The gospel is changing, but there’s still some way to go

Matthew Bates will think I’ve got it in for him, but that’s not the case. I love the direction he is moving in. I just don’t think he’s taking the journey seriously enough. He has a piece on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog asking whether Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition are shifting their ground on the meaning of “gospel”. It’s an interesting question. He sees signs of a new emphasis on Jesus’ kingship, somewhat displacing an older “God-man-Christ-response version of the gospel”. In the course of the article, however, Bates offers his own quite substantial definition of the “true biblical gospel”, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to appraise it.

The true biblical gospel climaxes with the proclamation that Jesus has become the Christ, Lord of all, the king (Acts 2:36; 3:20-23; 10:36).

The emphasis on kingship is correct, but when evangelical theologians talk about the kingship of Jesus, they tend to isolate him from the first century Jewish narrative that explains how and, more importantly, why he became king. In the New Testament it is not all about Jesus. It is all about what the God of Israel was doing through Jesus—hence his opening proclamation of the “gospel of God” and announcement that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:14-15). The kingship of Jesus is not just about status; it is about action and event.

The passages that Bates cites are all from the early chapters of Acts, where the focus is on the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Israel. The current “crooked generation” of Jews faces destruction, but YHWH has made the man Jesus, whom they had crucified, “Lord and Christ”. Therefore, the “men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” should repent and be baptised in his name (Acts 2:14, 36-41). As Moses said, everyone who does not listen to the “prophet” whom God sends to Israel “shall be destroyed from the people” (Acts 3:23). Peter makes it clear to Cornelius that good news was proclaimed to Israel (Acts 10:36).

So we’ve only got half the story here.

If we want to understand what the “gospel” meant for the church in the pagan world, we might better turn to Revelation 14:6-11 and the “eternal gospel” proclaimed by the three angels: the hour of God’s judgment on classical paganism has come; pagan Rome is about to be cast down; the full force of God’s anger will soon be poured out on the “worshippers of the beast and its image”. A major part of the good news for believers in Jesus in the first century was that the unjust, idolatrous system that was so set on suppressing their testimony would soon be overthrown.

On the path to kingship, the Son was sent by the Father in fulfillment of OT promises,

Bates does not say what Old Testament promises he has in mind regarding the sending of the Son by the Father. There is no reference to fulfilment of the scriptures in the three obvious texts: Jesus’ parable of the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel (Matt. 21:33-46; Mk. 12:1-11; Lk. 20:9-19), the sending out of the Son in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), and the sending of the Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). I’d venture to say that in the Old Testament it is not kings who are sent to Israel but Moses, in the first place, and then the prophets.

took on human flesh in the line of David,

The expression “took on flesh” does not belong to the story of Jesus’ kingship, which dominates the New Testament. John speaks of the word or wisdom of God becoming flesh, arguably in the moment of Jesus’ baptism, by which Jesus was revealed to Israel (Jn. 1:14, 31).

I think it is very difficult to derive a doctrine of a pre-existent Son who takes on flesh from the first century Jewish narrative that climaxes in the kingship of Jesus. Bates thinks it’s implied in Romans 1:3. I disagree.

Jesus is the man attested to the Jews “by God with mighty works and wonders and signs” (Acts 1:22), who is sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in the same manner that the prophets were sent, to do the work of a servant. When Paul says that Jesus was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh”, I think he means simply, and quite realistically, that, to strictly Torah observant Jews such as Paul, Jesus’ behaviour was shocking and dangerous, and he was therefore rightly condemned and executed.

died a substitutionary atoning death for our sins on the cross,

The problem again with the attempt to popularise a historically plausible account of the gospel is that important narrative distinctions are sacrificed in order to maintain coherence and relevance. That Jesus suffered the punishment that was coming on the nation as a whole, with redemptive effect, makes very good sense from a first century Jewish point of view. The kingship narrative does not attempt to explain the inclusion of Gentiles on the same terms.

was buried, raised, witnessed, enthroned at the right hand,

Presumably, the lack of reference to Jesus’ ascension or exaltation is just an oversight.

and then the Spirit was sent (Rom 1:2-4; 1 Cor 15:3-5; 2 Tim 2:8).

Evangelicals take this as a reference simply to the foundation of the church on the day of Pentecost. That seriously downplays the eschatological dimension. The Spirit is certainly understood to be the medium of a new covenant and a new obedience. But what happens on the day of Pentecost is that a community of eschatological witness is equipped and empowered, indiscriminately, to continue Jesus’ prophetic mission to Israel, and perhaps beyond that to the nations. This is the missional narrative that underpins the apostolic teaching in its entirety.

All of which is the good news that God’s kingdom, heralded by Jesus, has now arrived (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43).

No. Apart from the fact that we are now back with the Gospel perspective rather than that of the church in the Greek-Roman world, I think it is quite wrong to say that the kingdom of God arrived with the enthronement of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit. The coming of the kingdom of God is the actual act of judgment, deliverance, restoration and rule in history (cf. Is. 52:7-12). This does not happen in the period between Easter and Pentecost. Nothing changes in the real world at this point except that we now have a community of eschatological witness to the future transformation. The outpouring of the Spirit enables vision and prophecy (Acts 2:17-18) because what matters are events still to come.

From the Jewish point of view, the gift of the Spirit brought refreshing, but the “time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” remained in the future (Acts 3:21). We cannot speak of the kingdom of God having arrived until judgment comes—first on Israel, then on the Greek-Roman world—and God institute’s a new order, a new régime, his own rule through Jesus over the nations. The church as envisaged in the New Testament is only a sign that this will eventually happen.

Because the enthroned king now rules, the gospel can be summarized: Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3).

Jesus is Israel’s messiah or Christ, the one anointed to fulfil the purposes of Israel’s God. So Paul “confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ”, and argued in the synagogue in Thessalonica that “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 9:22; 17:3). But then Israel’s messiah would be acknowledged by the peoples of the old pagan world, of the empire, as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:11; 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14). Narrative distinctions should not be collapsed.

Subsequently, the Spirit applies the benefits of the gospel to those who respond with pistis, that is, allegiance (bodily loyalty inclusive of trust).

I’ve said before that Bates badly overstates the argument about “allegiance”. It seems to me more accurate to say that pistis is the belief or faith (essentially in God’s new future) that leads a person to pledge allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

The other point I would make here is that the “benefits of the gospel” should not be understood in modern terms, as a matter of personal moral spiritual well-being, but as part of the apocalyptic narrative. Bates is trying to reformulate the grounds on which believers today acquire the spiritual benefits of being reconciled to the living God through Jesus. That is important, to be sure, but it misses the future oriented hope that drove the mission of the disciples and the witness of the churches in the New Testament.

Moreover, because we mostly discount the apocalyptic narrative when we read the New Testament, we also lack a comparable missional orientation for the church today. A king Jesus gospel should do far more than bestow benefits on believers. It should inspire the church to live up to its priestly-prophetic calling as we enter a period of enormous upheaval and change, for which the coronavirus pandemic is merely a rehearsal.

The gospel proper is what the king has done for us apart from whether you or I have responded….

No, it is about what God did for his own sake, for his own glory, to justify himself in the first place, to demonstrate his rightness when it looked as though everything was falling apart, to bring to an end the captivity of his people, to bring to an end the power of a deeply offensive and corrupt pagan civilisation, to establish his reputation among the nations. We are here, these days, to serve pretty much the same purpose, only secondarily to benefit from it.

Submitted by Rob Kampen on  Wed, 04/22/2020 - 02:07

Both John the Baptist and Jesus are described as preaching the Gospel and the same phrase used by both — Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand — or within reach.

All this before the crucifiction, death, resurection, breathing on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit, ascension, seated enthroned at the right hand of the Father or the day of Penticost.

A kingdom has an absolute ruler, one who reigns. Rather than complicate this Gospel, let’s keep it simple, so a child can understand it.

Jesus the Christ has all authority, He rules, and thus enacts the reign of the monarch. This reign is to be recognised by me, choosing to become a willing subject of this Kingdom. Entrance is now accessible to all who choose to repent — i.e. change their mindset, world view, choice of what is right or wrong, good or bad; to align with what the monarch says — as clearly outlined in the Bible and revealed by the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth.

Not complicated, I’m not the boss, He is. I don’t get to decide for myself, as His subject, I willing agree to His will. This obviously means that the lesson Jesus gives about being a disciple in Luke 14 beginning at verse 25 needs to be understood and lived out.

Is the Gospel changing? Is a change needed?

May I suggest the only change that may be needed is bringing our understanding into alignment with what the disciples saw, lived out and preached throughout the middle east.

BTW, as a disciple, living under the rule and reign of my Lord, I recognise that the enactment of His reign in my world is coloured by my willingness and obedience to what He has called me to. Thus the cry is Maranatha — come soon Lord Jesus, and that drives the zeal for mission.

Just my 10p worth.

A kingdom has an absolute ruler, one who reigns. Rather than complicate this Gospel, let’s keep it simple, so a child can understand it.

Why not try to do both? I don’t think I’m making “gospel” in the New Testament complicated. It’s already complicated, and for very good reasons. But then the question is also how to simplify it. To say that the gospel is that Jesus is king is a quite new development and still distrusted in many circles. How are we going to establish it more firmly? By looking hard at the difficult New Testament texts.

May I suggest the only change that may be needed is bringing our understanding into alignment with what the disciples saw, lived out and preached throughout the middle east.

Yes. But then we have to ask what it was that they saw, lived out, and preached throughout the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain, in the years before and after the Jewish war against Rome.

Rob, I go back to my point that it’s a mistake to talk about the kingship of Jesus apart from the first century Jewish narrative about the coming of the kingdom, which is where it gets complicated again.

I think you are doing what evangelicals typically do. You are focusing on the actor and not on the drama in which he was acting.

Just my ten pence worth.

Submitted by Peter on  Wed, 04/22/2020 - 04:31

You do a good job of critiquing Bates view of the gospel. It seems to me “the kingdom has now arrived” view comes primarily from the 4th Gospel.

I think the “likeness of sinful flesh” phrase just means he appeared to be like every other human. But he made it possible for humanity to move from weakness to power through the Spirit.

It seems to me that Jesus’ death had more to do with the removal/forgiveness of sins, so that the new covenant and kingdom could begin, than averting God’s wrath/judgment. (Although your view does align well with the Pauline epistles.)

It seems to me “the kingdom has now arrived” view comes primarily from the 4th Gospel.

Yes, though John doesn’t actually seem much interested in he kingdom.

It seems to me that Jesus’ death had more to do with the removal/forgiveness of sins, so that the new covenant and kingdom could begin, than averting God’s wrath/judgment.

Isn’t that a false dichotomy? Forgiveness of sins was meaningful/necessary precisely because of the prospect of Gd’s wrath: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Lk. 3:7–8).

I agree that the two are interconnected; however, it seems to me the theme of dying as a passover lamb so that his blood would protect Israel was secondary to providing a means of forgiveness so that all of his countrymen might have an opportunity to repent and enter into the kingdom. It seems the passover lamb analogy had more to do with identifying Jesus as the new and better Moses. Because of Israel’s elect status, she would carry on regardless of whether or not Jesus died.

Actually, depends what your theological understanding of “eternal life” is interpreted? Aren’t there enough scholarship to help connect “eternal life” to the “kingdom of heaven/God” that is connected to faith in Christ?

Of course, not one in the same but the allusions to each other is quite clear imho.

Yes, eternal life is what the righteous receive when Christ returns to reign (immortal, imperishable bodies). The author of the 4th Gospel seems to have relocated the kingdom to heaven, so it seems he expects Jesus to return, resurrect all the dead for judgment, destroy the unrighteous and take the righteous back to heaven with him.

Submitted by toddh on  Wed, 04/22/2020 - 07:09

I’m sure you are well aware of the “now and not yet” view of the kingdom. You criticize the “now” and claim there is only a “not yet,” but how would you respond to the “now and not yet” view?

Yes, that is very helpful, thank you. I think those posts help provide context for what you have written here. I like how you are always pointing us toward how Jesus’ words and the writings of the NT would have been understood in their context. And I’m continually fascinated by the view that the early church was looking toward the conversion of the Roman empire. Not sure I’m all in on the narrative-historical method, but I’m interested and will keep reading.