The Rubbery Gospel
Each generation of the church has to re-state Christ’s message in terms its generation understands. Many Christians fear any deviation from the gospel they received is heresy. Didn’t Paul say anyone who proclaimed a different gospel to the one he proclaimed is accursed (Galatians 1:8)? Churches issue statements of faith to define and fix doctrine. The church is a bastion for Christ’s teaching. Its message cannot change.
Preaching that focuses on human sinfulness and the need for God‘s forgiveness or else sinners will be deservedly destroyed in hell sounds threatening to today’s ears. The good news should be a joyful proclamation in every generation. It is flexible, not in its changeless essence, but in its expression. The gospel is rubbery, not like deceptive rubbery figures, but as the flexible vehicle conveying unchangeable truth. Scripture’s authors moulded the gospel to meet the sensitivities of their audience. They used contemporary stories and metaphors to explain God’s ways. Jesus, himself, preached a message distinct from that of other people in the Bible. Likewise, today’s church has the freedom to announce good news in fresh words.
The Gospel Proclaimed by Jesus
Jesus preached the gospel from the start of his public ministry. His teaching used parables and metaphors. Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life, the living water, the gate and the good shepherd. He proclaimed the kingdom of God (Matthew substitutes “kingdom of heaven” our of sensitivity to a Jewish readership): ‘From that time Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’ (Matt 4:17). And yet, Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) does not mention “the kingdom of God”. Jesus introduced the phrase, from his understanding of Scripture. In the Bible, the terms kingdom and nation are sometimes symbolic for God’s people. In God’s kingdom, God is the king. When Israel wanted a human king like the other nations, God took their rejection personally: ‘and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”’ (1 Sam 8:7, NRSV).
Jesus saw himself in Nathan’s prophecy to David about establishing a kingdom.
your [David’s] days are fulfilled and you lie down with your
ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come
forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He
shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of
his kingdom forever. 14 I
will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits
iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with
blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But
I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul,
whom I put away from before you. 16 Your
house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your
throne shall be established forever.”
(2 Sam 7:12-16).
So, the gospel Jesus proclaimed using the kingdom of God metaphor derives from the promises of God found in the Old Testament. Did Jesus’ followers also feel free to announce the gospel in their own way?
The Gospel Proclaimed by Jesus’ Followers
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, gave a long list of things he “handed on” to them to believe (1 Cor 15:3-11). Jesus’ brother, James, saw true religion in the care of those in distress and in the purity of life (Jas 1:27). If we try to define the gospel too rigidly by such metaphors, we might miss the truth they express. What is the essence of this rubbery gospel?
Paul argued that the important thing for God was not your doing good works but your believing what you heard (Gal 3:2-5). This is not mere acceptance of information. Jesus preached about accepting the gospel as entering the Kingdom of God. Speaking out the gospel itself is an act of faith, not mere words for acceptance, but an impartation of one’s friendship with God to others.
To the Galatian church (Gal 3:8), Paul wrote that Scripture declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham. So, Paul identified God’s covenant with Abraham (another metaphor) with the gospel. He referred to the covenant as the promise of God (Gal 3:16-18, 29) and identified this with the gospel. Jesus, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, was referring to God’s covenant to lead his people. Likewise, Peter, in presenting the gospel, called Christians “a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). So, Scripture presents the Christian message in a variety of ways.
The Covenant of God
God used the metaphor
of a covenant in revealing his intentions to Abraham.
Genesis 17:1-7 records God making this covenant with Abraham.
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Gen 17:1-7).
The covenant of God is summarised in the phrase “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (e.g. Jer 31:33). Scripture mentions this phrase over thirty times and refers to it many more times. It is a key concept in understanding Christianity.
The “Ark of the Covenant” was so-called because the Levites placed the book of the law beside it (Deut 31:26). God ordained to meet with Moses from the Ark’s top, called the mercy seat (Exod 25:22). Inside the Ark, which was essentially a box, were Arron’s rod, a pot of manna, and the ten commandments written on stone tablets (Heb 9:4-5). These were reminders of God’s presence with his people. By the time of Solomon’s Temple, the Ark only contained the ten commandments (1 Kings 8:9). But the Ark was precious to Israel because of the covenant and not as a housing for religious relics.
In the last pages of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John alludes to the consummation of God’s covenant.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; … 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Rev 21:3 & 7)
God’s promise to bless the faithful with his presence is at the heart of the gospel. It provides a frame of reference to understand Scripture. The covenant of God declares a gospel of relationship with God. The individual’s relationship with God is crucial, but not every relationship is positive. However, a relationship of friendship is positive and gives us a point of contact with postmodern culture.
Friends with God
Scripture describes our relationship with God as Him being our father, bridegroom, covenant partner, shepherd, king, and friend. The concept of friendship is particularly useful at engaging with people of today in a biblical and relevant way. In Scripture, we read that Moses spoke with God in the tent of meeting as friends.
Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; (Exod 33:11a).
Abraham “was called a friend of God” (Jas 2:23; 2 Chron 20:7). But a friendship with God is not only for Moses or Abraham but everyone included under God’s covenant.
The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them. (Psalm 25:14).
Jesus related to people of faith as friends. When the paralytic‘s friends couldn’t get him through the crowd to Jesus, they lowered him down through the roof of Jesus’ house. Their faith impressed Jesus.
When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:20)
Jesus healed the paralytic, but it is noteworthy that first he addressed him as “friend” and forgave his sins, which upset the religious leaders. To them, Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19). Jesus even called Judas “Friend” when Judas was betraying him. Who we regard as a friend is important, as James pointed out.
Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
But Jesus regarded sinners as friends in need of saving from the world of sin.
Friendship or peace between humans and God, our Creator and Sustainer, is essential for our continued survival. Calling ourselves friends of God sounds pretentious. How can a creature be on first-name terms with its Creator? Being “saved sinners” is one thing, “attendants of God” and so on, but a chum of the Messiah, the Son of God, is surely going too far? But Jesus gave his life for his friends. Jesus, himself, said he did not want to call us servants, but friends. Who are we to argue with the Lord?
13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:13-15)
Our friendships involve us in making changes. Men, often more so than women, are subject to prideful independence and it can be a challenge to befriend others. Women find friendship challenges them to be bold to support their friends. Nor does Christianity call for blind obedience to God. As Jesus said, Christians know what God is doing and join with God’s mission on earth. Christians are free from rules and obligations but it does not come without a cost. The cost is not a payment to get God’s approval, but having to withstand the backlash from the enemies of God. Just as Jesus paid with his life, Christians can expect opposition for their solidarity with God.
All creatures depend on God for their existence. But there is another reason for seeking a friend in God. It is at the heart of the problem of post-modern humanity. The secular worldview ignores the spirituality of humans. Secularism demands that God proves his existence on grounds that deny the spiritual realm. People have a spiritual nature. God is Spirit, and we relate to God by spiritual means, such as faith and friendship. Human spirituality is the reason people seek God for meaning and purpose, even though humanity uses the wrong methods as seen in the many religions of the world. The Christian church has an alternative message: humanity restored to dignity through friendship with God.
The Gospel of Friendship with God
In the Bible, the heart is synonymous with the human spirit. Christians speak of having Jesus in their hearts by faith, but this sounds strange to postmodern people. Many are unaware they have spirits because of secularism. Yet people connect with one another through their spirits, and not just through their minds and bodies. What binds us to our friends is more than a physical association or agreement of thinking.
Because God is a Spirit, our spirits relate to him in the same way we relate to other people. God’s desire to connect with people derives from his innate love. For people apart from God, it comes as a revelation to learn that God loves them. God holds all creation in his hands. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:39). How could it? Even death is not a problem. God raises the dead to life and judgement every day. So, far from being an expression of arrogance, claiming friendship with one’s Creator is a confession of humility.
Faith is not a human invention but a spiritual faculty everyone possesses. Faith gives rise to the attitude of trust essential for relationships. When we hear the gospel, our spirit either receives it with joy or rejects it because we want to be independent of God. Salvation sounds too easy. But if salvation was difficult, it would not be fair for people of low intellectual capacity. Proud people want to rely on their own resources. But in establishing relationships we do not limit ourselves to reasoning in deciding whether to befriend someone or even marry them.
Just as the gospel is expressed in Scripture as God’s covenant and the kingdom of God, Jesus’ work of atonement includes restoring people to friendship with God. The famous John 3:16 verse follows a discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus about the need to be born again in the spirit. Faith in Jesus results in eternal life because friendship with the Son connects us to the source of life.
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Does it Bounce?
Will the rubbery gospel in the form of friendship with God bounce? Will it be effective in communicating the essential gospel? People like to name someone as their best friend. Why would anyone want to exclude God from their circle of friends?
Friendship with God means more than being on God’s approved list. Life’s purpose involves more than being saved. Friendship works in two directions. Jesus forgives sins and saves us, but what do we do in return? When friends are visiting my home, we make every effort to ensure the occasion is as pleasant as possible. We provide them appetising food and try to give them an enjoyable time. Likewise, being a friend of Jesus stirs an eagerness in us to please him. In the passage from John’s Gospel chapter 15 quoted above, Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (vs 14). Being accepted as a friend only if you obey their commands sounds bizarre. Jesus said things like this to make us think. So, what did Jesus mean? How are we to interpret it?
Jesus knew his friends would want to please him. But Jesus is God in human form, and God lacks nothing that humans can supply. Jesus wants people to love one another. I omitted John 15:12 when I quoted John 15:13-15 above. Here it is:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The amazing thing about God is that he wants nothing from us for himself. God pours out his love on us, but responding by loving him back would be like trying to force water back up the spout. I have seen parodies of Christianity where God requires people to worship him because he is selfish and wants people in subjection to him. God’s love is alien to a sinful world and Christians need to be more considerate of their unbelieving companions in explaining the gospel to them. Try loving them. The “command” of Jesus to love others as he loves us is a challenge to us. Christ did not threaten people with hell or demand them to stop sinning. When we realise that Jesus befriends us unconditionally, we become open to receiving love from God. It is the Christian’s privilege to deputise for God in loving others. This is what Paul meant when he called Christians “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20).
So, does the rubbery gospel of friendship with God bounce? Will it fly? Does it put a spring in your step? In the words of Disney’s absent-minded professor: “Like flubber it does!” Or, as the Psalmist wrote:-
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Psalm 85:11)