Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (1)

The synoptic Gospels consistently tell us that Jesus’ mission was to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (e.g. Matt 4:23; 9:35; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43; 8:1). The Kingdom of God is mentioned over 100 times in all four canonical Gospels. While the death of Jesus is recorded in detail in all the Gospels, very little is said about it in terms of an atonement or sacrifice. In fact, even while dying on the cross rather than speaking about the significance of his death as an atonement Jesus instead discussed the coming Kingdom with one of the men crucified with Him (Lk 23:42-43) and gave him an assurance of the grace of God.

Theologians and evangelists who preach the death, burial and resurrection as the whole Gospel struggle to find the Gospel in the gospels and in the teachings of Jesus. No wonder then that the popular New International Version translates evangelion as “Gospel” throughout the New Testament except when referring to the teachings of Jesus – there it is translated “good news”. In other words, the subtle implication is that Jesus simply spoke of “good news” while Paul taught the real Gospel! Hence C.S. Lewis declared that the Gospel is not in the gospels! [1]

A tract entitled “What is the Gospel?” (published by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1980) declares that Jesus “came to do three days work, to die, be buried and raised” and that “He came not primarily to preach the Gospel . . . but He came rather that there might be a Gospel to preach.” Yet Jesus declared that He was commissioned for the very purpose of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom (“I came to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom ... that is the reason why I was sent” Luke 4:43).

We cannot separate the crucifixion of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel is not declared in the event while absent from the sayings. On the contrary, for Jesus the crucifixion was a decisive event in the end of the present evil age. He encountered head-on the religious and political leaders of His day, refusing to use their weapons, and He ultimately had the victory.

So what is the connection between the cross and the kingdom? Jesus Himself said that He was sent for the purpose of preaching the kingdom, not to die. So why did Jesus have to die?

In this series of articles I hope to explore what the New Testament says about the death of Christ and how we might benefit from it. I will explore Biblical terms such as "the blood of Christ", "Christ died for us", "sacrifice" and "atonement". In particular I want to look at what Jesus said about His own death and the significance attached to it by the Apostles and the first Christians. I especially want to look at how Jesus saw His own death in relation to His preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

In writing these articles I am conscious of the fact that thousands of others before me have attempted to explain the reasons for the death of Christ. I'm also acutely aware of the fact that the Bible itself does not give us a detailed explanation. I agree with the comments of these two scholars:

“In spite of the rich variety of imagery employed in the NT for coming to terms with Jesus’ death, the history of reflection on the cross is littered with attempts to discern its significance in narrow terms. In reality, just as the crucifixion of Jesus is the most historically certain of the events of Jesus’ life, it is also the most widely interpreted.”

Joel Green
Death of Jesus in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Intervarsity Press 1992, p. 153

“To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is also to believe that Jesus died for the sins of all. The theory of orthodox Christianity notwithstanding, the New Testament presents no authoritative theory of the atonement, in terms of why Jesus' death may have been necessary for the forgiveness of sins. What is clear is that, in view of Jesus' death, the Christian conscience does not condemn Christians for their shortcomings, as if they were guilty of transgression, but, instead, admonishes and encourages them to act consistently with what they are: the people of God (see Rom.8:1-17,31-34; Heb.10:1-25). This, again, is the maturity of life in God's kingdom: not fear, which has to do with punishment, but love, which comes from faith and hope (see I Jn. 4:18).”

Robert Hach
Restoring the New Testament Pattern

My spiritual roots are in a community which has attempted to define in rather dogmatic terms why Christ died and has consequently and repeatedly divided over the issue. In tackling this subject I am not proposing to defend any particular interpretation, or even to attempt a new one. Rather, I hope to take a fresh look at the subject by returning to the Biblical texts and endeavouring to capture the simplicity of the apostles' teaching.

[1] Introduction to J. B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches, Fontana Books, pp. 9, 10

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