First century Jews who became Christians in the first years of the Church experienced enormous pressure to renounce Christ and return to Judaism. A letter was written to encourage them by clarifying the nature of Christ, his ministry and what it meant for them. We know that work as the Letter to the Hebrews. The author painstakingly compared Jesus to the notable figures in the history of the Hebrew people, making the case that Jesus was better than every other source of information, provision and deliverance. The letter later helped the Church clarify the true nature of Jesus Christ so much so that today the second chapter of Hebrews is often read in churches and by many Christians at Christmas time.
That second chapter begins with these words: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1) Please note carefully both the exhortation to “pay much closer attention” to the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done (the Gospel), and the warning “lest we drift away from it.”
Even in an age in which folks were not bombarded by multi-media messages and over-stimulated by distractions and entertainment, it was possible to lose one’s grasp on even the most important teachings. That is one of the fundamental traits we all have in common: the tendency to forget what is important, to get distracted and revert to old patterns and concepts, to drift. Therefore, when we discover truth, things that truly matter in life and in death, we must exert and discipline ourselves to pay close and continued attention to them. Only with sustained attention does truth become established in our thinking and therefore our lives.
In the previous post we looked at the Apostle Paul’s summary statement of the Gospel in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)
As we said before, it appears that in this summary Paul was highlighting six elements to the Gospel. They are:
- Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
- His death was for the sins of those who believed in him
- His death was according to what had been prophesied
- He was buried
- He was raised on the third day
- He appeared to his chosen followers.
A lot of us might readily resonate with the phrase “Christ died for our sins.” In fact, among many of us who regard ourselves as conservative Christians, or Bible-believing Christians, we have tended to summarize the Gospel in this way: “Jesus died for us so that if we put our faith in him our sins will be forgiven and when we die we’ll go to heaven.”
So let me ask you: how does that sound to you? Is that how you understand the Gospel?
The real nature of the Gospel is that it is a beautiful and multi-faceted jewel. There is a richness and complexity to the Gospel and so we must be wary of over-reducing it.
Let’s look at a few other passages in which Paul and some of the other writers of the New Testament consider the Gospel. And as we look at these, consider the importance of paying “much closer attention” to what the New Testament has to say about the Gospel.
In Romans 3:23-24 Paul writes that through the gospel we are justified by God’s grace, and it is a gift and then he goes on to say that this is done through the redemption that is in Christ. “Redemption” would make anyone familiar with Greco-Roman society—so all the first century hearers and readers of Romans—it would make them think about the buying and selling of slaves, the transfer of a human being from slavery to freedom. That’s a much different nuance than justification and forgiveness (“Christ died for our sins”), isn’t it?
In Romans 5:10 Paul writes that before the gospel took effect we were God’s enemies, but now, through the death of Christ we are reconciled to God, and so we are saved by his life. Reconciliation might make us think of justification and forgiveness, but it’s a little different, isn’t it? It’s two parties who are at enmity or who have significant differences finding a way through those differences to a restored relationship.
In Acts 26:15-18, Luke tells us that when Paul was sharing his story and the Gospel he preached with King Agrippa and the Roman Governor Festus, Paul described how he had seen the Lord Jesus in his risen glory on the road to Damascus. Paul then quoted Jesus as saying to him:
“…I am sending you [to the Gentiles] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
As Paul is quoting Jesus instructing him regarding the Gospel he is to teach, we ought to pay close attention to what he says. Opening our eyes distinctly implies that when it comes to spiritual reality, we are naturally blind. We live in a spiritually darkened realm but the Gospel of Jesus brings light. We are captive to a spiritual power which is in opposition to God. Forgiveness is mentioned, but now forgiveness is linked to being part of a community and experiencing life-change.
Just in these few passages from Paul we see a great deal more to the Gospel than simply “Jesus died for us so that if we put our faith in him our sins will be forgiven and when we die we’ll go to heaven.” In the next post we’ll look at what some of the other New Testament sources tell us about the Gospel.
In the years following the departure of the Risen Christ, the new community he established sought to live in grateful response and useful partnership to His continued ministry. So they developed various practices which would help them discipline their lives to be obedient to His Spirit and faithful to His Gospel. At some point they began annually to mark the birth of Jesus, not primarily as an excuse to entertain others or fete themselves, but as an instrument of spiritual training. In some parts of the Church the Christmas season was assigned twelve days. Twelve days to ponder the Scriptures, to meet for worship, to reflect on the Nativity, to celebrate with others the wondrous effects of the coming of Christ.
Twelve days, and they didn’t have television or the Internet or mp3s or rapid transportation or Skype. They had simpler lifestyles, silence and time. And they still took Twelve Days. How much more, then, do we need to work hard at paying “much closer attention to what we have heard” about Jesus, who he is, what he has done?