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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Gospel In Context

Ever preached from one of these?
Anybody who has browsed my Bible Study series is familiar with the conviction (not uniquely mine) that context may well be the single most significant tool for determining meaning available to English students of scripture. It has certainly been the most useful to me.

This is not about that. It’s about the importance of a different sort of context: situation and audience.

A few weeks ago Immanuel Can and I had occasion to discuss the subject of the gospel and what it actually is. The four Gospels themselves (of course) record the beginnings of the “good news”, but necessarily cannot fully elaborate on all its implications. It requires the rest of the New Testament to do that, but a very good starting point is a study of how the apostles actually preached it from the very beginning (up to and including Acts 13, at any rate, which is as far as I’ve currently gone in my study).

Checking Boxes

It is both interesting and instructive to any of us who desire to obey the Great Commission to observe that the context in which the gospel was preached very much shaped the message itself and determined which elements of the gospel were stressed and which were omitted.

This is something that takes time to learn. The apostles did not memorize three, four or five key points to hit in every situation. They were not merely checking boxes, but were instead sensitive to the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Obviously the apostles preached many, many other messages during this early period. But the Holy Spirit has preserved seven for us in the first thirteen chapters of Acts.

The First Four Messages

The first four public messages are all Peter’s, beginning with his explanation of the Pentecost phenomenon in Acts 2 and ending with a short word to the Jewish Council in Acts 5. The content and tone of all four messages (and the one that follows) is dictated by the fact that this audience was immediately and personally responsible for the murder of the Messiah.

Each speech is briefer than the one before it (the first runs 27 verses and the last, four) and each is accompanied by a miracle by way of authentication: Pentecost, a healing and an angelic jailbreak. (The speeches in Acts 3 and 4 are prompted by reaction to the same miraculous event, the first taking place to the people generally in Solomon’s Portico at the temple in Jerusalem and the second the following day in front of the High Priest after the arrest of the apostles.)

Each of the four speeches contains an indictment against the people of Jerusalem and their leaders (“this Jesus … you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”, “you killed the Author of life”, “this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you” and “Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”). Each of the four also references the resurrection, and each contains a specific reminder that God has now exalted his Son to his own right hand, that the relevant miracles are proof of this and that the disciples are his witnesses. Each address also claims these events to be fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecies in absolute continuity with the Mosaic Law, and each calls for a response in the form of repentance and faith in the Christ.

The Fifth Message: Stephen Under Fire

Number 5 is Stephen’s last communication in Acts 7. The context is another Council of hostile, lying Jews falsely accusing a messenger of Christ of blasphemy. It finishes the job Peter’s message began. It’s the magnum opus of indictments concerning Israel and its rejection of their Messiah.

It rehearses practically the entire history of Israel. One of its themes is that everybody who is truly called of God is misunderstood, rejected or alienated rather than celebrated by their own people:

·        Abraham “went out from his kindred” and lived as an alien in a foreign land. Did he alienate his family in the process? Almost surely. Check.

·        Jacob? He insisted on being buried in Shechem with Abraham when generations of his family died and were buried in Egypt. Check.

·        Joseph? Let’s see: jealous brothers, sold into Egypt, outright hostility. Check.

·        How about Moses? He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. His people rejected him. Check.

Stephen sums up this way:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Not only does he indict the current generation of Jews for rejecting their prophets, but for rejecting their Law, their Messiah and the Holy Spirit and, furthermore, for doing so throughout the entire history of their nation.

Did Stephen plan to add a positive spin at the end? Was there an appeal coming? We will never know, because an angry mob stoned him to death without due process. But Stephen’s final words contain the same themes as Peter’s four messages (the tie-in to the Law and Prophets, Christ’s death, resurrection and exaltation).

And I suspect he was not cut short. This WAS the final “official” message to the Jews in Jerusalem who rejected and killed their Messiah. It marks the end of the testimony of the apostles to Jewish leadership and the end of all hope for a national repentance.

And it is no gospel message. There IS no good news for these folks, unless we count Stephen’s prayer that his stoning would not be held against them. There is no miracle to be seen, unless we count the fact that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel — and surely an angel of judgment.

The Sixth Message: Peter to the Gentiles

Acts 10 details the first official message from an apostle to the Gentiles. Tonally, it is completely different from the first five. It starts with, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” and only gets better.

The message is that God anointed Jesus with “the Holy Spirit and with power”. There is no indictment at all. It is “THEY [not “you”] put him to death … but God raised him up”. For the Gentiles, there is only good news and it ends with “everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins in his name”.

By way of proof, Peter refers to the Old Testament briefly as has been his habit, but there is little detail in this initial communication. He merely says, “To him all the prophets bear witness”. But where proof seemed crucial in communicating the gospel to Jews, in this context it is unnecessary. These Gentiles are primed and ready for the message and they joyfully believe, the Holy Spirit is poured out on them by way of validation and they are baptized.

Interesting that it is only Peter’s messages, whether to Jews or Gentiles, which are consistently authenticated with miracles. In this case it is a miracle that is particularly relevant to the message, in that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles just as on the Jews at the beginning demonstrates that God indeed shows no partiality.

In any case, it should be clear that if we are following the pattern of the New Testament, a gospel message will always be appropriate to the situation in which and the audience to whom it is preached.

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