What is the gospel?

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I am a deeply practical person. I am still waiting for someone to say to me after some teaching--any teaching--"that was really deep." (I console myself with the thought much teaching that is called deep is not deep; it is just muddy.) Because of my practical bend, I spend much of my time thinking of methodology--HOW to double a group.

Sometimes, in reflective moments, I think the issue is not HOW at all. Sometimes, I think that the early church grew, not because they had cutting edge methods or models or strategies, but because of their understanding of the gospel message itself. Sometimes I think the problem is a theological problem, not a methodological problem. Sometimes I think it is a WHAT problem, now a HOW problem. I realize I am wading into deep water here to question the theology of the church. It is one thing to question our methodology, quite another to question our theology--especially around something so central as the question: What is the gospel? Still, a part of me believes that if we understood the gospel as the early church understood the gospel, we would do the things with the gospel that the early church did with the gospel.

So, what did the early church understand the gospel to be, and how does it differ from the way we see it? More importantly, what was the gospel as Jesus actually communicated it?

John Ortberg posed this question as the opening statement in a message he did at the Arts Conference at Willowcreek several years ago. I have listened to it so many times that I don't really know any more where John Ortberg's thoughts on the subject stop and mine start. I just know that I owe a huge dept of gratitude to John Ortberg for helping me understand this topic. This article is more or less a paraphrase of that message. I can't blame everything I am going to say on John Ortberg, but I do want to give credit where credit is due.

(You can listen to a similar lesson called "The offer that changes everything." at http://www.mppc.org/esermons.html?next_page=3&curr_page=2 or, purchase the Willowcreek message by doing a search for "Arts Conference 2003: Imagine Life in the Kingdom" at www.willowcreek.com )

Back to the question: what is the gospel? Ask the average church goer today and they would describe the plan to get to heaven. To use a metaphor, it might go something like this. It is like a house. When you first come into the house, there is a grand staircase in the front entry way. It is lit by a huge, ornate chandelier. It has bright red carpet. All the architectural clues invite you to come upstairs. There must be something wonderful upstairs. And you begin to talk to the residents, and you find it is true. Upstairs is a place where there is love and joy and peace and all the good things in life. But, the residents tell you, that staircase does not lead you there. It may appear to lead you there, but it is a dead end. It does not. It leads only to disappointment and frustration.

The downstairs represents earth. The upstairs represents heaven. The staircase represents works, which feel like they ought to get us to heaven. The message of the gospel is that they don't. There is an old simple-looking stair case out back. It doesn't look like much, but it will take you upstairs. It will lead you to heaven. It is called grace. You must have faith in the staircase called grace to get to heaven. That is the gospel.

The gospel of the modern church, but is it the gospel of Jesus? Is it the gospel of the early church? Is this really a summary of the message that Jesus proclaimed when he taught? Look at these verses.

  • After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15 [NIV]
  • After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Luke 8:1 [NIV]
  • When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-2 [NIV]
  •  After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. Acts 1:3 [NIV]
  • Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 28:31 [NIV]

What was the gospel that Jesus himself spoke? What was the gospel that electrified the early church and caused it to explode in growth? It was not primarily about how to get to heaven when you die. It was all about the kingdom.

What is a kingdom?

The word kingdom is a little obscure to us, but it was common in that day, and it is a common, very human, concept. Everyone has a kingdom. A kingdom is that sphere where what you say goes. John Ortberg quotes Dallas Willard with the definition, "It is the range of your effective will." It is that little circle that you control--what you say goes.

Kingdoms are very important to us, even as children. Two of the early words that kids learn are, "Mine," meaning, "This is part of my kingdom, and, "No," an indication that you have violated the child's kingdom.

In God's kingdom, we find things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. When God is in charge, that is what we find. In man's kingdom, we find quite the opposite--things like hatred and discord and sadness and bitterness and envy and discontentment and unfaithfulness and so forth. Watch an episode of Law and Order and you find a good example of the kingdom of this world.

Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." His message was not primarily that we could go to heaven when we die, and that was by grace through faith. That is a message we often hear in church, but Jesus didn't talk about that much. Jesus' message was about the idea that the kingdom of God is available, right here right now in your work, in your home, on your cul-de-sac, on your Monday morning.

The message of Jesus was not primarily about the secret staircase out back that leads upstairs to the treasures that are there. It is about the fact that those treasures upstairs are available downstairs. The message of the gospel is that we can live a life that is largely characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. Right here. Right now. Today. That life is available to you.

The treasure

Jesus illustrated this life with a parable. Let me paraphrase the parable. Imagine I come to your church, and, in one of the old classrooms, I find a box. Amazed by what I find, I close the box, and then put some other boxes on top of it, obscuring the box. I go home and begin selling stuff. I put my house up for sale. I have a big garage sale--everything must go. I sell my computer. I sell my TV. I sell my furniture. I sell my car. I sell my plates and dishes and clothes and even all the food that is in the house. I cash in whatever retirement I have. I put it all together and bring it to the bank and get a cashier's check and come back to your church and say, "Here is everything I have. Can I have that box?" You are thinking, "What is in the box?" Whatever is in the box is so valuable that I would gladly give up everything to get it. In the parable that Jesus told, the text says, "with joy" he sold everything. This is not a parable about the price of getting in the kingdom. This is a parable about how whatever price we pay is well worth it. I don't see in the text where he is asked to sell everything. He did sell everything because he wanted to make sure he had enough. He found the treasure that valuable. He didn't want to take any chances of coming up short. This is not a parable about the cost of following Christ. This is a parable of the value of being in the kingdom. What if in the box (to return to my version of the story) was nothing but solid gold bars? Well, now it starts to make sense why I would give up everything, and do so joyfully, to say the least. I would never complain that the price is too high. I would spend the rest of my life bragging about the deal that I got.

Church people today sometimes complain that the cost of following Christ is too high. This talk of taking up your cross and giving up everything and the living sacrifice and all. You don't have to be around church before you hear some moans and groans and sighs about how that cost is awfully high. We know we should be dedicated. We know we should be sold-out. But, it is so hard to be sold-out. To give up everything, oh boy, I don't know we can do that. That thought was foreign to the man in Jesus' parable. "With joy" he sold everything. His joy is foreign to many church goers because they don't understand what is in Jesus' box. We don't understand the kingdom. We don't understand the gospel that Jesus himself taught. We have substituted it for another gospel that is all about the question (in the words of John Ortberg), "What are the minimum requirements for someone to get into heaven?"

When we understand the unblushing promises of scripture of the life that is available, right here, right now, today, we understand why any reasonable person would gladly give up everything to get it.

The Genie in a bottle

Imagine you found the mythical Genie in a bottle. You get one wish--no matter how big. You have 24 hours to think about it. If you think long and clearly about it, you might come up with something like this (if you can call this one wish), "I want a life characterized by loving relationships, by unmitigated joy, by consistent peace of mind. . . and I want this not only for me, but for everyone in the whole world." That is the offer of the gospel. That is Galatians 5.22 - 23. That is a gospel worth giving up everything for. That is a gospel worth telling about.

We have substituted that gospel for a gospel about how to get to heaven when you die. Many of us are not that excited about that. We are about half bored with it. The church is failing to grow, not because of poor methods, but because we are about half bored with the gospel. We are bored with it because we have never understood the gospel, not Jesus' gospel, not the gospel of the kingdom. That gospel was a message so powerful Jesus had to tell people to quit talking so much about it. That is the message of the gospel.

Well, "How do I live that life?" you ask. Now, this is the right question. This is the question that your church and your small group is devoted to answering. I am not sure what you talk about in your group and in your sermons, but this is the question that churches ought to spend all their time answering: how can we live that kingdom, Galatians 5.22 - 23 life?

Your thoughts:

  • How do we lay hold of kingdom life and make it our day to day reality?
  • How can we create small groups and churches that live out kingdom life?
  • Do you think I have overstated the promise of gospel living?
  • What keeps us from living the kingdom of God, Galatians 5.22 life?

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