Gospel: a story in parts

Fri, 23/09/2011 - 16:58

The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ (The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.

The breakdown of the story into its component parts gets a little complicated, so I will offer a quick overview to start with.

The background lies in the announcement of good news to Israel that we find in the prophets—that YHWH is about to act to restore his people. The good news of the kingdom that Jesus preaches is that Israel’s God is about to act in history to save his people, perhaps in deliberate defiance of the Augustan gospel of peace. For the early Jewish-Christian church the good news for Israel included the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that he was therefore messiah and Lord, to whom all authority had been given. The salvation of Israel became good news for Gentiles because the abolition of the Law through Jesus’ death meant that Gentiles who believed in Israel’s God could become part of this new creation community. Paul’s good news also included the idea that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, was the one through whom God would judge the idolatrous nations that had for so long conspired against the Lord and his anointed king.

Now for the details, beginning with some Old Testament background…

Good news in the Old Testament

The noun euangelion and the verb euangelizō are used in the Greek Old Testament—and widely in Hellenistic Greek—for the proclamation of good news. For example, when the Philistines came across the bodies of Saul and his three sons on Mount Gilboa, they sent messengers into the surrounding territory “proclaiming the good news (euangelizontes) to their idols and to their people” (1 Sam. 31:9; cf. 1 Chron. 10:9).

But the more substantial background to the New Testament idea of “gospel” is found in a series of statements in the prophets, where good news is announced to Israel and to Jerusalem regarding impending action on the part of YHWH to save his people from destruction or lead them back from exile:

And it shall be, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, because in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be one who escapes, as the Lord has said, and people who have good news announced to them, whom the Lord has called. (Joel 3:5 LXX)

Behold, on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good tidings and who announces peace. (Nah. 2:1 LXX)

Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good tidings to Zion; lift up your voice with strength, you who bring good tidings to Jerusalem; lift it up; do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “See, your God!” (Is. 40:9 LXX)

…like one bringing glad tidings of good things, because I will make your salvation heard, saying to Sion, “Your God shall reign.” (Is. 52:7 LXX; cf. 60:6; 61:1)

Isaiah 52:7 is especially important because it directly links the proclamation of good news with the “kingdom” of God: the good news is that Israel’s God reigns; he has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem, he will intervene in the sight of the nations to save his people by bringing them back from exile. That, I would suggest, is almost exactly the good news that is heard at the beginning of the Gospels.

The good news of Caesar

We should probably also take into account a corresponding “gospel” regarding the reign of Caesar. A famous calendar inscription from Priene (9 B.C.), for example, speaks of the birthday of the god Augustus, who would deliver his people from war and “create order everywhere”, as the “beginning of the good tidings (euangeliōn) for the world”. Scot McKnight (143) quotes—with some understandable hesitation—G.N. Stanton with reference to Caligula:

When Christian Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem and/or Antioch were probably first starting to use the noun “gospel” in the singular to refer both to the act of proclamation of God’s glad tiding concerning Jesus Christ and to its content, Gaius ordered his statue to be erected in the temple in Jerusalem. He was considered by many of his subjects to be a “saviour and benefactor.” His accession had been hailed as “good news,” and as marking the dawn of a new era, but his antics undermined that acclamation. So, from a very early point indeed, Christian use of the gospel word group may have formed part of a counter-story to the story associated with the imperial cult.

It was good news that God was about to act in history to transform the status of his people

Given this background, we have to suppose that if Jews in Judea or Galilee, in the early part of the first century, had heard an angel announce “good news” regarding the birth of a royal saviour (Lk. 2:10) or a prophet proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk. 1:15), they would have understood it to mean that Israel’s God was about to act—perhaps in defiance of Rome—to save his people from a crisis.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Lk. 4:43; 8:1; 16:16) was the public announcement to Israel that YHWH would soon act decisively to restore his people and establish his own reign over them. It was the “good news” of Isaiah 61:1, which was announced to the “poor” in Israel, that a time was coming when the devastated city and the surrounding land would be restored (cf. Matt. 11:5; Lk. 4:18; 7:22). Of course, as McKnight emphasizes (92-112), Jesus believed that he would himself be a central figure in this restoration, which is why the Son of Man was such an important figure, representing the faithful community of suffering Israel, to whom kingdom would be given.

The good news of what YHWH was doing for his people would later be proclaimed “as a testimony to all nations”—most importantly to the Jews of the diaspora (cf. Acts 13:32-33)—in the traumatic period leading up to the Jewish War (Matt. 24:14; cf. Mk. 13:10).

It was good news that Jesus was messiah and Lord

The early Jewish-Christian community added to the good news about the impending sovereign action of God the explicit belief that Jesus was the messiah or Lord: “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42; 8:12). Peter explains to the Gentile Cornelius that God sent the word to Israel, announcing the good news of “peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)” (Acts 10:36). Jewish-Christians who arrived in Antioch following the persecution of Stephen, spoke to Greeks, preaching the good news of the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20). Paul laments the fact that not all Jews have believed the Isaianic “good news” that was preached to them “through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:15-17; cf. 15:19; 16:25; 2 Cor. 2:12; 4:3; 9:13; 10:14). Finally, those who violently opposed the churches, who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus”—that is, who did not acknowledge that Jesus had been made Lord—would be shut out from the presence of God at the parousia.

It was good news about the Christ, and through it people were saved

The good news was that God had acted decisively in the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to transform the historical status of his people. Those who heard that announcement and believed it, whether Jews or Gentiles, were saved—they received the Spirit of God and were baptized into a community of new creation (cf. Rom. 1:16). The gospel was not itself the offer of personal salvation. Here we need to preserve the distinction that Scot McKnight makes in The King Jesus Gospel between the gospel and the “plan of salvation”. The conversion of Cornelius provides a good illustration. Peter tells Cornelius and his friends and relatives what God has done for Israel through Jesus. The Holy Spirit falls upon the gathered Gentiles, who presumably believed what they had heard, and they begin to praise the God of Israel for what he has done (Acts 10:34-48).

When Paul writes concerning his “gospel” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”, he means that Christ died and was raised for the sake of Israel. That is why it is in accordance with the scriptures. The predominantly Gentile church in Corinth now stood and would be saved from the coming wrath of God by holding firm to the word about what God was doing for his people. At the end of his life Paul reaffirmed the content to the gospel that he had preached: “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David” (2 Tim. 2:8). It is still a statement about what God had done for Israel and as a challenge to the pagan world by raising Jesus, the Son of David, from the dead.

It was good news that Gentiles might be included in the household of God

God would not allow the nations to walk in their idolatrous ways for much longer (Acts 14:16; cf. 17:30-31). The good news was that they “should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). The good news of the Gentiles’ salvation in Ephesians (1:13; cf. Col. 1:5) was that as a consequence of the death of Jesus for Israel, the dividing partition of the Law had been removed and Gentiles could become part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens, members of the household of God (2:14-19). The good news that Paul proclaimed amongst the Gentiles was that they did not need to be circumcised and keep the Law (Gal. 2:2).

It was good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead and appointed judge of the nations

In Athens Paul preached a good news about Jesus and the resurrection and drew from this the thought that Israel’s God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:18, 31). Paul’s “gospel” in Romans is that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:1-4). If this is an allusion to Psalm 2:7-9, the implication is that Jesus was the king who would be given the nations as an inheritance and who would judge them for having opposed the God of Israel and his anointed king (cf. Ps. 2:2). According to Paul’s “gospel” God would soon judge “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16). The angel seen “flying directly overhead” in Revelation 14:6-7 has an “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people”: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

It is still good news

This story about the salvation of Israel and the historical vindication of Israel’s God before the nations is good news for the world today. That is partly to be found in the fact that people are still called by the living God to be part of his new creation people and, as they make their way from darkness into light, from the old way of life into the new, are saved. But for the church to account adequately for its existence it has to be able to make sense of the whole story as a matter of history and not merely of belief.

Comments

Andrew - while I agree that the whole story is ‘the good news’, I also think that there’s something missing. The heart of the problem is to whom was the good news being brought? Jesus brought the gospel of the kingdom to Israel, who largely rejected him and his message. Despite Pentecost and encouraging responses described in the early part of Acts, the larger picture was a rejection by Israel of Jesus and all he stood for - Matthew 13:11-15, Mark 4:11-12, Luke 8:10. The thread running through the gospels is rejection of Jesus, culminating in the judgement on Jerusalem itself for her historic rejection of the prophets and those sent to her - Matthew 23:27, and the rejection of Jesus by the people at hs death. This rejection could be illustrated with numerous examples in all the gospels. It was not tempered by the initial enthusiasm with which Jesus was greeted in many places.

It’s interesting that Paul also confirmed this pattern, as he self-consciously embodied in his own apostolic ministry the ministry and sufferings through rejection of Jesus - eg Acts 13:46-48, and Paul’s increasing experience in Acts.

When Peter preaches to Cornelius in Acts 10, it’s not so much about what God has done for Israel, but about God’s message and Jesus being sent to Israel (10:36), and Israel’s rejection of both (10:40). Peter and others are commanded to preach that Jesus is appointed by God as judge “of the living and the dead” - 10:43, so that “everyone (not Israel alone) who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. This message of Peter was prefaced by his observation that God shows no favouritism “but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” - 10:34.

From very early on, the emphasis is that Israel largely rejected God’s message brought through Jesus, but that Gentiles in increasing measure did accept it. So who were God’s people that He sent Jesus to save?

Arguably, what the Gentiles understood, eg as told in Romans, was the larger story that God’s purposes were for the whole world, and that Israel had been the midwife for this purpose. Even Israel was told this, eg by Stephen in Acts 7. Unfaithful Israel had never really been restored since her rejection of YHWH at Sinai. The gospel came first to her, and Jews were the first to take the gospel to the wider world. But for whom was this gospel intended? God’s people, whom He was forming, were composed of Jews and Gentiles.

So it’s not really a story “about the salvation of Israel and the historical vindication of Israel’s God before the nations”, as you say. Rather, it is a paradoxical story of how Israel’s disobedience led to the fulfilment of God’s wider plan to restore the world, which Israel was intended to deliver. Israel was the springboard of a plan which reached back to Abraham and the promises of a land, from which the plan would be launched.

Because this story was the larger framework of the plan, I would argue that it integrates the gospel as the whole story with the gospel also as a “personal plan of salvation”. Your account dismisses the latter in favour of (your version of) the former. Scot McKnight, apparently (I haven’t had time to read it yet) makes a distinction between “the gospel and the plan of salvation”. These anitheses on the one hand, and distinctions on the other, do not need to be made if you see the story from this perspective. They are both perfectly integrated.

It’s a good alternative account of the story and has some corrective value, but there are some problems. Just to pick a few at random…

The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will “save his people from their sins”, which can only be a reference to Israel (Matt. 1:21).

Zechariah’s prophecy is all about the salvation of Israel (Lk. 1:67-79).

If your account of things is correct, it is quite extraordinary that Jesus has virtually nothing to say about the salvation of Gentiles.

Jesus does not correct the disciples’ assumption that at some point he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). It’s only the timing of the event that remains uncertain.

The implication of Peter’s speech in Acts 3:17-26 is that those Jews who do not listen to God’s prophets are “destroyed from the people”—not that Israel as a whole is destroyed.

The preaching of the early church in Jerusalem about “salvation” clearly did not include the thought that Gentiles would be saved. They thought it quite reasonable to continue preaching the good news of the kingdom of God to Israel without entertaining the possibility that this was really all about the Gentiles.

The messianic language of “Christ” and “Son of God” and the idea that Jesus is a Davidic king rather lose their point if the governing New Testament story is only that Israel is a springboard to the creation of an international community. Jesus is not accidentally Jewish.

The Isaianic themes are always of a restoration of Israel, which becomes the focal point for some sort of centripetal response from the nations.

This is not to say that the perspective doesn’t change somewhat. What I think Paul is saying in Romans 11:17-24, for example, is not that Gentiles have been grafted into Israel but that they have been grafted into the same root as Israel, alongside Israel—which is the root of the patriarchs. They too have become heirs of Abraham.

I also notice that the language shifts in an important way in Ephesians 2:11-22. The Gentiles were previously “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” but because the barrier of the Law has been removed, they have become “members of the household of God”. He does not say here that they have been added to saved Israel.

It seems to me, therefore, that you are trying to read the whole story in the light of its ending. The whole point of saying that the gospel is a story and not a single uniform idea is to allow for development—to be able to say that the gospel Jesus preached is not the same as the gospel Peter preached or the gospel that Paul preached. Good news is contextualized: it takes into account the current historical conditions.

Andrew - just to be somewhat attentive to detail:

Matt 1:21 raises the question I have asked: who were the people Jesus came to save, if not national Israel?

Zechariah’s prophecy is certainly framed in the language of a psalm celebrating the victory of YHWH on behalf of Israel, but it actually raises the same questions. Whom did YHWH redeem, if it was not national Israel? What was the oath He swore to Abraham, if it did not entail permanent possession of the land, which Israel was to return to (Genesis 15)?

If your account of things is correct, it is quite extraordinary that Jesus has virtually nothing to say about the salvation of Gentiles.

Very little, but what he does say is very significant, and the ministry of Jesus does not stop with his death and resurrection, following which it becomes very evident that what he did was intended for the wider world, not just Israel. Acts is even structured to demonstrate this.

The implication of Peter’s speech in Acts 3:17-26 is that those Jews who do not listen to God’s prophets are “destroyed from the people”—not that Israel as a whole is destroyed.

Of course this is true, but it does not say that Israel will be restored, in the way you are suggesting.

The preaching of the early church in Jerusalem about “salvation” clearly did not include the thought that Gentiles would be saved. They thought it quite reasonable to continue preaching the good news of the kingdom of God to Israel without entertaining the possibility that this was really all about the Gentiles

This is untrue. From very early on, it is apparent that salvation was intended for Gentiles - including Samaritans, Romans, and non-Jewish citizens of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor and mainland Europe. This is only in the history as recorded in the NT. Elsewhere, the gospel was also being taken to Gentiles in Persia, India, Mongolia and China.

The messianic language of “Christ” and “Son of God” and the idea that Jesus is a Davidic king rather lose their point if the governing New Testament story is only that Israel is a springboard to the creation of an international community. Jesus is not accidentally Jewish.

In effect, as history has proved, Israel was a springboard. This was the way the story unfolded. Israel provided no clear understanding of the role or significance of a messiah - the word simply meaning, like Christ, ‘anointed one’, and could refer to a king, priest or prophet. The significance which we have come to attach to the word rests on those aspects of the story which reach beyond Israel’s historical significance - such as the worldwide promises to Abraham, the place of the Sinai covenant in predicting a new covenant in the event of Israel’s failure, the promise of a future Davidic king who would be a leader of the nations, and a kingdom which would last forever. All of these promises, arising as they do, originally, out of a creation-based story about the rescue of creation, reach beyond a limited history of Israel alone.

The Isaianic themes are always of a restoration of Israel, which becomes the focal point for some sort of centripetal response from the nations.

I disagree with this; there is an eschatological thrust to Isaianic prophecy which either (a) has not been fulfilled, or (b) was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus and the worldwide spread of the gospel. There is ample evidence for the latter. The argument for the former rests on fantasy constructions of future history. Isaiah 65:17 and 66:1-2 are examples of the future waiting to burst out of the straitjacket of history limited to national Israel.

You do attempt to retrieve things by saying that the perspective changes somewhat in Romans and Ephesians, but then the question arises: did the gospel develop, as you say, from Jesus to Paul and to Peter, according to its context? Or was it part of one unfolding story, which did not develop in the sense of changing according to context? I don’t think Paul or Peter ever give any hint that they are developing anything in that way. Rather, they take the story of Jesus as the story of God’s plan to retrieve a ruined creation by recreating it. It’s a uniform story, which has multiple applications, rather than a developing story according to multiple contexts.

Andrew - I was replying to you point by point, and fogot to include Acts 1:6: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

There are clearly different ways of interpreting this statement:

(a) the disciples got it wrong yet again; it wasn’t about the restoration of Israel. But I agree with you here: Jesus does not correct their assumption

(b) there will be a future full restoration of national Israel, not just to the land (as at present), but also to God (yet to be realised)

(c) the restoration of Israel was according to the pattern of OT judgement and rescue from enemies which you have described

(d) a fourth possible interpretation, arising from the question: what would the restoration of the kingdom to Israel look like? Answer: not a restoration of national Israel, but a restoration based on the kingdom prophecies of the OT in their description of what would characterise such a restoration.

Since in Acts 1 Jesus has been teaching the disciples for 40 days about the kingdom of God - Acts 1:3, it’s relevant to ask what this teaching would be based upon. As there are echoes of the language of Isaiah in Acts 1 (kingdom, witnesses, receive power when the Spirit comes upon you, ends of the earth etc ), the signposts are towards Isaiah’s presentation of the kingdom.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus reflected Isaianic prophetic fulfilment through direct quotation of Isaiah (eg Isaiah 61), and actions which reflected the picture which Isaiah was painting of the restoration of Israel, notably new exodus miracles - Isaiah 35 (almost directly quoted in Matthew 11:4-6), inclusion of those excluded for cultic and social reasons, the suffering servant, and so on.

In the continuation of this ministry through the church, Jesus promises, not a national restoration of Israel (in answer to the disciples’ question), but an Isaianic restoration, based on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 32:15, 44:3 etc, Acts 1:8).

In other words, if we ask the question, what would the restoration of the kingdom to Israel look like, the answer would be, in the negative - not a national restoration; in the positive - the outpouring of the Spirit to empower the church for the continuation of the ministry of Jesus.

Since this accords with OT prophecy and NT fulfilment in Jesus, it seems the best way of understanding what Acts 1:6 means. There is certainly no evidence anywhere else in the NT that Jesus envisaged any continuing role for Israel; she had completed her purpose - oddly, in the main by rejecting it.

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