This year’s theme is “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you,” taken from 1 Peter 2:9. At some point this year I am going to preach through 1 Peter to put this theme in context, but this morning I want to speak with you about the basic meaning of this year’s theme.
We can proclaim the excellencies of God in a lot of ways. We can do it through worship, praising Him for His awesome splendor. The NIV translates this expression, “declare the praises” of God. We can even do it in the way we live, proclaiming God’s love and righteousness through our own good works. The NLT reflects this idea, “you can show others the goodness of God.”
But the primary sense in which we are going to emphasize proclaiming the excellencies of God is by sharing the gospel with others. The CEV says, “Now you must tell all the wonderful things that he has done.” Last year, the focus of our theme was inward, greater unity, maintaining the unity of the Spirit. This year the focus of our work will be outward, on spreading the gospel of Jesus.
But if we are to do that together, we need to have the same basic concept of what it is we are proclaiming. Today I want to talk with you about the fundamental meaning and message of the term, “gospel.”
This may seem simplistic, and you may feel like you can just check out now from listening to this sermon. But I want you to know that for a long time I don’t think I really understood what the “gospel” is, and I think a lot of others have had the same misunderstanding. So I ask you to think carefully with me about the message and meaning of the gospel we intend to focus on sharing this year.
I also have another purpose for tackling this issue. If I invited the elders to come up and share the pulpit with me today, and I interviewed them and asked what they saw as the greatest problem facing Christians, what do you think they would say? Or what if I asked them what the biggest challenge congregations have to contend with is? What answer do you think they would give. What answer would you give?
I hope to demonstrate to you today that the concerns the elders might list as the greatest challenge to Christians and congregations is directly connected to the way we often inadequately define the gospel.
So let’s begin by understanding what the gospel is.
I. The Gospel of the Kingdom
Let’s start with what Jesus himself preached. Look at these verses in Matthew, and see if they point in a certain direction:
4:23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
9:35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.
24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Each of these scriptures speaks of the “gospel of the kingdom.” There must be some connection between the gospel and the kingdom, the reign of God.
We are pointed further in this direction by the way the message of Jesus and John the Baptist is described:
3:1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Next, look at the way Paul describes the gospel.
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord
We can make some more detailed observations here:
-The gospel was promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures
-The gospel is about Jesus, “concerning His Son”
-Even more specifically, the gospel is about Jesus being descended from David and being declared the “Son of God”- what position promised in the OT combined the idea of being descended from David and given the title “Son of God”? – King.
Let me remind you of the promise in 2 Sam. 7
2 Samuel 7
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.
-One more point from Paul’s summary in Romans 1-the gospel is about Jesus, the King, vindicated as such by what event? – the resurrection.
Now it is starting to come into clearer focus why Matthew says the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom, and why John and Jesus preached the kingdom of God was at hand. In its most basic essence, as Paul shows us here in Romans 1, the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is King.
This is how he summarized his life’s work in his last letter-
2:8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel
2:8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel
II. “Gospeling” in the Ancient World
In fact, if we lived in the time of Paul, the very Greek words translated “gospel” and “proclaim the gospel” would have a very specific connotation that is somewhat lost on us.
I don’t use a lot of Greek words in my preaching, but I will in this case. The Greek word “gospel” is euangelion, and the verb form is euangelizomai. Morph the u into a v and you see where the English words evangelism and evangelist come from. Our English translations struggle to keep the similarity in the noun and verb intact. For the noun we use “the gospel” and for the verb we use “evangelizing,” which look nothing alike in English but come from very similar words in Greek. Maybe we could try “the proclamation” and “proclaiming,” or “the announcement” and “announcing,” or “the gospel” and “gospeling.”
The classic Sunday school definition of this word is “good news.” And that is true as far as it goes. But it was a specific kind of good news. In Paul’s time, the world was ruled by Roman emperors, and whenever a milestone event took place, a messenger would come into the various cities of the empire and make a proclamation about what had happened to Caesar. Maybe a birth in the family, or a great victory. But my point is the euangelion, the good news, had a specific undertone. It was good news about the King.
Here’s a good example. This is a translation of an inscription discovered in the ancient Greek city of Priene, in modern Turkey. It was written in 9 BC to celebrate the reign of Augustus.
Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings (euangelion) for the world that came by reason of him…
The phrase “good tidings” is euangelion. The “gospel of August” was the proclamation that he was now Caesar, a Savior bringing peace to his people and to the world.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news (euangelizomai) of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The Romans believed the “good news,” the gospel, was that Caesar is Lord and will save us all. The Bible teaches the real good news, the real gospel, is that Jesus is Lord, and He will be our Savior.
In addition to the way this terminology was used of Caesar, there is another important background behind the word “gospel.” It comes from the OT, which was written in Hebrew, but of course was translated into Greek by the time of the NT.
It comes from two great promises in Isaiah:
9 Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
The herald of “good news” in Isa. 40:9, or if we were reading this in Greek, the one who evangelizes, has what message? Look at verse 9-10 again: Behold your God comes and His arm rules! The King is coming to take care of His people!
And then there is this promise in Isaiah 52:
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
The gospel according to Isaiah is this proclamation: “Your God reigns,” the Lord is returning to Zion, and He is bringing salvation.
Now we understand even more fully why in Romans 1 Paul sums up the gospel the way he does: promised beforehand by the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning Jesus, Jesus as David’s offspring and God’s son. Paul’s gospel was Isaiah’s gospel!
This is why he quotes this very passage from Isaiah in Romans 10-
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
So when we say that this year we want to be more active in evangelizing, in “gospeling,” what that fundamentally means is proclaiming to everyone we meet that Jesus is King, the King Isaiah promised would return to Zion and save His people.
That is exactly what the Book of Acts shows us the early Christians did -
5:42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching [gospeling] that the Christ is Jesus.
8:12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news [gospeled] about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
And look at the account of Paul’s first recorded sermon in Acts, at the syngagogue of Antioch, an almost point-for-point parallel with the way he summarized the gospel in Romans 1-
13:32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’
34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ 35 Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’
The good news is that Jesus is the King, the royal Son of David, demonstrated by His resurrection.
Let me give you another way to make this same point: Why are the gospels called the gospels?
-The gospels begin with birth stories that announce that Jesus is the King prophesied in the OT.
-They continue with the values of the kingdom, the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” - Matt. 5:2) and stories Jesus told about the kingdom, called parables (“the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field”- Matt. 13:24).
-They describe great miracles Jesus performed, which led the people to want to make Him King (John 6:15); and exorcisms, which Jesus explained in royal terms (“if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” – Matt. 12:28).
-They reach a climax with His entrance into the city of Jerusalem, where the multitudes shouted “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:9).
-They accelerate with His arrest and trials, in which the High Priest asks Jesus if He is “the Christ, the Son of God” only to hear Jesus say He is the great King promised in Daniel 7 and Psalm 110.
-This leads to His crucifixion, with soldiers mocking Him, “Hail King of the Jews,” and mobs taunting Him, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, from down now from the cross,” and with the inscription of His crime for all to see, “The King of the Jews.”
-And when He is vindicated by God, the King of Kings says “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!”
Why are the gospels the “gospel”? Because on every page they are showing us that Jesus is King!
III. The Implications of How We Define “Gospel”
Now let me explain what I meant at the start of the lesson when I said that I have failed to grasp this point in the past, and that I believe many others have as well, and that this failure is part of the reason for the biggest problem churches and Christians face.
Until these Scriptures came together for me, my concept of the gospel was very self-centered. The gospel is God’s plan to save me from my sins. Or, the gospel is the plan of salvation (hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized). So the gospel was either what God has done for me, or what I need to do to be saved. But either way it was very self-centered. Yet the NT is very clear that the gospel is about Jesus, and especially about Jesus’ position as King.
Does the fact that Jesus is King have anything to do with my salvation? Of course it does – the angel told Joseph that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). And does the gospel say anything regarding the connection between Jesus the King and faith, repentance and baptism? It absolutely does. The Great Commission makes this connection explicit-
18b “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In fact, one of my favorite evangelical authors, Scot McKnight, make this point emphatically in a book that greatly influenced this sermon:
One of the most important contributions that Acts makes to gospeling is the how – for it is in these sermons that we see how the apostles called people to respond. And they are consistent: to participate in the Story of Jesus the apostles called people to believe, to repent, and to be baptized. I would contend that there is no such thing as gospeling that does not include the summons to respond in faith, repentance, and baptism. (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 127)
So yes the good news that Jesus is King also includes the wonderful news that I can be saved, and yes, it includes the invitation to believe, repent, and be baptized. But in my experience, I think I have seen many people (myself included) reduce the gospel until it is nothing more than the “plan of salvation,” completely ignoring what the central issue is, that Jesus is King.
I have a book in my library called The Gospel Plan of Salvation, by T.W. Brents, written in 1874. I think it is fair to say it has been widely read by brethren (and part of me is proud of that because Brents was a UK graduate!). Can you judge a book by its cover? What do you think The Gospel Plan of Salvation is about? Here are the chapter titles:
2. Election and Reprobation
3. Calvinistic Proof Texts Examined
4. The Foreknowledge of God
5. Hereditary Depravity
6. The Establishment of the Church
7. The Identity of the Church
8. The New Birth
Then three chapters in baptism and a final one on the Holy Spirit.
I wouldn’t have a problem if this book was titled, A Refutation of Calvinistic Theology, because that is essentially what it is, offering important critiques of Calvinism. But to call these subjects The Gospel Plan of Salvation is to simply miss the fundamental meaning of the gospel. This is a book of 539 pages, and yet when I looked up “Jesus” in the index, guess how many pages He was listed on? Two.
If this book had a lot of influence on preachers (and it has), and if preachers have a lot of influence on churches (and they may!), then what you end up having is churches filled with people who think the gospel is faith, repentance and baptism (and why others are wrong), with little or no emphasis on Jesus as King.
Let me ask you this question. If the gospel is truncated to basically just mean “God has a plan to save me” or “the five steps of salvation,” what impact do you think that might have on personal commitment and dedication. On genuine discipleship?
Isn’t it possible that such an incomplete view of the gospel would lead people to think that as long as they’ve been baptized they’ve “obeyed the gospel.” And isn’t it possible that the oversimplistic equation “gospel = God wants to save me” may tend to frame Christianity in very self-centered rather than God-centered way?
One of my favorite writers among brethren was Robert Turner. Some of you may have received his little paper, Plain Talk. Each issue ended with a funny little story with an important lesson, and one of those was a poem brother Turner wrote, called
Ticket Fer Heaven!
Well, I wuz baptized on a cold winter day,
They busted the ice and they pushed it away;
And Old Brother Sloakum, the pioneer, the one whut’s famous fer being (weird)*,
Wuz thu one whut put me under then,
And I ain’t about to do hit again….
Praise the Lord!
I bin baptized!!
Oh, I ain’t to strong fer churchin’ ways,
With the hypocrites they’ve got these days;
I’ll take me a nip, and a snort er two,
And I may be awhoopin’ afore I’m through;
But I got me a record, and don’t you ferget,
Hit’s good hard proof thet I’ve been wet….
Praise the Lord!
I bin baptized!!
When I wuz a boy in Tennessee,
Some big-meetin’ preachers laid their hands on me;
I’ve set on the knees of Old Brother Tant,
And heard more preachin’ ‘n you can shake a stick at;
Hardeman, Nichols, and Old Joe Blue,
Has stayed at our house, and they’d tell you….
Praise the Lord!
He’s bin baptized!!
So don’t come snoopin’ around our place,
Disturbin’ my coon-hounds, and tellin’ Grace ‘
Bout mendin’ our ways, and livin’ by the rules;
And bringin’ our kids to thu Sunday Schools;
I got me a Bible, in the trunk somewheres,
And a genuwine record whut’s writ in there….
Praise the Lord!
I bin baptized!!
What’s so tragically funny about this poem is that we all probably know someone like this, who think they have “obeyed the gospel” because they were “baptized Church of Christ.” But what about surrendering your life to King Jesus? What about obeying Christ as Lord in everything you do?
And this is one of the major problems I think we face today. People who can say they have been baptized, but have little if any concept of living a life of obedient discipleship under the reign of King Jesus.
And when the gospel is distorted from the Christ-centered proclamation that Jesus is King to a self-centered story of what God has done for me, is it any surprise that Christianity in general becomes self-centered, and that fed by our very consumer-driven society, churchgoers turn into consumers of goods and services rather than servants of King Jesus?
A local church is a beachhead of the kingdom of God in a hostile world, and together we should be working to advance the kingdom of God. We're not in this church to get good customer service – we are here in the King’s service!
I want to conclude this morning by asking you to turn with me to the last book of the Bible in order to look at three visions of King Jesus, because they will vividly paint for us the practical implications of what it means to serve Jesus as King.
First, look at this scene in Revelation 5:1-11
When the heavenly beings around the throne of God saw our great King, the Lion slain as a Lamb, they before down before Him and sang a new song. Humble worship. That is what our King deserves. We should honor Him with our worship, and obey Him with reverence.
Here's another picture- Revelation 7:9-17
David was a shepherd who became king, and the kings of the OT were sometimes called shepherds, though they often fell short of the tender concern for their flock. Jesus became like one of the flock – a Lamb – so that He could be our eternal Shepherd-King. If we “wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb,” we have the promise that He will shepherd us to springs of living water.
One final and terrifying picture – Revelation 19:11-16
In the ancient world, kings were not only political rulers but also military rulers. Why did Israel want a king in the first place? “There shall be a king over us, that we may also be like all the nations, and that our king may…go out before us and fight out battles” (1 Sam. 8:19-20). David was a great shepherd, but also a great warrior. And the great David’s greater Son is not only the ultimate shepherd, He is also the greatest Warrior. “In righteousness he judges and makes war.”
There is a judgment coming, and if you are not loyal to King Jesus, you will face the “fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” Come to the Lion slain as a Lamb, be washed in His blood through faith, repentance and baptism. Obey the Gospel of King Jesus!