Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Gospel In John

I mentioned in my last post "Gospel of John" that the word 'gospel' is not actually found anywhere in the text. The word gospel is found quite often in Matthew, Mark and Luke....along with the writings of Paul. I've been thinking about a verse in Matt/Luke for a while now, I'll just deal with the Matt version for simplicity since they are nearly identical.
Matthew 11: 1-6
1After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

2When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

4Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

What is Jesus saying here? He's stating the signs that mark himself as the Messiah. Yes, he's quoting a messianic prophesy from Isaiah, but don't throw away what is being said because it is a reference. It's a list of miracles that Jesus has been performing, it's also an exercise in "one of these things is not like the other." Putting the miracle of raising the dead alongside of 'the good news is preached to the poor' seems like two things that don't even belong together. I want to focus on that small phrase "the good news is preached to the poor" by breaking into three parts:

1. Who are the poor?
2. What is the good news?
3. What is preaching?

Who are the poor?

I've heard often when this verse is expounded upon that the "poor" here could be understood as the "poor in spirit." I vehemently disagree. Jesus talks about the "poor in spirit" in other places specifically in Matthew and mentions them AS SUCH when he's talking about them (beatitudes anybody??) so I don't feel it is responsible to assume he's speaking of them when they are not mentioned as such. So these people aren't just "the poor in spirit" they are the poor. Destitute, beggars, the bottom of the rung of society living in dust and shame. Think of the images you've seen before on TV of "the poor." I suppose I could post them, but if you're at all like me, you can bring these pictures up immediately mentally, they're burned there.

We have a hard time from our positions of wealth to really grasp what it is to be poor. That's natural. How can we truly understand something we haven't experienced? Poverty is (obviously) a debilitating condition. All physical and emotional energy is tied up in a quest for survival so that every hour of every day is an exhausting existence. Because of this exhausting existence, the poor not only remain poor, but become hopeless.

To be poor is to be powerless...powerless to change the causes of one's poverty, powerless to escape the desolation, fear, and anguish that are some of poverty's bitter fruits. There is no way out, this is the way that life is to them. So yes, they really also do become 'poor in spirit' but it is because of their extreme physical poverty that they are driven to it.

What is the good news?

The word here in greek is 'euangelion,' meaning good news or gospel. what's that? Welcome to the tricky part. Gospel really gets a firm definition on it from Pauline theology laid out nicely for us in 1 Corinthians 15:
1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

So, that's nicely laid out for us. What is the gospel? That in accordance with the Scriptures; Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised, people saw him. Ok....but what if these things hadn't happened yet? You know...since Jesus is alive and preaching the gospel before all those things occur. Is he preaching that he's going to die, be buried, raised and witnessed? Yes, sometimes, and speaking in ways that people who here him do not understand. So what benefit is that to the poor? I don't think that Jesus would be preaching this news to the poor that they would not be able to understand.

What I think, is that our understanding of gospel by looking ONLY at these verses is incomplete.

The gospel, as Paul outlines it, focuses specifically on the 'what.' I think it is important to focus on the 'why.' Why was Jesus killed, buried, raised & witnessed? What's the reason for it?

It's for us. All of us. Because Jesus was reconciling all of us to himself. Because we're loved, because we're important, because God says so. Jesus' sacrifice was for everyone, we all are respected enough and deemed important enough by God to be bought. This good news that Jesus is preaching to the poor isn't necessarily that 4-step Pauline outline of the gospel, but it is that the people (the poor) are loved. That they are important. That they can have hope. It is that Jesus is specifically there to help THEM, both in a spiritual and physical sense. If it was only one or the other you wouldn't see him both forgiving sins and doing physical miracles. Jesus' salvation is holistic, for all parts of us, for the next life AND this one.

What is preaching?

Is preaching just shouting or speaking information into the air and those who can hear it will hear it and apply it? Is preaching just presenting information and then "it's up to them" the masses, the poor, the whoever to do with the information what they will?


Preaching is not so passive. Preaching is a very involved act. Preaching means to communicate a message in ways that your audience can understand it. Jesus isn't just spouting off information into the air and letting it fall where it will. God is far more deliberate than that.

Here in Matthew 11:5 the word preached is actually a variant of 'euangelion' as well. It is one used only a few times in the New Testament and carries with it a trans-formative connotation. That the people aren't being "preached" to so much as they are being "evangelized." They are being changed and transformed by this "good news" that is being preached. This preaching is very specific, in that ONLY good news is what can be preached when this particular verb is used. It is out of context to place it with any other noun that is "preached." Almost as if the text itself is saying "the gospel is preached in the way that only the gospel can be preached." Or maybe even, "the poor are gospelized by the gospel."

This preaching is specific, this preaching is active. The poor are evangelized, they are "gospelized" in such a way that they are changed by what they are hearing. They are identifying with the message that was incompatible to their previous way of thought. That of hopelessness. That of desperation. This previous thinking is eliminated and replaced by hope, love, and empowerment.

Also, good luck with that without meeting some immediate needs of the poor. What good is a God who can save your soul and not provide you with water? What power does Jesus have if he can ONLY forgive sins and not feed a crowd of the hungry?

So why isn't this in John?

Well, I think it is. Just not in one particular line. Each gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) is an entire book taking the time to say that one line in Matthew 11:5. To expand on it, to really get into how Jesus does it, why he did it, and how we respond to it.

John's gospel is filled with examples of Jesus forgiving the sins of hopeless and desperate people. Of helping those in need, of healing the sick, of feeding the hungry, of releasing people from the ways they have been trapped by those in power above them. Especially those who have been condemned by the laws of 'the religious.'

John's gospel doesn't use the word 'euangelion' specifically in the text, but it gives a better understanding than just that word. Unfortunately for us I feel it has become so deadened by overuse that the verse has lost its power and become cliche for many. I mean specifically John 3:16-17:
16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
That is the gospel. That is the 'euangelion.' To understand and apply this is to be gospelized. John's entire gospel pivots on and points to those two small verses. As it should.