I want to talk for a minute about the Gospel. And I want pose a thought that I’ve been asking myself lately and that’s this:
What if the Gospel Message is different than how we typically talk about it?
(** DUCKS TO MISS STONES **)
Like, what if the Gospel Message is more than “God was angry at human sin and so He took out His anger on His perfect and innocent Son, Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him won’t go to hell when they die” … ?
What if that’s not really the Message that the Scriptures have been trying to tell us? Or, better said, what if that’s just one way of understanding them?
I recently read a book by Tony Jones called “Did God Kill Jesus?” where he references theologian N.T. Wright …
“Paul’s view of the purpose of Jesus’ death, argues Wright, is far more complex than many would like to admit. In fact, Paul is anything but definitive as there are at least six aspects to Paul’s understanding of the atonement — representation, substitution, sacrifice, judicial punishment, Israel’s purpose, and divine victory. Each of these themes can be found in Paul’s letters and sermons. The death of Jesus contains a surplus of meaning, and surely there is not one single take on His death that answers every question or exhausts all possibilities, at least not for Paul.”
And so what if the before-mentioned explanation of the Gospel is just one of those ideas? One of those possibilities? And what if there are more ways of understanding why Jesus died? Not necessarily better ways, but different ways?
If the above mentioned version of the Gospel is close to your heart, rest assured I’m not tossing it out, I’m not throwing it away (so, don’t send me hate mail). Rather, I’m just wondering out loud if there are other ways to understand it AND what that might mean for you and me and the rest of the universe.
Let’s talk about that.
When Jesus was crucified God was crushed by evil. You could say that on Good Friday evil, sin, the Devil — they all won.
Plain and simple.
I’m not sure how anyone could see it any differently.
The Kingdom of Darkness was throwing a major party into the wee hours of Saturday morning because the Light of Heaven had been extinguished and tucked away in a dark, cold tomb.
Because Jesus didn’t just fake die, mind you. It wasn’t like watching a movie where Jesus was just a stunt double or an actor or something like that who pretended to get killed, but then after the movie shoot was over He wiped off the fake blood and went out to a local diner with a few buddies for some stale coffee, fries and gravy.
There was real blood.
There was real torture.
There was real pain.
There was real agony.
There was a real tomb.
There were real tears.
… He was dead and evil had won.
I say that evil won because the Man who proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God.
He had been brutally slaughtered and in a very real sense, overcome and crushed.
Thousands had put their faith in Him, thousands had believed that He was the One who would make Israel great again (read more about that HERE), thousands had given their all to believe that He was the next David, the One who would restore Israel to the superpower status that she once had under the reign of the first David.
Then He died by way of the most horrific act of evil and violence known to man — He was brutally murdered on a cross.
He was crushed by the sin and evil and darkness of the world that so often crushes you and me. The Sin of the world, represented in the murder of an innocent Man, took up residence on His shoulders and nailed Him to a cross where He slowly died in horrific agony before the eyes of hateful spectators.
He did this, I think, partly so that He could identify with you and me and anyone who has ever felt the weight of darkness crush their shoulders.
Do you know that feeling?
A few years ago I found myself in a place where I was wrestling with some things from my past. I was taking a class at school where we had to walk into our past and deal with the events and people that left us the most wounded. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do and I spent many nights in bed staring at the ceiling feeling the weight of the darkness I had experienced. I cried out to Jesus like I never had before and I recall feeling His presence in a strong way because He had been there — the sin and darkness that was thrown at me from people in my past, the stuff that was breaking my shoulders and my spirit … it had first broken His shoulders and, so, together we wept.
The only way that a powerful God could understand the depth of pain that is caused by the sin of this world was to become one of us and take that very same sin upon His shoulders and …
… He did that because He so loved the world. That’s what it says in John 3:16, so let’s talk about that for a few moments.
John 3:16 …
For God so loved the world that He gave His One and Only Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Here Jesus said that since “God so loved the world, He gave His One and Only Son.”
(We’ll get to the next part of that verse in a minute, but for now a word about LOVE.)
Because God so loved the world (the entire world, mind you — not just Israel, not just the Jews, not just people who are holy, not just people who believe the right things or think the same way that you do … everyone, everywhere — the whole world), because God so loved the world He gave His One and Only Son.
You see, the act of dying on the cross was an act of love on the part of God. Some people might look at that and say how could such a loving God stand by and allow His Son to be brutally murdered?
… And I kind of agree with them.
That same questions rings loudly in my head … and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest with you. I don’t have an answer. I’m not going to try and make something up because I really don’t know. It doesn’t make much sense to me, really. I can’t imagine, as a father, saying that I’m this super loving being who would then, at the same time, stand by and watch my child be brutally murdered without as much as raising a finger against the enemy.
Like, what the heck?
It’s a horrible thing to think about and I can’t imagine it — it doesn’t make any sense to me.
What does make sense to me, though, is that Jesus and His Father are One — Jesus is the Father just as much as the Father is Jesus — and so when Jesus died and was brutally murdered, His Father (in essence) was the One who was (also) taking the beating.
HE was carrying sin upon HIS shoulders.
HE was feeling the weight.
HE was being crushed.
And so God stood by and allowed God to be crushed by sin, in part, so that He could identify with you and me and everyone else who has ever been crushed, marginalized, pushed down, overcome, defeated, etc. We’ve all been there at some point (some of us in much more horrifying circumstances than others) and we can all take heart in knowing that God has been there too.
On Good Friday God was dead.
3 days later, however, He rose again.
And that, I think, is the Good News, the Gospel — the fact that Jesus didn’t stay dead, the fact that God didn’t stay down, the fact that evil didn’t have the last word, the final say. If the crucifixion is a picture of evil crushing God, the resurrection (and the final word, mind you), then, is a picture of God crushing evil.
(Oh, that’s good, somebody tweet that — “If the crucifixion is a picture of evil crushing God, the resurrection, then, is a picture of God crushing evil.”)
On the third day just when everyone assumed that all hope had been lost, it was (as a matter of fact) only just being unearthed and discovered anew.
And with that, everything changed.
Heaven opened up and quite literally came to earth. As N.T. Wright so eloquently says in his book, “Paul: A Biography” …
“Heaven and earth came together in this figure, Jesus. The early Jesus followers really did believe that God’s Kingdom was not simply a future reality, but had already been launched through the events of Jesus’ life.”
The invitation, then, is to believe in that, and live accordingly.
“For God so loved the world”, Jesus said, “that He gave His One and Only Son that whoever BELIEVES in Him … ”
(We’ll get to the rest in a moment, but first a word about BELIEVES.)
The invitation is to abandon whatever we have allegiances to …
… And give our full allegiance to (to believe in) the One who overcame death and evil and darkness and, thus, inaugurated a whole new world and a whole new way to be human.
Believing in Jesus’ resurrection and giving allegiance to Him merges our lives with His coming Kingdom and starts us on a track of partnering with Him to build a life and a world that will last for all of eternity.
Another thing we need to think about: the life that Jesus lived is what ultimately led to His resurrection and triumph over evil.
I mean, let’s not forget this. Jesus was crucified because the Roman Government and the Temple Leaders saw Him as a threat. You can read more about it HERE, but for now we just need to keep in perspective that crucifixion was reserved for people who the government saw as a threat to their top-down mentality where the rich could line their pockets with the money of the poor and keep the majority of people marginalized at the benefit of a select group.
Jesus, as we know, wouldn’t have any of that.
He extended Himself to everyone: marginalized and rich and powerful, alike. He ate and talked with everyone from rich and powerful leaders to the prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors. In His eyes, everyone needed His touch and everyone was welcome to the table.
(** Side Note: some even say that THIS is why God stood by and let His Son die a brutal death — in Jesus God identified with the murdered, but by standing by and doing nothing the Father identified with the murderer … both are loved by God — the murdered and the outcast and the marginalized as well as the murderers, the in crowd, the powerful. Not saying I do or don’t think that way, but it’s an idea that’s out there, and you can read more about it HERE. **)
And then when they crucified Him, He didn’t fight back. This is key because the people of Jesus’ day assumed that the Messiah was going to come riding on a horse with a sword in His hand that would slay all of Israel’s enemies. They assumed that war and fighting would eventually lead to peace and restoration.
(Not much has changed.)
In Jesus, though, we see that peace and restoration and resurrection most certainly does come, but in a much, much different way — not through war and fighting, but through a life of non-violence and of love and forgiveness.
Turning the other cheek.
Going the extra mile.
Being a Good Samaritan.
And so the invitation is to believe that Jesus died and rose again AND to believe that His resurrection opened up heaven in a way never before imagined AND to believe that with heaven opened, God has begun to bring heaven to earth just as had been foretold by the prophets long ago AND to therefore give allegiance to Jesus and become one of His agents of reconciliation:
People who follow in His footsteps of love and forgiveness and nonviolence by being Him to the world around us and inviting others to join in the revolution — everyone, from the bottom up, from the excluded to the included, from the poor to the rich, from the weak to the powerful … everyone is invited to believe, to join in the project of bringing heaven to earth.
Whoever believes in this way, says Jesus, “will not perish, but have eternal life.”
And now a word about …
PERISH / ETERNAL LIFE
What this doesn’t mean is that whoever says the sinner’s prayer and puts their faith in Jesus will escape hell and end up in heaven when they die.
Let me emphasize: nowhere in the vicinity of these words from Jesus does He say anything even remotely close to that.
Not only that, but what happened to someone after they died was not something that was anywhere near being on the radar of an ancient Jew. Again, in his book on Paul, N.T. Wright says that …
“The early Christians did not focus much attention on the question of what happened to people immediately after they died. If that question came up, their answer might be that they would ‘be with the Messiah’ or, as in Jesus’ remark to the dying criminal on the cross next to Him, ‘with Him in paradise.’ But they seldom spoke about it at all. They were much more concerned with the ‘Kingdom of God,’ which was something that was happening and would ultimately happen completely ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ What mattered most to them was the ultimate restoration of all creation. And however much it might seem incredible, the early Jesus-followers really did believe that God’s Kingdom was not simply a future reality, but had already launched through the events of Jesus’ life.”
For the early Jesus-followers (who were Jews), heaven and hell and who went where when someone died weren’t things that were discussed very often, if at all. And so when Jesus said in John 3:16 that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.
He wasn’t talking about heaven or hell or the afterlife.
So, then, what was He talking about?
Eternal Life was a term used to describe the kind of life that would last or fit well in the already present and coming Kingdom of God (also known as ‘the age to come’). Another way to translate it is “life of the ages” or “life abundantly”. And so Jesus is saying that whoever believes in Him …
Whoever swears allegiance to Him.
Whoever says they will follow Him.
Whoever says that they will be Him to others around them.
Whoever chooses nonviolence.
Whoever chooses love.
… Whoever believes in Him will live a life that will fit into the Kingdom of God — a life that overflows, a life of abundance, a life of the ages, a life that will last forever and ever.
This is a life marked by good deeds.
This is a life marked by forgiveness.
This is a life marked by humility.
This is a life marked by going the extra mile.
This is a life marked by turning the other cheek.
If your life doesn’t fit in the Kingdom, though, and you haven’t given yourself to Jesus and His ways, then what’s the other option?
Perishing doesn’t mean going to hell when you die any more than eternal life means going to heaven when you die. Instead, perishing is the opposite of an abundant life — rather than having a life that fits in God’s Kingdom, you’ll have a life that doesn’t fit in God’s Kingdom.
Is that person ultimately left out of God’s Kingdom? Do they go to hell? Or some place of eternal separation from God? Because they didn’t believe the right things?
We could use the Bible to build a strong case for that (and I’m not necessarily saying that any of those are wrong answers), but I wonder if there is an alternative way to think about it and I wonder if the alternative is simply that their life (although maybe fun and exciting for a time) will end tragically when their knee finally bows to their Maker and they realize how much better it could have been and how much they missed out on. And rather than enter God’s Kingdom with their heads held high, I wonder if their heads will hang low as they walk through the fires that Jesus says we’ll all walk through one day …
(… He says that in Mark 9:49, by the way, and although I’m not 100% certain what He’s referring to, could it be that He’s referring to the …)
… the fires that will burn away everything that doesn’t fit in God’s Kingdom so as to make us all ready to take our place in His new world?
All of that to say, I don’t think John 3:16 is about an angry God in the sky who is so angry at humanity that He had to kill His Only Son so that by believing in Him we could escape hell.
That’s one way to understand it, I guess, but I think it’s more than that, way bigger and more complex than that.
And more beautiful.
Instead, I think it’s about a God who loved the world so much that He came to earth in the body of a human to take the weight of sin on His shoulders, experience death, and overcome it so that by giving our allegiance to Him we can join Him in doing the same and the ushering in of His great Kingdom of love and grace and forgiveness — a Kingdom where everyone, everywhere is welcome.
That’s where I’m at in thinking about the Gospel. I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, ideas, etc.