Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power of the Gospel, Part II

The meaning of gospel becomes even clearer when we consider that it was not just in ancient Israel that the heralding of glad tidings was associated with the coming of a king. Throughout the Roman world of the 1st century, euangelion (‘gospel’) was regularly used to refer to the birth, announcement, accession or victory of a great emperor. There is an inscription in Priene on the Asia Minor coast from 9 BC which refers to the birthday of Augustus. The inscription talks about this day as “the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…” In this context, as in Isaiah, glad tidings were again associated with the creation of a new world, an era of peace and justice made possible by the new emperor. Thus, the inscription refers to Augustus as “a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…”

Against this backdrop, it was no small thing for Paul to speak of “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s ministry was that of a royal herald announcing a new king. One can imagine how even the phrase “the gospel of Jesus Christ” must have functioned as a challenge to the emperor, especially when conjoined with the idea that Jesus had ushered in a new era of peace. From the Roman perspective, Christianity must have seemed like the great parody of the Roman state, while the Christian would have seen Rome as the great parody for which Christ’s kingdom was the reality. Both Christianity and Caesar believed they alone held the answer for bringing peace and justice to the world, both offered a sense of community, both had brought unity out of previously warring pluralities and both were intent on achieving worldwide dominion. Furthermore, both Christianity and the Roman state were religious orientations in the sense that they both presented a totalizing system to structure the whole of public life. Even in the provinces where the Julio-Claudian emperors were not actually heralded as divine, we may still speak of the Roman state as being ‘religious’ in the sense that it sought to structure all public life, thought and allegiance.

It is in this important respect that the religion of Rome differed from the countless mystery cults that existed throughout the empire. These cults offered various forms of private devotion to numerous gods and demigods, but they did not intrude into the sphere of public life and policy. It is precisely because of this that these cults could co-exist alongside the public, political religion of Rome and even be encouraged by certain emperors. It is crucial to understand that when Christianity came along, it did not present one more religious cult among an ever expanding array; rather, it offered a direct challenge to the imperial religion of the state. Christianity was another way of structuring one’s life publicly, with Jesus claiming total authority just as Caesar did. Jesus claimed total authority over everything (Mt. 28:18) and used this as the basis for commanding his disciples to convert, not just individuals, but entire nations (Mt. 28:19).

The early Christians even had the audacity to claim that Christ’s kingdom had authority over Caesar himself! Think what an earthquake it must have caused when Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome saying, “Yes, Caesar has authority, but only because it has been given to him by the higher authority of God,” to paraphrase Romans 13:1-2. Paul’s teaching that Caesar’s authority was derivative rather than ultimate would have been perceived as nothing less than fighting talk, a direct challenge to imperial pretensions.

In this, Paul followed the typical Jewish pattern. In the Old Testament, Jewish monotheism had always been used as a polemical doctrine over and against the false gods of paganism. Think of the way Moses set himself directly against the false gods of Egypt when he pronounced the ten plagues and how later, in his various addresses in Deuteronomy, Moses spoke against the gods of the Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, etc. Think of the way Isaiah prophesied against the Babylonian gods and how Elijah had set himself against Baal. We could go on and on, the point being that belief in the God of Israel functioned as a combative doctrine against all other false gods and idols. If this was true under the old covenant, how much more is it true in the new covenant now that Jesus’ kingship has been inaugurated?

In light of this backdrop, it is not surprising to find Roman emperors later making such a point of trying to force Christians to say, “Caesar is Lord.” They rightly recognized that Christianity was a challenge to the emperor’s pretentious claims and the ideology on which the state was based. Christianity challenged the state, not by advocating anarchy and civil disobedience, but by showing that our citizenship rests first and foremost with a higher empire. This higher empire is ruled by a King who demands that even Caesar bow the knee.

If the gospel had merely been the good news that there is a way to go to heaven when you die, or if Christianity had been promoted as a way to have a personal relationship with God, it would have been lost amidst an array of numerous other mystery cults and private devotional hobbies. The religion of Christ was so subversive precisely because it proclaimed that Jesus reigns on the earth now. Jesus’ Kingdom claimed to be the final say, not merely on private devotional matters, but on public, social and political affairs.

Frances Legge, in Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, writes that, "The Officials of the Roman Empire in time of persecution sought to force the Christians to sacrifice, not to any of the heathen gods, but to the Genius of the Emperor and the Fortune of the city of Rome; and at all times the Christians' refusal was looked upon not as a religious but as a political offence.

This brings us round to where we started, namely Isaiah’s glad tidings. Though these glad tidings involved many things from the return of God’s people from exile to the restoration of the natural order, but they hung together on a common thread: our God reigns. Although Israel had always believed that God was the ruler of the whole earth and not merely their own nation (Ps. 96:10), these prophecies spoke of a time when all nations would be required to acknowledge this fact because God “shall govern the nations on earth” (Ps. 67:4). They spoke of a time when all aspects of life, even the bells on horses, would be consecrated as holy unto the Lord (Zech. 14:20).

We have already seen that Jesus inaugurated this long awaited era. We now live in the period between inauguration and consummation when Christ’s kingship has to be progressively implemented. This means that piece by piece, bit by bit, institution by institution, nation by nation, person by person, all things need to now be reconciled to Christ. This is the vocation of the church, who are called to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19) in the task of bringing all things back into subjection to the Lord (2 Cor. 10:5). Like the Psalmist, we are to “say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns’” (Ps. 96:10). Naturally, this includes all the institutions, organizations and cultures that make up those nations. We are to bring the Lordship of Christ to bear on all the arts, the sciences, the economies, the politics, the music, the philosophy, the educational systems, and so on. In these and every other area, we are to proclaim that Jesus reigns by showing the implications of that reign in practice. Our message is, essentially, “Hey folks, you’re out of here. Your time is up because Jesus is in charge now.” Because Jesus is now the boss of every store, every restaurant, every university and every institution, we should be able to go into shops and say, “You’re not allowed to sell that video because Jesus owns this shop.” We should be able to go to theatres and say, “You’re not allowed to stage this play because Jesus owns this theatre.”

Jesus said that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Mt. 28:18) This means that there is no where on the earth or heaven that does not come under Jesus’ demand for complete allegiance. The glad tidings of Jesus’ kingship calls for a complete restructuring of society as we seek to bring all areas into subjection to Christ. If, on the other hand, we do not challenge every area of life and society with the doctrine of Christ, then we are giving the implicit message that there are some areas where Christ has not been exalted Lord. We are implying that there are some areas of the world or culture that Christ did not die to redeem.

We have already seen that, while the gospel was glad tidings for God’s people, it was bad tidings for Caesar. It was bad news for Caesar because the gospel proclaimed that there was another way of bringing peace and justice to the world that was superior to Caesar’s way. Similarly, in our world, the power of the gospel depends on it functioning as a subversive challenge to the false gods of our time. The New Testament writers could make this challenge boldly because they had confidence that Jesus had already won the victory. Christ’s resurrection was the guarantee of the success and worldwide dominion of His kingdom. What is left is simply the implementation of that victory.

The popular understanding of the gospel is greatly truncated through being made an approximation for a personal, individualistic experience that has little or no baring on public life. If that was the kind of gospel Paul preached, the makers of idols in Ephesus would never have found him to be a threat to their livelihood. Similarly, if we preach the gospel in all its original power, the makers of idols today will find us a threat to their livelihood.

To contact me, email largerhope @ tiscali.co.uk
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