What do you think of when you hear the word “Pharisee”?

If you’re familiar with the New Testament or you’ve just been in the church long enough, you are probably familiar with them as the opponents of Jesus, or maybe even Christianity itself. Or as some sort of priestly Jewish leader type. Or as legalists–people trying to earn salvation through works. Or as hypocrites. Or all the above.

I say this because these are the ways that most Christians tend to talk about them. And they all need at least a bit of tweaking.

When the Old Testament leaves off, we just have “Jews.” This was the name given to Israelites shortly upon their return to the land of Judea from exile. When the New Testament picks up centuries later, we still have “Jews,” but we also have some particular types of Jews. Those mentioned explicitly are the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees are mentioned much less often and get much less coverage in the discussions of the church. Probably the main thing we do say about them is that they don’t believe in the resurrection (i.e., of God’s people), because this is what the New Testament most often calls them out on.

Other groups we know existed at this time are the Essenes and what is usually referred to as the Zealots. Each of these special groups within Judaism focused on a particular Jewish symbol. For the Sadducees, it was the temple. So, we see in the New Testament that it those who work in and maintain the Temple are often Sadducees. Sacrifice is the name of the game for these people.

For the Essenes, whom it is widely regarded composed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the main Jewish symbol was the land. The land was promised to Israel by God but it had been tainted. They were wanting on God to put it in right order again.

For the group sometimes known as the Zealots, the main Jewish symbol was the kingship. God had promised Israel way back in the day an ever-reigning Israelite kingship. That wasn’t in place. So the main idea was to put the rightful, proper, Jewish king back in his place. These people were hard after the Messiah.

And for the Pharisees, the main Jewish symbol was the law, or actually Torah, better translated “instruction.” What mattered primarily for them was not so much the temple sacrifice, as important as that was. It wasn’t the land, though that mattered, too. And it Imagewasn’t the Messiah, though it’s clear many of them hoped for him as well. The Torah was the most important way that the Pharisees saw as how to properly live life in relation to God.

Now here’s the thing. Focusing on Torah wasn’t necessarily a matter of “works-righteousness.” We post-Reformation Christians tend to think in those terms because of how things in the church got messed up a bit several centuries ago. We now focus so much on “belief” as opposed to “action” in order to stress that salvation comes through faith alone and not through actions. There’s some worth to this.

But let’s avoid anachronism. Doing things to merit salvation wasn’t a hot-button issue for 1st-century Judaism. They had not just gone through the Reformation. The problem was, rather, as it is often in the Gospels, that they focused on their mere outward activity while neglecting matters of the heart–which–is not something that is unique to Pharisees but is characteristic of Israel through the ages and is characteristic of Christians today. It is characteristic of humanity, it seems.

In other words, the trouble with the Pharisees in the New Testament is largely about hypocrisy. But in no way should “Pharisee” be synonymous with “hypocrite.” However, this is of course what has happened. The situation is so bad that there are Christians today who think that the word “Pharisee” literally means “hypocrite.” (I can’t really blame them because this is actually one meaning listed under “Pharisee” in most dictionaries.) Not only that; I remember hearing several times over the years in Bible studies how “Pharisaical” someone’s behavior was. This is a way of saying someone was wrongly focusing on outward actions without regard for those actions’ real meaning and purpose. This could be due to either hypocrisy, or even worse, someone trying to earn their salvation.

So there really is a problem with Pharisees and hypocrisy in the New Testament. But to make hypocrisy their defining feature is shortsighted. And to take their entire identity and to summarize it so negatively is misguided.

Back to the “works-righteousness” idea for a moment. Yes, the Pharisees were scrupulous about the law. They were the chief preservers of the oral tradition, or oral law, about how to fulfill the written law of Moses, i.e., what we have in Genesis through Deuteronomy.

So they added more laws? LEGALISM! WORKS-RIGHTEOUSNESS! Right?

Well, again, no, not necessarily. The Talmud is composed of two things: 1) The Mishnah, which is the written form of the oral law which was passed down for centuries about how to best fulfill the law of Moses. 2) The Gemara, which is the commentary on the Mishnah.

I once heard a pastor talk so disparagingly of the Talmud in a sermon. As if it was wrong to discuss how best to honor God by properly fulfilling the requirements of the Mosaic law. I wonder if he would rail against the notes in study Bibles or commentaries series?

The thing is, the law leaves itself open to the sorts of conversations we have in the Talmud. Example: Keep the Sabbath holy. Ok … but how? This is where oral tradition comes in about how best to keep the Sabbath holy. If you’re concerned with keeping commandments, you need to be concerned with how to do so.

And this pastor preached as though Jesus came to us from Judaism! He didn’t–he came to save us from sin. Sin that manifests itself in many ways, such as hypocrisy and focusing on mere outward action instead of doing business with the heart. But not sin which manifests itself in seeking to be faithful to the law of God which, by the way, was seen as a great gift of love to his people.

Also, we must remember that what happens with Pharisees and Jesus in the Gospels are intra-Jewish debates. This is not about Christianity against Judaism. In the Gospels we have a Jew talking with other Jews about how to be proper Jews–and it doesn’t involve dismissing either the oral or written law.

Ok. So the Pharisees in all likelihood weren’t trying to earn their salvation through some sort of legalism or works-righteousness, whatever that would look like in 1st-century Palestine. They did have a problem with hypocrisy, but then again so does everyone else. “Pharisee” doesn’t mean “hypocrite.” And it would be best for everyone if “Pharisaical” would just drop out of usage.

And, Pharisees aren’t best seen as the enemies of Jesus and/or Christianity, either. Yes, they are often the antagonists in the Gospels, but this is literary characterization at work. The “bad guys” aren’t always strictly “bad,” even if for the sake of the narrative they are construed as such. We ought to take this point seriously. That the Gospels are crafted stories (not counting them out as history, here) should help us realize that though they serve as points of conflict the Pharisees are not thoroughly bad people. Many times, in fact, the antagonists in a story are actually “good guys” and the protagonists are “bad guys.” Think of The Godfather, for example.

Well, what about describing them as “Jewish leaders”? Or “clergy”? Or even “priests”?

Nope. Contrary to common perception, to be a Pharisee was not necessarily to be a Jewish leader, or some sort of cleric like a priest. Most were lay people who may have had strong opinions about how the priests should be doing their jobs, but they were lay people nonetheless. There may have been some Pharisaic priests, but to be a priest you must have the proper lineage.

Indeed, there was no strict membership policy for being a Pharisee. As long as you believed the things that Pharisees believed and took up the Pharisaic cause, you were a Pharisee, no matter what your occupation was.

And, some members of the Sanhedrin, the highest council in Jerusalem, were Pharisees (John 3; Acts 23). But to be a Pharisee doesn’t mean you’re on the Sanhedrin and vice-versa.

Some of the confusion here is probably due to the fact that Pharisees are often mentioned along with such leaders in the New Testament. Such as being mentioned with scribes.

This connection is so strong because law experts were needed by the Pharisees for accurate interpretation and application of the law. Scribes were not just copiers of the law who produced new scrolls. It’s often thought that this is their only occupation, but their primary duty was to serve as the scholars, or experts, of the law. As we see in the Gospels, some scribes were themselves Pharisees. Again, to be a Pharisee wasn’t a vocation, it was more like being a Baptist, or a Methodist. It was a matter of religious affiliation more than anything else.

All that being the case, what else can we say about the Pharisees? Well for one, not only can we count them out as being enemies of Jesus and Christianity, we would be right to consider more of their positive qualities. Aside from their piety, Pharisees preserved some doctrines that have been very important for Christianity. The most significant of these is the doctrine of the resurrection. They had a strong belief in the afterlife–which, for them, was not an immortal soul leaving its body and going to heaven. That was the Greek view adhered to by the Essenes. The Pharisees had a proper doctrine of the physical bodies of the righteous being raised and the punishment of the wicked.

And it is not only through the Gospels that Christians have a doctrine of resurrection, but probably primarily through the only Pharisee from which we have authored documents–the apostle Paul.

And Paul, even after he came to belief in Jesus as Messiah, never denied that he was still a Pharisee. On the contrary, in Acts 23:6 he says ego Pharisaios eimi — an emphatic statement translated “I am a Pharisee.

Paul’s love for the Torah, his hope in resurrection and the Messianic age–all of it is grounded in his dearly held beliefs as a zealous Pharisee.

So not only do Christians owe something to Pharisaism, but it was the Pharisees’ version of Judaism that lasted after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Their focus on the law allowed them to adapt to the changing historical conditions and so Pharisaism was the precursor to the Rabbinic period from which our modern forms of Judaism have descended.

So, go out there and hug a Pharisee.


The Jewish Lord’s Prayer

I recently read this in the most recent edition of Christianity Today (March 2012):  

A Delaware county council has a novel defense for why it recites the Lord’s Prayer before meetings: The prayer is generic because Jesus was a Jew. The district judge overseeing the lawsuit against Sussex County questioned whether the prayer was specifically Christian because it makes ‘no reference to Jesus or Allah.’

Not to realize that it’s not generic — it is Jewish.

The fullest version comes from Matt 6:9-13. most often recited in the KJV. 

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, the kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.

I’ve been reading through for a second time The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. I met her when she came to Memphis last week for a couple of lectures. I’ve benefitted from her work for several years, particularly since she is a Jewish New Testament scholar.Image In an age when there are many misinterpretations of the New Testament because of a lack of understanding of Judaism, and Jews and Christians continue to misunderstand each other, she is a strong provider of aid for both of these problems.

Her book is partly about the Jewishness of Jesus and partly about Jewish-Christian relations. In the former part she devotes a few pages to the Lord’s Prayer. The problem she seeks to address is its “familiarity.” Since most churches recite it often and have done so for so long, Christians tend not to stop and think about what it means.

And what it means in the first place has to do with those who originally received it–not Western Christians, but first-century Palestinian Jews. Not to us, but for us.When placed in a first-century Jewish context, the prayer recovers numerous connotations that make it both more profound and more political. It fosters belief, promotes justice, consoles with future hope, and recognizes that the world is not always how we would want it” (42).

What does Levine uncover about the Lord’s Prayer? Well for one thing, she points out one thing that scholars have known for a while but the public has had trouble learning: while the Aramaic abba may lie behind the Greek translated “father,” it doesn’t mean “daddy.” It simply means “father” as is evident from other Jewish sources and this is should be obvious in light of the fact that every time it occurs it is followed by the Greek translation “pater,” i.e., “father.” Even the scholar who originally proposed “daddy” as a translation for abba believing that it was the word used by little children later retracted his own thesis. But the church really liked the idea of Jesus saying “daddy” so it stuck.

Asides from this, another key detail of Levine’s conclusions on the first line of the Prayer is that just as there is overlap with many key New Testament terms for Jesus and the Roman emperor, such as “son of God,” “savior,” and “lord,” there is another with “father.” This would explain why Jesus specifies “our Father who is in heaven.” Levine writes, “By speaking of the ‘Father in heaven,’ Jesus thus insists that Rome is not the ‘true’ Father” (45).

This hint of an anti-Rome stance is seen more explicitly in what follows “Hallowed by your name,” which is a feature of most Jewish prayers (45). “Your kingdom come” correlates to the common Hebrew expression olam ha-bah, “the age/world to come.” This is distinguished from olam ha-zeh, “this (present) age/world.” Christianity is obscured if one doesn’t grasp this key Jewish idea. Christian eschatology, i.e., the ideas surrounding “end times,” is not identical to the Jewish conception, but it is thoroughly rooted in it. World history is divided into these two stages for Jews, this present age that we are living in which is marked by sin, evil, and injustice. In the coming age, or the future age, this sin, evil, and injustice would be dealt with as God issues his judgment and through is kingdom reigns on earth forever.

Christian eschatology features the same idea of the present evil age and the coming age of righteousness, but it is with Jesus that the coming age has come into the present age. In Christian thought, then, the coming age has been inaugurated even if the present age isn’t over yet. The Christian is waiting for the Messiah to come back; the Jews is waiting for the Messiah to come. So when the Christian prays “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” the Christian prays for the coming age (or “world”; the word can mean either one or perhaps both) to come in fullness on the earth as it already is in heaven. Christian eschatology, then, is not about people going to heaven but about God coming to earth. This is a thoroughly Jewish, and properly biblical, idea.

It gets really interesting with Levine’s discussion with the next line. “Give us this day our daily bread” as a translation is redundant (47). The word in question, “daily “is epiousion is tricky but probably best translated as having to to do with the next day. The best translation of the line would then be “Give us tomorrow’s bread today,” which makes plenty of sense in a Jewish context. Jewish texts continually associate the olam ha-bah with a banquet. This would be another way of saying “your kingdom come,” or, in Levine’s paraphrase: “Bring about your rule when we can eat at the messianic [kingdom] banquet” (48).

I also like Levine’s preferred rendering of “Lead us not into temptation.” It probably is best as “Do not bring us to the test” (50). “Test” and “tempt” are a couple of meanings of the same Greek word. God is better known in the Old Testament for bringing us to the test instead of leading us straight into temptation. Based on these situations, Levine paraphrases this line: “Do not put us in a situation where we might be tempted to deny our faith or our morals” (50). This would have been an especially  meaningful prayer for first-century Jews and early Christians.

Levine is right to point out that “deliver us from evil” is actually better rendered “deliver us from the evil one.” All scholars I’ve seen favor this translation based on the Greek construction, and in light of the fact that evil is never just a general idea in the New Testament but is always personified.

The latter part the doxology “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen” is not original to Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (42). It actually comes from the Didache, originally, an early Christian text that didn’t make it into the canon. 

Why is it in our version of the Lord’s Prayer then? Congregations that recite the Lord’s Prayer typically have kept with church tradition of the past few centuries and recited the version from the KJV. One of the main reasons we have newer translations of the Bible than the KJV is that we now have much greater knowledge of the original wording of the New Testament than they did in the 1600’s. As manuscripts of the biblical documents were copied, changes were introduced and reproduced. It is a compilation of all these manuscripts which produces what we call an eclectic text, i.e. an entire Greek New Testament pieced together from the text of all the known manuscripts, guided by what scholars believe most likely reflects the original wording of the authors. 

This is why this doxology is no longer included in the text of newer translations of the Bible; it is very clear that this is not original to Matthew. It was added to later copies of the Gospel, most likely because of its place in the later tradition which we now find in the Didache.

I remember being in church one Sunday morning and the preacher that day covered the Lord’s Prayer. (This wasn’t a church where we actually prayed it together, so it was good that it at least made it into a sermon.) I’ll never forget this one instance where I knew it was important for the preacher to be educated in order to anticipate people’s questions and to provide them some guidance.

When he got to the end of the Lord’s Prayer, he preached the doxology. He wasn’t working from the KJV, but the New King James Version. The New King James Version may be the most worthless version of the Bible out there. Probably the only good reasons to continue to read from the KJV is the tradition behind it and its beautiful diction. The NKJV is not traditional, loses the beautiful diction since it is an updated version of the KJV—and it retains the obsolete text of the KJV.

A couple sitting in front of me obviously weren’t reading from the KJV or the NKJV. How did I know this? Because they were confused. She looked at his Bible and showed him hers; he looked at hers and showed her his. They didn’t have the doxology in their version of the Lord’s Prayer. And I was completely sympathetic. For people who apparently had no idea about manuscript differences and eclectic texts, it was understandably quite shocking and confusing to listen to a sermon on a text that wasn’t in their Bibles.

It appeared that the preacher didn’t have any knowledge of textual criticism of the New Testament, so he couldn’t anticipate that most of the congregants wouldn’t have that part of the Prayer in their Bibles. And that they would be confused and ready to be taught.

But anyway. It should be clear that this is in no way a “generic” prayer. As Levine says, it actually doesn’t say anything explicitly or uniquely Christian, and in fact it “fits neatly within Jewish piety.” It is “[p]rovocative, directly related to human experience, intimate enough with God to be direct, [and] an ideal prayer for a first-century Jew” (51).


The King Jesus Gospel

This is a long post. But I think if there is a topic I would like to devote too long of a post to, it is this one.

What is the gospel?

This is a question that in the past several years has been increasingly asked by theologians. One would think that this is something that only someone unfamiliar with Christianity would wonder, but some Christian thinkers who are quite familiar with Christianity have realized that what is needed is a fresh reconsideration of just what the gospel is–with as much precise attention to detail as possible, and with as much Scriptural support as is available.

Several books have been written in only the past couple of years that are aimed in this direction. One of them is Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson professor in religious studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is the author of many books, and I know from what I’ve read of his work that he has a habit of being relevant, witty, easily comprehensible, and, quite simply, correct about what he has to say about the Bible, the church, and related matters.

This book is all of that. What he says here is for the most part exactly what the church needs to come to terms with when it comes to what he hold the gospel to be, and I would rather you read his book then read this blog post if you must make a choice. But you don’t have to. You can read both. : )

Two forewords written by eminent Christian thinkers N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard lead things off. Wright sums up the major point of this book: “that the movement that has long called itself ‘evangelical’ is in fact better labeled ‘soterian.’ That is, we have thought we were talking about ‘the gospel’ when in fact we were concentrating on ‘salvation'” (12).

Now hold on. If you were thinking that the gospel is (or almost) completely about salvation, and you’re willing to consider that this might not be the best way to think about it, then this book is for you. Yep, it’s already clear that this book is making a big claim. A big claim about a big topic that may mess with what you believe to be true and have for a while. Yes, it probably is. But this is hugely important, and McKnight is not actually making any large claim that many other theologians have not been making for some time–it’s just that McKnight’s book is the one of the most accessible products of these scholarly conversations.

Now, don’t freak. This is not about twisting, distorting, exaggerating, neglecting, or completely rejecting what you’ve always held to be true. This is about, as Wright says, about the “full, biblical gospel” (13). This is what McKnight helps us to see.

Some Signs that Things are a Bit Off

In his preface, McKnight discusses the way most of us think of evangelism. Nearly all of his Christian students tell him that the gospel they heard growing up was mainly that they were sinful, but Jesus died to take care of their sin, and so now they could go to heaven.

But something was off. These same students tell McKnight repeatedly that something was lacking. Surely, the say, the gospel of Jesus wants more from us than our one decision to get sins taken care of so we can be ok until we can go to heaven.

It is the message cited above that is responsible for how Christianity got obsessed with people making decisions. The center of it all has been seen as the need for the individual to make the decision to accept Jesus so they can go to heaven. As McKnight is going to show, this is not how it has always been. The original apostles had no decision obsession–they had a disciples obsession (18). Making a decision, or making a disciple. It was the latter that was the mission of those who first announced the gospel to the world.

But put that aside for the moment. How has the decision method been working? McKnight cites the stats: 75% of Americans have made some kind of decision to accept Jesus, but only 25% of Americans go to church regularly (church attendance being the most convenient, albeit somewhat faulty to measure dedicated discipleship) (19). At the most conservative of estimates, the church loses at least 50% of those who make decisions for Christ.

And all of us who have been in evangelical circles even if only for a short time know that this is indeed the way things are. We all have seen people make a decision for Christ and then only a little while later are nowhere to be found within the church body and there is no sign that they are in fact a follower of Christ. This is a significant problem, whether a church acknowledges it or not. (McKnight says there is something “profoundly wrong”  with this [21]). And it’s significant enough that we need to address the question: Is it a problem with the gospel? Or is it a problem with the way we have shared and responded to the gospel?

McKnight, of course, goes with the second option. Our focus on getting people to make decisions (i.e., “accepting Jesus into our hearts”), he says, “appears to distort spiritual formation” (20). But that’s the way the church has always done things! Right? Well, no, and the church has always been and always will be in need of reform.

So, there’s plenty of signs that show us that things are a bit off in the way we share the gospel. But the big question is still, What is the gospel? “For most American Christians, the gospel is about getting my sins forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die” (27). Is this it?

The Gospel is Not About You Being Saved

McKnight knows that what he has to say about all this is going to be hard for many evangelicals to swallow. So he says plainly: “Evangelicalism is a gift to the church and the world” (28). One of this theological system’s most valuable positions is that each must person must make a decision to be saved, as an individual. This is a thoroughly biblical conviction. Way to go, evangelicalism. But as much as evangelicalism is a gift, “it’s far from perfect” (29).

What’s interesting is that the word “evangelical” is directly derived from the Greek euangelion, usually translated “good news,” or “gospel.” The original meaning of the very word “evangelicalism” reflects a commitment to the gospel. Irony is that McKnight’s point is that evangelicals nowadays aren’t very … evangelical. In the sense of being committed to the biblical gospel. A better word to describe evangelicals today is “soterians,” because, we mistake personal salvation with the gospel (29).

This emphasis on personal salvation has led to an obsession with the question “Are you in or out?” (30) Simplifying (and distorting) the gospel down to this one issue is one reason for the huge problem noted above, that so many churches struggle to get the people who have simply made a decision to be discipled as believers of Christ (32). Be honest. We’re almost being audacious to expect people to stick around and go deeper when we’ve presented them with the pressing issue of being in the “in” group instead of the “out” group. We’ve made being “in” as one of the saved people the main and practically only important opportunity available to people, and when they aren’t interested in anything more, we’re surprised??

Maybe the gospel isn’t just about personal salvation. If it is, as I like to say, then we have a ridiculously large Bible. Quite simply, 99.9 % of our Bible is extraneous and unnecessary if the one great truth that we are to gain from it is that we should accept Jesus so we can go to heaven.

Well if the gospel is not about crossing this threshold of personal salvation then what is it about?

It’s about a story. The gospel only makes sense when seen within what is so often ignored in our preaching and teaching: the story of Israel. As McKnight points out (37), what we so often draw from the Old Testament is that Adam and Eve messed things up. Once we got that down, we can speed ahead to the New Testament where we pick out the texts that tell us we can make a decision to solve what Adam and Eve messed up and too often ignore the other ones. There’s a big story here. And a big Bible tells us about it.

This story centers not on personal salvation but on God, the God who created human beings to reign as his image bearers on earth. The story is about the God who works within the human race to reinstate them as image bearers once the original ones failed. And this huge story has a consummation; again, not in your personal salvation, but in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, the city of Revelation 21-22, “a flourishing, vibrant, culture-creating, God-honoring, Jesus-centered city” (36).

Yes, personal salvation is in there somewhere. But it’s not the whole story, and it’s not the center. Jesus is. McKnight therefore places the story of Jesus under the larger heading of the story of Israel. It is the story of Jesus that brings the larger story of Israel to its fulfillment. What is important to see is that it is only because the story of Jesus is the completion of Israel’s story that the story of Jesus is salvific. To pluck Jesus out as a generic savior for mankind apart from the entire overarching story to which he has come to us does not work.

It is under the story of Jesus that McKnight places the plan of salvation–i.e., what is often mistaken for the gospel itself. Yes, McKnight’s point is that when we have shared the gospel as the sequence of facts that we are sinful, Jesus has taken care of sin, so that we can trust in him and be saved, is not in fact the gospel but only one corollary of the gospel. And, yes, because of this, “because we preach the Plan of Salvation as the gospel, we are not actually preaching the gospel” (40). I would mend McKnight’s point here a little to add that it’s not that we never preach the gospel, but that we’re not preaching the gospel when we think we are. More on this later. So, maybe this loosening up on the centrality of salvation is shocking to you. Still, McKnight points out, “The good news is that the more we submerge ‘salvation’ into the larger idea ‘gospel,’ the more robust will become our understanding of salvation” (39).

As McKnight launches his biblical case for his argument concerning the true nature of the gospel, he begins with Paul. As it turns out, the best place to look in the New Testament concerning a definition of the word “gospel” comes in one of Paul’s chapters, 1 Corinthians 15. Paul begins, “Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you” (vv. 1-2). And what does Paul remind them about the gospel? McKnight summarizes: the message of the gospel is that Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised, and Christ appeared (49).

This is a strange description of the gospel. Where is the part about me and my salvation? Where are the steps I need to take so I can go to heaven? We are helped by realizing once again that a gospel (euangelion) is an announcement, not a plan of salvation. It’s good news (49). For Paul, the gospel, the good news, was about Jesus, in his dying, rising, appearing (50). This is the fulfillment of the story of Israel and all of the promises God made to her (51).

“Because the ‘gospel’ is the Story of Jesus that fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s Story, we dare not permit the gospel to collapse into the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation” (51).

Here, again, we have a proper emphasis on the story, not on the plan of salvation. And a key aspect of this involves remembering that the story of Jesus “is a complete story, and not just a Good Friday story” (53). McKnight cites on the following page a remark from one of his students about the heavy emphasis placed on all the details of Jesus’s death when sharing the good news in many evangelical churches. No remark about the resurrection, and certainly no sign that Jesus’s life had anything to do with it. Not only is McKnight about to spend a chapter arguing that Jesus himself actually did preach the gospel (because in most definitions of the gospel, this would hardly make sense), but he says at the end of the book that one of the ways we need to work to become more attuned to the biblical idea of the good news is that we need to soak ourselves in the Gospels (153).

While not among the most neglected books of the Bible in our preaching and teaching (I can name many books that are), the Gospels certainly are far under-estimated for their importance. For Christians who think that the only thing that really mattered about Jesus is that he was God incarnate who died on a cross, most of the Gospel narratives simply don’t figure in to our understanding of the good news.

I can testify to this myself.

I remember being greatly confused upon taking on the task of reading the New Testament Gospels myself. A lot of the stuff that Jesus said and did simply didn’t square with what I had been taught over and over was the gospel, the stuff that really mattered. Jesus didn’t say much at all if anything about dying for my sins so I could be saved, so I really didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Maybe I could’ve just read the passion narratives, and gone back to Paul, who tells us so much about the significance of Jesus’s death–which I knew all about. That would have been a lot more comfortable. But there I was, with four Gospels I didn’t know what to do with. And I know for a fact that’s where a lot of Christians are today. They want to be faithful Bible readers, but (whether they have acknowledged it or not) have no idea what a Gospel is there for, much less four of them. (Of course, the practice of calling these books “Gospels” is misleading because originally it was the singular “Gospel” according to Matthew, and also according to Mark, and so on.)

So what is the gospel then?

Finally, McKnight comes to the point where he makes a positive claim about the actual nature of the true biblical gospel. Having established that it’s not about me but about Jesus, and not about a plan of salvation but about a story, he says that “If I had to sum up the Jesus of the gospel, I would say ‘King Jesus’ [hence the title of the book, The King Jesus Gospel]. Or I would say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ or Jesus is Messiah and Lord'” (56).

This is about as simple as one can get the gospel, just see Romans 1:1-4 for an explicit biblical example of this. And we are also helped out by the comment makes toward the end of this introductory section of his letter in 1:16-17. There Paul refers to the gospel (euangelion), saying that it is the power of God eis soterian, i.e., “unto salvation”–in other words, the gospel leads to salvation for those who believe but is itself not synonymous with salvation.

The trick is that people already assume that they know what “gospel” means, so when they read Paul using that word, they think he means what they mean. McKnight cites N.T. Wright’s comments on this issue: “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel.’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means” (58). The gospel is not how one is saved, though there is nothing wrong with thinking about how one is saved. The gospel is instead an announcement, the announcement of Jesus’s lordship as the culmination of the story of Israel within the story of the entire world. The problem is that we “turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation” (62, emphasis McKnight’s). Then the story of God and his entire world becomes only about having one’s guilt-removed (75). That is absolutely tragic. Yet for many people that’s the essence of Christianity, or at for all practical purposes it is.

It is for this reason that one can properly see how Jesus indeed preached the gospel. If the gospel is the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, or that Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven, then you’ll search far and wide for Jesus saying much about that. But if the gospel is a fulfillment of an expansive story, that the crucified and risen Jesus is the King of Israel and the Lord of the world, then Jesus’s entire mission is a gospel mission.

The Reformation rightfully focused on certain topics for its time, but, again, not to say that the church doesn’t constantly need reform because it does (that is what this post is all about), the Protestant Reformation is over. Justification by faith was exactly what the church needed to focus on during that time in history but what happened as a result of that was that we have put justification by faith at the center of Paul’s theology, much less at the center of what we think of as the gospel, and there it it has remained. The center of Paul’s theology is most assuredly not justification by faith, but Jesus as Messiah. And being “in Christ” is highlighted much more often as the mode of salvation, not justification by faith. After all, it’s being “in Christ” that one must do to be a saved person–not believing that we are justified by faith.

So, justification by faith is one way to describe how Jesus’s story is salvific, but is not itself the gospel. First-century Palestinian Jews, those who first heard Jesus teach would not already have in mind the Pauline articulation of justification by faith. But they would understand the gospel as being about the coming of God’s kingdom; indeed, they were waiting on it.

Here is where it is important to know what it means to say Jesus is Messiah and Lord. As McKnight says, “much of the soterian approach to evangelism (133) today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and dodges Jesus as Messiah and Lord. If there is any pervasive heresy today, it’s right here. Anyone who can preach the gospel and not make Jesus’ exalted lordship the focal point simply isn’t preaching the apostolic gospel” (134).

I think this is the reason why Messiah has largely lost its meaning in contemporary usage. It does not mean Savior, at least not directly, and it does not itself mean that its referent is God. It means “anointed one.” (“Christ” is the Greek translation of this idea.) And one of its primary connotations in early Jewish usage was the idea of the rightful king of Israel. Kings would be anointed, see the story of David in 1 Samuel for example. Israel had been promised that it would have a kingship that would be established forever, but through centuries of exile/foreign rule it did not have such a kingship. The expected and awaited rule of the Messiah, the rightful and proper king of Israel, would be the age of the kingdom of God. This is the time of things being the way they should be, of things being good for Israel, and by extension, of things being good for the world. Jesus is Messiah means Jesus has come to sort out the world and rule here.

The problem is, our personal soteriology is orthodox enough that we know we need a divine Savior, but our theology proper isn’t expansive enough to know that we need a king.

McKnight says a couple pages later: “Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means that there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord” (137). Indeed, the repeated question in the Bible is not “How am I saved?” but, as McKnight puts it, “‘Who is the rightful Lord of this cosmic temple?'” The answer is, Jesus. That’s the good news. And he redeems and restores the original plan for people to reign on the earth alongside of him. So yes, sin is a problem. But the fix for it is not motivated by a selfish (and need I mention way short-sighted) need to avoid a negative afterlife and have a positive afterlife; it is motivated by the original plan for us to be rulers and priests for God (142).

Here’s another key part of this. When we say that Jesus is Messiah of Israel, and he is also the Lord (or Master) of the world, and what this means is that he reigns, this does not mean that he reigns only in heaven. It doesn’t mean that he reigns only in my heart. It means that he reigns over all. Just as we have misunderstood “Messiah,” “Lord,” and “gospel,” we have misunderstood “kingdom of God.” This does not refer to what we commonly think of as heaven. It refers to God’s very reign itself, and the idea in the New Testament is that in one sense the kingdom of God is coming on earth, and in light of Jesus is in another sense already here. The Christian hope, therefore, is not that we will escape our bodies and the earth to go off to heaven, but that we will be raised to new life in resurrected bodies to go with a renewed creation, i.e. a new heavens and new earth. Other times, if someone realizes that “kingdom of God” refers to the reality of God’s reign and not necessarily to heaven, they still don’t know what to do with it since they still think of heaven as being the goal of our existence. One former pastor of mine almost got it right one time. I could tell he understood the kingdom of God as referring to the reign of God, but the most he could do was say that it’s about the reign of God in our own hearts. What else could he say? He didn’t realize that the kingdom of God is coming on this earth.

McKnight quotes Michael Bird on this: “Nero did not throw Christians to the lions because they confessed that ‘Jesus is the Lord of my heart.’ It was rather because they confessed that ‘Jesus is the Lord of all …'” (144).

I’m well aware that this is lost on many modern Christians, and today’s church has borne the consequences of misinterpreting the Bible and missing this. Among these consequences are the overemphasis on personal salvation, the belief that we’re going off to heaven when we die and putting that at near-central if not central importance, and neglect of the pressing issues facing the world today that Christians are called to address. There are many more. This is a crucially needed paradigm shift, and this book is one example of how this shift is going to happen. But this is at least another whole post in itself.

If you’ve read or skimmed or even skipped down this far, thank you. I know this has been nearly a book in itself, but I strongly recommend you read McKnight’s book. He fleshes out what I have touched on here with much more biblical support and gives a good bit of guidance to us in the right direction.

Basic point. The gospel is not about you being saved but about the lordship of Jesus. Key ramification is not about making a decision to accept Christ to go to heaven but about signing on board to anticipate and herald and bring in the kingdom of God that is coming on earth whether you like it or not. Salvation is involved, but it is not an end in itself. It is a means to everything a human needs to be to  please God and make him known in his kingdom.

It is only in this proper understanding of the word “gospel” that we can appreciate St. Francis of Assisi when he said “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” If the gospel is about making a decision to go to heaven, this is incomprehensible. If the gospel is the good news of Jesus being Lord of the world, then Francis has given us a stellar piece of advice.

In the last part of his book, McKnight does give us his own guidelines for making ourselves more familiar in belief and practice with the actual biblical gospel. One is to become well-acquainted with the church calendar. If you go to a church where you hear nothing about Ash Wednesday, Lent, or the season of Pentecost, this will be harder for you to do. But you can do it in your own life. McKnight says, “I know of nothing–other than regular soaking in the Bible–that can ‘gospelize’ our life more than the church calendar” (155).

Again, if you go to church that knows nothing of the church calendar, you probably know nothing of the great creeds of the church either. Look up the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds. Recite them and learn them (156-57).

Many churches today do not properly emphasize the holy sacraments. Baptism and the Eucharist (or Communion, or Lord’s Supper, or Mass) are too often ignored and misunderstood. Study these. Realize why we do them, and what they are for. Each time you witness a baptism, renew your own baptismal vows. Each time you share in the Eucharist, realize why you do so.

McKnight’s last advice is to say the Lord’s Prayer. For some Christians this is common sense. For many others, however, never is the Lord’s Prayer said in communal worship and therefore probably never said in privacy. The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful prayer thoroughly in touch with the grand story of which we are a part. Jesus gave it to us for a reason. We should pray that his kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

 I’m reading the second edition of A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament by Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004) as I read through the Old Testament this year. This powerhouse team delivers some very engaging theological points. Here are some I thought I needed to share.Image

On the creation account:

“The command to have dominion (1:28), in which God delegates responsibility for the nonhuman creation in a power-sharing relationship with humans, must be understood in terms of caregiving, not exploitation …

The verb subdue, while capable of more negative senses, here has reference to the earth and its cultivation without parallel in the Hebrew Bible and, more generally, to the becoming of a world that is dynamic, not a static reality ….

This responsibility assigned to the human has not simply to do with maintenance and preservation, but with intracreational development–bringing the world along toward its fullest possible potential.

God intends from the beginning that things not stay just as they were initially created.

God creates not a static state of affairs but a highly dynamic world in which the future lies open to various possibilities, and human beings are given a key role to play in developing them” (44).

To me, this says mainly three things: we are here in physical bodies in a physical world for a reason other than the fact than it’ll just do for the time being; there is much, much more involved in salvation than waiting for the world to come to some sort of end but involves getting on with the things we were actually created for; and this makes no sense apart from the free-will that God affords humans. We make choices that actually matter.

Quoting the scholar Frank Gorman in his comments on Exodus:

“In worship, ‘human beings are called to become participants in the continual renewal and maintenance of the created order.’ What happens in liturgy is for the sake of the world; it is a world-making activity. Worship is a God-given way for the people of God to participate in the re-creation of a new world … The activity of worship may be local, but its concerns and effects are cosmic” (155).

Worship matters this much.