Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What is the Good News?

Have you ever played whisper down the lane? Isn't it fascinating that someone can whisper a coherent sentence to a friend and then watch as that sentence changes slightly as it passes from person to person. Get enough people involved and by the time the sentence has been whispered all the way down the lane it sounds nothing like the original message.

I am concerned that we have experienced something like this down through the ages of church history. The Gospel or good news that we preach today is an interesting variant of the Gospel we have recorded in the Bible. Am I suggesting that I know some secret that is unavailable to the rest of the church? Of course not. I simply believe that there is an honest way to read the Bible and there is a dishonest way to read the Bible.

First, we must recognize that the writers of Scripture had an agenda as they wrote. Each writer chose the words, and chose the stories he or she (after all we are not really sure who wrote Hebrews) wished to include for the purpose of making their point. So in reality we have five major Gospel stories. We have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul. Paul, you say? Yes, Paul. After all, it is the message of Paul as he preached the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles that has largely become our Gospel today.

It is Paul who teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
It is Paul who teaches that the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.
It is Paul who teaches that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead you will be saved.

Matthew wrote a story that was largely concerned with how Jews heard the Gospel.
Mark wrote a very condensed story that hit the high points and didn't include as much material as the others.
Luke put together a story as accurately as he could so that his friend Theo would have an accurate account of Jesus.
John had an agenda vastly different than the others as he spoke of the "Word of God" and how this was revealed as Jesus.
Paul was specifically packaging his message to reach Gentiles. Remember, the people who heard Paul's Gospel did not have the advantage of having a New Testament. Paul was all they knew about Jesus.

In short, trying to synthesize these Gospel stories is to ignore the intent of the Scripture writers. I believe it is dishonest to look at these five "witnesses" as though we are looking at a crime scene and are trying to recreate the "whole" story. It is much more honest to ask ourselves why each of these writers told the story the way they did.

Second, let's not refer to the Gospel of Jesus unless we are referencing the stuff Jesus taught. Too many ideas get ascribed to Jesus that simply weren't his. For instance, most of us think that sin and salvation is a largely personal or individual event; that the kingdom message is one of repentance from things like stealing, sexual promiscuity, and rude behaviors. If you read the Gospel according to Luke you will find that repentance and righteousness are ideas and activities contained in the messge and ministry of John the Baptist. These are preparatory for the coming of Jesus. John's ministry was to prepare people for Jesus. Somehow, John's ministry has become the message of the kingdom, instead of the stuff Jesus taught.

Jesus' message was one that addressed societal sin, value systems, powers and authorities. Jesus confronted what the world values and offered another way. Yes, personal salvation is part of the good news. But it is portrayed (at least in Luke) as the doorway into the kingdom. It is not the kingdom message.

What is the good news? It's right there in our Bibles. Let's stop playing whisper down the lane and dig for ourselves until WE hear the good news that Jesus brought from heaven.

Just some stuff that we should talk about!


  1. We called that game telephone, where I came from. It is totally bizarre how a sentence can be butchered as it goes down the line. You use this metaphor to say that dishonesty occurs when we listen poorly to the message being told us, and that this "listening" is actually the way we read the scripture. That by reading the scriptures in the wrong way we are unable to hear the original message. Ok, that makes sense to me. What doesn't make sense, however, is why reading the new testament as a whole is inherently wrong. Aren't these just two different ways of studying scripture? Can't both of these ways of study be useful? Are the intents of these writers going to contradict each other?

    I see value in studying scripture in both ways. I like your metaphor because it puts emphasis on how we hear the message, and what we do with the scripture after we read it. If there is dishonesty I see, it is to read scripture and not ask the Holy Spirit what it means and let him speak to us about it. After all, isn't the point of studying scripture to get us to interact with God, wrestle with the meaning and implications of the scriptures, and have him lead us into it?

    I can study book by book, or a "synthesis", but it means nothing if I don't let Jesus be Lord of my life and the Holy Spirit teach/guide me.

    PS - please explain yourself :)

  2. Synthesis is a term that I associate with the idea of the Synoptic Gospels. A lot of Biblical scholarship has focused on an attempt to synthesize the different Gospels so that we have one "complete" story of Jesus. A story in which we have all the facts straight and the time line nailed down and the various discrepencies figured out.

    Inherent in this process is the need to "trim" the edges so that the pieces fit. For example: Matthew records that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," while Luke records Jesus' words as, "Blessed are the poor."

    The attempt to "synthesize" these two stories makes a couple of faulty presumptions as well as one big mistake in its conclusion.

    1. Some Bible readers assume that both accounts cannot be correct and
    2. therefore we must interpret one in light of the other.

    3. The conclusion is usually that Matthew's account is "more accurate" and that Luke left off a few crucial words. We then "spiritualize" Luke's account and synthesize it to agree with Matthew's account.

    So we can see that synthesizing can be an out for us as we consider the more radical teachings of Jesus.

    I think a well read student of the Bible will develop a comprehensive understanding of each of the Gospel accounts, but would be wise to take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at face value, realizing that they told their stories for a reason and included what they felt was significant for their purposes. Things that don't seem to agree should not be made to fit, but rather should be left in tension.