November 18, 2017

A More Grounded Gospel

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And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

• Ephesians 1:22-23

The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.

• N.T. Wright

• • •

I am in the midst of reading N.T. Wright’s recently published book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good, and I find that my perception of the gospel is becoming more grounded. Bear with me while I try to work out some of the seminal thoughts in my mind regarding how to explain that.

Wright’s big point is that the gospel is an announcement of a public event that has taken place, an event which has changed everything. It is not advice or instruction given to us, it is a proclamation that Jesus has become King, that God has taken charge of the world through the finished work of the Messiah. God has established his rule of justice and peace in the world. God’s enemies have been defeated and will not win the war. The resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit means that the new era has begun. It’s a new day. The divine process of transforming the world has begun in earnest. The announcement of this gospel invites all who hear it to embrace the good news and become part of the transformation. “If anyone is in Christ — new creation!” (2Cor. 5:17, literal translation). The person herself becomes renewed, but even more than that, she becomes part of God’s new creation here and now, right in the midst of this present life. Through baptism she dies to the old creation and is “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

God has taken charge of the world. Everything has changed. The new world has begun in Christ, who has taken his throne.

That is heady language. And frankly, it causes me consternation. Here we are, two millennia later, and my eyes don’t see a new world. I observe a world that has progressed in many ways, become more civilized, technologically advanced, literate, and prosperous. But I don’t need to tell you about the unthinkable evil and suffering that continues to plague the inhabitants of earth. Every day I have a multitude of reasons to doubt that “God has now taken charge of the world.”

In many ways, this is my primary theodicy question. If the gospel is true, why hasn’t the world changed in such a long period of time?

Perhaps our understanding of the gospel is not grounded enough.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something spiritual, when in fact we should be thinking much more naturally — about becoming fully human in our lives and relationships.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something individual, when in fact we should be thinking much more about building bonds with others in Christ.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which gains us life after death, when in fact we should be embracing life more fully right now.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which separates us from the world, when in fact it calls us to participate more in the life of our neighbors, our community, our world.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is about faith alone, when in fact it is about faith working through love.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which enables us to escape the world, when in fact it is about enabling us to more fully embrace and enjoy the world.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is primarily about forgiveness of the past, when in fact it is about making the present and future new.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is about my personal relationship with Jesus, when in fact it is about God creating the new people of God.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which guarantees one’s enrichment and happiness, when in fact it plays out in all the varied seasons and circumstances of life.

Perhaps we see the gospel as something which God alone will work out from beginning to end, when in fact God will work it out at least in part through his renewed people.

14002560704_1971964b6f_zThis last point led me to think about the final verses of Ephesians 1, two of which are quoted above. God’s divine power was displayed when he raised Christ from the dead and established him as Lord over all the powers. But then note this: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things TO THE CHURCH . . .”

Perhaps a main reason we have not seen the kind of change in the world one might expect after hearing the announcement of God’s good news is that we missed the memo: Christ has been exalted to take charge of the world through a church that is grounded in the gospel. Perhaps the church herself has missed the message too many times throughout church history. We have not had an adequately grounded gospel, and even when we have, Christians and churches have not cooperated with God and enacted the newness of life into which God has brought us. I don’t mean this to sound triumphalistic, as though the church is called to “take over the world” through power and might. Being grounded in the gospel will primarily mean that the church will produce change in the world in the same way God took control: through the sufferings of Christ in which we share.

Ephesians 2 goes on to say that God’s people have become God’s workmanship, created in Christ to walk in the good works he has planned beforehand for us. It may not be the whole reason for the world’s lack of transformation, but certainly the church has walked down alternate paths too often. Laying down our lives for the life of the world has not always been our priority — or even on our radar.

Not only do we need a fuller, more robust gospel. We need a more grounded one.

And then we need to let our feet hit the ground.

Comments

  1. Is this not the kingdom side of the teaching of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels? Admittedly, the word “kingdom” is out of step with modern western culture because we don’t live in countries with a functional kingship, even for those with nominal kings/queens (e.g. England). So it does not naturally resonate with us, and we need our theologians to translate it into concepts and teachings we can understand. That is a topic I’d love to hear good preaching on, and read good texts on. Any suggestions anyone?

    • I don’t know that the problem is a lack of familiarity with monarchial systems of government. Laudable efforts I’ve seen elsewhere (e.g., Soujourner’s Magazine) to use “non-kingly” language in reference to Christ made me feel like I was attending a poli-sci capstone class at Bryn Mawr in drag.

      Add to this the undeniable popular appeal of epics such as the Lord of the Rings, and it appears that we know quite well what we’re talking about when we’re talking about kings.

      About a decade ago, Miller Light ran a series of ads poking fun at “The King of Beers” by positioning itself as “The President of Beers.” That no one reading this even remembers what I’m talking about speaks to its success.

      When it comes to epic language (in matters serious or trivial), we are all still ancient Israelites, crying out to Samuel for a king.

    • “is out of step with modern western culture because we don’t live in countries with a functional kingship,”

      Hence Shane Claiborne’s great book several years back (timed release with the 2008 election) “Jesus for President.” That’s a good, accessible book to start with.

  2. This is really wonderful stuff, Chaplain Mike (so good, in fact, that I was about to write “Pastor Mike”). Your “Perhaps we”-s are very insightful and exude Jesus-shaped spirituality. I’ll be mulling on them over the next several days.

  3. Christiane says:

    ” . . . in Him all things hold together ” (from Colossians 1:17)

    ” . . . My Ground of Being, always grounding me” (Malcolm Guite ‘O Sapienta’ Antiphon)

  4. Chap Mike, I can agree with all your points. I love N.T.Wright, he has helped me understand so much, but I have to say I don’t see much of the rule of the King in our world and I continue to wonder why the parousia is delayed. If it’s that hard to understand for Christians then I think trying to explain this “now and not yet” Kingdom to non-Christians is basically impossible. Certainly, questions continue to abound for me about the pervasiveness of evil in our world and the seeming absence of our God in answer to the cries of the persecuted, thinking of the Middle East in particular, and others in pain.

    • I agree with you, cb. As I said in the post — this to me is the most difficult theological conundrum — reconciling the claims of the Gospel with the state of the world 2000 years hence.

      • That Other Jean says:

        Perhaps it relates to the matter of choice? As humans, we get to choose what we will and will not do, and we generally choose very badly indeed. Until we can see beyond our own needs and our own noses, the Kingdom of God may be here, but we won’t be able to see it.

      • It is apparent to me that the NT authors and at times Jesus himself expected his return and the establishment of his kingdom within their own or their hearers’ lifetimes, or shortly thereafter. This expectation colors a lot of what they said and wrote.

        Unless one is a (full?) Preterist, then I think the failure for this to happen, and especially the fact that after nearly 2,000 years it still hasn’t happened, raises questions about the inspiration/truthfulness of other things they said/wrote – and possibly about the reality of a second coming and a future resurrection, too.

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          Eric, hear what the Apostle Peter says to your concerns 2 Peter 3:1-8 ” Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. 2 I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.

          3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

          8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            “The Last-Days Scoffers who are themselves a Sign.”
            — “What Jesus Said”, Seventh-Day Adventist End Times tract circa 1950s

            Problem is, that sounds too much like a Catch-22.

            Especially since EVERY generation since World War One has figured They’re THE Last one And Can PROVE It.

          • I know 2 Peter. In fact I read it in the original Greek. I’ve even written a blog post about it. Most scholars consider 2 Peter to be late and probably not written by Peter.

            As good as its exhortations are, it sounds like an excuse to explain the concern I mentioned in my post. A delay of 100 years, maybe 200 years, is possibly allowable. But a delay of nearly 2000 years really raises questions about what the New Testament authors were thinking.

            And besides, even the author considers the times he was living in to be the last days. Well, again, nearly 2000 years later, how long can we expect the predicted last days to actually last? The other writers of the New Testament also considered the last days and the end of the age to have begun with Jesus’ resurrection. 2000 years later, that raises some serious questions.

            Which is why I ask them.

          • Patrick Kyle says:

            HUG,

            Just because some have misused the Scriptures does not negate them.

            EricW,

            Don’t really know what to say. If you don’t believe the book or have serious reservations as to it’s truthfulness, especially about the resurrection, maybe this Christianity thing is not for you, and you would be more at home with something like Buddhism

          • I don’t doubt Jesus’ resurrection.

            As best I can I read the Bible for what it says, and try not to make it say what I want it to say or what certain traditions and doctrines insist it says or must say.

            YMMV

        • Perhaps this is why a quick, one-off statement about the Kingdom is not enough, we need people to hear the details of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and what they mean. But possibly as important is there needs to be tangible evidence that the church itself is eating its own cooking, and that things are noticeably (and desirably on some level) different within the church. The kind of evidence that vindicates the Kingdom claim. Not simply a zeal to see people converted and then a general standard of ‘being good’

          In the first century, the Christian standard for church life appeared to be distinctive enough from that of pagan culture that it was compelling enough to draw people in. Nowadays, in Christendom/post-Christendom, it’s relatively easy to find a non-Christian subculture where people have a vaguely similar sexual ethic, who don’t cheat on their taxes, and who approve of agencies that care for those in need.

          So the question might be, “What standard of common life is required in today’s world to distinguish the ekklesia from the surrounding polis/kingdom?” We have church services. We quote the Bible more than they do. What about real life distinctives that complellingly describe an allegiance to a different lord?

          I guess what I’m saying is, right along with Gospel announcement, the church’s life needs to BE the apologetic for Jesus’ kingship.

      • One passage that really gave me an otherworldly moment of clarity was the Resurrection narrative in Luke and elsewhere. Jesus has risen and keeps showing up to disciples. I mean, resurrected body. Glorified humanity. There’s never been any bigger news then this.

        And yet they don’t recognize him. Multiple times. And then in the moment that they do recognize him, he’s gone. It’s like a movement in the shadows that you know you saw, but can’t prove and can’t quite describe.

        This may be a much more realistic view of how we experience the Kingdom and the presence of Jesus, during this age, than any of the visions of grandeur we hope for, however many Biblical examples there are of the extraordinary.

    • Patrick Kyle says:

      CD, CM,

      I think it is all a matter of perspective. If you compare the world of several hundred years ago or even one hundred years ago to now, the changes stand in stark contrast. Education, literacy and decent health care are far more common than they were back then. Literally billions have been lifted from poverty. Even the poor in the US and other first world countries have at their disposal housing and technology that would have been unthinkable even 50 or 60 years ago. The church has had a huge hand in this. I would go so far as to say the Christian ethic and ethos under girds most of our advancement.

      While there are still famines, they are the result of war and corruption, not because there is not enough food for everyone. Look at the international efforts to rebuild entire countries after natural disaster or wars. ( The latter is probably unprecedented in the history of the world. We actually rebuilt Europe and Japan after WWII.) Medicine has reached heights considered miraculous 50 years ago.

      Improvement happens over time, and while there is still poverty, suffering, and evil in the world, we have made huge, monumental strides in raising the quality of life all over the world. I think we have a hard time seeing it because we are often ‘glass half empty’ people.

      • Patrick Kyle says:

        A case in point would be slavery. It was eradicated in our country 150 years ago and extinguished elsewhere even as recently as the 1950’s. While it may exist in small pockets, slavers and slave traders are ruthlessly hunted down by law enforcement agencies and prosecuted. Not that long ago the entire world laid in the power of slavery. Now it is fast disappearing, and is universally rejected and condemned by every country and government.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Thing is, the Industrial Revolution made slavery obsolete. As time went on, it was easier to build a machine to do a task than just put more slaves on it.

          And this also shifted thinking; now we think in terms of inventing a machine (hardware and/or software) to solve a problem instead of just breeding/taking more slaves. A society where slavery is normal (most all societies up to about 200 years ago) thought about problem-solving entirely in terms of “Breed/Take more Slaves”.

          But what if the machines go away?

      • I agree that there has been civilization and progress. How much this is due to the gospel and/or the church is debatable, and if there is a host of other factors do we simply attribute such advancements to God’s providential rule? Where then is the specific power of the gospel? Other onlookers could make equally good cases for the benefits of the Enlightenment, the rise of secular states and the diminishment of religion as a ruling factor. As far as I know, there is nothing specifically Christian or gospel-oriented about the rise of technology, indoor plumbing, sanitized water supplies, and the disease theory of modern medicine. Perhaps it may be argued that Judaism and Christianity paved the way for western civilization, but I’m sure that many would argue opening the door is not the same as ruling over it. And what of non-Christian societies such as Muslim or Chinese cultures, which have provided great advances in areas such as mathematics?

        As a Lutheran looking at the evidence, I might be led to argue that the left hand of God is stronger than his right hand.

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          CM,

          James says every good gift is from the Father.. The doctrine of vocation tells us that God works through our neighbors to provide daily bread. They don’t have to be Christians. God uses both His ‘left’ and ‘right’ to care for His creation. I think you are selling the Gospel and it’s work short just because we can’t draw a straight line between the Gospel and every good thing that arises. As though without His grace any good thing happens. We walk by faith and not by sight.

          In your opinion, what should things look like if Jesus is ruling the earth through His sinner/saints? I often think that we switch from a theology of the Cross to one of Glory when we speculate on these things. Its probably part of His plan that we can’t point to magnificent changes and pat ourselves on the back for all the great things WE’VE accomplished, with God’s help of course.

          • Kyle, I wasn’t really arguing with your points, just expressing the questions that run through my mind. I appreciate what you say here. And in good Lutheran tradition, I believe in the hidden God. It’s just that I can’t always figure out how to square him with the statements of the NT.

  5. Terrific post, questions, reflections.

  6. I read this book, too, Mike, and appreciated it.

  7. I think I’ll stick with the idea that it’s God who produces change in the world, despite the counter-productive actions of the Church, and according to his own timetable and designs, which are mostly inscrutable to us. In this, we have no advantage over Job, nor should we expect to; we just have a clearer image of who God is, because we have seen the face of Jesus, which ironically has made discerning the affect of God’s actions in the world even more difficult.

    • I often wonder how much of the change and fruit we see around us is “because of” as opposed to “in spite of” the faithfulness of the Church…

      Also, I was curious if you wouldn’t mind elaborating on your very last point, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • turnsalso says:

      I thought Chaplain Mike’s purpose here was to highlight the fact that we as Christians really (REALLY) like to use “God will take care of it” as an excuse out of doing the things we don’t want to do–willfully ignoring our duties to make God pick up our slack is not expressive of faith, but of presumption. As a Lutheran, I’m sure CM would agree that God alone DOES do all the work that gets done, whether by his intervention or at second hand through his children.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Kind of like how “I’ll Pray For You(TM)” is Christianese for doing nothing.

        • Christiane says:

          not if it’s said by a nun, HUG . . . those women are professionals who know how to pray and how to keep vigil through the night when needed . . . everyone should have a go-to nun in the time of trouble
          . . . and don’t count out those Anglican nuns, either . . .

          convents can be powerhouses of prayer for those critical situations when all a person has left is hope

      • Fact is, I’m not always sure what my duties as a Christian are; they’re not plainly written in the sky, you know? I can do what I think I should, and put a lot of effort into it, and be completely wrong. I’m sure that God has had to work against my best intentions and efforts on numerous occasions, as he has against the Church’s. I’m banking on God always being greater than my mistakes and imperfections and errors, and those of the Church. That doesn’t mean I stop trying to do what I believe God has set before me to do; it does mean that I don’t put ultimate trust in my own efforts or correctness.

  8. After lifetimes of believing the Gospel to be one thing, my question is how do we change our way of thinking in another direction?

    Your “Perhaps…” statements are great fodder for contemplation but how are they made real to us in everyday life? Lifetimes MORE before we begin to understand? If these things are true, then what is the practical application?

    Nothing but questions…

    • Christiane says:

      some thoughts about ‘application’ . . .
      we can observe how Our Lord was with people when He was among us . . . how did He interact with others, with sinners, with lepers, with outcasts, with women, with those who betrayed Him, with those who crucified Him, with people in authority, with those who doubted, with those who trusted in Him ?
      We know He is God . . . the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity . .
      but we forget that He is ‘True Man’ . . . the perfect Man Who, having assumed our humanity, revealed in His actions and in His words specific ways we could respond to the world ourselves . . . not perfectly, no, but still with the gift of grace, the possibilities of ‘practical’ application of real Christ-like behavior in the world DO exist

      we know that it is possible . . . look at the lives of the saints who with God’s grace have taken the journey known as ‘The Way’ . . . what was it about ‘them’ that resembles ‘Him’ ? I think we can find many answers in the examples of their witness.

    • “If these things are true, then what is the practical application?”

      The Sermon on the Mount.

  9. turnsalso says:

    My mandatory plug for Tito Colliander here, on the post’s topic:

    “A wheel suspended in the air cannot roll.”

  10. “Perhaps our understanding of the gospel is not grounded enough.”

    It continues to amaze and perplex and too often aggravate me that we cannot seem to see what is right in front of us, and has been for two thousand years. It is easy to find. The good news as proclaimed by Jesus was simple enough to say in half a dozen words, at least in English: “The Kingdom of God is near!” This is what Jesus announced as he traveled thruout the land, this is what he instructed his disciples to say when he sent them out, this is what John the Baptist proclaimed in advance. If you could go back in time and listen for the announcement of THE gospel, this is what you would hear, at least in the time covered by the Gospels. Six words.

    Today’s posting is an excellent expansion of this basic announcement, but without the basic announcement itself, it is like constructing a building of stone without the cornerstone. If our understanding of the gospel is not grounded enough, which I fully agree with, perhaps it is because of this strange reluctance to acknowledge the very ground it all rests on, the good news as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded plainly, the Kingdom of God is near. Six words.

    I haven’t read this latest book of Wright’s, but I have observed this reluctance in his previous books and will read this one looking for change. I would name Wright and Scot McNight at the forefront of those bringing 21st century awareness to struggling Christianity, but McNight has that same strange reluctance to acknowledge this basic foundation of Jesus’ whole teaching and ministry at the top and up front. Sometimes it is given lip service in passing, sometimes it is brushed off with “of course he said that, but . . . .” Paul’s avoidance is more understandable in his situation but it certainly hasn’t clarified matters.

    Now obviously Jesus spent three and a half years attempting to explain what those six words meant, and for the most part even his disciples didn’t understand. And obviously the announcement was made on the other side of the actual inauguration of the Kingdom and it would then change to “The Kingdom of God is here!” Grberry above touches on our inability to relate to concepts of kingdom, but Jesus’ audience didn’t understand it either as it turned out. It does need explanation, as CM has done so well in this posting, but it seems vital to me to state just what is being explained, just like Jesus did. Six words. The Gospel. The rest is unpacking that suitcase.

    • McKnight. I thought that looked funny. I did get the one “t” part right. 🙂

    • I agree, but don’t think you’ve gone quite far enough. The good news Jesus announced was that the kingdom had come near. However, at the end of the Gospel, it had arrived: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on earth.”

      The kingdom Jesus announced has been established through his finished work. God has become King in a more fully realized way. Messiah has taken the throne and reigns.

      • lol…. chap mike, you are the ‘deflate-gate’ for bogus end timish scenarious and pseudo-kingdoms-to-be. have a Skittle: we know why you , our chap friend, are here..

      • Great!…

        Now what?

        Jesus institutes Kingdom Law? We’re supposed to be little gods running around in authority? Jesus appoints apostles to start new works with new wine?

        “King Jesus” is one of those phrases from my charismatic past that makes me twitch.

        • Well said, but I’ll posit that the authority of Jesus (as HIS kingdom) is widely misunderstood and misused. The ‘new’ kingdoms end up looking very much like the old kindgoms. Try not to lose heart on the whole kindgom meme, even though it’s been carjacked down some very shadey roads, ‘authority’ the same way.

          having said that, I live in the thick of IHOP territory, and grew up with the School of the Prophets, so I know the point you make.

      • No question but that this side of the cross, all authority has been given to Jesus, and that this is good news, but I do not consider this THE Gospel as proclaimed historically by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels. In my quest for a simplicity we can all agree on, I would condense your statement to Jesus is Lord, then expand on it as needed. It reflects the point where the basic message changed from “The Kingdom of God is near” to “The Kingdom of God is here”. Jesus could not have announced this prior to his death because it was not a total reality yet in terms of time. All I am asking is that we start where Jesus started as we speak of proclaiming the Gospel, then acknowledge that we are expanding on that basic proclamation when that is in fact what we are doing, as did Jesus.

        • But Charles, I do think that is where Wright begins. His goal in what he has written has been to explain what Jesus meant by that in the context of the 2nd Temple Judaism in which he lived. The title of his recent book, “How God became King” explains the gospel in exactly the terms you have set forth here.

          • Thanks, CM. I went to bed but you’ll see this. I’ll certainly give Wright’s book a try, possibly even have read it and have it still packed away somewhere in a moving box. His books tend to merge in my mind. I am much more interested in his latest one, Simply Good News but don’t have it yet. Too many times I have watched the subject of “What Is the Gospel?” come up and degenerate into a huge squabble with everyone voicing their own opinions and interpretations and doctrines, including our own archives here. It makes us look like idiots. We can’t even agree on the core fundamentals, never mind the details.

            To me the problem comes from confusing the Gospel with the Gospel Story. Further it seems to me that we confuse our understanding of the English word Gospel including all its baggage with the historical practice of announcing news much as the old town criers did. “The King is dead, long live the King!” I recall Wright and McKnight touching on this, but only in passing. I don’t recall any firm declaration of distinction between the initial loud announcement and the story which follows.

            Surely those old messengers after announcing their headline would have been asked for details and commentary, but that wouldn’t have been the announcement, that would have been the story behind the headline. When Jesus followed his announcement of the kingdom in the next breath with “Repent and believe in the gospel”, that wasn’t a proclamation, it was an exhortation.

            I’m confidant that Wright and McKnight would understand my point and agree with it, I just wish they would emphasize the point in their own writings so people could grasp the difference between headline and story, and stop looking stupid to outsiders. So far they have managed to get across the point to many that the kingdom of God is here and now, which after all is the basic announcement of the good news for today and is only one heartbeat and breath away from the original. That’s a huge step in itself.

    • “The Kingdom of God is near!”

      And the question is…what does that mean?

      I hear a lot of explanations. Some pretty weird. The best explanations seem to be nonverbal ones you see in action.

      • Yes. Or illustrative stories that make a point to the hearer without making them do a bunch of theological math.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “I haven’t read this latest book of Wright’s, but I have observed this reluctance in his previous books and will read this one looking for change. ”

      Charles, I must be a little dense today, but can you work out for me exactly what you are saying here? I personally don’t see problems with how Wright relates his teachings about the King and the Kingdom.

      • David, my overriding goal here is unity within the church. Christian Smith in his book The Bible Made Impossible speaks of pervasive interpretive pluralism. This is the observation that Christians can say they believe what the Bible says, but when it comes to their own interpretation, there is wild divergence. We speak of this often here.

        In particular I have seen this with regard to what “the Gospel” actually is. Any time this comes up for discussion, most people say the Gospel is at the center of the Christian message and almost no one agrees as to what it actually is. It would be laughable were it not a perfect example of our divisions and lack of understanding.

        If you were going to make a movie of the life of Jesus, exactly how would you treat the proclamation of the Gospel by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples of Jesus during his ministry? You have to take into account that there were no press conferences, no sound systems, no mass media, nothing but finding the place where the most people would be within earshot and using the power of your lungs and a compelling sound bite to get their attention. And by definition, the announcement has to be received as good news.

        We make fun of those who say “The Bible plainly says . . .” but in fact the Bible plainly does say that both John the Baptist and Jesus announced that “The Kingdom of God is near!” and this is what Jesus told his disciples to announce when he sent them out. Quibble if you want about the Kingdom of Heaven and that it was at hand, but these are just minor variations, and of course it was announced as such the other side of the cross. It could be called out loudly in a single breath. When you had people’s attention, you could unpack that statement if appropriate. The Good News was something like the headlines that newsboys shouted in our parents’ day.

        I’ll bet you can remember VJ day. I sure do. “WAR ENDS!!!” “JAPAN SURRENDERS!!!” i was only six and didn’t have a good understanding, but I knew that war hurt people and killed people and was really scary, and it had been going on all my life. I went down by the highway with my little American flag and waved it at the cars going by. People wildly waved back and cheered, it seemed like every car horn in the world was honking on and on, seventy years later I can’t type those words without crying. That was Good News!

        That was what the Jews in Palestine had been desperately wanting to hear all their lives, an end to this occupation, this war on their land and their soul. The Kingdom of God is near!!! That was the suitcase that Jesus unpacked for three and a half years, then sent his disciples out to finish the job.That was the basic message, the Good News, the Kingdom of God is near. All I am asking is that we all start with the same suitcase to unpack that Jesus did. Otherwise we all come to the table carrying a stack of our own change of socks and underwear, pj’s, shirts, Dopp kit, alarm clock, and reading material, then argue over whose are best.

        I don’t argue with Wright or Scot McKnight in their reflections on the Kingdom, tho I don’t always agree. They have greatly advanced our understanding. I just wish they would start on the same page at the beginning along with Jesus instead of halfway thru the story. Perhaps someone can point out to me where they have. That should be something we all can agree on however it diverges from there. Simple is good for starters. It would maybe let more of us sit down at the same table, which is my main concern.

        • David Cornwell says:

          Charles, thanks for your explanation. I think I understand better now where you are coming from. I’m going to think about this when I again read Wright, and also McKnight. Maybe if it opens up again at some point in the future, perhaps we can discuss it further.

          I always appreciate what you have to say.

  11. Dana Ames says:

    Our understanding of the phrase “kingdom of God” is not dependent on being the subjects of a monarchical political system. To understand it, we have to go back to what it meant to Jesus’ c1 Jewish hearers. Wright outlines this in great detail in “The New Testament and the People of God.” In the section “the Hope of Israel” he describes the coming kingdom as:

    -apocalyptic – it would be sudden, “earth-shattering”;
    -the ending of the Exile and the ushering in The Age to Come;
    -there being no king but God;
    -the arrival on the scene of Israel’s God in such a way that it could be observed, as when the Glory of the Lord filled the original temple;
    -the beginning of the renewal of the world, of Israel and of humans;
    -the vindication of those who had been true to God – this is the connotation of “soteria” (salvation) and “dikaiosune” (justification), not simply that an individual’s personal moral failings were somehow covered over.

    The sign that all this had happened would be the bodily resurrection of the righteous. There were differences in Jewish thought about when that would happen and who would be part of it.

    Now… Imagine how it was for the Jews who believed that ***all this had happened*** in and through Jesus of Nazareth (though not quite in the way that they, their friends, family and nation were expecting)… That’s some kind of news!

    Reading that book was the occasion for me of many face-palms (“THAT’S what that means!”)… Willard had prepared me for it with his treatment of the Kingdom of God in “Divine Conspiracy” but reading this (and Wright’s other Christian Origin books) was a watershed experience. I finally became aware of the full import of the goodness of The Good News – and the goodness of God. St Paul’s writings became understandable and alive for me, not simply a mishmash of barely related theological points and ethical advice. Much confusion melted away. Reading Wright’s “big books” made me deeply, truly glad to be a Christian. I cannot overstate this. I will be forever grateful to God for Toms life and work. I don’t agree with him 100%, but until I found the Orthodox Church (for which I believe reading Wright also prepared me, and with which much of his thought is consonant), God used his theology to save my faith.

    Dana

  12. Dana Ames says:

    To the question, “If this is so, why hasn’t the world changed?”

    Well, the world has changed. Every charitable institution, whether Christian or not, has its roots in the Christian way of looking at human beings. We in the west decry certain things because of the (former) saturation of our culture with deep Judeo-Christian values, and we also can be self-critical because of them. This was unprecedented before Christianity (except among some Jews).

    And the world has changed *invisibly* in ways we cannot see and may never see. God is not obliged to reveal to us everything about how he works.

    In addition, I believe our western post-Enlightenment push for “progress” (especially in the US, where we value pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps) has led to the impossible ideal of “changing the world for Christ.” Something happened when thousands of martyrs suffered during the early persecutions, and something is happening with the thousands of martyrs suffering today. If I am not one of them, then it behooves me to otherwise live into the death and resurrection of Christ in the realm of my own life through my little daily deaths, and live into his life through manifesting whatever self-giving love his Spirit engenders in me.

    I refer anyone interested to Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog, glory2godforallthings dot com. Search for:
    “The Secret Hand of God.”

    If you can stand your world being upended a little bit:
    “You’re not doing better”
    “Going to Hell with the Terrorists and Torturers”
    “The Problem of Goodness”
    “St Mary of Egypt and Moral Progress” (especially the long comment by Randy)
    “Saved in Weakness”
    “The Marriage of Love and Hate” (and anything else he writes on Dostoyevsky)
    “The Long Defeat and the Cross”

    Dana

    • I agree that it has changed. I debated, but elected to omit from my opening post, some thoughts on this. Hopefully I can say it better now.

      While my Social Justice Warrior friends at church will say there is still a lot to be done, the death of open, state supported slavery in western societies is an example of a major change that was rooted in Christianity.

      Every hospital in the world has a historical root in the hospital that one of the Cappadocian fathers launched.

      The social welfare programs of Western states are rooted in Judaeo-Christian charity (in the old meaning of love) and almsgiving (in the old sense where it was large enough that givers could worry about impoverishing themselves, not pocket change). But the history of the reform of such programs and replacement by “better” programs also all demonstrate that in the area of affirmative action, a government program is not the kingdom in action.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Well, the world has changed. Every charitable institution, whether Christian or not, has its roots in the Christian way of looking at human beings. We in the west decry certain things because of the (former) saturation of our culture with deep Judeo-Christian values, and we also can be self-critical because of them. This was unprecedented before Christianity (except among some Jews).

      This is similar to a point of contention of mine in various SF convention “unconventional religion” talk-fests:
      Today’s neo-Pagans are NEO-Pagan, trying to “go back to the Old Gods” from a society that has around 2000 years of Christian influence. So their attempts to reconstruct Paganism are going to show Christian influence, and their reconstructed old gods will have aspects of the New God’s ways. For instance, I doubt very much that the Earth & Nature Goddesses of 2000+ years ago (the Old Paganism) are going to share many of the attributes of the medieval Virgin Mary (neo-Paganism).

  13. “The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.”

    I agree, it’s certainly hard to see that at the moment.
    I realised recently that i needed to rebuild my faith (if that’s the right terminology, I suspect not…) Prayer, bible reading, church and especially worship have seemed at best frustrating, at worst pointless (prayer=talking to the air, the bible is too complicated to understand without the time to study the context). I don’t ‘experience’ God, or connect with him in any way (and now I know i’m betraying an unhelpful ‘feelings orrientated’ approach to faith of the kind rigorously critiqued here). I find that 23 years of christianity haven’t shaped my character in the way I would have liked; in fact, 23 years of christianity don’t seem at the moment as if they were worth bothering with. But I have nowhere else to go, besides church.

    On a semi-related note, I would be interested to know what imonkers think of Stephen Pinker’s argument that violence has decreased significantly, throughout human history? Google him, you’ll find articles or his TED talk. he presents evidence that battle deaths are down, murders are down, torture is much less common, rape is no longer an acceptable weapon of war, capital punishment is dissapearing… and in his opinion, christianity had little to do with it. It is secular democracies that promote peace, not religion (a son avis)

    peace

    • I’ve been at that spiritual desert spot too, Ben. 5-7 years of attending church just because…what else was there to do on Sunday? Singing songs that I didn’t necessarily believe, or sometimes not singing at all. Faked it for those years.

      A book that helped me through it and even provided my first bit of water and greenery was Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God.” If you haven’t read it yet, try it.

      Peace back at ya!

    • “I find that 23 years of christianity haven’t shaped my character in the way I would have liked”

      I concur. I see little bits, glimpses. I also see a lot of things that don’t seem to have changed much at all.

      Never heard of Mr. Pinker, but for this:

      “he presents evidence that battle deaths are down,”

      …I have nothing to offer to but incredulity. Someone can actually say this with a straight face? Of the twentieth century?

    • Since Pinker is a professor at a campus just a stone’s throw (ok my throwing arm is poor, a soccer ball’s kick) away, his book on that subject got donated to our local library branch. I read it a while back. What I recollect was that I found the statistics persuasive (and I cut my stats teeth on the classic “How to Lie with Statistics”) but his opinion of the causes both unsupported by the statistics and unpersuasive.

      Nate, the statistics are not presented in terms of total quantity but instead of the percentage of people affected. The 20th century has/had a extremely high number of living people. So even though there are a large number of violence affected people during the 20th century, when divided among the even larger number of people during the 20th century, the odds are lower than prior centuries.

  14. It matters not says:

    Dear CM,

    “If the gospel is true, why hasn’t the world changed in such a long period of time?”

    The answer to your question is that the new earth (i.e., kingdom of God) implicitly promised in the gospel refers not to a cleaned up (or glorified) version of this earth, but to an entirely separate world in the heavens. Hence, from the perspective of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, there was never the expectation that this world would be transformed in the sort of way that you presently imagine/hope; in which case, it should not trouble you that such a transformation has not taken place since Jesus’s time.

    Unfortunately, as part of a well-intentioned effort to make the gospel more relevant to a (modern) Western society that is almost exclusively concerned with this world (or at least is wont to dismiss talk of another world as futile), NT Wright et al. have misread the New Testament on this point. Indeed, I would submit that with the exception of a few passages, the New Testament very clearly witnesses to a heavenly hope for those who have faith in Jesus Christ, so that the new earth must be in the heavens.

    • Respectfully disagree.

      • OldProphet says:

        I hope this new earth he is talking about is nit in the Hoth system! Way to cold for me. And the snow monsters are too scary. And me without a light saber! Lol

      • It matters not says:

        Dear CM,

        I understand.

        However, just so you know, the problem with saying that more change hasn’t taken place because God’s people haven’t correctly understood their mission is that it raises the question as to why the promised Holy Spirit failed to sustain (or ensure) a correct understanding of the church’s mission for so long. Surely, this is the sort of thing the Holy Spirit was supposed do in its role as teacher of God’s people (so John 14:26; 16:13).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      At which point, you leave the door open for Manichean Gnosticism — “Spiritual Good, Physical BAAAAAAD” and its little cousin of “So Heavenly Minded you’re No Earthly Good.” Or “Mortification of the Flesh” on the order of St Rose of Lima.

      “So what if I rack him ’til he die? For I shall have Saved His Soul.”
      — “The Inquisitor”, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

      Remember at the end of Revelation, God’s people are NOT Raptured up into Fluffy Cloud Heaven, but Heaven (in the form of the New Jerusalem) descends to Earth. We don’t go away to be with God, God comes down to dwell among us.

      • It matters not says:

        HUG,

        “Remember at the end of Revelation, God’s people are NOT Raptured up into Fluffy Cloud Heaven, but Heaven (in the form of the New Jerusalem) descends to Earth. We don’t go away to be with God, God comes down to dwell among us.”

        In Rev 21, as in Heb 9:24, heaven (singular) only refers to the most holy place of the heavenly temple. As strange as this exegesis may sound to you: the new Jerusalem comes down from the most holy place of the heavenly temple to the (lower) holy place of the heavenly temple. A similar concept is also at work in 1 Thess 4:15-17, where Jesus comes down from heaven (singular) to meet his people in the “air,” which is Paul’s way of referring to the lower part of the heavenly temple. In the New Testament, those who have faith in Jesus are the anticipated eschatological priesthood scattered throughout the world written about in Isa 66:19-21, and just as the (original) Levitical priesthood served God in the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem (but not the most holy place!) so also the eschatological priesthood would serve God in the holy place of the heavenly temple (see Isa 2:2-3; 56:6-7; Rev 7:15). This is the OT metaphorical background that the NT is tapping into.

        The reason for all the confusion is that the biblical writings have a much more developed cosmology than our own. In particular, the early belief was that the temple in Jerusalem was constructed after the pattern of the heavenly temple (so Heb 8); this means, for example, that the heavenly temple has two sections (i.e., a holy place and a most holy place) just as the temple in Jerusalem has two sections. Indeed, this idea does some real theological work in Heb 9 where it is asserted that Jesus, the eschatological high priest, completed his work of atonement upon his ascension to the most holy place of the heavenly temple (i.e., “heaven” [singular] in v. 24) after the pattern of the Levitical high priest, who enters the most holy place of the temple in Jerusalem once a year on the Day of Atonement. Unfortunately, this more developed cosmology, and its implications for Jesus’s work of atonement as the eschatological high priest, was lost for the generic, nondescript concept of heaven that many Westerners have understandably grown to dislike.

        “At which point, you leave the door open for Manichean Gnosticism…”

        I think it’s possible to affirm the goodness and value of this world without also seeing it as the place where God’s kingdom is ultimately established.

        • Years ago I came to the conclusion that if God can’t – for any reason – redeem the whole of the Creation he made, the devil wins. I don’t believe the devil wins.

          Matters not, I believe you’re committed to Jesus Christ. I just can’t cotton to that interpretation of scripture, especially since the first century Jews, among whom Christianity arose, had no such notions about a distant “heaven.”

          God bless you.
          Dana

        • Phil 3:20 But our citizenship?? is in heaven (plural), and it is from there (singular) that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

          Is there really a significant distinction in meaning when the NT authors use “heavens/skies” versus “heaven/sky” – especially since the Hebrew word is neither a singular nor a plural but a dual (which could be simply due to the word’s etymology – see Gesenius)?

    • as part of a well-intentioned effort to make the gospel more relevant to a (modern) Western society that is almost exclusively concerned with this world

      And this is why that thinking falls apart, because it implies that this is all to be “relevant” or something, a reaction, a desire to be liked or loved. Meh. I don’t buy it one bit, as there is zero proof. That type of thinking applies to a lot of theologies, unfortunately.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Something you have to keep in mind, in the words of my old Dungeonmaster:

        “Nothing gets old-fashioned faster than Over-Relevance.”

        Catch any clips of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In lately?
        Hip and Relevant and “GROOVY, MAN!”

    • This just directly contradicts the Lord’s Prayer. Just for a start.

      But there IS a caution to be made about expecting to see evidence of God reign in any/every society and province, in every polis and people. It’s not going to be sweepingly pervasive right away, and I don’t think Jesus ever claimed it was. That’s the problem with a cross/mustard seed Kingdom, is that it doesn’t act like a bull in a china shop, or grasp at the levers of power. It’s not going to make media headlines. All the other kingdoms will though, so we’re constantly led to believe that there is no Kingdom yet, both by bad theology and by sensationalistic media.

      No, the distinction that needs to be made here is that the church is THE polis, the society, the holy nation, the new race, among whom and on whose pages the Kingdom story is being written. Every simple act of obedience by Jesus’ followers proves that the Kingdom is indeed on earth as in heaven. You get a lot of garbage Christianity and fake obedience, but that doesn’t mean that the real thing doesn’t exist, or isn’t happening.

      However, no, the earth is not going to burn up in a vast inferno Harold Camping style. while we are divorced from this reality entirely for the holy bus ride beyond the sky. That’s la-la land.

      • It matters not says:

        Nate,

        “This just directly contradicts the Lord’s Prayer. Just for a start. ”

        No it doesn’t.

        Jesus prays in Matt 6:10 for God’s will to be done “on earth as [it is] in heaven.” NT Wright, and others, read “on earth as [it is] in heaven” as a kind of summary that also refers back to the earlier clause, “may your kingdom come,” but this is not necessarily the right way to read the prayer. Indeed, I would argue that this is the wrong way to read the Lord’s prayer given the presence of other less ambiguous texts.

        • Pretty much the prime distinctive of a Kindgom is that the will of the King is done. This is how we know authority- the one in authority gets his way. I don’t see any realistic way of separating those two clauses.

          Even on its own, “your Kingdom come” implies that it comes where the speaker is. That’s just a straightforward reading of the words.

          • Pretty much the prime distinctive of a Kindgom is that the will of the King is done. This is how we know authority- the one in authority gets his way

            haven’t read much NT Wright, but this is , to my mind, one of the best summary snapshots of the Kingdom I’ve ever read: the Kingdom is wherever the King is being honored/obeyed…..wherever that might be

        • Another example where “heavens” (our Father, the one in the heavens) and “heaven” (as in heaven, also on [the] earth) are used. Is there really a difference in meaning?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        However, no, the earth is not going to burn up in a vast inferno Harold Camping style. while we are divorced from this reality entirely for the holy bus ride beyond the sky. That’s la-la land.

        And before Harold Camping there was Hal Lindsay.
        American Protestant Christianity has never recovered from Hal Lindsay.

  15. Andrew Zook says:

    Thank you CM for this post. I’ve been wondering for quite some time how to explain to all my evangelical friends/acquaintances why I disagree with them on so many levels. Your list gives me the backbone of a detailed explanation and it covers so many areas. I am a pretty firm believer in your “when in fact(s)…” and have, at least at the head level, turned from the “Perhaps we see(s)…” What I find interesting is that the push to shift came from many different quarters (mainline, emergent, Anabaptist, Catholic, Orthodox…) but generally all from outside of or from the fringe of modern american evangelicalism…

  16. Good question, which I’ve thought about recently having reflected a lot on Wright’s work, et. al.

    I like you’re “perhapses.” They are very thoughtful and key.

    We remain behind enemy lines for the time being. Yet the difference is that news of an approaching host of liberation on the horizon has changed our expectation while we appear to molder in this exile. The future element is just as necessary as the present (and past) in order to be convinced of the truth of the Kingdom’s claim. It’s still “not yet” in some sense.

    I think the way we (the church) suffer is a good place to start looking for Kingdom. If new life is now in our DNA, we can expect that our dejection about the passing of the old, both the day to day “death to self,” and the physical passing of our bodies, might be lifted into, well…’hope’ I think is the word.

    But yes, much work on our understanding needs to be done. The church manufactures a number of projects that are not Kingdom, and don’t look like Jesus. This foolishness needs to be Gospelled out of us. The very fact that there is any urgency to correct this is evidence to me that the Kingdom is at hand among us.