The Process of the GospelThursday, May 19, 2005
The Process of the Gospel
I got only three hours of sleep last night. I slept from 3:30 this morning to 6:30. Do you know why? Because I was one of those crazy few (along with my crazy buddy Jonathan) who stood in line for over two and a half hours last night to see the very first showing of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, at 12:05 this morning. It was well worth the wait, especially since we got to see so many fan-atics all dressed up in Star Wars costumes holding or swinging their periphanalia.
Of particular interest in the Star Wars series are, of course, the Jedi's, the masters and keepers of peace and good. As Jonathan and I kept each other awake on the thirty minute drive back home I pondered what redeeming values were present in the movie, values that could be captured for the sake of the gospel and the communication of it. The Jedi Order does just that. How so? Because it illustrates well the process of the gospel in the New Testament: a padawan learning the ways of the force from his master, then becoming a Jedi, then becoming a master, taking on a padawan of his own, and so repeating the process and replicating the order. That is the purpose of this post: to explain in biblical terms the process of the gospel as Paul (not master Yoda) understood it.
The State of Evangelicalism's Usage of the Gospel Today
When I consider the state of the gospel in current evangelicalism and the theories and methods of communicating I’m absolutely stunned. It seems as if the last two generations, including this present one, have seemingly missed the point of the gospel altogether. I hate to be so critical and sound so condemning, but it’s the truth. I’m willing to bet that the average church member could not give a biblically adequate answer to the question, “what is the gospel?” other than answering with John 3:16 or perhaps with a feeble response regarding Jesus dying on the cross.
As a result of the loose grip the church has on the gospel, it is no wonder that my generation and the one following me will see a decrease in the number of true converts in the United States. To not understand the gospel properly is to not communicate it properly. Or, to better state it, since it isn’t understood it simply isn’t being shared. Oh, a gospel is being shared today, to be sure. But I’m afraid it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is more akin to a gospel that helps us solve our problems, raise better kids, get along with our spouses, enjoy our jobs, budget our money, and eat better. That’s a utilitarian gospel, not a biblical gospel. This understanding of the gospel sees it simply as a way to make our lives better. This is the gospel that is being spread today throughout America in our pulpits, seminaries, bible studies, books, videos and television programs. This is the reason why there are so few genuine disciples of Jesus Christ in America’s churches today.
But the purpose of this post isn’t to answer this problem completely. For the last year I've spent my Sunday morning pulpit opportunities defining the biblical gospel. But the issue I do want to address in this post is the communication of the gospel. My intention here is deeply related to my complaint and concern. How so? Because along with the lack of understanding the true, biblical gospel, there has naturally and logically developed a lack of properly communicating it. Or perhaps I should state it inside-out: the gospel most American Christians are communicating isn’t the biblical gospel, because if it were they would communicate it in a way that is in keeping with its message. What exactly do I mean?
The same Bible that defines the gospel is the same Bible which clearly defines the method for communicating it. There is a definite and biblical process to the gospel, one which is clearly unfolded for us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1 ff.). In that text Paul uses three Greek words that portray a process of communicating the gospel which faithfully and accurately communicates the message of the gospel. The method of communication must stand in harmony with the message itself. If it doesn’t, the method will obscure the message. This is what has happened today with even well-intentioned churches. Many churches do in fact know the true, biblical gospel, yet they either unwittingly or else purposefully use methods of communicating it that are ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and intended to gain an ear with and reach the masses.
The two biggest methods in use today are music and drama. This is the reason behind the many styles and genres of Christian music today. For some, Christian music is a way to express individual musical style while feeling good about this selfish pursuit under the label “Christian. For others, Christian music is a tool to be used to reach certain sects of society for Christ. While the first group has ‘Christianized’ music such that it no longer has Jesus Christ as the object of pleasure and pursuit, the second group has attempted to sort of wrap the gospel in a feel-good package so that lost people will want to open it up and enjoy it.
Then there’s the movie industry. The Christian entertainment industry has made huge strides into the mainstream entertainment market in the last twenty years, and especially the last five to six years. I could name a few that you would recognize, but that’s not necessary and some people might get offended that I ‘bagged on’ their favorite movie or video series! But in my house, Veggie Tales promotes “Sunday morning values with Saturday morning fun" and Bibleman fights evil incarnate in the chrome-plated full armor of God, on top of spandex, of course. Little Dogs on the Prairie uses adult wit and great humor to teach various biblically based morals, as well as other video series like Hermie. We’ve got a few other series that I can’t quite see from the angle where I’m sitting. But combine this with Left Behind I, Left Behind II, The Omega Code, Megiddo, and The Passion of the Christ (oops! There I went and named off a few after I said I wouldn’t!) to (accidentally!) name a few, and what you have is a Christian movie without an ultra-biblically clear gospel. It has all become Christian without the Christ of Scriptures.
I’m not against Christian music and movies, per se. I enjoyed all these videos and movies (well, sort of). But I do squirm at the call to behave biblically without an explanation that a child can’t do that without hearing, understanding and welcoming the gospel of Jesus Christ into their lives. I revolt inside when the morals of Jesus are taught without Jesus and without reference to His gospel that confronts the lack of morality in the first place. And I’m about ready to jump out of a window (first floor window, of course) when sin is so hidden and masked by concepts and phrases that soften it to the point where the dark cloud of God’s imminent wrath that the Bible speaks of is basically turned into a sunshiny day with a little rain cloud gently wandering in the sky.
I could go on and on and on…continuing to grip and complain about all of this, but that’s not the point of this post is it! To return to the main point, the Bible teaches plainly and clearly that there is only one ordained and God-approved method of communicating the gospel. That method is preaching. That’s it. Not music. Not movies and videos. Not any form of entertainment. Only preaching. That’s all we see Paul doing in the NT, isn’t it? That’s all we see any of the of the disciples doing, and that’s all we see Jesus Himself doing, for that matter. There was no Peter, Paul and Mary musical trio. There was no rock band called The Twelve. There were no dramas or plays put on by Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy and Luke in the synagogues to reach the unbelieving Jews. And Paul would have certainly had his chance to do just this in Acts 17 to the group gathered at the Aeropagus on Mars Hill. But he didn’t. And neither did any of the other disciples. Jesus charge to them in Mark 16:15 was to “preach the gospel to every creature.” His mandate in Matthew 28:18-20 was to make disciples by “teaching them everything I have commanded you.” Before he was beheaded, Paul’s last charge to Timothy was to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). And this is the first important word I point you towards in 1 Corinthians 15:1.
The Three-Fold Process of the Gospel
1. The Gospel is 'Preached.' Paul says, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…” This Greek verb is euangelizomai (pronounced, you-ang-eh-leedz-oh-my!), and it comes from the noun euangelion (pronounced, you-an-gelleeon) from which we get our English word “evangelism” and “evangelize.” The noun is the word Paul used for “gospel.” Literally, the first phrase could be translated, “the gospel which I gospeled to you.” This is an intentional sort of play on words Paul intends here, because he purposefully used this particular verb for “preach” rather than the other one he uses more often (kerusso, pronounced kay-roo-so). The verb simply means “to announce good news.”
Let me put it this way, in the form of a rhetorical question: What’s the best way to tell someone about some good news you want to communicate to them? TELL THEM! Now, I suppose that you could sing it to them, or perhaps even act it out for them. And I suppose that someone could argue, albeit rather loosely, that such a method suffices for telling. But as one who is committed to the inerrancy of Scripture – which means I must focus on the actual words and meanings of words that are given in the Scriptures – I am forced to fix my gaze on what the text does say and not spend time rationalizing other ways to do what it plainly tells me to do. When I do that, I become like my five-year old who tries to think up of the most creative ways to make his bed, when just making his bed would take up far less time and would accomplish the task without diverting his attention to other things. And I feel that is exactly what happens when the gospel is not preached, but is rather couched in song and entertainment. Let’s just say what God wants us to say, which is found in the Bible, and let’s say it like He told us to say it, which is also found in the Bible.
Now, why all of the sudden am I including us, you, and me into this mandate of preaching I have just pointed to? After all, Jesus did tell the disciples to preach the gospel, and Paul did tell Timothy to preach the gospel. But nowhere am I commanded to preach the gospel. Or am I? This leads me to the next part of the process of communicating the gospel.
Simply put, once someone tells you about it, and you welcome it and receive it, it is incumbent you to go and tell someone else. Where do I get that from? I could get it from the same mandate that was given to the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. If Jesus commanded His disciples to teach new disciples everything He had commanded the disciples, wouldn’t one of those commands they would teach a new believer be the initial command itself to teach everything He had commanded? That makes sense. In an indirect sort of way, I’ve been directly commanded by Jesus then to make new disciples by teaching them the commands of Jesus, one of which is for them to go out and make new disciples, etc.
2. The Gospel is 'Received.' While I could (and did) turn to that passage for support, I want to keep our attention focused on 1 Corinthians 15:1 where Paul says, “I remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received…” The key word here is “received.” In verse three, he uses it again, this time with reference to himself: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” A better translation of the phrase is, “I passed on to you what I also learned from another…” This same thought is used just four chapters earlier in 11:23 where Paul says, “for I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…” The Greek word behind our English “received” is real simple: to learn from someone or be taught by someone. The more basic meaning of the word is “to be brought along by someone.” To ‘receive’ the gospel then means to be brought along by someone else who is preaching the gospel.
3. The Gospel is 'Delivered' or 'Entrusted.' To drive the point home even more, look at the third most important word in the text – “For I delivered to you…what I also received…” This Greek word is paredoka (pronounced par-eh-do-kah) and it means “to entrust, commit, hand down, pass on.” The root word means “to pass on traditional instruction, often implying over a long period of time.” Ooh, that last phrase really hurts if you are the type of Christian whose only means of evangelizing at the present is handing out tracts and Bibles. That is good, and I want you to keep on doing it, so don’t get me wrong. But we both know that instruction is hardly ever a one time effort.
The words “entrust, commit, hand down” all reflect the fact that something very valuable and important is being put into our hands. The carpenter entrusts and hands down his skill to his apprentice over a period of time. He doesn’t just hand him a book and tell him, “I’ll pray for you.” A father doesn’t tell his son the important things of life just once, but rather he does it again and again, over the course of several years.
Applying the Three-Fold Process of the Gospel
Consider the undeniable implication, then: Paul received the gospel. He then preached the gospel. And this preaching was delivered to them over a lengthy period of time. The Corinthians received it. So what should they do with it? The bottom line is that the gospel is something we preach, and in that preaching we entrust and commit it to others by slowly bringing others along into its truth and eventually into an acceptance of that truth (by God’s Spirit, of course). The gospel is a message that obligates the receiver to bring someone else along into it. This takes time. And we should be very purposeful about the amount of time we expend in evangelizing the lost. We too often expect that a door-to-door visit with a lost person should yield a ripe opportunity to share the message of the gospel followed immediately by the sinner’s prayer. That’s not reality. It is not biblical reality either.
The very nature of that gospel has always carried with it the biblical tradition and mandate of preaching and entrusting it to others diligently, consistently, and patiently. That tradition should not be violated or changed. I’m convinced that more people would come to Christ not only if more churches and Christians got the gospel right, but also if the Christians and churches who do have it right started sharing it right.
Now the call goes out to you? Have you received the gospel? If so, you learned it from someone else. Has it found a dead-end in your life? If so, I must question, as your pastor, whether or not you have truly received the biblical gospel. If you have, it would automatically perform its task of spiritually, mentally and emotionally obligating you to share it with someone else, just as it did with the apostle Paul. If you’re like me, you want to see this local church body grow in number. While I’m not a numbers guy, to be sure, I am also biblically convinced that the gospel cannot help but spread just as Jesus promised it would. I’m convinced that Christians birth more Christians. I’m convinced that the gospel is still the power of God to save anyone who believes. And all these convictions mean that our church will grow in numbers. But it starts with you.
If you really are a Christian, who are you bringing along into the good news of the gospel? Who is the last person you can name who has received the gospel from your efforts (yes, you can count your children if you want to get technical!)? May God use these insights, questions and comments to challenge you on this issue which is, in all honesty, the very lifeblood of the local church. Not to do what I have taught you from the Scriptures on a matter so essential as this, is to actively pursue the death of this local church. Isn’t that what happens if we don’t reproduce ourselves? A family without children cannot survive into the future. And a church without spiritual children will also have no future. Let’s reproduce ourselves for heaven’s sake, for the gospel’s sake, for the kingdom’s sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of our local churches to whom we have committed our lives and our families.