Friday, September 19, 2008

What is the Gospel?

I am not asking about the 4 canonical narratives of Jesus which are familiarly known as the ‘Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’ respectively. The ‘Gospel’, which literally means ‘good news’, is a technical term that bears a very specific connotation to the Christian community. And it is this particular denotation that I am concern with.

Although the Gospel is a jargon, the community that is supposedly to safeguard its meaning has truncate and distort it according to the tragic fragmentation developed within the community itself over time. Hence nowadays this jargon found within itself sub-jargons that belong to different sub-groups. The once unique and very specific connotation of the Gospel has become vague and could almost mean anything to anyone.

This dreadful phenomenon can be seen through the proliferation of various different and simulated gospels emerged either through individuals or movements. Instances like the ‘Third Wave Movement’, or the ‘prosperity gospel’ held by local churches like the City Harvest Church, or the so-called ‘hyper-grace gospel’ held by the New Creation Church are widely accepted and influential among Christians. This has caused confusion to both non-Christians and Christians alike over the meaning of the Gospel.

Despite this communal tragic we can still rediscover the specific meaning of the Gospel. And that’s the purpose of this post.

Historically the Christianity’s Gospel traces back to the royal edict announced by Jesus of Nazareth, and his disciples. And this edict can be retrieved through the four canonical texts and other letters written by the early followers of Jesus.

Some scholars think that such recovery is impossible. They perceived that the uncontrolled and self-serving bias of the authors of the four canonical texts prevent them from presenting the message truthfully or objectively. They hold that these texts that were written with agendas are unable to portray any significant resemblance of the real Jesus or of what he really had said.

But it is demonstrable that these written texts are not as flimsy as these scholars presumed. Richard Bauckham has recently credibly argued that the written texts are based on eyewitnesses’ testimony and hence trustworthy. On the other hand, Richard Burridge’s study on the genre of the Gospels has concluded that the genre of these written texts is similar with that of the ancient biographies.

In terms of the transmission of the tradition of Jesus up to our present day, there have been numerous contributions made by acclaimed experts to this study. James Dunn, for one, has expounded very convincingly the continuity and the reliability of the memory of Jesus within the early Christian community. The works by Bruce Metzger and Daniel Wallace display the high proximity that our current texts share with the original ones.

These scholars have demonstrated that although the written texts might not contain the exact word-for-word sayings of Jesus, yet it is not true that the authors of the canonical texts were free to put words into Jesus’ mouth. Instead the devout community, which consisting eyewitnesses, exercise significant control over these early memories about Jesus from being tampered or distorted. Hence recovering the original meaning of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus is achievable.

So, what is the Gospel of Jesus?

In Jesus’ time the Israelites were suffering from traumatic socio-political oppression for centuries ever since the Babylonian exile. Being politically conquered and social and religiously suppressed, the Israelites anticipate for the mighty act of God that has been promised to liberate them from their oppressors.

They believed that when God acts, he will establish an ever lasting kingdom which will crush all other rulers and establishment, and hence putting Israel back to its rightful state. Some believed that God’s kingdom will come through his special agent known as the Messiah, or ‘the Christ’ in Greek. Hence there were many self-claimed Messiahs, prophets, zealots, and reformers appeared during that time. All these liberators tried to bring in God’s kingdom, the promised peace to Israel.

On one hand, there were liberators who sought violent ways, as exemplified in their tradition, to free Israel. They were convinced that God’s kingdom could only arrived through blood and swords. On the other hand, there were Israelites such as the Qumran community who thought that they must separate themselves from the messy society in order for them to be in God’s kingdom.

And in the midst of that chaotic and tensed condition, Jesus’ announcement of the enthronement of God took place. Jesus’ good news is the coming of God’s promised kingdom (Mark 1.15). The word “Gospel” in New Testament Greek (‘euanggelion’) carries the tone of the royal decree of a divine birth and enthronement. Romans used this particular language for the enthronement of their emperors. Hence we must recognize the same political overtone surrounding Jesus’ Gospel, as it was understood in those days. To say something to today’s effect, the Gospel sounds something like, “God has become the Prime Minister”.

Jesus did not see violence and seclusion as belonging to God’s kingdom. Instead he saw the effect of the kingdom of God in the empowerment of the socially and religiously marginalized on one hand, and the condemnation of the political, social and religious oppressors on the other. Therefore the Gospel turned out to be a direct socio-political confrontation with the corrupted and self-serving authorities. Its message subverts the Romans authority on one side and the other Israelite liberators on the other.

Hence ‘repentance’, to turn oneself away from corruption and self-serving agenda, is central in the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus invites both the oppressors and the oppressed to realign themselves away from the prevalent oppressiveness, socio-political indifference, and communal-isolation, and learn to live according to the new order, according to the new policies of the new Prime Minister, so to speak.

Underlying this vision, Jesus deem himself as the central agent of God’s action in the world. He believes that God was working through him to establish the new order in this troubled world. Jesus believes the God who has appointed him the place in the midst of the social turmoil has also assigned him to reconstitute the nation not merely through introducing new policies but to personify these new way of living through his own life. A task which he and his contemporary knew very well that it can only be achieved by God alone.

Therefore all that had happened in and through Jesus was being seen as the act of God in the world. And eventually the early Christians came to understand this revelation, and hence attribute the same worship to Jesus as to God. They came to understand that this Messiah was someone through whom God has unveiled, exposed, and incarnated himself into our reality. And this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that was being passed down from Jesus to his apostles and then to subsequent generations of followers. (Romans 1.1-17, Galatians 2.1-10)

So… what?

So now we know that the character of the Gospel, as we have seen, is not some vague divine messages. Neither is it some ‘prosperity’, ‘health and wealth’, or ‘hyper-grace’ news that guarantees emotional, psychological, monetary, or materialistic fulfilment in the first place.

The Gospel is first and foremost the reckoning of the presidential sovereign of Jesus. In St. Peter and St. Paul’s word, the Gospel is, “Jesus is Lord” (Acts 10.36, Romans 10.9, 2 Corinthians 4.5). In today’s term, it is, “Jesus is Prime Minister/President”.

The new order of God, which is personified in Jesus, is directed to liberate the socially and religiously marginalized people in the society, and among each individual within it. It concerns social justice and the whole community at large.

We do not have evident that shows Jesus to concern over individual financial aspiration or constraints. Neither do we have contextually-interpreted texts recording his promises of good health and abundant wealth to his disciples. His healings are not merely for the well being of individuals but the signs of his authority as the delegate who launched God’s agenda into the world.

The disarming love that underlies God’s agenda uncovers the significance and power for society to advance hope, peace, and love. Yet this love never stops critiquing and challenging individuals by its object of a crucified and resurrected Messiah of how such advancement can and should be done.

Therefore any ancient or present-day Gospel that is emptied of the message as exemplified through Jesus’ life and ministry, that Gospel is not the jargon of the Christian community as understood historically and through the church tradition. (Galatians 1.6-9)

References and For Further Reading:

Barclay, William. 2002. New Testament Words. Westminster John Knox Press

Bauckham, Richard. 1998. God Crucified. Paternoster Press.

Bauckham, Richard. 2006. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Eerdmans.

Bockmuehl, Markus. 2001. The Cambridge Companion To Jesus. Cambridge University Press.

Bockmuehl, Markus, and Don Hagner. 2005. The Written Gospel. Cambridge University Press.

Burridge, Richard. 2004. What Are The Gospels? 2nd edn. Eerdmans.

Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans.

Dunn, James. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge University Press.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. 1992. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. IVP.

Higton, Mike. 2005. Difficult Gospel. Church Publishing.

Metzger, Bruce. 1987. The Canon of the New Testament. Oxford University Press.

Strobel, Lee. 1998. The Case for Christ. Zondervan.

Strobel, Lee. 2007. The Case for the Real Jesus. Zondervan.

Witherington III, Ben. 1997. The Jesus Quest, 2nd edn. Paternoster Press.

Wright, N.T. 1992. Who Was Jesus? SPCK.

Wright, N.T. 1992. The New Testament and the People of God. SPCK.

Wright, N.T. 1996. Jesus and the Victory of God. SPCK.


Israel Lee said...

I could not agree more with you on this matter especially how the gospel is being presented by the Third Wave movement and other 'forms' of gospels. The sad thing is that this is widely accepted by a lot of churches especially those coming from charismatic circles like myself.

I was deeply concerned when I received a circulated email containing the prophecy of Chuck Pierce (I sent to Agora for discussion but was never published in the forum) and how some of my friends were taking it as if it is the word of God itself. This is alarming especially when these prophecies range from supporting some specific Republican candidates to the calling citizens in this region to overthrow their governments.

I believe one of the possible sources of this problem is our illiteracy in biblical studies which allows us to be controlled, carried away by the waves of new doctrines. In fact, one of the Third Wave leaders even go as far as writing an article to encourage Christians to end the dominion of theologians for they form a stumbling block to his teachings. Sad.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi israel,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. It's precisely the same concern that prompted me to write this post.

I have (I believe you have too) heard too many people saying things like, "I dont agree with everything the pastor says, but what keeps me attending the church is because he preaches the right gospel."

The last time I heard that is from someone who's attending New Creation Church. The point is that, these people don't even know what is the Gospel and then think that what the pastor is preaching is in fact the Gospel. Hence this "biblical studies" post. I will post another one which of similar concern but will examine the issue from a more theological point of view.

What's Chuck Pierce's latest prophecy? Any website to read about it?

Derrick said...

Hi, interesting article. You said that "The new order of God, which is personified in Jesus, is directed to liberate the socially and religiously marginalized people in the society, and among each individual within it. It concerns social justice and the whole community at large."

I'm just curious where do the traditional "spiritual" interpretation of sin, God's wrath and redemption fall into this physical-social 'new order'?


Ignatius said...

A short,concise but clear presentation of what the gospel is. I would share this with my friends.

Steven Sim said...

I wrote this sometimes back:

Steven Sim

cybeRanger said...

The true gospel is found in
Romans 1:16-17

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Derrick,

The idea of sin, God's wrath, and redemption have to be understood within the life and ministry of Jesus which was responding to his surrounding at that time.

So, it is not an either a "spiritual" or a "physical-social" order, but it's a both/and situation.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Ignatius,

Great to hear that.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi cyberanger,

Thank you for pointing to that verse.
It is complementary to have the epistle to the Romans to be read along the other canonical biographies of Jesus.

Anders said...

Sze Zeng,

You write: “Historically the Christianity’s Gospel traces back to the royal edict announced by Jesus of Nazareth, and his disciples. And this edict can be retrieved through the four canonical texts and other letters written by the early followers of Jesus.”

Quote from Paqid Yirmeyahu:
From at least the 4th century C.E., the world has accepted the Church's definition of Jesus as their divine Son of God displacing (superseding) the Torah with himself as "grace," as described in the Christian NT. Thus, Jesus is intractably anti-Torah (antinomian) and contradictory to documented history: the Judaic context, which defines the historical Jew as a Torah-teaching (pro-Torah) Pharisee Ribi: Yehoshua. Playing games with these names changes neither character any more than switching the names of a rose and an onion would change the characteristics of either. Jesus is the intractably contradictory polar opposite of Ribi Yehoshua. Thus, the very phrase "Historical Jesus" is an intractable oxymoron, pre-ensuring that any quest for it is impossible.

If there are any real scholars in this field, let them acknowledge the historically-documented Judaic context that defines and constrains the very real, historical Jew who was a Torah-teaching Pharisee Ribi -- and let that, instead of Paul and post-135 C.E. Hellenist Roman fabrications, mold their conclusions about him and his teachings.

Instead of looking for the oxymoronic "Historical Jesus," start looking, for the first time, for "Historical Pharisee-Ribi Yehoshua." You can start your search, and find an enormous amount of information, at

Paqid Yirmeyahu (member of Mensa)
Paqid 16, The Netzarim, Ra'anana, Israel
Israeli Orthodox Jew (Teimani Baladi Dardai)
Advancing Logic as Halakhic Authority
Welcoming Jews & non-Jews

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Anders,

I don't think Jesus as an antinomian, neither do I think we can separate the works of Paul and the 12 apostles from their Christ. And Paul was not antinomian either. Both Jesus and Paul kept the law themselves, but when it comes to non-Jews, they are flexible. Hence to charge them as antinomian is saying too much or trying too hard to push them into a box.

SHWong said...

To typecast Jesus as antinomian is a rather narrow form of understanding Christianity. This is precisely what I think Joshua is arguing against the ultra-grace bunch.

A better understanding of Matthew would clarify this.

I highly recommend this:

Matthew 5:17:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Sivin Kit said...

Hyper-grace Gospel ala Robert Farrar Capon I can attend to. It's Pseudo-grace gospel ala Joseph Prince which is hmmm .... pseudo?

But this is a challenge to those who want to be faithful to "the Gospel" of Jesus, Paul and the reign of God in all it's fullness. HOw come we left a gap for this to happen?