that much of modern Christian scholarship believes is abrogated and irrelevant. Now we must choose and choose wisely: do we restore the faith and practice of the first followers of Jesus, or do we continue on a path of our own choosing, of moral relativism within a culture of ever-growing apostasy?

One Small Deviation

When you sit down to read through the Bible, what do you bring to the table? I’m not referring to a notebook or something with which to write. I am not even speaking of a well written, scholarly commentary. I am alluding to the mental, spiritual, and intellectual prism that you use to decipher, decrypt, and otherwise interpret the Word of God.

In my 4 previous posts, I discussed several common perspectives on the relevance of the Torah (law) for Christians, the gospel message, and the relationship between the covenant at Sinai and the new covenant. Granted, none of these topics were discussed conclusively; but it was my hope to at least initiate this introspection on the part of the reader: why do I so readily accept the dogma I’ve been taught when it is essentially contradicted by Scripture? I think the answer to this question lies most prevalently in our inability to fully comprehend such an ancient Jewish document. I alluded to this theory in my initial post.

The Bible was not written in a vacuum. We are 2000 years removed from the most recent portions of the Bible and at least 3400 from the oldest portions. None of the Bible was written in English. And none of the Bible was written to or by Americans or Western Europeans. The events chronicled are entirely beyond our comprehension if we cannot identify the original context. And this is the essential problem with much of Christian dogma: it fails to retain the authentically Jewish character of the original texts. By doing so, Jesus becomes less authentically Jewish, if identifiably Jewish at all. Paul becomes anathema to the Judaism he loved, taught, and practiced until his death. And the entire Old Testament becomes virtually irrelevant apart from allegorical interpretation and spiritual application.

Without the proper context and perspective, Scripture–especially the epistles of Paul–become a free-for-all through subjectivism and manipulation. Peter warns us:

… just as also our beloved brother Paul… wrote to you… in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet 3:15-16)

It is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to try and interpret Scripture, and especially the New Testament, outside of the Second Temple-era Judaism in which it occurred. When this happens, the essential elements of Christianity lose their original meaning and are often redefined in ways that diminish the fullness of God’s story: faith and faithfulness, grace and mercy, sacrifice and hope, discipleship and love, etc. The biggest challenge we have is to try and understand the Word of God from the perspective of those who wrote it and of those who first read it. In the absence of genuine scholarship, we have adapted by unscrupulously subjecting Scripture to our western mindset.

But like a ship steered off course by a single degree turn, this dilemma in which we find ourselves was started through a small deviation–a slight course change–when the early Gentile believers decided that they had essentially outgrown the Judaism of their day and chose to redefine Christianity as a separate religion. This was never the intent of Jesus or the Apostles. But it’s where we find ourselves today. We have strayed far from where Christianity began, and it should be the goal of every believer to reconnect with our origins by seeking after an intellectually and contextually honest reading of Scripture. Only then will we be able to fully connect with the vision that Jesus, James, Peter, John and Paul had for the body of Gentile believers, “accurately handling the word of truth” (1 Tim 2:15).

At the core of our belief and practice, we hold firm to the redemption accomplished for us by the work of Jesus: his sacrifice and resurrection–the first fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven and the World to Come. Beyond this, we must join Paul in running the race, working out our salvation, and ever seeking to be more like our Master.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19)

May the grace and peace of our Lord be with you.

Myth 3: The New Covenant replaces the Old Covenant

To understand this last myth, we need to have a good grasp on how Biblical covenants work and which covenants we’re talking about. There are multiple covenants given in the Old Testament, but the most widely known and accepted are the covenants with Noah, Abraham, the nation of Israel at Sinai, Aaron, David, and the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. The New Testament doesn’t actually contain any covenants but rather chronicles the ministry of Jesus, his Apostles, and various letters written to communities of early believers, both Jew and Gentile. Generally speaking, when someone references the old covenant, he is referring to the covenant with the nation of Israel at Sinai. For our purposes in the post, we’ll accept that the pastor quoted in my original post was referring to the Mosaic covenant given at Sinai (old) and the new covenant of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (new).

So are the old and new covenants mutually exclusive?  Is one “the law” and the other “grace?”  Our pastor friend would probably have to answer with an emphatic “yes!” But what is the counsel of Scripture? Does the word of God agree with this position? Let’s take a look at the text of the new covenant.

Jer 31:31-34 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (32) not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. (33) “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (34) They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Eze 36:24-27 “For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. (25) Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. (26) Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (27) I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”

So according to both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the new covenant doesn’t replace the law of God but instead begins to write those very same commandments on our hearts so that we will “be careful” to observe them.  From Scripture, we see that it is impossible to avoid mixing the old and new covenants because one builds on the other. In fact, Paul teaches in Galatians 3:17 that a later covenant does not invalidate a previous one.  If that were the case, then the covenant with Abraham would have nullified the covenant with Noah, the covenant at Sinai would have nullified the promise to Abraham, and so on. The new covenant expands upon the Mosaic covenant through the work of the Spirit, but it cannot invalidate the Mosaic covenant without invalidating itself.  In other words, because the new covenant is defined by the law written on our hearts, you can’t abrogate the law and still have a new covenant.

Why then all the confusion?  Why does the vast majority of Christian dogma insist that the Mosaic covenant and new covenant are mutually exclusive? Why is the law given by God to Israel defined in opposition to grace and faith? We’ll unpack the reasons in my next and final post in this series.

Myth 2: The Good News is only about Jesus

What is the Good News? In much of normative Christianity, across Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the protestant denominations, the message of the gospel has been largely reduced to the concept of the individualistic salvation opportunity: believe in Jesus and go to heaven when you die, or deny the work of Jesus and go to hell. Belief in Jesus is usually proclaimed through the convention of a prayer or recitation of a creedal formula. In reality and in it’s fullness, it is a powerful and beautiful message–one that some believers need to hear over and over again–that God sent his son to facilitate the work of redemption of all  creation.  But this creedal formula is remarkably absent from the gospel proclamations of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles. Their good news instead pointed to a larger, all-encompassing vision of national restoration:  “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mat 3:2, Mat 4:17, Acts 2:38-39). Instead of focusing on the eternal life of the adherent, this proclamation of good news imparts both individual and national salvation, principally through the fulfillment of the promises made by God to Abraham and his descendants: the Jewish people.

But what does this original gospel message mean for the Jew that first heard it? For the Gentile that heard it many years later and even until today? It does not mean to turn away from the law.  In fact, it’s the complete opposite.  Jesus was calling the Jewish people to return to the law of God, a life of obedience and submission to God’s ways, in anticipation of his earthly reign as King from his throne in Jerusalem–called the Messianic Kingdom or Kingdom of Heaven. The concept of repentance has been largely misrepresented as a confession of wrong-doing, acceptance of a belief, or proclamation of faith.  While these are all components of repentance, they miss the significant aspect of return. The biblical concept of repentance is about turning back to God and following his ways, his teaching, his commands. It didn’t mean to simply think about what you had done wrong and feel bad about it. True repentance requires a physical response, a change of attitude and behavior.

It is my belief that the watered-down version of this gospel we often encounter–while expressing a fundamental concept of individual salvation–misrepresents the expected life change and totally negates the importance and significance of nationalistic salvation yet to come. As a result, the newly converted Christian fails to understand his or her responsibilities and expectations as a covenant-member with God and most often fails to understand the centrality of Israel and the Jewish people in his plan of redemption of mankind. This has further led to a simplistic and often secondary view of discipleship.  This is ironic, considering that the last command given to the disciples of Jesus was to go and make disciples–not converts.  We will engage with this concept in greater depth at another time.

We should take notice that the biblical gospel was initially only proclaimed to the Jewish people.  The Apostles didn’t even consider taking the good news to the Gentiles until after Acts 10, and still it wasn’t until the efforts of Paul that the message of Gentile inclusion in the commonwealth of Israel–the mystery of the gospel–really began to take hold and find acceptance by the Apostolic leadership. For the Gentile believer, the gospel message is still the same: return to God, through faith in Christ, and live a life of obedience to God’s law as a natural result of your faith (Jas 2:17-18) and the work of the Spirit inscribing those laws on your heart. Denying the established standard of righteous living as exemplified by Jesus is tantamount to denying the core intention of Jesus’ gospel message.

Myth 1: The Law is not for Christians

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Rom 7:12)

What is the law good for?  The pastor I quoted in my previous post calls it “good advice,” but this seems to belittle the true value of God’s Word. We know that obeying the law doesn’t merit redemption, i.e. get you saved.  It doesn’t win brownie points with God.  And it doesn’t give you jewels in your crown. But does that make it unimportant or, God forbid, useless for the follower of  Jesus?  Should we really be telling each other to steer clear of the law of God?

To better understand how Christians relate to the law, we should start by first defining what we’re talking about. The word law in our English Bibles can actually refer to a few different laws, depending on the context.  For example, the Apostle Paul uses it to refer to the Mosaic law, the law of sin and death, the law of nature (i.e. biology, physiology, etc.), the legal authority of the Sanhedrin, the state of being Jewish (by birth or legal conversion), and the first five books of the Bible.  Failure to identify and understand Paul contextually can lead to grave misrepresentations about his actual message. For the purpose of simplifying our analysis, we’ll use the term law to refer to the law given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, since I believe this definition was in view by the pastor.

Let’s also consider what Jesus said about the law. He states that the two greatest commandments are to love God (Deut 6:4) and love our neighbor (Lev 19:18).  Jesus even teaches during the Sermon on the Mount that anyone who annuls a commandment or teaches others not to do them will be called least in the Messianic Kingdom (Mat 5:19). To be fair, our pastor isn’t telling people not to obey God, and I’d venture that he keeps many of the commandments, albeit unintentionally, because the Spirit is writing that same law on the hearts of every believer.  That is the whole point of the New Covenant: the Spirit takes that same law and begins the process of writing it on our hearts.  No believer should deny the desire to follow God’s instructions. [This is not legalism.  This is obedience of a child to his or her loving Father.]  The difficulty arises when we come to the point of trying to make his instructions more objective and less subjective.  In other words, when we allow the Bible to define God’s instructions in black and white instead of our own inner voice that speaks in shades of gray, we now have a measure of tangible accountability that gets just plain uncomfortable.

Paul explains that the law is there so that we know right from wrong, so that we can avoid sin. Without the law, written on stones or our hearts, we wouldn’t know how God defines sin (Rom 5:20, 1 Jn 3:4). So the law is for Christians, both Jew and Gentile. How it applies to Jew and Gentile, man and woman, slave and free, may differ; but we can all find our place and function in the body of Messiah by studying his law.  When Jesus calls for repentance, he is talking about a return to following God’s ways, his precepts, his statutes, and his judgments–all parts of God’s law.

The Religion of Myth

I recently read the following in a Facebook post by a local Central Florida pastor:

“The law may be good advice for us, but it is not and was never intended to be GOOD NEWS! The old and new covenants are never to be mixed.”

When I read this last sentence–and the paragraph leading up to it–my heart sank. To say that I was deeply saddened would be putting it mildly. This sentiment is far too common among Christians, especially those in the evangelical denominations; and it is based on a dichotomy that doesn’t even exist in the Bible, i.e. that grace and law, the new and old covenants, Christianity and Judaism, and by extension even the teachings of Jesus and Moses, are all mutually exclusive. There is a tremendous amount of church tradition and history that leads us to this perspective, but I do not believe we can substantiate it with an honest, balanced and (most importantly) contextually-sound reading of the Bible. In fact, if we consider the full counsel of God’s Word, then we have to abandon this polemic entirely  in favor of that which Paul wrote to Timothy:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:14-17)

When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, the New Testament didn’t yet exist. Additionally, in order for us to accept the pastor’s statement as axiomatic, we have to adopt a different perspective than Paul, the Apostles, or Jesus. Jesus was a devoutly observant Jew, born to observant Jewish parents.  He remained an observant Jew his entire life, and he will return one day as an observant Jew to reign as King Messiah from his throne in Jerusalem. When Jesus and his contemporaries (including Paul) read the text of the Bible, they were far closer to the world (land and culture) in which it was written. When we read the Bible 2000 years later, we have a tendency to miss a lot because we can’t connect with that world in a tangible way.  In fact, the most common mistake we make is forgetting that the Bible wasn’t even written in our own language.

The world of the Bible was a tremendously different place than the world around us today.  So when we pick up the Bible to study, we often forget to consider the world of those who wrote it, what life was like for them, and what God was trying to communicate to them.  Instead, we subject the Bible to our own concepts of reality from today, our own insecurities and beliefs, our own sensibilities and social mores, the framework and matting of our own culture. This has been the case for the last 1900 years, ever since the Gentile followers of Jesus started to separate and define themselves apart from the original Jewish followers of Jesus. But what can a person do when trying to understand text written by someone from a totally different time and culture?  Mistakes are bound to happen. But if we are dedicated and diligent, we can find our errors, fix the mistakes, and get back on the right course.

myth [mith]

noun

  1. a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
  2. stories or matter of this kind: realm of myth.
  3. any invented story, idea or concept: His account of the event is pure myth.
  4. an imaginary or fictitious thing or person.
  5. an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

We have first to acknowledge that some traditional explanations [myths] have actually superseded the Word of God and become dogma in much of Christian theology–ideas not rooted in Scripture but instead propagated and made to flourish over the last two millennia–supplied by Gentile Christian theologians who were facing inexplicable gaps and seeming contradictions in a text that was thoroughly Jewish. This is exactly what Jesus condemned in some of the religious leaders of his day when he said, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mar 7:8). When tradition contradicts the Word or leads us away from obedience to our Heavenly Father, we must have the connection to Scripture to recognize the detour and avoid it–or at least recognize our error and return to obedience.

Only several hundred years ago I would have been risking excommunication and perhaps torture or execution for questioning mainstream Christian dogma, but I’m hoping that the modern reader will be more lenient.  Over my next several posts, we will unpack the pastor’s statement above to see how misunderstanding, confusion, and “manufactured truths” [myths] have impacted Christian doctrine and, in some cases, lead us away from Scriptural truth and, in other cases, diminished the message of God’s Word.