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“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain”. Apostle Paul, around A.D. 55 The word “gospel” means big news, the kind of big news that interrupts regular TV programming and stops us in our tracks. The gospel of Jesus is the big news all about Jesus – it has interrupted our world! What is the big news?
We are surrounded by all kinds of thoughts and ideas about Jesus and Christianity. For some, Christianity is a carryover from an era now long gone – and probably best kept that way – so Jesus is of little interest. For others, Christianity is synonymous with a set of rituals: going to church, children’s baptism, communion, etc. Or moral rather than religious actions: being ethical, generous, and loving your neighbour. An elderly lady once told me she thought religion was important for people so they would live good and moral lives. For her, Christianity was not a set of rituals you follow but rules by which you live. Then there are those for whom Jesus and Christianity are just a resource used by people to get them through life in a messy, crazy world, and if it works for them then great but Jesus is just one option among many in the supermarket of “Tips for Living in a Slightly Messed Up World.” How do we move beyond this mixture of contradictory stereotypes? One way forward, I think, is to go right back to the very beginning. Back to the start, before there was even such a thing as “Christianity”, to look at the historical records we have of Jesus. We need to renovate “Christianity”: like an old house that has layer upon layer of paint that must be stripped back. We need to get back to Jesus, that original coat of paint. And what we discover is that Christianity grew up and flourished in the Roman world, not because of a desire for morals; not because people were looking for a life coach; not even because people felt the need to be religious. Christianity began because of news about a person – Jesus of Nazareth.
A Gospel – Big News
If the word gospel means big news then what kind of news is big news? One of the more famous gospels is recorded on the Priene Calendar Inscription in honour of Caesar Augustus, dated about 9BC. Part of the inscription reads, “the birthday of the god Caesar Augustus was the beginning of good tidings [read ‘gospel’] that came to all the world.” What, then, is the big news about Jesus? What was so significant about him, a carpenter from the small town of Nazareth? What is the gospel of Jesus? To answer this question we are going have to look at one of the earliest Christian documents we have: a letter from the Apostle Paul, a follower of Jesus, to a Christian church in Corinth. In this letter, known as 1 Corinthians, Paul says the following: Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.(1 Corinthians 15:1-11, New International Version) The first thing Paul says when he spells out the gospel message is that ‘Christ died’. In verse 4 Paul says that Christ ‘was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’. The obvious point to make here is that the gospel of Jesus is about Jesus. And more than this, Paul makes it clear that the big news about Jesus – the gospel – is not just a message that Jesus brought for the world to hear, like Ghandi, Buddha, or Mohammed, Jesus himself is the big news. The question raised by the gospel then, is not, are you interested in spiritual things, or, do you want your children to have a moral compass in life, or even, do you believe in God. The key question raised by the Christian gospel is, what do you think about Jesus? Jesus death is well corroborated by witnesses outside the Christian church. For example, a Jewish historian named Josephus, wrote in about 80 AD: Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, […] for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of the people [..] He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. [..] and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for it is reported he appeared to them alive again the third day,[…] and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, iii, 3)
Or you at the first
Josephus was a Jew. And the Jewish people of his time were expecting a special King to come who would rule them with justice and sweep away their enemies. And they had a special name for that King – the Christ. Josephus certainly did not think that Jesus was this Christ, the expected King but Paul and the early Christians thought just that, indeed, it is a central part of the Christian gospel. Paul makes it clear that this gospel centres on Jesus Christ and not just who he is (a King) but what he has done. Here we start to see that the gospel news is not just news about someone, but good news for us. Verse 3 says that “Christ died for our sins”. Most biographies reserve only a short amount of space for the death of the person, but with Jesus his death is not the end of the message, it is at the heart of what makes him so significant. Why is Jesus death so significant? Paul points it out in this verse, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Jesus’ death wasn’t just a random accident, a life sadly cut short, his death was purposeful – he died for our sins. It is at this point that we are personally drawn into the gospel because it presumes that you and I have a problem. Living as we do in the world that we do all kinds of problems can come our way. We might be facing an uncertain job situation; kids that are worrying us; we might wish we could have children; we might be grieving or facing health difficulties. Without in any way down playing or denying the significance and pain often associated with such problems, the gospel news assumes that these problems are really symptoms of something worse. The real problem we all have, and the real problem that Jesus came to deal with, is that we are rebels. We have all in our own unique ways sought to run from God and to rail against God’s good rule of our lives. The Bible calls this ‘sin’. So when Paul says that Christ ‘died for sins he is saying that Christ’s death began to deal with the very thing that is our core problem – whether we are aware of such a problem or if it’s never crossed our minds. The third observation Paul makes about Jesus’ gospel is that this gospel has a big context: and this context is the story of the Bible: in verses 3 and 4 Paul writes, ‘according to the Scriptures’. The Jewish people came to believe that God had been at work in their history directly: in fleeing them from slavery in Egypt; in God giving them the Law; in entering and living in the promised land, and in the lives of the prophets. This work of God in history – a salvation history – was recorded and written down in books that we know as the Old Testament, and which the Jewish people came to call the Scriptures. Paul is saying that the events of Christ are ‘according to the Scriptures’ meaning that the Old Testament looked forward to what would happen to Christ. In fact the early Christians only used the Old Testament to try and demonstrate who Jesus was and why they thought he was the Christ. The current generation tends to love everything that is new and we (I include myself in this generation) assume that the latest is the greatest. But there is something distinctive and unexpected to discover that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t just a blow-in. Rather, his life, death and resurrection were in fact ‘according to the Scriptures’. The Scriptures that were written over a period of more than 1000 years by a number of different writers all point to Jesus and find their fulfilment in him. So to properly understand the significance of Jesus we need to delve into the big context given to Jesus by the entire Old Testament story. The fourth point that Paul notes is that what happened to Jesus (“the news”) didn’t take place in back rooms and secret locations. It was public and many
people testify to it. Paul says that after the tomb of Jesus was found empty the risen Jesus appeared to many people including the key early Christian leaders called apostles - of which Paul is one. Paul is saying to the church in Corinth that the risen Jesus appeared to many people and so the Corinthians could go and check out the witnesses for themselves. What this means for us today is important. It means that the gospel of Jesus took place in history and so we have access to it in the same way that we have access to Hitler sending troops into Austria; Napoleon conquering Europe, or Alexander the Great’s conquests. It is public history. But the second reason is that the New Testament wants to remind us of the eyewitnesses and so to remind us of the reasons to trust the truthfulness of the gospel news. God never asks you to believe something he knows to be untrue. The historical claims and testimony of the early Christians are important to what we might think of this news today. I don’t think you can ever have 100% certainty. That’s simply not possible in this life. But the New Testament wants to give you as much eyewitness testimony as you might think necessary. The historical truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are key to the gospel. In fact Paul goes on to say: 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. Fifthly, and finally the gospel message is personally transforming. It’s not just a message that is of mere historical interest, or of mere literary interest. It’s personally transforming: 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. The gospel of Jesus is a message with content. It is news but more than that it is news that transforms. Here is one man’s story. David Powlison was a student at Harvard University in the late 60s when students took over buildings and riots were the character of campus life. Powlison thought that Christianity was a bunch of hypocrisy and moralism (let’s all be nice people). Powlinson was much more influenced by existentialism and modern literature. One of David’s best friends, Bob, was the head of the Students For Democratic Society. This friend went overseas for year and to David’s surprise his friend Bob came back a Christian! Until that point in his life, Powlison didn’t even know a Christian. And that began a 5 year conversation between David and his friend Bob. Powlison says: That started a 5 year debate. We argued, went round and round. Whenever we got together we would talk about Christianity. That in itself I see as just a wondrous prevenient grace of God. That I was curious, that I was hooked some way on the conversation - even though I thought that Christianity was dogmatic, narrow minded, how dare they think that they’re the only way (that kind of thing). [...] But like for anyone, the final turning point for David Powlison was not intellectual but volitional. He says: There was a - at a certain point I did not want Jesus Christ to be who he is. I wanted to run my own life. Be my own saviour. I wanted to understand Christ as an existential hero, not as the Lord of the universe.
There was a very dramatic - kind of Damascus road conversion - my friend Bob and I were having our umpteeth conversation going around the merry go round one more time – [my friend came to realise] that he was not going to argue me into the kingdom. There was a kind of irrationality to unbelief. And he actually became much more personal and pointed in what he said to me. And I’ve never forgotten the words he said. His wife’s name is Dianne, and he said: “Dianne and I really love you and we respect you very much” And I knew that so. And I’d been best man at their wedding and such. “But what you believe and how you are living, you are destroying yourself” Those were his words. And those words were taken - I liken it to a cruze missile - it just hit the target - shattered through every layer of defense. I immediately came under a very intense conviction of sin. Every kind of sin, but in a sense starting with the high handed red letter ones. But the two sins that I came under most profound conviction were: one was that I had believed that despair, not joy had the last say. It was a kind of CS Lewis surprise by joy kind of theme, that in the end life, not death, actually wins. And the second part of it was unbelief, and that I’d chosen to not believe in the love of God and the one true saviour of the world. It was a very profound conversion. Just flattened with a conviction of sin. A powerful sense of being too unclean for God to ever accept me. And the particular promise that became the vector of the grace of God became Ezekiel 36 promise to take out the heart of stone and wash you in fresh water and give you a heart that would be soft. My friend had a very interesting way of dealing with my sense that I daren’t lift my head to God, he said “why don’t you ask God for the strength to ask God to forgive your sins” It was a sort of ‘just say it’. And I cried out for mercy, and that night I drove home late. I didn’t have a conscious sense that I’d become a Christian, I didn’t have that sort of language to it, but I can remember driving home and thinking “I’ve never really thought of myself as a sinner before”. And that just sort of rattled around, and I went to bed and woke up the next morning, and woke up with and overcome with joy. The first thought that ran through my mind was “I’m home. I’m a Christian”. The gospel of Jesus is personal and transforming because God himself is behind it and at work in it.
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