Saturday, September 14, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 11: The True Gospel

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:
Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body

The True Gospel
In “A New Kind of Christianity”, by Brian McLaren, he describes having lunch with another pastor who asks him “if you were to summarize the gospel in one Biblical statement, what would it be?”  Without any hesitation, McLaren quoted Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”  McLaren’s friend replied: “you’re quoting Paul.  Why aren’t you quoting Jesus?”  McLaren views this point in time as a turning point for him where he began a paradigm shift, and when I read this story it was a similar point for me, as I would have answered in the exact same way beforehand. 

So this conversation caused a paradigm shift for McLaren.  He began to see the Bible differently afterwards.  In “A New Kind of Christianity”, McLaren describes how the average Christian has been conditioned to read the bible like a lawyer – picking out single verses, out of context, in order to prove their position.  In this method, any verse from anywhere in the Bible has the same weight as any other verse in the Bible. McLaren calls this the Constitutional method of reading the Bible, and it has been responsible for such things as defending slavery, burning heretics at the stake, witch hunts, and crusades.  McLaren suggests a new way of viewing the Bible.  He uses two very poignant illustrations for this method.

I like to adapt the first illustration slightly, as McLaren breaks it up into two illustrations, whereas I think it can be expressed in one clean move.  In my version of the illustration, you must imagine 12 people – this would work great in a classroom with 12 volunteers lined up at the front of the room.  Each person in the line is given a sign to hang around their neck, with the following labels (in order from left to right):

  • Adam
  • Abraham
  • Moses
  • David
  • Amos/Isaiah/Jeremiah/The Prophets
  • John the Baptist
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther/Erasmus
  • Calvin/Wesley/Newton
  • Modern theologians: Billy Graham/John Piper/N.T. Wright/etc.

Now, some people take a look at this lineup, and they come at it from the right side – so they look backwards from the modern theologians to Calvin/Wesley/Newton, and from that group to Luther/Erasmus, and so on.  So they are seeing Jesus through the lens of other theologians, whom they are seeing through the lens of more modern theologians, whom they are seeing through the lens of more modern theologians, and so on.

Other people take the opposite approach – they love the Old Testament, and start from the other side – so they see Adam, then Abraham, then Moses, then David, etc.  So they are seeing Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament.

But what McLaren suggests we should do is to rearrange the lineup so that Jesus is at the front, and the lines on either side fan out behind him like a V.  We ought to see that Adam led the way to Abraham, who led the way to Moses, etc. – and the whole group of Old Testament characters on up to John the Baptist were leading the way to Jesus.  We see these characters through the lens of Jesus as being the necessary preparation for His appearance onto the scene.  Likewise, Paul was reflecting on Jesus, and Augustine was reflecting on the teachings left behind by Paul, etc.  So we look at the modern theologians through the lens of Jesus – every theologian since Jesus has merely been trying to reflect on Him, and unpack what his life and teachings meant for us.  Jesus is central.

Another way to illustrate this idea is to take a Bible and open it up, laying it flat on a table.  This is the constitutional approach to reading the Bible – everything within has the same value as everything else and we can take a single verse out of context to “prove” that slavery is Biblical.  Now in this illustration, the left side of the Bible that is spread out like this represents the Old Testament.  Some people like to lift up the left side and say “now the Old Testament – that’s the stuff!  That’s where it is!”  They often emphasize a wrathful God, as a result.  Other people like to lift up the right hand side of the Bible – which represents the epistles on up to Revelations.  These people say “now Paul – that’s the stuff!  That’s where it is!”  These are the people who will typically quote Ephesians 2:8-9 as the best summary of the gospel there is.

But what McLaren suggests we should do instead is to lift the Bible up by the spine so it makes a teepee-like shape – the spine represents Jesus.  The side which represents the Old Testament is seen as leading the way to Jesus – anticipating him and waiting for him, showing why He was necessary.  And the epistles, sloping downward from Jesus, were theologians reflecting on Jesus and seeking to understand the connotations of what He had done, and what it all meant.

Now, this radical new way of looking at the Bible is really not so revolutionary as you might think.  I heard a story about Charles Spurgeon where he describes a young intern he had hired, and what happened after this intern gave his first sermon.  The young man asked Spurgeon what he thought afterward, and Spurgeon said “the format was good, you spoke clearly, and inspired the audience – but you left the most important thing out.”  The young intern asked what that was, and Spurgeon replied “you left Jesus out.”  The young intern replied “but I was preaching from Ezekiel!”  Spurgeon replied “son, until you can find Jesus in Ezekiel, you will not set foot at my pulpit again.”

In “Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism”, Carl Medearis describes an experiment he tried at a missions school:

“Tell me,” I said to the group, “what is the gospel?”
A young lady raised her hand.  “The free gift of God.”
“Good,” I said.  I went to the chalkboard and wrote gift from God.  “Somebody else?”
“Freedom from sin,” a man near the back called out.
“Eternal life,” said another.
“Keep going,” I said.  I stayed busy at the chalkboard, listing the items as they came in.
Freedom.  Righteousness.  Moral purity.  Grace.  Unconditional love.  Healing and deliverance.  Redemption.  Faith in God.  New life.
After five minutes or so, we had filled the chalkboard with a list of things that we believed were the gospel.
“Excellent,” I said.  “Did we miss anything?”
The room was silent for a minute.  I could see heads turning.  I could hear pages rustling.  Everybody seemed to think there was something significant missing, but nobody wanted to volunteer to name the missing item.
Finally after the second minute of silence, a girl near the front raised her hand.  “How come none of us mentioned Jesus?”
“Exactly,” I said.  We closed the session and went to a break.  Point made.

The idea of using Jesus as a starting point for understanding scripture is also Biblical.  Take a look at John 1:1-18 - in the first verse it says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Now, John is actually speaking on multiple levels here – something he excelled at.  First off, no Bible reader can see the phrase “in the beginning”, and not immediately think of Genesis.  John is trying to tell us something – he’s telling us that Jesus is a new starting point.  Jesus gives us new vision into the creation story and everything that happened, because, as it says in verse 2, “he was with God in the beginning.”

It’s interesting that John refers to Jesus as “the Word” – when I speak a word, it is, in a certain sense, a part of me.  It certainly comes from within – a breath from my lungs causes my vocal chords to vibrate, and my mouth and tongue form a shape that affects the sound that comes out.  But it also comes from the thoughts of my mind, and the attitudes of my heart.  People who hear this word feel they are able to know something about me from this word, and they assume that I intended this word.  “But you said…”, people will say, if I later on do or say something that contradicts my earlier word.

In Genesis chapter 1, God creates through His word.  Psalm 33:6 says:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

When God speaks, things happen.  John is saying that Jesus is God’s Word – God’s creative power embodied in the form of a person, which goes forth from God to make things happen; to begin new creation.  We will talk some more about the concept of new creation later on.

But this isn’t where the meaning of John’s phrase, “the Word”, ends.  In the times when Jesus came, Greeks were very concerned with reason.  As I mentioned before, there were great debates between philosophers (such as Plato and Aristotle), considered the wise men of their day.  The original Greek word that John uses here is “logos” – literally meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word", "speech", "account", "reason".  But this word “logos” had a deeper meaning than just the literal - it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge.  John is saying that if you want to understand reason - if you want a principle of order and knowledge by which to base all of your reasoning - look no further than Jesus.

What’s also interesting is that we’ve come to use the phrase “the Word” to speak of the Bible.  So once more, John’s choice of phrasing speaks on multiple levels – if you want to understand the Bible, look right here!  Look at Jesus!

But Jesus is so much more than just reason and understanding – in verse 4 and 5 of the passage, John says “in him was life, and that life was the light of mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Jesus gives new life!  How does he do that?  By illuminating – he is light.  He doesn’t confuse us, he illuminates!  Jesus makes clear what has been muddled by the shadow we live in.

So let’s talk about the Gospel.  To understand what it is, we must understand a bit about the history – the background story.  In the world Jesus was born into, the Roman Empire was in control.  In the Roman Empire, when a new Caesar came to power, he would send out messengers throughout the Empire to tell them the news – basically they would tell the Empire that “everything is going to be OK now – I’m in control of the Empire now, and I’m going to set things right.  I am Lord now, and you will be saved through me.  I am the savior through which you will find economic stability and safety from your enemies.  There will be peace and prosperity through me.”  This was called the “euangelion” – or, gospel – and it was good news for Caesar’s friends.  But to the new Caesar’s enemies, the news was not good.

Caesar controlled through power.  Caesar saved his friends by destroying his enemies.  Caesar brought economic stability by giving support to the rich and powerful and marginalizing the poor and disenfranchised.  Caesar brought peace through war.

Jesus’ gospel was an answer to the gospel of a new Caesar, but it was a stark contrast.  When Jesus was born, an angel told Shepherds that there was “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  (see Luke 2:8-11)  Notice two contrasts with Caesar's gospel here:

  1. The news does not come first to the elites, but to lowly shepherds.
  2. The news is good and causes joy for all the people.

Then, when John the Baptist began to “prepare the way for the Lord”, what did he preach?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (see Matthew 3:1-2)  Now, this phrase has also been translated into English as “is near”, “has drawn near to you”, and “is at hand.”  I, personally, prefer the “at hand” translation because I feel it is ripe with metaphorical imagery – it tells me that though the kingdom is not yet fully realized, it’s so close that if I were to simply stretch out my hand in faith I would be able to touch it; to grasp a small piece of that kingdom now, in this world and time.

After Jesus was baptized by John, he was tempted, and after he was tempted, Matthew 4:17 tells us that he began to preach “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Now, this verse is also similar to Mark 1:15, where Jesus' first message is "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"  A proper understanding of this phrase and its historical context highlights one of the weaknesses of the language and understanding of modern culture.  In our modern culture, we read "repent and believe" and we think that it means something along the lines of: "feel really sorrowful and insert dogma into your head."  But modern scholars have discovered that many Jewish "messiahs" used the same language of the Kingdom of Heaven/God, repenting and believing.  And when you insert the language into its proper historical context, you find that "repenting" has more of a sense of doing a 180 degree turn in your life in order to follow the messiah, and "believing" means to follow this messiah as they lead the way to establishing the Kingdom of God.  This is quite different from the lazy theology of modern thinking that believes that if you insert the right dogma into your head, you have a ticket to a place called "Heaven" which is "out there somewhere" but not ever on this earth in this time.  The proper understanding of "repenting and believing" - in order to become part of establishing a Kingdom - is a much more active way of life.

But let's move on with the story:
Later on, in Matthew 10:7-8, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and he tells them to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.  Freely you have received; freely give.”  See, these are all signs that what they are saying – that the kingdom of heaven is at hand – are true.  This is another contrast to Caesar’s gospel - Caesar proves his gospel through violently destroying his enemies.  Jesus proves his gospel through healing and restoration – even for his “enemies”.

This message – “the kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand/has drawn near/is near” – is repeated all throughout the New Testament, and this should indicate to us its importance!  Not only is the message “the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand” repeated throughout all four gospels and then later on in Acts and even the epistles, but most of Jesus’ parables start out with “the kingdom of Heaven is like….”

Now, as a side note, it should be noted that the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” seems to be interchangeable with “the Kingdom of God”, and this may cause some confusion, but it is easily explained.  When Moses asked God what His name was, God says “I Am Who I Am” – this isn’t really a name.  And God never really gives himself a name, though the Jews used many names for Him.  But the phrase, “I Am Who I Am”, is often represented by the Hebrew letters “YHVH”, which do not produce a pronounceable word, or name.  Many Jews believed that this, in conjunction with the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, meant that they should not ever say the name of God, and so they would substitute the word “Heaven” for his name.  This is somewhat similar to the practice in American culture of referring to things that "the White House" did.  So when Jesus preached, he kept his audience in mind, and in some areas he would say “Kingdom of God” – because they had no qualms with that phraseology there – and in other places he would say “Kingdom of Heaven”.

Moving on with the story, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, right before His ascension, He says:

Matthew 28:18-20
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

All authority in heaven and on earth - right before Jesus died, he said “it is finished.”  All throughout the story of his life on earth, he had been preaching “the gospel”, proclaiming his kingdom was near.  Then, after he is raised, he said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.

If you want to understand “the gospel”, and want to summarize it with one short phrase that comes from the Bible, you should use the phrase: “the kingdom of God is at hand!”

Once again, we're going to take a break.  But when we continue, we are going to dismantle the rest of The Six Line Narrative.  Here's what you have to look forward to:

Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: The Role of the Resurrection
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: But What About Spiritual Bodies?
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: A New Diagram
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.

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