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:
Jesus didn't come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017
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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