The Essence of the Gospel

Mar 31, 2020 8295

The Essence of the Gospel

What is the essence of the Gospel?

I invite you to turn your attention to the Word of God as found in Luke 4:14-21:

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of  everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

I once asked a number of people their opinion on what the Gospel is. My findings were both intriguing and alarming. The opinions varied from a book in the Bible to being a vegetarian. Some thought it was a message; others said it was an activity. Some thought it was something we do, others thought it was something God does or did. Some thought it was a compilation of good suggestions God gave to help us live a sinless life. Still others believed it was replicating what Christ did while here on earth—for he had proved that as human beings we can do it. So, what is the essence of the Gospel?

I reached the sad conclusion that somehow preachers and Bible students hadn’t been too clear in teaching the Gospel, or at least in defining it according to the Scriptures. They haven’t understood the essence of the Gospel..

In our Bible passage for today we see the essence of the Gospel. It is something Jesus did on our behalf. That’s the essence of the Gospel. It is never something we do. It is the historical record of Jesus’ activity as God incarnate to win freedom from sin for all who will believe. As such it is a message that says we can never add to what Jesus did. It is an activity that God does because we cannot do it. The essence of the Gospel is beautiful and simple.

Here we see Jesus standing up in Nazareth, his hometown, in the synagogue, quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was the reading of the day:

18:  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, (19) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 in his reading in the Nazareth synagogue. He speaks before his friends and relatives. He speaks decisively and clearly, explaining the meaning of the “good news” that is being brought to the people. And they know what he is saying.  As he closes the book he asserts,

21“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The essence of the Gospel is Jesus Christ. And the congregation prefers to think he is nuts. They are not ready to listen.

Where is the “good news” today? What is the essence of the Gospel?           

As you listen to the messages that churches have for the world you don’t always feel they present much good news. The term “Gospel” is from the old English term “Good Spell.” The original Greek language here uses the term euaggelizo which means “good tidings” or “a message of good.” That means that however we define the Gospel there must be something good about it.

And yet we find religious people today preaching about abortion and the last days, about the millennium and the rapture and the seven last plagues. We see a series of books called “The Left Behind series” that has sold over 60,000,000 copies. The messages get complicated and unclear. And you wonder, if this is all that important, is this the “Good News” that Jesus preached?

Most often the messages boil down to a long list of things we must do, or do not do, if we plan to go to heaven.  

•    Keeping the law of God is often at the top of the list.

•    Living a good life or being faithful to God is another theme.

•    Checking one’s sins is another surprising entry. I listened recently to a message where all the sins of God’s people were listed and the need for human repentance was the basic theme of the message. And I wondered, what if every person on earth repented of their sins, would that be the Gospel?

Where is good news today?  Every paper reveals something new about the sins of people.

For 8 years we endured the sins of President Clinton—his affairs, his lies, his broken promises—but in his departure speech he suggested, “We have done some good.”

Then there was the Reverend Jesse Jackson who confessed that he had a child out of wedlock—a moral crusader, defending the poor, helping the underprivileged, flying all over the world to mediate with world leaders to free the oppressed and bring understanding of freedom.  But he fell, people say, had an affair, and out of it came a little girl, now a youngster.  The story was about to be broken in the National Inquirer when he got the jump, made a public confession, took full responsibility, and retired to his family for their comfort and support. Next he was fined for some other infraction.

The Tennessee Waltz broke. And so it goes and goes and goes. And, of course, if preachers only read the newspapers they would have plenty to comment on and fill the pulpit with.

But where is the good news today? Where is the essence of the Gospel? For those devotees of the evening news, and the weekly news magazines, and the muckrakers, and the talk shows, there really is not much good news. Most of the “news” is filtered through partisan politics, or the moral judgments of the writer or the talk show host, or the commentator, or “the man on the street.”

The fact is “Good News” has never been popular—not even in the church 

One of the great paradoxes of the human race has been the yearning for bad news.  Maybe few will admit it but the appetite for bad news is the fuel of the whole media industry.

I once received an issue of a new approach to news reporting where the editors promised only to print good news. I think they printed 3-4 issues before the paper folded. There just weren’t enough people who wanted to read good news to support the paper. Who really cares what Angelina Jolie is doing for humanity? Did she have an affair with Brad Pitt? That is the question that gets the headline in People magazine or on Entertainment Tonight.

After reading a couple complementary copies sent to me, I have to admit—I found it pretty dull. And thankfully, I did not subscribe.

Journalists will often say, if it is good news it is not news—it is just life and who cares about life?

•    Accidents, war casualties, murders, gang rapes, deaths, divorces, affairs—these are news–especially if there is a name attached to it all.

•    Threats to freedom and peace, conspiracies and world intrigue—these are news.

•    Attempts to bring down politicians with slanderous or even true stories with a spin—that is what the public wants. And unless you give the public what it wants you can’t run a paper. . . . Is that also true in the church?

Is anything really new here? We’re talking about public appetite. And as we look at Jesus’ reading the Hebrew Scriptures in the Nazareth synagogue that Sabbath morning we find things about the same 2000 years ago. 

The people dump his message because he claims to bring the Good News that he has arrived on planet earth to bring liberty and freedom to the human race. And they all knew he grew up among them in Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That was not good news to them—that was arrogance.

•    To them perhaps no news would be good news. Or maybe bad news would be better news.

•    To them good news would be an announcement that he had come to raise up an army to annihilate the Romans.

•    To them good news would be an announcement that now is the time to set up a new political government where only Jews would rule and their enemies would be treated like they had been treated. Good news might be getting even with those oppressors.

•    To them good news might be the silencing of all who disagreed with their theology. Good news might be cleaning out all the new theology in the church.

Have things really changed much?

Throughout the ages the church hasn’t understood the essence of the Gospel. It has presented religious messages masquerading as the Gospel. They have too often turned the essence of the Gospel into moralism. These substitute gospels have used the church to oppress people. They have been used to justify bigotry and orthodoxy and persecution and prejudice and discrimination. They have been used to set up creeds and organizations. They have been used by control freaks to rule others.

But when you look at this message of Jesus, who defined the Gospel, this kind of oppression and slavery is what he claimed his Good News was to dissipate. He was not here to set up creeds and styles of living for all true followers to abide by. These things make relationships simplistic and shallow.

Jesus came to liberate people from that very thing for it destroyed meaning. He didn’t come to give us permission to use other people to fill the holes in our lives.

He didn’t come to help us force people through the little filters of our own perceptions. He didn’t come to aid us in invading other people’s lives with our hobbyhorses. He came to bring freedom, insight, and release from that very kind of oppression.

We have a message to share with the world

It stands to reason that those who claim to be Christ’s modern day disciples have an obligation, a responsibility, a mission, if you will, first, to understand what Christ meant when he talked about the Good News, and second, to take up the mission that Christ left for his disciples.

However we define the Gospel, it has to include the work of Christ first as being complete and then spell out the implications for us as his students and followers.

We should always start in the Garden of Eden with our first parents who were given, through the love of God, all the creation of this earth to care for and protect. There was no Gospel there in the sense that Jesus was describing the Good News, for there was no need of one.  All was in perfect harmony with God. That story forms the basis of all our understanding of the Gospel of God.

There was no grace in the Garden of Eden.

There was no atonement there           

There was no cross to look forward to because there was no need for it.

The cross is a message only for those who are out of harmony with God and Eden was a place of total harmony.

Perfect relationship with God was the experience of our original parents.

These parents were given only one prohibition and they disregarded it. As a result of that transgression the human race needed some good news. The breaking of that perfect relationship with God placed all of human descendants in jeopardy.

“You shall die,” was not an idle threat. Even in a sinful economy we understand that some enemies must be eliminated or they will eventually rise up and destroy us. We put them in jail; we put them in the electric chair. We quarantine them. In war we kill them. At home, when there is hope for rehabilitation and growth we put them on time out.

All of this plays out the principle of the universe that anyone who fights against unity and relationship must eventually be eliminated or the whole of the universe will be in confusion and chaos forever. And while it is true that those who fight unity and relationship eventually destroy themselves and whatever society they attempt to set up, there is the element of righteousness and justice that must come into the play.

If God is there, and if God is just, and if God is righteous, then there is a universal call for action from God.

This is one of the themes of Scripture: How long, O God, will you allow disharmony, destruction of relationship, before you do something?

It is a call for a righteous intervention to eventually eliminate the dark side.

And so God revealed the Gospel to our first parents. They were to take a lamb and slay it. Death was the result of their cutting off their relationship with God.

•    That lamb was to represent them.

•    That lamb was to be slain in their place.

•    That lamb was the Good News in the form of the darkest reality.

•    That Good News was that they would not die if they let the lamb represent them.

•    That lamb was their substitution. And the fact that it was without blemish demonstratedthe righteous life also substituted for their imperfect one.

For sin someone must die and in this case the lamb became the one to die. But we don’t emphasize enough, methinks, that the lamb also represented that a perfect life must be substituted as well. When the lamb died it was assurance that they would live—because not only was the death of Christ bound up in that lamb, but the life of Christ was bound up there also. The captivity of oppression and the bondage and the freedom were all wrapped up in the impossibility that we could ever live a life acceptable to God. We couldn’t die for our sins and yet live forever, but we couldn’t live a life that atoned for our sins either.

The message of the Gospel included not only the death of Christ but the perfect living of Christ—both of which are imputed to us in our acceptance of the Gospel. We are saved by his death. We are saved by his life.

The Christian religion is bound up in that act. Without that death there would be no Christian message. When I sin I must die, or have a substitute of God’s choosing. Cain soon realized that one cannot bring a substitute of one’s own choosing.  He sought to buy God’s favor by bringing his best fruits from the garden. And we have all missed the same point throughout history. Death is the penalty for sin—eternal death. The only way out is to have the substitute of God’s choosing.

The essence of the Gospel is liberation and release

The essence of the Gospel then is liberation and release. That’s the essence of the Gospel. Liberation from what? Release from what? What kind of sight recovery does Jesus bring to humanity? Who are the poor? In this passage the poor are all those who are lost in sin. Liberation is from sin. Release is from the bondage or slavery to sin. Sin is an ogre, it is a taskmaster, it holds us legally bound to the death sentence unless it is overpowered by some other force in the universe.

And so the whole Gospel, the whole good news is bound up in the essence or core we know as freedom, liberty.

About ten years before she died, my mother had cataract surgery. She went into the operating room with cloudy vision; she came out with clear sight. When I was in college I noticed that the choir members in church were losing their faces. When I got fitted with glasses they got their faces back. That’s bringing sight to the blind.

Through the glasses of the Gospel, through the removal of spiritual cataracts by the Gospel, human beings who are by nature egoists, self-centered, unfair, unmerciful, get a new vision when the Gospel contacts are placed on their eyes.

Is the Gospel something that is promised? No. The Gospel is something that has been accomplished. That’s the essence of the Gospel. Jesus proclaimed to his people, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And his congregation had the same problems with that as we do. They couldn’t accept it. They rebelled.

It is a tough truth. Why? Partly because it is so simple. But largely it is tough because it denies us the longing to atone for our own mistakes. Those long periods when we recite our sins to God, those menacing times when we try so hard to be good and fail, those periods of depression when we take the world on our own shoulders and act like there is no God, those moments when we realize the total frustration in trying to live a sinless life. Like the conscientious lady who told me, I set out every morning to be sinless but I can never make it past 9:00 am on any given morning. All those attempts to live a sinless life are useless because they don’t result in any fulfillment and never will. And that is not the Gospel. The only sinlessness ever promised to God’s people is the imputed living of Christ.

The person of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment. At last the lambs no longer needed to lose their lives because Jesus came and liberated us, gave us sight, proclaimed our release and recovered us from Adam’s sin—the breaking of relationship with God. 

Are good works important? You bet! Good works are always important. With your brood of five children would you rather live next door to a registered sex offender or a legalist? Good works are always important. Never play that down. But in the eternal scheme of things the New Testament separates good works into two categories: works of law and works of faith.

Works of law are those works we perform hoping to gain God’s love and approval—and as such they have ulterior motives. Works of faith are those works that grow out of our friendship with God. They are the flowers we brought home to our spouse because of our love, not in order to get some love tonight. They are the undifferentiated gifts we give to people without the primary concern of getting a tax write off.

Yesterday the blue lights pulled me over. The officer’s first words were, “I tried to get two of you but the other guy got away so all I caught was you.” Great consolation! And he smiled. And I knew I was dead in the water: 58 in a 35 zone. He did the license and insurance thing and then he handed me the ticket to sign and it said “WARNING” on it.

“Keep the foot up a little,” he said, “and I understand I have a pretty heavy foot as well.” And with that he was gone. And my blood pressure returned to normal. And you know what happened? I drove the speed limit the rest of the day. The officer was so nice to me, so friendly, so loving, so kind, that I was motivated to honor that relationship.

This week God calls us once more to respond—to live as free, sighted, released and liberated people, showing mercy and justice to all, including ourselves, not to gain salvation but because we have it.

by Edwin Zackrison

Dayton Community Chapel

To go deeper into what the Gospel is, read here.

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