More than compassion
Hey, here’s an easy question for my fellow evangelicals: What made Jesus so amazing to his contemporaries? What convinced everyone that God himself was doing something with this guy?
While we ruminate on the obvious, let’s talk about some words that have fairly big roles in evangelical Christianity: salvation and gospel. What images come to mind when you hear salvation? Do you think of someone ‘praying to receive Christ’ for the first time? Or of heaven after death? Or maybe God’s pronouncements of (by)passage through final judgment when many will be accepted by God because of Jesus. If you grew up like me, ‘salvation’ is about pretty heavenly stuff, generally speaking. What about gospel? What do you think of when you hear that? Again, if you grew up like me you maybe think of some of the same stuff as with salvation. Maybe something, too, about Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins through believing he ‘died for us’. But now, back to the original question. What made Jesus so amazing to his contemporaries? Was it offering that kind of ‘salvation’? His promises of heaven and threats of hell? Was it his forgiving nature and acts? His brilliant (and radical) take on the Hebrew Scriptures? All of these, I would suggest, he could have done and not drawn any particularly widespread loyalty or hatred, though he likely would have been made into an irrelevant outcast himself, given his contrast with the Judaism of his day. What made everyone (even his enemies) take him so seriously, and not just dismiss this Galilean woodworker? If the gospels are to be believed, it was quite obviously his power that drew deep responses. Namely his power to heal the sick, to remove demons, to raise the dead, to control nature, to rise from the dead himself. It was more than good intentions and compassion towards people. Many feel compassion in those times and today. He was more than just “willing” to help–that made him a nice person–what made Jesus the center of the largest movement in history was that he was “willing and able” to save people from this world’s brutalities with power so great it had to be from God.
Here’s a similar question: What made the small group of poor and uneducated people (who were adding to their non-credentials the claim that their publicly crucified leader had “risen from the dead”) so amazing to their contemporaries? What convinced everyone that God himself was with these people of no account? Why did anyone listen to their messengers who had such global claims? Again, while we think on the obvious, let’s discuss our terms for a second. First, when the gospel writers talked about the ‘healing’ Jesus brought people, they used the same word when talking about the ‘salvation’ Jesus brought people. In the NT writings, Jesus’ physical healings and the more heavenly salvation that he offers are related closely enough to use the same word for each. Whatever we think ‘salvation’ is, the NT writers didn’t just think about heaven when they heard that word. They thought about really being helped–whether in heaven or on earth.
Now, in relating ‘gospel’ to ‘salvation’, I’ve always taken the one (gospel) to be the key, the mechanism, for how the other (‘salvation’) works. In one scripture the apostle Paul puts it this way, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel, because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” What happens, though, when we stick a NT concept of ‘salvation’ into that verse? The ‘power’ referenced in that verse gets appreciably larger–it goes from being a ‘power’ about heaven and life after death, to a power concerning heaven and earth–a bigger power. Interestingly, it echos something Jesus said about himself, just before his ascension: “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.” All authority. heaven and earth. What’s more, he said this right before giving what’s called ‘the Great Commission’: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .” Even without these particular verses, it’s clear from the Gospels and Acts that the ‘salvation’ people sought and received from Jesus and his disciples wasn’t just a heavenly one. It’s also clear that Jesus didn’t understand himself or his disciples as having no authority over earthly things. They used God’s power to save in every possible way, in every possible venue. In that context they invited people to trust Jesus with everything (in heaven and on earth).
Is there a difference between the “salvation” and “gospel” we’ve announced and the one Jesus and the disciples did? If so, what’s the difference? To me, the difference in a nutshell is that we announce a Jesus that lacks power (or willingness) to do things on earth, at least the kind of power that made Jesus’ own contemporaries and those of his diciples after him take him and his message seriously. This isn’t just an academic issue, either. To misrepresent the power of any king or his kingdom is serious a slander of that king or that kingdom. It might be the most serious slander. It’s a particularly effective slander if it comes from that king’s own subjects. Before we continue to stand on such a potentially slanderous theology or practice, we ought to have overwhelming biblical support, especially in light of the role that Christ’s power to heal played in Jesus’ own evangelism, in the disciples’ witness, and their disciples’ witness (Stephen, Barnabas, etc.). The NT examples are too frequent, the momentum toward practicing the miraculous too strong, to be overthrown on any questionable or scripturally thin theology, and too much is at stake. Out of love for Jesus and the sakes of those to whom we are sent as his ambassadors, we need to honestly ask and seek what kind of ‘salvation’, what kind of ‘savior’, that Jesus and his disciples offered the world, compare it to what we offer, and make whatever adjustments are required.