The Secret Message of Jesus

Brian McLaren's new book will rock your world


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I keep thinking about this idea: if the church grew and grew rapidly in the first century and is not growing much in America in this generation, is it possible that the reason is not that they had better outreach programs but that they had a different understanding of the gospel message itself? I know it is treading on sacred ground to suggest that our understanding of the gospel may not be just so, but it just makes sense to me.

We are better organized, have better programs, have more resources, are better trained. . . we have every advantage and yet are not moving the ball down the field like the early church was, and as the church is today in many places around the world.

In the Philippines, where I was born, the work began in 1899. By 1974 there were 5,000 churches. A group of interdenominational leaders got together and set a goal of putting a zero on the end of that numbers--50,000 churches by the end of the century. They exceeded that goal and had 51,625 churches. They set a new goal of 100,000 churches(doubling) in the next ten years. These kinds of stories are commonplace in many places around the world.

Could it be that the reason is not superior methodology of the Philippine church, but rather, a different understanding of the message of Jesus?

One source of help that I have been enjoying for years on this is the work of John Piper. If you have not read Desiring God, I highly recommend that you do. He has tons of MP3s at The bottom line of his message is that God takes seriously the commands to "rejoice in the Lord always," and "Delight yourselves in the Lord." It is your moral responsibility to get happy.

But, there is more. It is not just about forcing ourselves or disciplining ourselves to get happy, it is about understanding the gospel in such a way that we cannot help but get happy. How is it that our understanding of the gospel is not such that we are spontaneously compelled to tell? What did Jesus teach that the early church understood and it compelled them to tell, but it has somehow escaped our understanding?

One expression of a different understanding of the message of Jesus is contained in Brian McLaren's new book The Secret Message of Jesus : Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything.  It echoes the themes that John Ortberg has been preaching about in recent years.  You can access his sermons here:

Before I explore this new understanding of the gospel, let me set before you a baseline understanding of the message of the gospel that I commonly hear. The message that I hear commonly presented in churches and writing is all about being saved. The point is to get saved, and then, to get others saved. Being saved is a transaction whereby I confess and repent of my sins and God guarantees me a place in heaven. I get my reservation for heaven by confessing and repenting. That's what it means to be saved. That is the gospel as it is presented in most Sunday School classes and most sermons.

We present this understanding of the gospel and getting saved in this sense over and over and over and some of us are getting a little sleepy.

Can I be honest with you? I am tired of Sunday School lessons that teach this gospel. I am bored with sermons that present this message. And I am not the only one bored. There are lots of us who are bored. There is a reason many churches are not growing and it is not because we don't know how to do outreach, it is because we are bored with the gospel--not the gospel that Jesus taught--the gospel of a legal transaction where I confess and repent of sins and God makes a reservation for me in heaven. There is more to it than that.

What we do in church is somewhat analogous to trying to improve marriages by studying the marriage license. What I need to get to know is more about my wife and how I can serve and please her, not the fine print on the marriage certificate.

And is this gospel of legal transaction the the gospel that Jesus himself actually presented. Consider 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]

  • The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matthew 13:44 [NIV]

I think you would agree that the predominant theme of Jesus preaching was all about the kingdom. What is a kingdom?

A kingdom is that area where what you say goes. It is your area of control. Where God is in charge and submitted to and in control, we get things like love and joy and peace and so forth. Earth gets a little more like heaven. Where God is not submitted to as King we get the opposite--hatred, apathy, poverty, depression, and conflict.

Jesus' message was that the kingdom of God is possible right here right now. Perhaps a bizarre, make-believe story would help.

Imagine that you met a young man and woman who said they were getting married. You asked them why and they said they were getting married because they wanted to have sex and they were Christians and they understood the only way they could have sex and be honoring to God was to get married.

"You don't love each other? You don't want to spend the rest of your life pursuing an intimate, supportive, romantic, fun, etc. etc. life together? You don't like talking and eating and shopping and going to movies together?"

"No, not really. We are not interested in all that. We just want to have sex and we are Christians and we understand this is the only way God will let us. Marriage is a kind of sex license for us. We don't actually live together, and I think it is fair to say we don't really love each other. We just like having sex and marriage is our license to do it. Not to say we dislike each other--we like each other. I am just not sure that we love each other. But, we do like having sex and this seemed like the only God-honoring way to do it. We like living life alone, apart, but we like being together for sex. Marriage is our sex-license."

I think everyone would agree this is a gross misunderstanding of what Christian marriage is all about even though, on a certain level, you have to appreciate the logic in what they say. According to the Bible, sex is only allowed in the context of marriage so that if they want to have sex this is the only way to do it before God. And, once they are married, there are no limits--they are free to have all the sex they want.

In the same way, the modern understanding of being saved grossly underestimates and misunderstands the biblical view. It is not merely a legal transaction where I confess my sins and God makes a reservation for me in heaven. (Although, it does include confessing and repenting and going to heaven, just as sex is included in marriage.) The gospel is more than a legal transaction in the same way that marriage is more than a legal transaction. The gospel is more like getting married to Jesus. And, it is about joining with Him in the advancement of the kingdom--making this world a little more loving, a little more joyful, a little more at peace. We are to join him in making this world a little less lonely, a little less depressed, a little less hungry, a little less purposeless.

It is a relationship and it is a mission. It is a close, personal relationship like a marriage. We are called the bride of Christ. And, it is a mission, a cause, a dream, a race.

We all want two things in life: something to do, and someone to do it with. God gives us something to do: make this world a little more like heaven, and Someone to do it with--both Christ himself and the bride that we are called to work alongside. 

In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow draws an insight from movies. There are two kinds of movies in this world: chick flicks and guy movies. Chick flicks are all about relationships. It could be a romantic comedy or a "Fried Green Tomatoes" story about a bunch of girls, but it is always about relationships. The other kind of movie is what I sometimes call a big screen movie--a movie that is really better on the big screen. A movie where lots of stuff blows up or catches on fire or crashes. These movies are not a lot about relationships and bonding and character development. They are mostly about stuff going Boom! Boom! Boom! There is more action than relationship. Not a lot of sitting around a coffee table engaging in interesting conversations.

Question: what kind of movies do women like to attend and what kind do men frequent?

This is why men hate going to church, because in many churches it is only about relationship. To reach men, we do well to talk more about advancing the kingdom--building the orphanage, proclaiming the message, taking the mission trip, feeding the hungry, repairing the house--doing stuff.

Jesus didn't call his men to walk with Him and take a long walk together that would involve engaging, life-enriching conversations. He invited them go fish for men. He invited them to do something. He invited them to join Him on mission. He invited them to a task.

God has called us to do both relate to Him and work with Him toward the advancement of the kingdom. It all matters. Preaching the gospel (rightly understood) matters. Feeding the hungry matters. Going to South Mississippi and rebuilding houses matters. Listening matters. Counseling matters. Hospitality matters. Doubling groups matters. It is all part of God's big, big kingdom.

God's kingdom is big enough to grab the imagination of all of us. There is work for all us us to do. For the young and the old, the educated and not so much, writers and doers and musicians, there is a place for everyone. God has a place for you, a calling for you to make this world a better, more-like-heaven, place. That is the message that gripped the early church. Not a message about a legal transaction where you confess your sin and get a reservation in heaven when you die. A message about a kingdom that the King has invited you to be a part of advancing.

It is available right. now. John Ortberg paraphrases (loosely to be sure) Mark 1.15 this way, "Get your hopes up. Life is about to get a lot better, and you are going to be in the big middle of it."

Eugene Peterson sheds some new light on that old word, "saved." Consider his rending of this verse: "He led them out of the jail and asked, 'Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?'" Acts 16:30 (MSG)

"Saved" is such a religious word for us. I wonder what it meant--what it felt like in the first century. Perhaps this is it--to "really live" as Eugene Peterson has it. Perhaps the word rescued comes close--rescued from my depression or apathy or anger or addiction or bitterness or lust. Rescued from the sea of that and lifted to find a life of love, and joy and peace and so forth, AND rescued to join the rescue team. Rescued to be a rescuer. Perhaps that is what the New Testament means by saved. Not the legal transaction where I confess and get a reservation. Perhaps it is about being rescued from a crummy life to be given LIFE which includes a calling to give others LIFE.

Of course, then, maybe I am all wrong. Maybe the secret of the early church is not about this kind of thing at all. Maybe they just ran a better outreach program and a better outreach program is all that we need too.

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