June 5, 2020

The Gospel: Its Biblical Context

Nicodemus, Lautermilch

By Chaplain Mike

One challenge in communicating the Gospel concisely lies in squaring its simplicity with the fact that it is contained in the Bible — a vast library of 66 books that is a complex work, composed of ancient materials.

One can find, for example simple summary statements of the Gospel like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Now that is simple, succinct, clear. However, when you read the context in John 3 carefully, you discover a complex conversation in which Jesus talks with a renowned Jewish teacher using terms and examples from the story of Israel, prophecies of the New Covenant, and explanatory comments from the author using his own unique theological language.

What Leon Morris once said about the Gospel of John, can be appropriately applied to the subject of the Gospel: “It is a pool in which a child may wade, and an elephant may swim.”

Therefore, one can describe the Gospel simply and succinctly, or one can try to express something of its fullness by putting it in the context of the entire Biblical story.

I found something helpful in Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testment Theology, something I will use in my teaching and talking about the Gospel in its complex context. I think it helps explain how the Old Testament provides the context for Jesus and the Gospel in a way that is both easy to understand and fairly comprehensive. I have adapted it somewhat, but the heart of what I say here reflects Waltke’s analysis.

Moses fixes the brazen serpent on a pole, Hoet

When discussing whether there is a “center” to the Bible’s message–a core summarizing theme–Bruce Waltke points to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” For Waltke, the center of the Biblical message is God establishing his rule in the universe he created.

This central message is played out via five components:

  1. God’s people
  2. In God’s land
  3. With God’s laws
  4. Under the rule of God’s king
  5. In order to bring God’s blessing to all the earth

All these themes are present from the beginning of the Bible, and they run concurrently with varying emphasis throughout. For example, in the “Primary History” (Genesis-Kings):

  • Genesis 1-11 introduces all these themes.
  • The primary function of Genesis 12-Exodus 19 is to identify God’s people.
  • The primary function of Exodus 20-Deuteronomy is to prepare them for life in the land with God’s laws.
  • The primary function of Joshua-Kings is to tell the story of their life in the land with God’s laws under the rule of God’s king.
  • All this took place in order that Israel might be God’s priests to the other nations of the world (Exodus 19.5-6).

Unfortunately, the Old Testament ends with failure.

  • Israel failed to live up to their calling as God’s people.
  • They failed to keep God’s laws.
  • Their failures led to exile from the land.
  • God’s kings had been almost unqualified disasters, leading the nation to ruin.
  • Instead of a light, they became a laughingstock among the nations.
  • Though Israel returned to the land physically, they never regained their former glory or standing. They remained under foreign domination; for all practical purposes, still in “exile.”

That brings us to the story of Jesus. What Israel failed to do, the One True Israelite, Jesus Christ did.

  • As God confirmed at his baptism, Jesus was God’s Son, in whom he was pleased.
  • Jesus kept God’s law and lived a life of perfect righteousness.
  • Jesus taught and exemplified the true nature of God’s Kingdom.
  • Jesus showed himself to be the light of Israel and the light of the world.
  • Through Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, he atoned for sin and opened the way for the gathering of God’s people from all corners of the earth, from spiritual exile into reconciliation with God.

The Gospel is Jesus, accomplishing what Israel could not.

Comments

  1. That a child may wade and an elephant swim is so true of all spiritual verse. For those with eyes to see it is an ocean and for those without, a puddle.

  2. This reading of the Hebrew Bible seems anachronistic, in fact it seems a lot like the idiosyncratic reading of the Hebrew Bible given by the the authors of the New Testament.

    In what sense then is the Biblical context of the Gospel insufficiently provided for in the New Testament?

    Perhaps the perfect statement of the Gospel are the Gospels themselves.

    • Dan, I am not sure I understand your questions. There is no “NT context” by itself for the gospel. In fact one main point of all four gospels is to portray Jesus in the light of Israel’s story.

      • Chaplain Mike,

        As you rightly point out the Gospel authors took great care in weaving many parts of the Hebrew Bible into their narratives. I believe the Gospel authors and the authors of the remainder of the New Testament (Particularly Paul) embraced the sort of reading you’ve given of Israel’s story.

        Which is to say, doesn’t the Gospel (of Mark etc.) already present the Biblical context of the Gospel (Proclamation)? If the goal is a Christian understanding of Israel’s story it seems one simply needs to read the New Testament.

        • Dan – great question and thought and one that I deal with fairly consistently at my home church – the church does not disregard the OT but much of the focus is indeed NT, so that I get that question every so often – why do we really need to read the OT. I wonder if the references in the NT to OT is sufficient to give us that grounding to better understand what was going on in the Gospels and letters. I remember a few years back know picking up Yancey’s The Bible Jesus Read. Not attempting to speak for what Chaplain was seeking to accomplish here but it is in my experience something we need to pay more attention to as we walk along this journey together.

          • Bill,

            Thanks! I think we need to come to terms with the fact that the Hebrew Bible has never been at the center of the preaching of the Gospel (Proclamation) the Gospel (Mark etc.) has always been at the center.

            When we start to speak of the ‘center’ of the Bible’s message (Both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible) I fear we’re trying to collapse two things which we value, Gospel (Proclamation) and the scriptures, resulting in loosing the distinguishing features of both.

            In the life of the church the Hebrew Bible has always been on the back burner and the Gospels (Mark etc.) in the forefront. I really don’t see anything wrong with that. I wonder if our love for the Gospel (Proclamation) often causes us to try to equate all of our scriptures, traditions, and religious practices with it.

            I know Chaplain Mike wishes to avoid doing that but I wonder if this attempt to read the Gospel into the Hebrew Bible isn’t emblematic of that very temptation.

          • Dan, the great love of my life of study has been the Old Testament. I have become convinced that the message of the OT is the gospel as well, and I hope to show it quite clearly only by reference to the OT itself. Stay tuned…

          • Chaplain Mike,

            Looking forward to reading your future posts on this!

          • Now would be a good time to plug a book by a former professor of mine:

            Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

            It’s what Chaplain Mike is talking about.

          • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

            My OT professor was really good at this. You should hear his take on how the book of Exodus is the Gospel in the OT. Really neat stuff.

            I spent many years in a congregation that spent most of its time in the Torah proper. I also spent a lot of time getting to know the entire OT much better than most of the folks in my current congregation (hey, I’m an ordination postulant; that’s my job). I’ve totally come to realize that the OT is completely vital to understanding the NT. Sure, the NT writers freely quote from the NT and put stuff into context, but you can’t really know the Big Story (the Meta-Narrative) of which the Gospel is the most important part if you don’t know the first half of the story. It’s vitally, vitally, vitally important to know your OT just as well as you know your NT if you want to really know the Big Story.

          • Isaac, you and your prof would get along just great with Marv. He also teaches a course called “Modern Jewish Culture” which not only takes modern Judaism back to its roots (with hands-on experience, visits to synagogues, seders, etc) but the Christian faith and the NT back to the OT as well. Really puts the NT into perspective.

        • Steve Newell says

          We need to understand that we are to read the entire Old Testament as pointing to Christ. Christ stated that purpose of the Old Testament was to testify to Christ (John 5:39-40)

          When I read Genesis, I see the Christ in promises after the Fall, the promise to Abraham.

          • Dan – I hear your point and understand the concern about reading the Gospel into the Hebrew Bible. I am anticipating more in this series as I suspect it is not some sort of conflating OT and NT – that would be an error I think – but understanding that the Gospels and the NT have a much richer meaning when using the OT as the context as well the Gospels rest upon all of the history and interactions between Yahweh and the Israelites. To chop it off would be, imho, equally an error, yet as I mentioned earlier that is often the case. As an example, when justice is discussed in the NT, we have this rich lode of what justice means through the OT (Dunn wrote a short yet powerful book on this point).

  3. I appreciate this series very much – can we ever discuss the gospel too much? I’d guess not…

    One thing I struggle with in this summary is the term “failure” being applied to Israel at the end of the Old Testament. Maybe it’s because I have such a reaction to my dispensational upbringing and am being uber-sensitive, but this sounds much like the dispensational system to me.

    To say that Israel failed seems a contradiction of the OT record, especially when it concerns the covenant God made with Abraham. I say this because only God walked through the animals, signifying that He alone will fulfill the covenant with Israel. Israel could not fail because the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth didn’t depend on them.

    In addition, is the church not spiritual Israel? The true Israel? If this is true, then the nation of Israel in the OT was not an experiment which failed, but the beginning of the church, the kingdom of God on earth.

    I’m no biblical expert, and if my comments make it seem that I am very sure of myself, please put that notion out of your minds. Also, as I read back over my comments, they seem very nitpicky and unimportant in the scope of things. In other words, I’m very open to critique and discussion…

    Matt

    • There is a difference between saying the covenant could fail and saying Israel failed. By walking through the animals, as you noted, God is saying that His covenant couldn’t fail. Israel, however, did fail to live up to standards put forth in the covenant. God didn’t abandon her, though.

      I don’t think this article ever says that Israel was an experiment that failed. I don’t think experiment is the right word. I don’t think that God necessarily thought the Israel would be faithful, but I do think He made a way so that Israel could live as His people. I don’t think God was scrambling to come up with stop-gap measures until Jesus could come. The Messiah was part of the plan from the beginning.

      As far as the Church being a spiritual Israel, that is in a sense true. The Church is the family of God, but it’s not in a replacement sense. We are, after all, grafted into the root of Israel. The grafted in branches don’t replace the tree, but they become part of the original tree. I’d also say that the original tree isn’t the Jewish religion or culture, but it’s the original family of God. The Jewish religion itself is an obsolete thing. I can see how this view does come close to a sort of replacement theology, but that term itself is actually kind of hard to nail down. It means different things to different people.

      • Thanks for the articulation – I believe you said what I wanted to say better than I was able to. There are just some words that send me back into my theological upbringing, such as Israel “failing”, and then it’s hard for me to think and see clearly.

        Matt

    • I plan to write more about this soon, because there is a lot of misunderstanding flying around out there about “replacement theology” and so on. The point is not that anyone “replaced” Israel, but that Jesus “fulfilled” Israel’s calling, doing what Israel was unable to do under the Sinai covenant. Jesus is the “true vine” (John 15), the true Israel. Now, it is those who are “in Christ” by grace through faith who receive the blessing promised to Abraham.

      This is the heart of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3-4, which I think is the key passage in the NT outlining Paul’s view of salvation history and the relationship between Israel and the church.

      • Yes – I would very much appreciate some clear writing on replacement theology! I get very confused on the topic…

        • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

          A really helpful set of writings on this is NT Wright’s commentary on Romans for the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary series (I think it’s volume XII). In some circles, the term “replacement theology” (or supersessionist) is used as a conversation ender. It’s like pulling out the accusation of being racist or anti-Semitic. Once the supersessionist card gets played, everyone backpedals and the conversation is over. Unfortunately that leads to the confusion you’re experiencing. Everyone knows replacement theology is bad, but no one really knows what it actually is!

          National Israel failed in its mission. By the end of the OT, Israel has no land, no king, and has lost about 5/6ths of its citizens. The people who were supposed to have an eternal homeland with an eternal dynasty were serfs to bigger empires and were virtual slaves in the land that was supposed to be theirs. The OT’s story is clear: that failure was due to sin. But it also ends with hope. The exile wasn’t forever, and the Messianic hope is bigger than ever.

          Enter Jesus; True God. True Man. True Israelite. The covenant representative of all three of these parties (and I’d love to go into how Israel was to be the covenant representative of a redeemed humankind, but there just isn’t the space). Did national Israel fail it’s mission? Yep. But the Messiah stood in for the Nation to fulfill it and expand its boundaries to include people from all nations. Neat, neat, neat stuff.

  4. CM, I find it most interesting that if we have a conversation about worship styles, consumer Christianity, or Catholic practices, we have tons of comments, but when we discuss the Gospel, only 10 (so far). Could it be that believers aren’t interested? Or perhaps we’re so vain as to think, “I understand this, so I don’t need any clarification or in-depth reading on the subject. I’ve got it figured out.”

    Keep it coming, CM. Martin Luther once told his congregation (loosely quoted) that he would stop preaching the Gospel once they started looking like a people who believed it!

    I just feel like stirrin’ the pot today.

    • Lee,

      I frequently notice the same phenomenon! One other explanation, though, for why some don’t post may be that they think “Such knowledge is too wonderful to me; I cannot attain unto it.” That’s pretty much where I fall in this discussion.

      Keep stirring the pot.

    • I find that those subjects where it is easier to have an opinion i.e. worship styles, the more likely people are to comment.

    • Josh in FW says

      Like Damaris said, there are a lot us that are just reading and not commenting because the topic itself is intimidating.

  5. !

  6. This is Great!
    How about the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

  7. “Such knowledge is too wonderful to me; I cannot attain unto it.”

    Damaris, that is a much more poetic way of expressing what I may say with, “Huh?” 🙂

    I have read your stuff, though, Damaris, and I know you are way above me in the “understanding” department.

  8. It could be that too many Christians see the gospel as the elemental teaching which Hebrews 6:1 tells us to leave behind and move onto maturity. It reminds me of an iMonk post from a couple of years ago which addressed this, that the gospel is central to everything we do as Christians – like the hub of a wheel, from which the spokes radiate outward. In addition, what many have received is not the gospel but law wrapped in enthusiasm. I don’t think you can over-estimate the point regarding the Father being well pleased with His Son. My worship and my works do not add one degree to that, but almost every Sunday I hear that we are supposed to offer praise which will please (appease?) God. The message of the Old Testament is not that things would be so much different had the Hebrews got it right (I have heard many teachers speculate about this) or that we can be the godly nation that Israel was not (cultural war, anyone?); rather, it is that Jesus got it right.

  9. When I was reading Chaplain Mike’s writing about ancient Israel… this is what I read in my mind – simply replaced “Israel” with “the church”, etc. (bold types are me). I’m probably using hyperbole here, but this is kinda where I’m at right now…

    Unfortunately, OUR TIME ends with failure.
    THE CHURCH failed to live up to their calling as God’s people.
    They failed to keep God’s laws.
    Their failures led to exile from the land.
    God’s CHURCH DENOMINATIONS had been almost unqualified disasters, leading the THE CHURCH to ruin.
    Instead of a light, they became a laughingstock among the nations.
    Though THE CHURCH REMAINED in the land physically, they never regained their former glory or standing. They remained under POLITICAL MANIPULATION; for all practical purposes, still in “exile.”

    That brings us BACK to the story of Jesus!!! (And me back to wrestling with how scripture promises that the church is the bride of Christ and that through the church Christ will do his kingdom work)

  10. Charles Joshua Lake says

    “The Gospel is Jesus, accomplishing what Israel could not.”

    This sentence fell on me like manna from heaven.

  11. The gospel is the good news of the risen Jesus, victorious over death and sin, exalted by God, seated on his throne in heaven, waiting to establish his kingdom on earth.
    Jesus, true son of Abraham and David, is God’s salvation that comes from Israel, not a overcoming of Israel, but its culmination. Jesus is not the end of Israel’s history but his central point.
    In the Old Testament we find the context for understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God and his King.
    In my opinion, it is impossible to understand Jesus properly except in terms of the Old Testament. The Old Testament provides us the correct definition of terms. Jesus is not detached from the history of Israel. There is not dichotomy between the message of Jesus and the message of the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the promises made ??by God in the Law and the Prophets.

  12. Quixotequest says

    Not a complaint I wish to negate my appreciation for the article but a small point: In a post-Reformation yet post-Evangelical reality, why make it a point of detail to say “the 66 books of the Bible”? Can’t we in grace and fellowship with other ecclesia traditions work to affirm the central Good News and common authority by which we bind our judgment without having to emphasize which bibliography book count tradition to which we adhere? Does it really matter whether God was “silent” or not during the “inter-Testamental” period and how rigidly we dance about the pseudepigraphal authorship realities of the primary canon?

  13. Christiane says

    What I can never grasp is the unfathomable void
    between the tremendous respect that my Catholic Church has for Judaism and its tradition,
    and the tremendous condemnation and contempt that fundamentalist/evangelicals have for the same..

    For me, this ‘void’ goes beyond a great separation . . . even more so than the one that divided Christians during the Reformation . . . .

    • Are you saying that what we are teaching is evidence of that “condemnation or contempt,” Christiane? I hope not, for if so I have certainly miscommunicated.