He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The problem we face this week is that evangelism is not a biblical word. The Bible doesn’t really give us any programs, methods, goals and KPIs – the ism of evangelism. Rather, it gives us the evangel, the gospel, the message. This is our focus this week because we need the evangel before we can evangelise.
The word “gospel” is the English translation for the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, which literally means a good message or announcement. At the time of Jesus, this word was used by Caesar and the Roman Empire to declare news of victory in battle, when his army had conquered and occupied another city or territory. Quite intentionally I think, Jesus and the writers of the gospel decided to use this word, but appropriate it to what they were talking about.
This is why the very first verse of Mark’s gospel is so very powerful and confronting. Mark 1:1 says “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” The euangelion, the good news of Jesus Christ, not of Caesar. Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour; Caesar is not. Jesus Christ is the Son of God; Caesar is not. Shocking, world-changing, turning upside down, Good News. Alongside this, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds of the Saviour’s birth is “euangelion of great joy”, placing this news in opposition to the news of the Roman Empire.
There are a myriad of ways that we can describe the gospel. Just the other week, at an Intergen Team planning meeting, one member said the gospel is that God loves us, and another said it is that Jesus died on the cross for us. Neither of these statements are incorrect, of course, but the conversation reminded me of the fable of the six blind men and the elephant, where each man feels one part of the elephant and hypothesises what the elephant is like just from that part. So an elephant is like a snake because of its long trunk, or like a fan because of its ears, and so on. These partials truths are indeed true, but are not the whole truth, and we must be careful not to project our partial truths as being the whole truth. Similarly, our go-to statements that are the gospel, while not untrue, should not be projected to others as all there is to say.
This makes the work of evangelism hard, because there can be so much to say! And there have been attempts throughout history to try and summarise the gospel succinctly, like Charles Spurgeon’s Wordless Book (green is for creation, black is for sin, red is for the blood of Jesus, white is for grace, gold is for heaven), or various hymns, particularly Wesleyan hymns, or a particular Bible verse to be shouted, like John 3:16 – but really, none of these attempts do the euangelion justice. So today, I won’t summarise the gospel for you to share, because I can’t. Rather, let me offer some ideas from the Bible of what the gospel is.
Jesus is presented in the gospels as a proclaimer of the gospel. The gospel he proclaimed in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke was all about the reign of God, or the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the Kingdom of Caesar or the Kingdom of the world. Jesus urged his followers to watch for it and to pray for its coming. The reign of God Jesus proclaims involves a massive reversal of the values of the present world – the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, and children, and infants, and the last, and the tax collectors, and the prostitutes, and the humble. And perhaps Jesus’ most shocking announcement is that this reign of God, this Kingdom of God has already, in some sense, arrived. It has come near, and it is present in a hidden but dynamic way, like a seed sown in the ground or yeast in the dough. The seed will sprout, the dough will rise, the Kingdom will come in its fullness. In Mark 1:14, Jesus comes back to Galilee from the desert and says that the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near. This is at the beginning of his ministry, way before the events of the cross!
This whole concept would have really been news to Jesus’ listeners. The idea that the world they knew (with its emperors and Pharisees and corruption) was turning upside down was new, startling, counter-cultural and undreamed of. But to help his listeners really believe it, Jesus not only proclaimed the gospel; he embodied it in his living and healing and relationships. The focus of his living was the focus of the Kingdom of God – the poor, the children, the last, the humble.
Now, if Jesus was a proclaimer of the gospel, then the apostles of Jesus were the first preachers of the gospel. But the gospel they preached was not so much the gospel of Jesus as it was the gospel about Jesus, or after Jesus. Why? Because they began their preaching after the events Jesus died, was raised, ascended to heaven, and the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. So the proclaimer, Jesus, became the one to be proclaimed; the messenger, Jesus, became the message. And because of that, the focus of the gospel changed; it wasn’t so much the Kingdom of God and its great reversal of fortunes as it was the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Jesus’ power is seen not in his acts of healing but of his conquering of death.
For Paul, writer of many of the letters of the New Testament, the gospel was something he had received through preachers like the apostles and the Holy Spirit, and was then proclaiming to others. I think a key gospel emphasis for Paul is that the actions of God in Christ are for both Jews and Gentiles, which needed to be emphasised at that time of cultural and religious tensions. This is why Paul often writes about the gospel for the uncircumcised and says in Ephesians that the Gentiles (which is the word for non-Jews) have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
So Jesus’ gospel is the Kingdom of God, the apostle’s gospel is that Jesus lives, and Paul’s gospel is that the promises of Christ are for all people. It might seem from what I have said so far that there are variables in the gospel. We see that the content can change with new events like Easter or Pentecost, or new insights like the inclusion of non-Jews. The audience too can change as the missionary strategy changes – that is, as the early church flourishes and reaches new communities. And we see this today from the exercise earlier – that the content of the gospel each of us holds dear changes with life experience, with cultural context, with education and so on. The words I would use to summarise the gospel would differ to yours, because my life and faith journey is different to yours. But does this make the gospel something people can twist and shape to their own pleasure? Surely not! No, regardless of events, insights and audience changes, there are some constants in the gospel we must hold to in our evangelism.
First, the gospel is GOOD news. William Tyndale once said that the gospel is like a woman who receives a letter or telephone call, rushes out hatless and coatless to her neighbour’s house, enters without knocking and ringing, and cries in a loud voice: “the most wonderful thing has happened!” The gospel is wonderful, awesome news. Radical forgiveness? Amazing grace? Healing the broken? Such good news! This therefore means that the gospel is not BAD news, nor a pronouncement of judgment, nor a tirade of condemnation. Yes, bad news is a part of life, a part of scripture, a part of preaching, and perhaps a part of conversion and discipleship (in terms of what one must give up to let God be the centre of their life), but it is not the gospel. The gospel is good.
Next, the gospel is good NEWS. It is not a description of the way things have always been; it is an announcement of radical, unexpected change, not just a change in me and my feelings about things, but a change in the very structure and fabric of everything. This means that the gospel is not an argument or theological system. Yes there is a place for theological debate, but that is not the gospel. The gospel is news.
Next, the gospel is about GOD’S action, not human action – what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in Christ in the power of the Spirit, not what we must do. The gospel is something to be offered. The response by human beings is not itself part of the gospel. This means that discussions of faith, repentance, good works and perseverance, however necessary they all are in our evangelism, are not actually part of the gospel. The gospel is the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do for each of us and for the world.
Finally, the gospel is FUTURE-looking; it is full of hope and expectation. Jesus consistently said that the kingdom of God is both here and coming.
This morning I have focused on the Biblical concept of the gospel, and as we know, the books of the Bible were written at particular moments in time, for particular communities with their own cultures. So, do the constants of the Biblical gospel still ring true today? Is the gospel we are called to proclaim in 2018, centuries after the events of Jesus, still good, still news, still about God, and still future-looking?
I’d say a loud and resounding yes. Consider the brokenness of the world today, and we can see how desperately the world needs something good, something that is news, something that is beyond humanity, and something that provides hope for the future – so absolutely, yes. But we need to recapture the crux of the gospel and put away that which is not gospel. That is, our evangelism must be about proclaiming something good, something that is news, something that is a gift to humanity, and something hopeful, and NOT proclaiming judgment, something that fits with current culture and values, something anthropomorphised, and something that does not outrightly emphasise hope. We are called not to preach terror and judgment, but grace and love. We are called not to preach cheap grace, but free grace. We are called not to proclaim KPIs to earn grace, but the amazing works of God. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
This is also the best time to recapture our sense of evangelism, purely because we are no longer in the age of Christendom, where almost everyone identifies as Christian. Nowadays, we are so much more surrounded by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists and nominal Christians. The mission field is large, and the harvest is plentiful.
Friends, maybe I have been preaching to the converted here this morning. Maybe you all know in your heart what the gospel is. But I believe that what is lacking in our church’s evangelism is not naming it as a priority (it’s right there in our mission statement), not is it methods or materials. We lack motivation. A sense of pity for those dying without knowing Jesus doesn’t seem to work for us anymore, and nor do guilt and shame. We are alarmed about declining membership, so we focus on competition with other churches and the blame game, instead of evangelising. But the gospel in its purity is good news. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is such good news that it must be shared. Perhaps the gospel is old and familiar news, but that doesn’t keep it from being new news, startling, unexpected, almost absurd. What is the gospel we are called to proclaim? The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.