Did Jesus come to bring ‘good news’?

I am teaching at New Wine this week, offering sessions each afternoon (from 2.30 to 3.30) in the ‘teaching/theology’ stream on the question of why Jesus came. The subject emerged from an article I wrote in December last year reflecting on the difference between two statements made by Christian leaders commenting on ‘why Jesus came’. In his Christmas sermon at Canterbury, Justin Welby chose to speak in the contemporary cultural register of liberation and human freedom:

In the manger is something completely different from all human strivings for freedom. The baby in the manger is a paradox from the first breath he draws in his mother’s arms to the last cry he utters on the cross. He is power seen in humility, and He offers freedom expressed in loving service.

It is this Christly paradox of freedom springing from the overflowing of love that leads to salvation, to the common good and human flourishing. There is no power in the universe stronger than God’s love and it is directed towards the liberation of human beings.

By contrast, just before Christmas, a tweet from Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York) had a different (but possibly related) focus, one that rather cuts across contemporary language:

After discussing the response to Keller’s tweet (and the extensive theological discussion on blogs), I noted the distinctiveness of the phrase in the gospels ‘I have come…’ with a purpose, either on the lips of Jesus himself, or on the lips of others talking about him. Simon Gathercole, in his book The Pre-existent Son, notes the significance of these sayings in the Synoptic gospels, and highlights the ten most significant sayings of this kind:

  • “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1.24)
  • “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matt 8.29)
  • “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1.38)
  • “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31–32)
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5.17)
  • “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10.34)
  • “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—” (Matt 10.35)
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
  • “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.10)

It is worth noting (in passing) that the language of Jesus ‘coming’ is often thought of as Johannine: in John’s gospel Jesus appears to have a very developed sense of his pre-existence, particularly when talking about ‘coming into this world’ (John 5.43, 8.14, 12.46, 14.28, 16.28, 18.37 and elsewhere). But noticing this kind of language in the Synoptics helps to close the gap with John, and remind us that the sense of Jesus’ transcendence and pre-existence was a very early feature of the first communities of Jesus-followers (see Phil 2), and is present in the Synoptics who do not ‘merely’ present a picture of a human Jesus.

For the New Wine teaching sessions, I have picked out five from the list of ten above to explore in more depth.

I have come to preach [the good news]

In this session (yesterday), we explored the programmatic importance of Mark’s opening summary of Jesus’ preaching:

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.15)

It is important here to note the sense of national and even cosmic significance to the language of ‘fulfilment’ (which we also find in the infancy narratives in Matthew). The language of the ‘kingdom of God’ takes up the theme of God’s covenant with his people, and the hope of restoration that God’s kingly presence will be re-established, so that the people will be ‘free to worship him, free from fear of our enemies’ (Luke 1.71–75). But the kingdom also signifies the restoration of the creation order, going all the way back to Genesis 1, where humanity is made in the image of God in order to share in his rule and sovereignty over the world. This kingdom has ‘drawn near’—it is close enough to touch—embodied in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. And the response Jesus invites is first of all one of ‘repentance’—not simply (as is often cited in sermon illustrations) to ‘think again’, derived from the origins of the word ‘meta-noia’, but to turn from sin. The meaning of words does not derive from their origin so much as their use, and in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX), the verb metanoeo translates the Hebrew term shut which means (literally and metaphorically) to turn.

Jesus then calls the first disciples from their occupations as fishermen to a new task of being fishers of men. But the parable of the kingdom in Matt 13 makes it clear that this is not a nice pun for a Sunday school children’s song, but an image of eschatological judgement as the new age dawns:

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The question, then, is in what sense this is ‘good news’?! From Jesus’ reading of Is 61 in his ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke 4, we can see that there is good news in his ministry, not least in the fact that his quotation omits the mention of the ‘day of vengeance of our God’ (Is 61.2). But in other parts of the gospel, there is a sense in which the eschatological judgement has been brought forward by the response to (and rejection of) Jesus’ ministry. Most people know John 3.16—but don’t always read on:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3.18–19)

Although preaching the message ‘God loves you!’ has become very popular in contemporary discussion, John Stevens highlights the rather different shape of the apostolic preaching in the Acts of the Apostles:

So what is the irreducible content of the gospel preaching of the apostles? A number of common features stand out in all of the major sermons recorded in Acts. These provide the measure by which we judge whether preaching is truly “gospel” preaching:

Jesus is the Risen Lord

You are guilty of sin

God is going to judge you

You need to repent

You will be forgiven and blessed

These elements of the apostolic preaching in Acts make up the irreducible content of gospel proclamation, and ought to provide the framework for authentic gospel preaching for as long as the “day of salvation” lasts. They summarise a rubric, or grammar, of the gospel, by which preaching ought to be assessed for its faithfulness to the one true gospel.

If we have a challenging message to share, what would make people listen? Only if we actually live out the love of God—only if we become the good news of God can we offer the challenging call to repent. Michael Gorman, in the latest Grove Biblical booklet, discussions this sense of our participation in the gospel and its implications for mission:

The church is called not merely to believe the gospel but also to become the gospel and thereby to advance the gospel; the church is a living exegesis of the gospel.

Becoming the gospel means embodying the missional practices of love, peacemaking, reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, non-violence and so on that correspond to what God has done in the Messiah. (Michael Gorman, Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ, Grove B 89)

The other four sessions will explore in more detail:

  • I have come to call sinners to repentance
  • I have come to destroy the works of the evil one
  • I have come to bring life in all its fulness
  • I have come to bring division and a sword.

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18 thoughts on “Did Jesus come to bring ‘good news’?”

  1. I think it may have been CS Lewis who commented that the gospel was ‘good news’ to the ancients because they had a sense of sin and needed some good news. These days we live in a culture that in general does not have a sense of sin and cannot see that Jesus is Good News. Instead, the gospel is presented more as a lifestyle choice.

  2. As religious epics go, Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, was one of the biggest and best loved.

    If we want to understand how the Good News can wend its way into people’s lives and effect transformation, the film’s disarming re-enactment of Jesus telling the Parable of the Prodigal Son is as good a start as any I know.

    This ‘southern softie’ has never been able to watch this excerpt without welling up: https://youtu.be/Dg-7W36HJb0

    The scene is set up with the dramatic licence of some of the apostles (particularly Peter, as played by James Farentino) being offended by the scandal of Jesus appointing Matthew to become one of the Twelve.

    At 4 minutes into the excerpt, Robert Powell’s monologue is a masterclass in pastoral reconciliation. It’s also an exemplar of how we might better participate in God’s mission to spread the Good News of reconciliation in Christ.

    • Wow – Just watched again – truly epic – I had forgotten just how powerful
      “Forgive me master, Im just a stupid man”

      Ian – I hope you are packed out – I am not there this week but my sons are and Im telling them to go to your seminars!!!!! every blessing

    • My personal favorite Jesus movie is “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”. Mel Gibson used it as inspiration for “The Passion”.
      Not entirely convinced that “evangel” really means “good news”. Seems to mean something more like “authoritative proclamation” , as distinct from the “glad tidings” that was Tyndale’s rendering.

      • Thanks Susan. I am not sure of the grounds of your criticism of ‘evangel’. I think it is both/and. Its Roman and Greek use supports both, and the etymology derives from ‘good’ and ‘message’.

  3. I like N.T.Wrights aphorism; that Jesus came to preach ‘Good News’, but too often the church has turned the Gospel simply into ‘Good Advice’.

  4. I would disagree strenuously with four of the cited ‘irreducible’ elements of the gospel, namely:
    You are guilty of sin
    God is going to judge you
    You need to repent
    You will be forgiven and blessed

    I would replace them with:
    We are guilty of sin;
    God is going to judge us;
    We need to repent;
    We will be forgiven and blessed

    It’s also worth remembering that the gospel is neither effected by ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’, nor by censorious emphasis on the guilt of the unconverted, but by ‘demonstration of the Spirit and in power’. (1 Cor. 2:4)

    In some cases, as Jesus did, we need to respond to the insight of non-believers with: ‘You’re not far from the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34)

    The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) didn’t need to be persuaded of her guilt as much as she needed to be persuaded about the good news of a better and more direct alternative to worship than the fiercely disputed liturgical externalisms and religiosity from which she was summarily excluded on account of her personal history.

    It’s a message that people still need today, but all of the focus on numerical growth KPIs (in usual Sunday attendance and worshipping communities) can drown it out.

    More’s the pity!

  5. Thanks, Chris and Matt – pointed.
    There is also the emphasis in the Pentecostal sermon: “save yourselves from this crooked generation”; the new church was a sharing community of friendships. This is easily lost on a Sunday attendance church model rather than modelling being ‘called out’ into an eternal family of reconstructed, redeemed relationships which begin now – that has to be good news.

  6. Thank you for this. I’ve gained much from all most of Kellers books and some of his online sermons and teaching. It would be good to see the tweet, to contextualise.
    One of his oft mentioned expressions is that Christ and Christianity is not about giving out good information or advice, but Good News.
    David S have you read Kellers : The Prodigal God, with the wounding but startling Good News, sting in the tail?

  7. Yes David,
    I’ve given some away to Christian a non Christian friends. He credits Edmund Clowney for the gist of it. I understand, but am not sure, that the book arises out of a series of sermons.
    Hope you’ve not read any of the “spoiler” reviews, but they may have whet your appetite as may Amazon’s book opening, inside look, even at the contents and chapter headings.
    I am not a Keller acolyte, but I’ve given away some of his books, and a friend who was raised in Catholicism, but is a non believer, surprisingly to me, is reading my book of his: “Making Sense of God.” before Reasons for God which I gave to my deceased friend and her husband, who was also raised in Catholicism by the Christian Brothers.
    And germane to the whole sexuality debate is his “Counterfeit God’s”. (Breach of First Commandment) Again it is well reviewed but there are, obviously, some critiques.
    You’re unlikey to agree with everything in them but I always find something to challenged and edify, but I’m not a theologian or scholar.
    Interestingly, in an interview on a Mere Fidelity podast, (including interviewers Andrew Wilson and Alastair Robert’s) Keller said he saw himself as a practitioner, not a theologian.
    That might put off some who visit Ian’s blog.

  8. Further to John Stevens irreducible elements of the gospel, I’d want to clarify:

    1. What is the sin we are guilty of (and is this comparable to the sin of Israel that Jesus pre-eminently addressed?)

    2. What did such repentance from sin involve within 1st century Israel and how does that compare with our situation in 21st century Europe?

    3. Is such repentance essentially collective or is it individual (or both?) – and to what end?

    Just asking!

    • 1. Principally idolatry; ‘they worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever’ (Rom. 1:25) We are predisposed to lavish worldly things (public status and career advancement, adorning our shrines of domestic comfort, rallying around our single-issue political causes) with the kind of worshipful deference, attention, sacrifice and honour that is God’s due.

      2. Restitution, reconciliation, chastity and open-hearted self-effacing generosity (Luke 19:8; Acts 2:44-46; 1 Pet. 4:3)

      For first-century Israel, the principal sin was treasonous self-preserving unbelief by which the nation (instead of resisting the eventual culmination of mortal enmity towards God’s Messiah) was complicit in his execution by the Romans.

      A survey of the book of Acts shows that the early Church’s involvement in conversion of Gentiles (the Philippian jailer, Cornelius, Sergius Paulus, etc.) was incidental and miraculous, rather than intentional.

      Those fleeing from Jerusalem’s persecution (Acts 7, 8) simply gossiped about what they had seen and heard and that had ultimately transformed them into disciples of Christ.

      The gospel was also amplified by the exemplary transformation of Gentiles from the licentious heathens towards chastity, generosity and unflinching commitment to live out the gospel in readiness for Christ’s re-appearance in glory : 1 Thess. 1:8-10.

      By comparison with this, in 21st century Europe, as motivation to repent, there is little emphasis on our accountability to God, or that God will judge our secret compromises with immorality when Christ re-appears.

      The modern formula for church growth is to preach repetitious ‘positive’ affirmations about everyone’s innately divine heritage as a means of dispelling negative, self-destructive thought patterns.

      For many churches, the gospel has been re-engineered to conform to the dictates for success of the all-affirming ‘self-help’ industry.

      3. There are individual and collective aspects of the call to repentance, the purpose being not only to right our relationship with God, but also to right our relationships in community with each other in readiness for the community of eternal life in Christ.

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