Do you know the message of Christianity? Have you ever heard the ‘good news’? Don’t worry, I’m not going to shove it down your throat like some street corner evangelist. But these questions are worth asking because—scandalous as it sounds—I’m convinced that sometimes what Christians claim to be the ‘good news’ is, strictly speaking, not really the good news. There are two essential features of the Christian message that are sometimes overlooked or ignored: it is a message that is based on a story about who’s in power. But what’s significant about this?
It is incredibly significant that the Christian message comes from a story. To be more specific, it comes from a story about events that surround a person in a place and a time, not a system of abstract ideas. This is key, because Jesus’ earliest followers believed their message came from a true story and not just some made-up story; they viewed their message more like a news report that concerned real happenings which unfolded in history, not a mythical story that was conjured up in the imagination.
For instance, in one of Peter’s letters he asserts that ‘we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1). John introduces one of his own letters with a similar posture, and writes, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us’ (1 John 1). Luke opens his biographical account of Jesus by stating his purposes, and writes that ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account…’ (Luke 1) This is the sort of mindset that is common and often assumed throughout the writings in the New Testament. The earliest writers and messengers were sharing news, not merely novel religious ideas.
Somewhat surprisingly, Christians need be reminded of this from time to time. We need to remind ourselves because we have reduced the central message of Christianity—the good news—into sets of abstract propositions or ‘spiritual laws’ at times, and then, in some instances, we unwittingly confuse our systems with the good news itself. If we’re not careful, we risk misrepresenting the significance of Jesus’ story when we equate it with abstract systems of propositions or laws. We must remember that the central message of our faith is news about who Jesus was and what he accomplished.
Now, we also believe that this news is good, that it’s incredibly great news, in fact—the greatest news in all history! But what’s so great about this news? This bring us to our second, often overlooked, feature of the message: it is based in a story about who’s in power. We need to situate the Christian message within it’s historical setting to start to appreciate why so many rallied around this news, believing that it heralded truly great events.
You see, Jesus of Nazareth lived and breathed, travelled and taught, died and—as it is startlingly claimed—resurrected, in first-centruy Palestine, while the region and peoples were ruthlessly controlled by the Roman Empire. He grew up knowing the harsh realities of life under foreign occupation. Rome had expanded their kingdom by brutal force and maintained their power through ongoing violence and intimidation. Yet, leaders would claim that their rulership was ‘good news’ for those under the imperial regime, if you can believe it! Gospel edicts would be issued and proclaimed throughout the Empire, usually to spread the news of a significant victory on the battlefield or the reign of a new Caesar. And this news was good, but only for a few; it was good news for the privileged and the powerful for the most part, and the social, financial, and political blessings that the imperial evangelists would proclaim really only benefitted the elite. As Michael Bird notes:
The Roman Empire had its own ‘gospel,’ found in its propaganda and media that asserted that Caesar was the Lord and Savior of the world. What is more, subjects of the empire could, by devoting themselves to his patronage and power, experience the benefits of obediently living under his imperial jurisdiction.
So when Jesus’ first followers began to spread their message about who he was and what he’d accomplished, they intentionally communicated their claims through this politically-charged language. But what was the good news about Jesus that they were so eager to share? I’ve written about it and around it so far, but I haven’t written it, yet. To use N.T. Wright’s words, the good news is ‘the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world.’ This is the central message of Christianity, the news that so many throughout the following centuries have viewed to be so remarkable and revolutionary. And, if it is true, the implications of this new reality are vast and staggering!
In contrast to the good news about Caesar, the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom and Kingship is truly good news for all; it’s blessings do not just benefit the few while the many suffer in abject hopelessness and misery. In contrast to Caesar’s kingdom which is established through intimidation, oppression, and violence, Jesus’ kingdom is established through sacrificial love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In contrast to Caesar’s peace which comes by the sword, Jesus’ peace comes by the cross. And while Rome’s power for death appeared to be the strongest force in the world, Jesus’ power for life proved stronger still. So Michael Bird writes further that:
The early Christian didn’t steal the idea of a ‘gospel’ from the imperial rhetoric of the Roman empire; instead, they were exposing it as a perverse parody and a counterfeit fraud of the real gospel about the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel issues forth a challenge: Who is the real Lord of the world: the Son of David or the son of Augustus (see Luke 2:1-20; Acts 17:7)? The gospel is a royal announcement that, regardless of what the world may think of Jesus, God has validated him as Israel’s Messiah and installed him as the rightful Lord of the world.
While much gets passed off as the essence of the Christian faith, it is the good news that Jesus is King and in power, that his kingdom has arrived through his life, death, and resurrection, that is the centre of the Christian message, the foundation of the Christian faith—accept no substitutes.