Gospeling in Acts

When Christians read the book of Acts it’s mostly to learn the methods that the early church deployed to spread their message in their ancient, pluralistic world. So for instance, they will read Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus and see that Paul quoted poets from that day to the Athenians. In other words Paul shared Jesus with the pagan philosophers using their own writings. The lesson is to use the writings of Atheists or Muslims or whoever to share Jesus with them. Another example is to note that both Peter and Paul use what Christians call the Old Testament to support their case for Jesus. The lesson is that Christians must use the Bible, both Old and New Testament, in sharing Jesus. A third example is Paul shares his own conversion experience with the crowds and with Agrippa. The lesson is then Christians should share their own conversion experiences when sharing Jesus.

I don’t dispute these lessons from Acts. And they are helpful lessons. There are more lessons to be gleaned from the book too. But what I notice is that Christians are looking for methods when sharing Jesus, or at least in my experience. What I don’t see them doing is reading Acts to see the content of the message in favor of current theological developments called the “Gospel;” a message that says the hearer is a sinner and that Jesus died to take the punishment upon himself so that God could forgive the sinful hearer.

In his book, The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight calls this “Gospel” into question based upon a re-examination of the four canonical Gospels and Paul’s epistles and the sermons in Acts. What I did was to read the book of Acts paying special attention to the content of the gospel message. In this post I want to share what I learned.

  1. The death of Jesus is almost completely missing from their preaching. When it is mentioned in the actual sermons it’s as an accusation against those Jews who had Jesus killed–not an anti-Semitic remark against all Jews as some took Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. His death was the ultimate rejection of Jesus as God’s chosen human agent, and therefore the ultimate rejection of Israel’s God himself. No theories of atonement are offered that produce God’s forgiveness of sins. Otherwise the death of Jesus is mentioned as his “suffering” which was part of his role as Messiah.
  2. Rather than focus on the death of Jesus, the early church focused on the resurrection of Jesus. And the resurrection was seen as the key to prove Jesus as the Messiah. The scriptures that were adduced by Paul or Peter were Psalm 2:7; 16:10; 110:1. The aim of which was to say that while the Romans and Jews killed Jesus God raised him from the dead and enthroned Jesus in heaven.
  3. The focus of their preaching, regardless of a Jewish or Gentiles audience, was that Jesus is God’s Messiah or Christ. To the Jews, God raised Jesus from the dead to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah (not was or became) through whom God was to fulfill the covenant promises made through the prophets of the Old Testament. God would restore the kingdom to Israel and judge paganism through the Messiah, namely Jesus of Nazareth. To the Gentiles, the one true creator God has overlooked their ignorance that was their paganism until now. God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world through one person and they can know who this one man is because God raised that man from the dead.
  4. This gospel message, that Jesus is the Messiah as evidenced by his resurrection from the dead, doesn’t negate the offer of forgiveness of sins. The extension of forgiveness was made to both Jew and Gentile. Both were summoned to repent of their sins and to believe upon Jesus. In Acts 13 Jesus is the one through whom God extends forgiveness, as part of fulfilling the promises, not the Law of Moses. In Acts 26 Jesus sends Paul to the Gentiles to turn them from Satan’s dominion to God’s kingdom to find forgiveness. But the offer of forgiveness wasn’t the gospel message itself.

After reading through the book of Acts, Scot McKnight’s claim that the gospel isn’t Jesus dying to provide forgiveness seems to fit. Luke’s narration shows an early church that argued Jesus was the chosen agent of the one true creator, the God of Israel, and is evidenced as such ultimately by that same God raising Jesus from the dead. It was Jesus’ vindication as the Messiah. This message of the resurrection vindicating Jesus as God’s Chosen/Anointed One was tailored to fit the audience, yet Peter and Paul never had to abandon their Jewish worldview to do so.

Christians need to recover this gospel message. It won’t be easy. Centuries of theological training has drowned out this message in favor of understanding Jesus’ death as the mechanism by which one receives forgiveness for their sins. And that understanding doesn’t need to be cast away. Paul labored in his epistles, like Romans, to expound the meaning of Jesus’ death as the means by which forgiveness is obtained. How that works exactly has been debated for centuries and will probably continue to be debated. But it’s not the gospel message, no matter the atonement theory. No matter what one believes the resurrection does soteriologically (for salvation), it’s not the gospel preached by the early church.

Apologetics takes on a new role in that Christians need to learn the case for the resurrection. The classic proofs for the existence of God aren’t effective anymore. Books like N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope or The Resurrection of the Son of God become the kind of works that Christians need to read–and those books are excellent reads too. This doesn’t negate methods like building long-term relationships with people or studying their beliefs. Those are still critical and key in sharing Jesus to a post- post-modern world. Combating biblical illiteracy is still a battle that needs to be fought and overcome. But when the time comes to share Jesus, the message isn’t mere forgiveness but it’s Jesus is God’s man.

~ by hankimler on August 2, 2013.

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