September 6, 2020 – Essentials of the Way 1: The Gospel
Essentials 1 – The Gospel of the Kingdom
We are starting a sermon series this week on the essentials of Christianity, and what kind of church we want to be. This is basically going to be a membership course for everyone currently involved in the plant. After we start getting new people, we will have this as a course over the course of 5 weeks, similar to what you might have gone through at Incarnation, or what we did in Raleigh, or what many of our other churches do. If you’ve been through this at Incarnation, especially recently, I just ask you to stick with this and don’t tune it out. So the 5 sermons are Gospel, Worship, Discipleship, Community, and Missions. And we start this week with the foundational one, the one on which everything else is based, the Gospel.
If you’re a Christian, you hear the word “Gospel” a lot. We want to be a Gospel-centered church. The Bible tells us to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel.
But what is “the Gospel”? If you ask a nonchristian that question, they probably won’t know the answer. Some might, but many would not. And for those that would, they’d probably say some version of “Jesus wants us to love one another,” which ironically isn’t the Gospel, that’s the Law. Or they might say some version of “You all think that Jesus died on a cross to pay for sins.” And it’s possible, sometimes, in our own conception of it, to just reduce “the Gospel” to “Jesus died for my sins.” Now, don’t get me wrong – he DID. That’s TRUE, and that’s incredible, and the whole world needs to hear this. It’s GOOD NEWS. But that’s not the whole Gospel. How do I know? From Matthew’s own account of Jesus’ actions here on earth. We just heard it – when he was just starting his earthly ministry, long before he had died, long before he was resurrected, Matthew tells us that Jesus began going about the countryside preaching the Gospel of God, or the Gospel of the Kingdom. So what was he SAYING? Was he saying, “Hey, I’m going to die, and then I’m going to be resurrected, and because of this everyone now has access to God through my blood?” Probably not, since for most of the rest of the Gospel he was directing his disciples to NOT tell anyone who he really was.
He was preaching “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” So what does that mean? I think “The Gospel of the Kingdom” is a really good phrase for us to latch onto. So What WAS this Good News, this Gospel that Jesus was himself preaching, and then told his followers to go and preach? It’s a way bigger and more cohesive story than just “Jesus died for my sins.” And the Gospel of the Kingdom takes the whole Bible to tell it. I want to look at 4 phases of the Gospel story and its implications.
Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” This alone was radical news at the time it was written. Some cultures believe that the universe has always existed. Some believe that the world was created by competing gods fighting. Some believe that the world itself IS God. But the Bible tells us that God exists, that he is separate from his creation, and that he created everything that exists. And as we go through the creation story we keep hearing over and over that it was good, that it was good, and that once creation had been completed and God had created his image bearers, Adam and Eve, to be the guardians and stewards of this garden temple, we see that God declares everything VERY good. So that’s our first gospel component – God created his kingdom, and it was good. There is no aspect of God’s creation that is beyond his reach. Nothing happens that surprises him.
There’s no good analogy in human experience to compare to literally creating something out of nothing, to calling into being something which physically did not previously exist in any form. Any kind of metaphor you use breaks down. God created this world to be the temple of his presence that was to cover the earth. That was Adam and Eve’s mandate – fill the earth and rule over it. Spread this garden temple out to the ends of the earth. The whole world was to be the holy of holies, the rich dwelling place of the presence of God.
I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t think we can hear it enough in these times – God is in control of his creation. In times of pandemic and economic turmoil, God is in control. In times of racial unrest, of protest, of violence, God is in control of his creation. And although it might not seem it, this IS part of the Gospel message. God’s plan of redemption and restoration was not a Plan B after something unforeseen happened. And it’s all part of the Gospel that is the centrality of our life together.
Adam sinned, and so all of us sinned through Adam. Some people don’t like to hear this – why does the fact that Adam sinned mean that all of us are born sinners? You can come at this one of a few ways and still be within the bounds of historic Christianity – either Adam sinned and so the world was now “fallen” and so that fall affected all things, including everything born afterwards, which is why we are all born sinful. OR, Adam sinned and so therefore, because the Bible talks a lot about something that we call “federal headship,” because Adam our ancestor sinned, we as the descendants of Adam are also born sinful. But those are both kind of two ways of saying the same thing, and they both get you to the same place – this world is beautiful, but this world is broken. People are beautiful, but people are broken. I have a fair amount of atheist friends who are kind of followers, whether they know it or not, of people like the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that human nature was essentially good, but that sometimes we do bad things. This requires a degree of faith that I am genuinely envious of. Even though people are not as bad as they could be all hours of the day, there is still an undercurrent or an element of sinfulness in all of our actions.
Because God does not grade on a curve. God does not weigh your good deeds against your bad ones and as long as the good outweighs the bad, you’re good as far as he’s concerned. That’s not how the God that we see revealed in scripture works. God made a perfect world and God is perfect and God’s standard is perfection. Which sounds harsh. But in a world before the fall, in a world that was free of sin, why shouldn’t he expect his image-bearers to behave perfectly?
But no, because of original sin, because Adam and Eve sought to make themselves the center of worship instead of God, all creation fell. We hear that in our Genesis reading. “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” So even creation itself is affected by mankind’s fall into sin. So now roses have thorns and work is tiring. Every aspect of this world is touched and twisted by sin. It needs a redeemer. It needs Good News.
Now so far, we’ve been talking about Gospel, but only using the Old Testament. When do we get to the Gospel part of the Gospel? Well, in all 4 gospels, the writers constantly refer back to the Old Testament. In their letters to the new church, the apostles refer back to the Old Testament, to the creation of the world, to the fall of Adam, to the calling of God’s people, to the trials and tribulations of God’s chosen people constantly turning away from God, and to the promise of the Christ. Why do they keep looking backward to the Old Testament? Why not just talk about what’s next? Because every good news needs a context. If I came up to you with a look of joy on my face and simply said, “We won!” That might sound… positive? But it would bring with it a bunch of questions. “Who are we? Who are they? What did we win? What were we playing at or fighting over? What does winning mean?” Good news outside of a context is kind of meaningless. If you see a news headline that just says, “They did it!” Ok great. But if you read a headline that says, “Scientists at Sloan Kettering have discovered the cure for cancer,” well that’s very good news.
And so, the story of scripture is that, even back in the Garden, God was starting to unveil his plan for redemption. He says in Genesis 2, in a passage called the “Protoevangelion,” or the “first gospel,” that the offspring (singular) of the woman will defeat the offspring of the serpent. That although the serpent will bruise his heel, which can be a serious wound but not a fatal one, the offspring of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, which is a final and killing blow. This is the earliest glimpse that we have of what Jesus will do.
And even in our Genesis passage, we see God being gracious to his people, we see hints of the sacrifice that covers sin. It says, “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” So even though they had sinned, even though they had gone against the explicit commands of God, God still provides for them. They now knew that they were naked, and they were ashedmed of their nakedness, so they had sewn fig leaves together to cover themselves. But God provided even more for them. He could have taken even the fig leaves away and said, “You go figure it out. You wanted that fruit so bad, so you just deal with it.” But he was gracious to them even in their sin. And yes, he still expelled them from the garden, because the garden was the holy of holies, the dwelling place of God. This theme is picked up over and over again throughout the ceremonial laws, stories about God’s people being in his presence… we cannot enter into the presence of God in a sinful state. We must be pure and sanctified. And this is still true today! We cannot enter into the presence of God unless we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ and covered in his righteousness. So even as God says, “You cannot be trusted to be priests in my temple. You have disqualified yourself and you gotta go,” even as he shows them the door, he cares for them and provides for them and meets them in their sinful state. But because of Adam’s sin, all of creation is groaning for redemption.
Throughout the Bible, it’s promised. There are hints and glimpses of it – a messiah to redeem God’s people. A savior to restore the whole world. God putting death to death and bringing his people to himself, fully and completely.
And it all happens in the person of Jesus. So how is this a Gospel? How is the arrival of Jesus good, and how is it news?
With Jesus, the new creation was launched into this old, tired, evil-infested, death-infused world.
With Jesus, God is establishing his kingdom, his rule of justice and peace. He is restoring shalom.
With Jesus, God is bringing this world back into step with the purpose for which it was made.
And if Jesus was not preaching about his own upcoming death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, what might he have been preaching about when Matthew says that Jesus went about proclaiming “The Gospel of the Kingdom”?
Restoration. The whole world being healed, transformed, redeemed, restored.
It had been promised, and it was now beginning in Jesus. That’s the Gospel. It’s so much bigger than just my individual forgiveness. But don’t get me wrong – restoration of God’s image bearers is at the CENTER of the Gospel, but it’s not nearly the SUM of the Gospel. If the world fell into disorder through Adam’s sinning, then our redemption and salvation must be at the center of the world’s redemption. But brothers and sister, what Jesus came to do, what Jesus is doing through his church right now, and what Jesus will eventually do when he returns again is COSMIC. It’s why the passage is Colossians is so helpful to reflect on. Yes, the Cross that Jesus hung on was a punishment for the sins of all of God’s people. Yes, it was MY sin that held him there, until all that God had ordained had been accomplished. But the death and resurrection of Jesus was also, as NT Wright called it, The Day the Revolution Began. The beginning of the reclamation project, the restoring of all things. The mouth of the empty tomb was the center of a new garden of Eden that would start to spread over the face of the whole earth, the same way that Adam and Eve were supposed to do.
The arrival of the king is good news. The arrival of Jesus, the perfect sinless man, is definitely good, and definitely news. Because he was a different kind of king – a servant, one who humbled himself, sacrificing himself so that we could live.
Resurrected bodies in a renewed creation, in fellowship with God in the flesh, forever. Getting to heaven is not the goal of the Christian life; it never has been. Yes, those who die in the Lord are with God right now, in some way that we do not totally understand. Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But part of the Gospel story that the Bible tells is not that we go up to heaven but that heaven comes down to earth, everything is made new and perfect again, and we will feast with God forever. This is definitely good, and it is certainly news. It’s part of the Gospel that the Old Testament hinted at and predicted, it’s part of the Gospel that Jesus preached – Jesus talked about the end times more than everyone else in the Bible combined – and it’s part of the Gospel that Paul wrote about and planted churches about, and it’s part of the Gospel that John saw in his vision of apocalypse, of the curtain being pulled back from reality and seeing how Jesus is the reining king over his creation.
There is nothing more central to who we are as Christians, to who we are as a church, to who we are as a community in fellowship with one another and on mission for our king, there is NOTHING more essential to us than the Gospel. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. That’s the Gospel story. It’s Good News at all times for Christians, and it’s Good News at all times for nonchristians. We tell ourselves the story all the time, because we need it all the time. And we need to tell others too, because they need it more than they need anything else in the world.