What is the good news? (my talk for tomorrow morning)
”Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the Church. It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1928.
What is ‘the Christian Idea’? What is the Gospel?!
(my paraphrase of 1 Cor 15: 1-10)
Now friends I would like to remind you of the gospel that was preached to you, which you received, in the truth of which, you live, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the news that was preached —unless you believed in vain.
For this was delivered to you as of the utmost importance: that God’s Anointed One died for our sins in accordance with the Hebrew Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, then to his other closest followers. Then he, Jesus, appeared alive to more than five hundred people at one time, (most of whom were still around in about 50AD, though some had passed on.) Then he appeared to James (his sceptical brother), then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to Paul, who considered himself the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God we all are what we are, and his grace toward us is not in vain.
The gospel is good news with historical content, it has context and it has consequences which matter today. I’ll explore each of these things.
The gospel is good news, not a good fairy story, not a good feeling, not wishful thinking. The gospel is a factual story of good news. It’s not just a “human interest story”, like they use on the TV news, clips about animals or local celebrations to fill up the time, but instead an earth-shattering intervention of the transcendent God right into human history, deserving of global attention.
And yet, as also happened when these claims were first preached, this story is often rubbished in secular New Zealand. We may be told that it makes no real sense, it’s contradictory, it’s unethical, or in some ambiguous way that it’s anti-science, and it’s just a myth – or maybe, amongst the more moderate, that it’s a nice story that we can draw some abstract ideal from, but in and of itself it’s not really that important for the average New Zealander – the average family in Auckland, who just want, they think, to ‘progress in life’; to be educated, perhaps to have good kids, to live, work, eat, sleep, play, retire, die.
Paul summarises what this gospel is, reminding the Church in Corinth. He chooses to emphasise, to stress, that Jesus’ death is historical fact with saving effect and that we can know God was behind it all because it happened in line with how the Scriptures said it must – and because Jesus not only died, but was raised, publicly, from the dead. Yet, many don’t get it.
Russel Norman’s speech – excerpt – 20s – 1:52
This speech in its entirety is perhaps worth a listen if you want to look it up on youtube. We might come back to it next week too. But Dr Norman is wrong in at least one respect. It is not mere legend that claims that Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. In fact, the Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus writes (in his history of Roman Emperors written in 116AD), in a fascinating section on the Christians:
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus
He was no fan of Christianity, but the death of Jesus was a simple fact.
Similarly, the Jewish historian Josephus writes in about AD 94 of the death of Jesus in his section about Pilate. If you’d like more details, feel free to talk to me!
And yet, while it is clearly not correct to put all claims about Jesus in the ‘legendary’ box, we don’t even need to get details of Jesus’ life from secular historians in order to be able to trust them, for we have eyewitness and historical accounts right here in our bibles. We have the best preserved first century texts available to us in our hands right now – texts which have been shown to fit well into the time, culture and geography of first Century Judea.
The New Testament is not written by one person, but includes a range of sources on the death and resurrection of Jesus and these cohere well together in their main points, while differing in perspective and theological emphasis. The letter to the church in Corinth is from ~55 AD, written before the gospels were, and in this passage Paul is quoting tradition received from even earlier – this paragraph goes back in all its essential details to soon after the resurrection of Jesus.
The gospel which Paul writes about is good news with historical content.
The gospel outlined by Paul also has a wider context. It was not an aberration or a freak event. It is not, in fact, completely new; when Jesus preached and healed, when he died, when he rose from the dead, these were not out of kilter with God’s earlier interactions with his chosen people – they were, in fact, in accordance with the Scriptures.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, we see God’s Messiah, the Christ, his suffering, the significance of his death and his consequent eternal reign anticipated.
We’ve heard Isaiah 53 read and this has a number of important details; I’ll just reread verses 11 and 12
After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors, for he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.
Even right back in Genesis, we see a number of events that look forward to God’s future provision for his people. We can’t go through a lot, but the story in Genesis 22 is perhaps particularly important. Abraham takes his only, unique son, on a 3-day journey, expecting to have to sacrifice him there. He puts the wood for the sacrifice on Isaac’s back and they walk up the hill. God provides a ram, an adult male sheep, in the place of Isaac. Yet Abraham had told Isaac that a lamb would be given. This is I think hugely symbolic; for Israel, the lamb is perhaps provided at first and temporarily in the feast of the Passover, but ultimately the true lamb is provided when God gives his own perfectly obedient son, from the very heart of the Father, to cover the stain of our disobedience.
Ultimately, God chose Christ’s death as the final sacrifice, the most fitting way to cancel our sin once and for all – and to demonstrate His love. And as vindication of Jesus, to demonstrate that his claims are true, God raised him from the dead on the third day.
The good news has consequences – it is good! It brings salvation , ,  and is something on which to stand
The good news is not irrelevant today, it remains of the utmost importance. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing new about the 21st century that removes human need for the grace of God to fix the systematic problems in human existence. I’ve studied some science and economics and a bit of ethics and these things are great, our lives are better for them; but sometimes overstated claims are made for the potential of each to fix our problems – yet even at their highest, they’ve got nothing when compared to the reality of a man appointed by God and risen from the dead. Education can inform how we live and to some extent reform it, but only God brings life and really transforms. To exchange this gospel focus for some temporary materialistic dream is pointless. I’ll say more next week on the Christian hope.
The good news is not an abstract morality tale, like Aesop’s Fables. It’s not optional, a pick and mix bag to suit my lifestyle or yours. It’s fact and it cries out for full acknowledgement.
The gospel is not bare cold fact, but redemptive and transformative (saving fact) – in verse 9 we see that God shows His grace to sinners, including those who actively oppose God’s plan of salvation. The gospel is relevant because death and decay are real (apparently 150,000 deaths per day) and sin is too – human community is broken on multiple levels. The gospel is relevant because we, together and individually, are in desperate need of the grace of God.
So, the gospel is the good news about what Jesus has done – it’s about the facts of his death and life after death; it fits into the wider story of God’s actions, and it speaks to pressing needs in 2012.
Going back to the beginning with Bonhoeffer and verse two of our passage, our salvation is achieved through this ‘good news’ of Christ’s death and resurrection, not through our own achievements. The invitation to receive remains open today, by God’s grace, which is not given in vain. This is the good news.