The unpopular true gospel
By Kevin Blue
The word ‘gospel’ is used only fifteen times in all the Gospels combined. And none of those verses define it very clearly. In several it is referred to as “the good news of the kingdom.” In several it is associated with the poor — good news specifically for them. If Jesus’ central concern was to distribute the good news to people, then his many sermons as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should give us a glimpse of what that good news is.
The most frequent single topic in Jesus’ teaching seems to be the kingdom of God. He is centrally concerned that people understand what this kingdom is about and that they enter the kingdom.
This kingdom of God, which is supposed to be good news particularly to the poor, is not well received by everyone. It is true that before Jesus’ trial and death, many people followed him. But these were mostly the poor, the blue-collar workers, not the economically or socially elite, not the politically powerful. The gospel that Jesus preached did not generally seem to be heard by such people as good news. A few prominent people did receive his teaching, but many others viewed it as such a threat that they killed him for it.
Down through ensuing generations of humanity, the true gospel has never been popular among those who have found great success in the world. The “gospel” that has been popular is a version that allows and commands no substantive change in the way we live, think and relate. In the United States today, divorce rates, sexual practices and consumer lifestyle choices are largely the same for those who claim Christian faith and those who do not. Few are disturbed by the “gospels” that are commonly preached, for these syncretistic versions of the Christian faith have been co-opted by our world of idols. Love of money, individualism, materialism and consumerism have polluted our Christian spirituality.
These versions don’t match up well with the economic hardship, substantial persecution, and real pain and suffering that the New Testament church underwent. Frequently what we have instead of Jesus’ good news is news that is good for allowing us to continue to do as we please. It is good news for just us. It is not good news for the poor, since we have the habit of supporting economic policies (domestic and international) that exploit the poor for our benefit. It is not about entering God’s kingdom through great difficulty and suffering, since many of our habits and strategies aim toward making ourselves comfortable. It is not about hating one’s own life or about living simply, since we indulge freely in self-realization groups and the pursuit of riches. It can’t be about making a choice of allegiances between the state, our own family and God since we are rarely forced to make these hard choices.
Though Jesus says the gospel is about justice for the poor, abandoning everything else for God’s kingdom, and hating our lives, we frequently seem to define it otherwise. The gospel apparently has become the good news that we don’t have to change and can look forward to a bright future in the world.
Yes, the kingdom of God is about evangelism: it seeks new members who desire to live under God’s direction and guidance, who are willing to be retrained in life. Yes, the kingdom of God is about healing, sometimes of a very personal and emotional nature. Yes, the kingdom of God is about power — the power of God’s Spirit ministering to finite people. And yes, the kingdom of God is about dealing with the evil and injustice in the world. Those who have become part of God’s kingdom will speak out about injustice, even as Jesus did.
Most fundamentally for us, the kingdom of God is not just about us. It is not about justifying a lifestyle that we want to live at the expense of the rest of the world. It is not just about having an ecstatic experience that would justify the way we live and help us forget our conscience and the heart of God.
Jesus is very clear that concern for those in need is a litmus test of faith, not to be failed by any who hope to enter his kingdom. God has not forgotten about the poor. The question for us is whether we have forgotten about God.
The kingdom of God is about justice. It is about people being drawn back to worship God and choosing to act faithfully. It is about personal and corporate righteousness. It is about the justice of God, the justice that his people are to pursue by his means. It is about justice and not just us. This vision, the vision of shalom, is not new, but it is news. Some of us are rediscovering it in the Scriptures and in life in the church.
Kevin Blue is the author of Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World, a director with Servant Partners, and lead pastor at the multi-ethnic Church of the Redeemer in south central Los Angeles.
Adapted from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue. Copyright © 2006 by Kevin Blue. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.