What is the Good News? (Part 1)

Quick, off the top of your head, without thinking about it too hard:

What is the Good News?

The Good News. The message that you and I, as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, are supposed to be carrying to the world. What is it, exactly?

Most of us have to think about this before answering, and even after thinking we’re not comfortable with our answer. “Jesus died for our sins, and saved us from eternal destruction.” But there’s more, isn’t there? “Jesus established the Kingdom of God on Earth.” “God reconciled us to Himself through the work of Jesus, the Messiah, and now we can live in His presence.” “God became a man, lived among us, died for us, ascended into heaven, and gave us the Holy Spirit.” Each of those is correct in some ways, and each is incomplete in more ways.

It feels like something is badly wrong with us if we can’t answer easily. But we all squirm a little trying to state, briefly and clearly, what the message is that we’re supposed to be carrying.

Because this is the work of God that we’re talking about, it’s not a surprise that it defies quick summation. God’s works are complex, and they go deeper and further than any human being can grasp. I actually expect that the Good News, stated properly, will be like a brilliant-cut diamond: it will look beautiful from any angle, but every time we look at it we’ll see a different side of it. And that’s fine; it’s alright if we don’t have a pat answer to “What’s God’s big plan?” But we should have an answer, even if we know it’s only partial.

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to be examining one of the short presentations of the Good News that appears in the scriptures: the first presentation to the Gentiles. Peter delivered it before a group at the home of a centurion named Cornelius in Acts 10. I think we’ll see a few things that don’t usually get included in our presentations of the Gospel. That’s good; it will give us new things to chew on, which is one of the ways we grow.

The message Peter preached (Acts 10:34-43) can be summarized this way:

God accepts any person who fears Him and does what is right. God sent Jesus to do good and to heal those oppressed by the devil, as the prophets foretold. He was crucified, but we are witnesses that God raised Him from the dead. He sent us to preach that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all humanity, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins–that is, He’ll judge them kindly.

Now, into the details:

“So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.'” (Acts 10:34-35)

Right off the bat, we’re looking at something that not only gets omitted from most of our brief summaries of the gospel, but something that might contradict what most of us have been taught. Protestant theology makes a point of declaring that every one of us deserves hell, and that God is gracious even to consider rescuing us from sure destruction that we have earned.

But Peter said nothing of that sort. He was addressing a different question, namely why God had revealed Himself to the Jews but not to the Gentiles. He had already been told in a vision that God was embracing the Gentiles (see Acts 10:9-33). He was seeing before his face what that vision meant.

And so Peter began by telling the Gentiles about God’s judgment. He might not have had to say that in front of a Jewish audience, since Jews were taught about God’s judgment from their childhood; but before the Gentiles, Peter took the time to say that God will judge everyone, and that what He is looking for is people who (1) fear Him, and (2) do what is right. That’s the goal, and we should never forget it.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing. Paul’s gospel message appeared in Romans 1-8, and to begin it, he established first that men had wandered away from God and fallen into sin (Romans 1:18-32), and then explained that simply being Jewish was not enough to please God, because God will judge all men equitably. He will accept anybody who fears Him and does right, and punish anyone who does not, according to Paul:

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:6-8)

He went on to say that all men sin, which every Jew would have understood to be so. But it turns out that the thing we’ve been taught to say, that all human beings deserve hell and would end up there if it were not for the Messiah, was not part of their message, and in fact appears nowhere in the scriptures. Jews like Paul and Peter believed that some would be judged wicked but that some others would be judged righteous.

So, the first point in the gospel message, from both Peter and Paul, is this: Our goal is to fear God and do right. God will judge everyone by that standard and reward us according to our works, regardless of who we are.

(For anyone who is afraid already that I’ve gone off the rails, let me observe that while the Apostles never say “Everybody deserves hell” (which is a Reformation inference, not a quote from the Bible), they do say that everybody has sins that need forgiving. That’s not the same thing, but it is true that all of us need the Messiah. I’ll be discussing this next week.)

Next in Peter’s presentation:

“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” (Acts 10:36-39a)

The Anglican Bishop NT Wright, in his outstanding book “How God Became King: the Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” pointed out that even our central creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, omit any mention of Jesus’ earthly ministry; they leap directly from Jesus’ miraculous birth to His passion under Pontius Pilate. So do most of us when we present the gospel. Isn’t that odd? We leave out any mention of Jesus’ life, because we don’t know how it’s relevant. (Wright spent the bulk of his book explaining how it’s relevant, and it’s mind-blowing. You should read it.)

But Peter here, as he did in his presentation on the day of Pentecost, focused on Jesus’ good works among the people in Judea and Galilee. These works were consistent with the predictions of the prophets, who identified Jesus’ works of power with “good news,” and also with “the favorable day of the Lord,” the Jubilee (see Isaiah 61). Peter echoed the prophets, calling Jesus’ message “Good news of peace,” a reference to Isaiah 52:7. Jesus, Himself, used Isaiah 61 to describe His ministry to the people of Nazareth.

The power of God to deliver people from demonic bondage, sickness, poverty, and misery is very much part of what made Jesus’ appearance “good news,” and it should be part of our presentation as well.

Corresponding to that, our obedience to the Messiah should also produce those things for us and for others–or the Good News is a lie. If you’re one of those Christians for whom Christianity has not produced that sort of deliverance, please seek help from somebody who has experienced it. There’s more available, and you need it. Don’t quit; seek God. He will comfort you, and you will see His face. Sometimes He takes the long route, but He always arrives.

I’ve already flown past my 1,000-word limit, and I’m only halfway home. So next time I’ll finish Peter’s presentation of the gospel. But we’ve already seen two parts of it that don’t usually get mentioned, haven’t we? Interesting.

Ponder the good news–which really is good news–and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish the job. God bless you all. Enjoy the summer.

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