I’ve been thinking a lot about gospel and salvation these days, and some things are falling together in ways that they haven’t before.
Let me begin with the idea that the gospel is “news.” Shocking, I know. But we tend to make the gospel into something else, like truth or a theory of the atonement, important things, but things that aren’t news. But I think it’s important that gospel remain in the form of news. The gospel is news, and surprising news. It’s always surprising news.
Let’s look at a few biblical texts. Let’s start with Isaiah 52-53, one of the few texts in the Greek Old Testament that uses the word gospel.You know the verses. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announced peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” The prophet goes on to use the imagery of the Exodus to suggest that the return of exiles to Zion (Jerusalem) is the extending of the mighty right arm of God.
For those watching and hearing the announcement, this is surprising. It’s news to them. “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53:1). There’s debate over who the watching audience is. Some take the audience to be those who persecuted the prophet and treated him shabbily. I think the audience is the nations who oppressed Israel and can’t believe that the events announced here could be considered the mighty work of God. I say this, because the verses that directly precede these feature the nations. God’s servant, his chosen one Israel, has been marred beyond human resemblance, “so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see…” (52:14-15).
Ay any rate, the point is the same. The announcement that this is mighty work of God, that Israel’s God reigns, is shocking news. The facts on the ground don’t support the claim. But if the claim can be believed, if things they “had not been told they shall see,” then there is a chance they can be startled into reality. “Surely, he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions.” The startling “news” that Zion’s God reigns through the wounded servant creates the possibility that others will see their own complicity in the injustice done to God’s servant. It pierces their own self-perpetuating view of reality to expose the world according to God’s reality.
Or, let’s look at the announcement of the gospel in Mark 1:14-15. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel.'” The surprise here is not as obvious, but I think is implied. The proclamation of the gospel comes against the backdrop of John’s imprisonment and the region of Galilee, none of which seem to be saying the kingdom of God has come near. And Jesus’ message ends with the exhortation to “repent and believe the gospel.” In other words, you will need to change to believe this nondescript movement out of Galilee is the good news of God. It’s surprising news. So surprising, that even Jesus’ own followers don’t believe it, highlighted by Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in Mark 8.
Or, we could look at Paul’s understanding of the gospel in 1-2 Corinthians. Paul defines the gospel in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has done nothing less than bring a new age with surprising sources of power. The word of the cross for many seems weak and foolish, but for those “who are being saved,” it is the power of God. If the principalities and powers had recognized this, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. So, the startling revelation that God’s power is being worked through what others perceive as weakness requires belief. “We no longer see things from a human point of view. Though we once regarded Christ that way, we do so no longer. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, everything has become new!” For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is startling news that allows the possibility of perceptual change. Once you believe that the cross is the power of God, then the whole world starts looking new.
There are other texts along these lines. I think of Acts 2 where the crowd realizes that they have crucified the one attested to by God and who has now poured out the Spirit that they both see and hear. They thought they were on the right side of history, but now see their complicity in opposing God, in killing the ultimate prophet of God. “Brothers, what shall we do?” is answered by Peter’s word of peace. “‘Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’… And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'”
A few things to note here. They are startled by Peter’s words and are urged to save themselves from this corrupt generation. In other words, they are asked to see the world differently, not the ways they saw it while in alignment with the powers of this corrupt generation. But, they are also offered the power of the Holy Spirit, an alternative form of power that will allow them to see and act in the world anew.
So, what if salvation requires this kind of startling news–shocking news that brings us to our God senses. What if our salvation, and the salvation of all creation, requires that we be thrown clear of the world given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, to the world that’s been pulled down over our eyes? This perceptual change would be the tangible result of a victory over the powers of sin and death. And the cross would be more than an atoning sacrifice, but also (primarily?) the social location from which to view the world anew, among the poor, the powerless, those unjustly treated. Part of our salvation, then, would be the ongoing process of discovering the ways we are complicit with powers other than the Kingdom of God, startled into this recognition by a scandalous gospel.
Been startled lately?
I really like this. A lot. I’d also add the example Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto. Jesus sits down and says that all the signposts of salvation have been “fulfilled in your hearing.” That “good news” must have come as a shock to the audience.
One more connection. I’m reading Hauerwas this morning and I think there’s a connection between what you’re describing and his claim that you can only “act” in a world you can “see.”
Seeing rightly, believing the “good news,” is the path toward acting rightly.
Thanks, Richard. I think your Luke 4 example is good. I’m also interested in Hauerwas’ statement. I think its true for the most part, but I also think that its usually in acting that the occasion arises to be startled. In fact, the one thing I struggled with in the piece was stressing too much the “visual.” But, there’s little doubt that change in perception is a huge part of what is emphasized both in the gospels and in Paul.
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