Salvation in the Gospels
In the context of the Gospels “salvation” is the salvation of at least part of Israel from the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and from the accompanying devastation of the nation. It is in the first place, therefore, a national or political category: it refers to something that happens to a people under extreme historical conditions. This is fully in keeping with the narrative-historical understanding of salvation that we find in the Old Testament. The pattern is established, for example, in prophetic accounts of the return from exile: “But Israel is saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity” (Is. 45:17).
So we find that Jesus will “save his people” from the historical consequences of their sins (Matt. 1:21); he will save Israel from its enemies (Lk. 1:71). Although the “many” in Israel have been called, only a few will be saved (Lk. 13:22-24). Those who endure to the end of this period of turmoil and suffering will be saved (Matt. 10:22; 24:13); and Jesus assures his disciples that for their sake the period will be cut short, otherwise no one would survive (Matt. 24:22). The rich—whose wealth is dependent on the prosperity of Jerusalem—will have trouble finding the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 10:26-28). The “salvation” of the sick and demon-possessed in Israel is a sign of the coming restoration of the people (cf. Mk. 5:34; 10:52); so too the restoration of “sinners” (Lk. 19:9). At the individual level, therefore, salvation means participation in the salvation of Israel.
Jerusalem and the diaspora
For the disciples in Jerusalem and Judea following the death of Jesus, salvation has essentially the same meaning. They call on the Jews to save themselves from a “crooked generation” that faces destruction (Acts 2:40). Peter tells the “Rulers of the people and elders” and “all the people of Israel” that the stone rejected by the leadership in Jerusalem has become the cornerstone of Israel’s salvation: “there is no other name under heaven given among men” by which we Jews must be saved (Acts 4:8-12). Paul will later put the same argument before the Jews of the diaspora: God has brought a saviour for Israel from the family of David, but if as a people they spurn the offer of forgiveness, they will incur the destructive wrath of God (Acts 13:23, 38-41). In the end, of course, the Jews for the most part “judge themselves unworthy” of the life of the age to come—the age that will come after the collapse of Second Temple Judaism—and salvation is extended instead to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47; 28:28; cf. Rom. 11:11; 1 Thess. 2:16).
The salvation of Gentiles
For Gentiles salvation meant escape from a world under judgment and inclusion in the restored and righteous people of God. The Philippian jailor asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), not because he is keen to go to heaven, but because he has seen in the earthquake the power of the God who will overthrow the superstitions and customs of the Romans (16:21). The Jews, on the one hand, and the “Greeks”, on the other, were perishing, but the “saints” were being saved through the power of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). The salvation of Gentiles by grace, through faith, meant departure from a world subject to wrath, incorporation into the covenant people, and reconciliation with God—made possible by the fact that Christ’s death had “broken down… the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:1-3, 8, 13-14).
A climactic day of salvation
The church in the pagan world, however, also faced a day of turmoil and persecution, when the communities built on the foundation of Jesus Christ would be severely tested (1 Cor. 3:12-15), a day of intense opposition when they would need to put on the “helmet” of the hope of a future salvation that was assured for them (Eph. 6:17; 1 Thess. 5:8-9). As for the community of Jesus’ disciples, salvation was the moment when the suffering would be brought to an end and those who put their faith in Jesus would be vindicated (Rom. 13:11). Churches enduring persecution would have to work out their own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 1:29-30; 2:12), confident that a saviour would eventually come to transform their wretched bodily existence (3:20-21). Salvation is the climactic eschatological moment when pagan Rome is finally overthrown and the martyrs stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-14; 12:10; 19:1).
In the New Testament salvation is what happens to the people of God under particular historical conditions. We have moved beyond the climactic historical moment, but the argument about salvation may be restated. The people of God may still at times need to be saved from its own folly or from its enemies. It is still made up of individuals who have been called to leave darkness and become part of a people that should be a light to the nations. And we still have the overarching hope that the God who has made us a people for his own possession will ultimately make new all things.