What is the Gospel?
The gospel is good news. It is proclamation that something wonderful has happened and everything has changed. While all Christians agree that the gospel is exceedingly good news, not all define its message the same way. I think the gospel is broad in its implications. Some people emphasize one aspect of God’s glorious story and others another. Every viewpoint has something to add. Yet, in the words that follow I hope to challenge us to stretch our understanding of God’s wonderful news. God’s word is infinite. That means there is always more to see and always more to tell.
I have been the pastor of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas for 33 years. I say I am a pastor, but Thorncrown has no congregation. We do everything a regular church does such as services, weddings, memorial services, and an occasional baptism, but we see different faces every time we open our doors. Since the chapel opened in 1985, we have had over seven million visitors.
In the back of our building is a chair. Anybody who has ever worked at Thorncrown is well acquainted with it. We have all spent countless hours in that chair greeting and ministering to our guests. One day, while I was on duty, a rather large fellow approached me. He put one hand on one arm of my chair and the other on the other arm. I had no place to go. His face kept getting closer and closer to mine, and I was retreating as much as I could. In a very deep and forceful voice he said, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” My first thought was that if he got any closer, he would not have to wait until night. He might scare me to death right then and there. I was finally able to persuade him that I was indeed saved, but it took some doing. He wanted to be very sure heaven was my destination.
To many, when they hear the word “gospel,” they think not about this life but about the afterlife. Jesus died and rose from the grave, so we can go to heaven when we die. While the scriptures say heaven is real, it would be very hard to say it was the focus of the gospel Jesus and the apostles preached. Jesus’s good news was that the Kingdom of God was coming to earth. His message was far more focused on this life than the afterlife. The same can be said of the apostles.
In our day, we tend to make sharp distinctions between heaven and earth. We picture God up in heaven and us down on earth. Yet, this is not the image we see in the scriptures. The gospels proclaim that through Christ the realm of God (the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven) was coming to earth. Paul said that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places and that our citizenship is in heaven. These are present realities not just reserved for the afterlife.
We see such an understanding of the heavenly realm in the Old Testament temple. Beyond the veil in the Holiest of Holies was the place where heaven and earth became one. There the infinite and the finite gloriously came together. Paul called us the New Covenant temple of God. Our lives are the place where heaven and earth become one. In us the glory of God resides, so that makes our lives a heavenly place. I can think of no better news for this life, and it is a glory that extends to the afterlife and forever.
There are many in our day who recognize that God’s good news is not just for someday but for today. God is not far away in an unreachable heaven. He is here with us and very active in our lives. Some take this focus when sharing the gospel. A very popular evangelistic tract is called The Four Spiritual Laws. The very first law it presents is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I agree whole heartedly with the statement, but I think it can also be misleading. Jesus never promised us a wonderful life. He promised to be our life.
No doubt when many in Jesus’s day heard that the kingdom of God was coming, they thought of the Old Covenant earthly kingdom. They believed Jesus, who was their Savior/King, would take up the sword and destroy the Romans. After all, isn’t that how God dealt with intruding pagans in the past? He raised up a deliver who put the foreigners in their place and brought prosperity to the faithful. Many people thought that Jesus would soon get with God’s regular program.
Some people in our day have similar expectations of our Messiah. We call it the prosperity gospel. Its preachers proclaim that Christ will rid us of our Romans whoever or whatever they might be. He will remove that which oppresses us and give us a life to our liking.
Because this understanding of the gospel focuses on finite blessings, it usually also focuses on miracles. After all, Jesus did many miracles. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and miraculously provided for people’s needs. Many people believe that He is no different now than He was then. He still works wonders in our lives.
Instinctively, we see something right with this perspective. God does love us, and He is most capable of blessing us miraculously or otherwise. Yet, our heart tells us that something is also wrong with the prosperity gospel.
The miracles Jesus performed were known as signs. Signs are not ends in themselves. They point to something. About ten miles from my home town, Eureka Springs, there is a sign that says “Eureka Springs 10” If I stopped at that sign and started rejoicing that I had arrived, you would think that I didn’t quite get the point. Miracles deal with finite things, but the point of the gospel is the infinite. Jesus’s miracles were things you could see with your eyes, but they pointed to the fact that something unseen was coming and already present. The realm of God had come.
The New Covenant speaks of material blessings, but they are only a secondary blessing. Material blessing was the focus of blessing in the Old Covenant (Deuteronomy 28, Leviticus 26). To call material prosperity the primary blessing of the New Covenant is simply wrong. Jesus stressed the idea of treasure in heaven much more than He did earthly treasure. This was not just rewards you get when you die. It was treasure of a heavenly nature. Paul called such blessings spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3).
More than anything, Jesus came to give us Himself. He came to give us God. Jesus promised abundant life in John, but He defined that life as Himself (John 14:6). Abundant life is a Person, not a thing or a favorable circumstance. At the cross Jesus took our separateness from God upon Himself and gave us His relationship with the Father in return. When His work was finished, God tore the veil in the Holiest of Holies. This was the end of separateness. The finite and the infinite had become one.
In a way, the good news of the gospel is that through Christ, God has come to be with us. As Paul said in Romans 6:11, we are dead to sin and alive to God. Christ has defeated sin and death, and sin no longer has power over us.
When we hear such things, we might wonder how successful Jesus was in His mission, especially if we don’t seem to be able to overcome our weaknesses. Jesus may have defeated sin, but at times we feel very defeated. At such times, it is important to understand the essence of Christ’s victory.
We see a vivid illustration of the power of sin in the Old Covenant temple. God resided in the Holiest of Holies. However, the holy was separate and distinct from the unholy. The veil at the entrance to the most holy place illustrated and reinforced this separation. Josephus, the first century historian, recorded that the veil was about four inches thick and seventy-five feet tall. On it was embroidered two massive cherubim with flaming swords. These images were not there to welcome people into God’s presence. They were there to say “Stay out!” This was the power of sin. It kept finite human beings separate from the infinite God.
Sin’s defeat does not mean that we no longer sin. It means that sin can no longer keep the finite and the infinite separate and distinct. God made for Himself a new temple, a new Holiest of Holies, and that dwelling is us. The arrival of God transforms us. The old order said that we must change for God to accept us, even though this change was impossible. The finite can never achieve the infinite. The new order says God has accepted us, and His great gift changes who we are. This is astonishingly good news. In Christ, the futility of being under the Law was over. The promised rest had arrived.
To Paul, God’s victory meant that the infinite defined the finite. In Ephesians two we read about a change of identity. We once were the children of wrath, but now we are heirs of God’s kindness. Yet, how did this happen? Paul’s explanation mentions nothing about our deeds. He only speaks of Christ’s victory. How do you enter the endless kindness of God? You go there together with Christ. Who He is and what He has done defines who we are.
In this we can see why the kingdom of God is wonderfully different than the world. It is not just a matter of behavior. We might think that the dividing line is good and evil; the kingdom is good and the world is bad. However, the difference between the two goes much deeper. The world exalts the finite above the infinite, self above God, and the creation above the Creator. In the world’s man-centered religion our finite deeds define who we are and who God is in our lives. Our good gives us God, and our evil takes Him away. This is astonishing arrogance. This why we receive the good news at the cost of our pride. The kingdom of God’s arrival is the end of the glory of self and the beginning of the glory of God. This is the essence of the reign of Christ in us. His reign is not just the end of our evil. It is the end of our self-righteousness.
To John, God’s victory meant that the infinite completes the finite. Finite things, no matter how wonderful, can never make us whole. This is part of the futility of the creation when it is distinct from the Creator. God created us like an empty cup that needs to be filled. When we are separate from God, we turn to the finite creation for fulfillment. Since the creation alone is insufficient, this leaves us trapped in lust, always needing more and never having enough. Our soul thirsts again and again, and there is no rest.
The woman at the well sought completion, going from husband to husband, but her quest only left her in shame. Jesus’s good news was that her futility was over. The Messiah, the one who would make the creation and the Creator one again, stood before her. All she had to do was to see and receive who He was. This is all any of us must do to end our captivity.
The good news of the gospel is that heaven awaits us someday, but the news is even better than that. The good news is that God is going to bless our lives with many good things, but the news is even better than that. The essence of the gospel is that through Christ we are no longer alone. He has banished our separateness and the distinctions between the infinite and the finite. We never need be without God in this life or the next.
The gospel is not something we receive and file away for someday. It is something we live in every day. God has given a new home, and our dwelling is not just a finite world that is to our liking. We dwell in the infinite. Christ is our home, and He has made His home in us.