One of the dangers each of us faces in living the Christian life in the modern world is that we become disconnected from the rest of the world or, more specifically, the whole Christian story can be seen as a story which somehow exists in a vacuum and is not really part of the wider human story. This is a serious problem and it causes us to miss so much of the context of the gospel and the incarnational aspect of the mission of Christ. By ‘incarnational’ I mean that Jesus not only became human, as the incarnate Son of God, His entire ministry and mission was incarnational, then and still now. He did not come and preach a message which was completely removed from the world at that time.
In my first stint in theological college many years ago, I was not too excited about Church History. I was just chomping at the bit to get through college and out into the world to preach the Gospel. So, I did not really show a lot of interest in the historical setting into which Jesus was born or the relevance and connection of the Church He birthed with what was happening in the world at that time. After spending thirty years in front line ministry, I went back to theological college to do some more study and I found my attitude to the historical roots of the Church had changed a lot and I really enjoyed Church History the next time around.
A lot of the historical and even the socio-political realities of the society within which God became man were very much a part of the development of the Church as we know it. Jesus didn’t just appear as a human being without any context of connection to the world around Him. He was completely entrenched in the world as it was at that time and so when He birthed the Church and invited us to embrace His purpose and His mission, He did so within the context and reality of the society as it was then. So much so, that most of the terms which we use today in the Church which we wrongly think were created by the Church or for the Church, are actually terms which already had a meaning and were commonly used with the Roman or Jewish world at the time.
So, I want to unpack some of that historical context today, not just because it is interesting, but because a fuller understanding of what the Gospel is and how we came to receive this Gospel, can and should have a direct impact on how you and I live and move and have our being in 2024. So let me take you back – way back almost 2,000 years.
Sometime in the first century around the year 30AD, a movement was started by a group of Jews who insisted that their rabbi, a man named Jesus from the region of Galilee in Israel, had risen from the dead after being crucified by the Roman Empire. They claimed that after His resurrection they had seen Him and had conversations with Him; ate meals with Him and then they said that He had ascended to heaven, and that someday He would return.
Now the world at this time was ruled by the Roman Empire, this giant, military global superpower. From England to India, the Roman Empire ruled the world and one of the most popular gods of the Roman Empire was the god Mithra. Mithra’s followers believed that Mithra had been born of a virgin that he was a mediator between God and humans, and that Mithra had ascended to heaven. Another popular religion at this time centred around the god Atlas, the followers of Atlas believe that Atlas had been born of a virgin, and each spring they gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Atlas, which takes us back to the Roman Empire, which was ruled by a succession of emperors called the Caesars.
The first one was Julius Caesar and when he died, a comet appeared in the sky and people said, well, of course, that’s Julius Caesar, the Son of God, ascending to the right hand of the gods in heaven. Soon after this, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Caesar Augustus came to power and Caesar Augustus believe that he was the Son of God, sent by the gods to Earth to bring about a universal reign of peace and prosperity. One of his popular propaganda slogans was, there is no other name under heaven, by which people can be saved than that of Caesar. Sound familiar? Caesar inaugurated a 12-day celebration of his birth, called the advent of Caesar. Another popular phrase at the time, people would literally greet each other on the street by saying, Caesar is Lord. Therefore, in the first century, to claim that your God had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, wasn’t such a big a deal. The claims of these first Christians weren’t really anything new. Everybody’s God had risen from the dead. What makes yours so special?
Well, let’s go deeper. These first Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus had implications for the entire universe. Their tradition had taught them, that the world is broken and desperately in need of repair and that at some point in the future, God was going to put it all back together. Now for them, this future restoration had nothing to do with leaving this world. It was all about the restoration, the renewing and the reclaiming of this world. So, they saw in Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of this universe-wide movement, to put it all back together.
Of course, this brought them into direct conflict with the Roman Empire, because remember for the Caesars, it was all about Caesar’s belief that he was making a new and better world through his power, through his armies and through his wealth. And so, when Caesar wanted to send out a message to let everybody know of his latest military conquest, or his latest accomplishments, he would send out a royal pronouncement, telling the masses of his latest achievements. These pronouncements were called, in the Greek language, euangelion. This euangelion was called a gospel which meant good news. The English equivalent of euangelion is evangelical.
Now these first Christians believed very passionately that the world was not made better through military power or political coercion, and this gospel they were preaching and living, had nothing to do with using political might to force people to live according to your laws for them. This gospel was about serving the world, especially those on the underside of the Empire. For them, it was about serving, not ruling. And so, they took this empire propaganda term gospel, and they used it to describe this new world that Jesus and His followers were building right under the nose of the Empire … because their way, the way of Jesus, was totally opposed to the way of Rome.
Therefore, when we read accounts of how these Christ-followers lived, we read that they shared their possessions; they fed the hungry; and they carried each other’s burdens. That’s because the gospel for them was a whole way of life, a whole new world right in the midst of this world.
Now Caesar had a particular word that was used for a city, a village or a province, that worshipped Caesar as the Son of God and acknowledged Caesar as Lord. Caesar would conquer with his armies a new land, and then demand that all of the people there confess, Caesar is Lord. If people didn’t, they were crucified, as a way of showing everybody else what happens when you refuse to submit to the power of the Empire. But if a group people did submit; if a city, village or a region did acknowledge and worship Caesar as the Son of God, as Lord, if they did accept Caesar as their saviour, then their area became a worship centre of the Caesar, and these worshipping centres were called, in the Greek language, ecclesia. So, these first Christians took this empire propaganda term ecclesia and they used it to describe their gatherings – the Church – where they confessed, Jesus is Lord.
Of course, the way they were living and the things they believed raised all sorts of questions for those around them. Who do you believe? Caesar, who thinks that a new world, a better world is made through brute military and political power by forcing people to do what he says … or Jesus … Who invites you to make a new and better world through loving acts of compassion and generosity? Caesar, who killed Jesus on an execution stake … or God who raised Jesus from the dead? Whose way do you think is better? Who do you think is Lord, Jesus Christ or Caesar? Whose kingdom do you find more compelling?
For these followers of Jesus, the gospel was an invitation to a whole new way of life, because they had this profoundly mystical understanding of what they were doing with their lives, they actually called themselves the body of Christ. They believed that in their communities, in these loving, compassionate, generous, peace-loving communities, they believed that Jesus was present in a way that went way beyond mere words.
So, they invited people to join them, to eat with them, to celebrate with them, to suffer with them, and then they asked them after they’ve seen the hungry fed, the lonely loved, and the poor honoured, they’d ask people, who do you think is Lord? Who is making this a better world, Caesar or Jesus?
They believed that the Church was a living, breathing display of a whole new world which God was bringing about right here, right now. These people were firmly rooted in reality. They didn’t have to sprout about how they were right and everybody else was wrong, because there was something going on inside of them, which was so powerful, so tangible, that you couldn’t help but ask them questions. You were dying to know why they were the way they were. You wanted them to explain the reason for the hope that’s within them. It’s because when you’re around people like this, you have the sense that you’ve in some way been with Jesus … and that is Church.
This group of people who by their compassion, their generosity, the grace that they extend and to others, you find yourself believing when you’re around them, that God hasn’t given up on the world. That’s the gospel, that’s the good news: God hasn’t given up on the world; the tomb is empty, and a giant resurrection rescue is underway which you and I can be a part of. So, you see, this has a deeply personal dimension.
Jesus is saving me; He’s saving me from all my sins; from all my mistakes; from all my pride; from all my indifference to the suffering of the world around me; from all my cynicism and despair. The brokenness I see in the world around me is true of my own soul. So, Jesus is rescuing me, moment by moment, day by day, because God wants to put it all back together … you, me, the whole world.
So, He starts deep inside each of us with our awareness that we need help, that we need saving, that we need rescuing. Then He begins to show us step by step what it looks like to put flesh and blood on this gospel – because we all fall short – that’s the beautiful part. Broken, flawed, vulnerable people like you and me, are invited to be the hands and feet of Jesus Who loves us exactly as we are and yet loves us way too much to let us stay that way.
I believe because I see, I see the resurrection all around me. Let me ask you a confronting question: If people only had your life to go by, and they were asked the question, Has Jesus risen from the dead? How would they answer? May you be a ‘yes’ to that question, Has Jesus risen from the dead? … and may you come to see, may you come to understand that you are the good news. You are the Gospel.
If you turn to the title pages in the beginning of the New Testament, you will see ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’ and ‘The Gospel according to Mark’ and the Gospel according to Luke’ and ‘The Gospel according to John.’ Each account is different. Yet, each account gives the story of the life and ministry of Jesus as it impacted Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each one gives his personal account, under the direction of the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit Who resides within us today and guides us.
So, what is the gospel according to you? Have you stopped to realise that what you believe determines who you are? The only gospel many people will ever see or read is what they encounter in you and through you. Therefore, it is really important that you live in a way that always points people to Jesus. The gospel according to you is every bit as powerful as the gospel according to Matthew, or Luke or any of those early disciples whom God used to turn the whole world upside down.
The great majority of people with whom you come in contact each day of your life, are sadly not reading Matthew’s gospel or Mark’s gospel or Luke’s gospel or John’s gospel. But they are all reading your gospel. Every day they encounter the gospel according to you. Every word you speak; every action you take and don’t take; every lifestyle choice you make each day is all being read by your family, your friends, your neighbours and everyone with whom you come in contact. Are they compelled to say Jesus is Lord because of the gospel according to you? The only reason you and I still live and breathe and walk this earth is so that the people around us each day will turn to Jesus because of the gospel they encounter in us.
Let those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to us this day.