Monthly Archives: December 2019

What is the Good News? (Part 3)

I’ve been talking about Peter’s first proclamation of the Good News to Gentiles, which appears in Acts 10. I’ve stepped through what he said on that occasion, and how it differed in some interesting ways from the way we 21st century American Protestants have been taught to proclaim the Good News. (You can read those messages here and here, or click the link at the top of the column to go backwards in the blog posts.)

Today I’m going to finish that topic with a reflection about the most difficult part for us to accept: the idea that, in Peter’s words, “…in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:35)

Of course, the hard part for Peter to grasp was “in every nation.” He knew all about the judgment to come. He had always known that God accepted Jews who fear Him and do what is right. The status of non-Jews was less certain, although some Rabbis of his day acknowledged that there existed such a thing as a “righteous pagan” and that some of those might have a place in olam ha-bah, “the world to come.” Because Peter’s cultural habit was to avoid Gentiles, the Holy Spirit had to persuade him that it was alright for him to preach Jesus to a Gentile audience.

But the hard part for us is the idea that God might accept any person because of good things they had done. We’ve had “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (a quote taken out of context from Isaiah 64:6) drummed into our skulls by decades of Protestant systematic theology. We’ve been told that without the Savior, we all deserve hell, and that a just Judge would send us there.

I have found nothing in the Christian scriptures, Old or New, that says that we all deserve hell. It does say that we all sin sometimes, and that sin produces death, but that’s not exactly the same thing. That’s just a fact; where we sin, we produce destruction in our own lives, and that harms us. Worse, it cascades onto those around us, who suffer because of our failures and brokenness. And insofar as our brokenness continues with us into eternity, we could experience self-imposed separation from God, which is what hell is. But there’s nothing that says that that happens to everybody, nor that it ought to. Romans 2:6-11 and Acts 10:34-35 suggest that in the judgment to come, some will be found wicked, but some others will be found righteous–and both say that what the Judge will be judging is what we have done. Every Jew of Jesus’ day would have believed this, including Jesus and all His Apostles.

American Protestants can’t handle the idea that God might accept somebody on the basis of their goodness. As an on-line acquaintance observed just the other day, “It seems to me that if we’re sinners because we sin, then we can infer that we could exist without sinning, which would negate the need for a Savior.”

That makes no sense to me. In what way does the mere possibility that somebody, somewhere might please God negate the need for a savior? That makes it seem as though the person who said that thinks that God does not care what happens to the rest of us. Worse, it seems as though he hates the idea that he could benefit from something God gave us freely, and would rather do anything than enjoy the gift God supplied if he could manage without. Where does that attitude come from?

Behind that notion lies the error that the only thing accomplished by the arrival of the Messiah was that we could make it into heaven. We already know that that’s not the whole story; part of the good news that we covered last month spoke of Jesus setting people free from disease and the power of the devil, and implied that that was to be the new normal. Plus, the arrival of the Holy Spirit in response to the message demonstrated the truth of what Jesus had declared: the Kingdom of God was right at the door, and anybody who embraced Him could join it and benefit from it.

In fact, it’s impossible to separate the arrival of the Kingdom of God from “going to heaven.” If the kingdom is to bring heaven down to earth, per Matthew 6:10, then it follows that whoever begins to inherit the kingdom here is already present in heaven and most likely will seamlessly be transferred there upon passing into the next life (see Eph 2:6-7 if you doubt this.)

So, to the fellow I quoted a moment ago, does it make sense that one might refuse to enjoy the arriving kingdom because, well, gee, it’s just possible that one of us might actually please God without His help, so we really ought to try that first? Why would he think such a thing? Does he often refuse to accept gifts that people choose to give him?

We’ve already been looking at an example of how that conversation is supposed to go. Acts 10 begins with an angel, a messenger from God, declaring that Cornelius’ works were acceptable to God. Did the angel say, “So, you’re already going to heaven, and you don’t need anything else”? Quite the contrary. The angel said, on the basis of Cornelius’ good standing, 

“…send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter…and hear what [he has] to say.” (Acts 10:5,22b)

And then when they heard, did they respond, “You know, we’re already going to heaven, so thanks a lot for your input, but I think we’re good for now”? No. They believed, received the Holy Spirit, and rejoiced that they were to be included in the restoration of God’s presence among His people, as foretold by the Hebrew prophets.

Short version: those who really fear God and do what is right will receive the Messiah with joy when He appears. God knows this. He offered the Messiah to them first (after the Jews, that is)!

My on-line acquaintence, like so many American believers, had heard too many non-believers resist the gospel by saying that they think God will accept anybody who does good, usually meaning “themselves” without saying so. “Everybody deserves hell” was invented (extra-biblically) to answer such people.

But it’s untrue, and it isn’t necessary. It’s unlikely that such people actually do fear God or do what is right. In my experience, such people are looking for an “out”; they have personal reasons not to want to embrace Jesus, the Lord. They remind me of WC Fields, the 20th century comedian, when a colleague noted with surprise that he was reading a Bible. “What are you doing?” asked the colleague, and Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.”

To respond to the person of the Messiah by saying “No thanks, I’ll take my chances on my own” and look for an “out” is not just foolish and arrogant to the Nth degree, it’s a specific indication that that person is well on their way to being rejected. That person does not fear God, which is the first qualification; and the “right” that they’re doing usually is not cooperating with God, but keeping their distance from Him while keeping themselves clean enough to maintain their public reputation.  

In any case, as I observed to my on-line friend, just because I think it’s possible that somebody, somewhere is living in such a way as to please God (as the scriptures suggest is the case, supplying a few examples) does not mean that I’m stupid enough to imagine that I’m one of them. Folks, I’m wicked, and I can use all the help I can get. If God’s willing to welcome me in and remove my ridiculously wicked habits without holding them against me, sign me up right now. And let me tell you, I don’t think I’m alone. Whatever some unusually decent pagan in some South American jungle might need, I need a savior. And so, I imagine, do you. 

And even if I didn’t, I’d welcome Him because I love Him and want to be part of what He is doing. Because the Kingdom of Heaven arriving on Earth is very good news, indeed. Peter and Paul both said so, and so should we.

What is the Good News? (Part 2)

Last time I wrote I began examining Peter’s first presentation of the Good News to the Gentiles from Acts 10:34-43, with an eye toward answering for ourselves the question, “What, exactly, is the Good News that we’re supposed to be carrying?” We saw that the first two elements in it were things we don’t usually mention in connection to the Good News:

(1) God will judge everybody, and He accepts anybody who loves Him and does what is right. (And, no, that’s not “nobody.”)
(2) Jesus was anointed by God to heal, do good, and free people from the influence of the devil.

Very few of us have been taught to present the gospel by beginning with God’s judgment as both Peter and Paul did, nor do many of us dwell for any amount of time on Jesus’ own ministry in Judea and Galilee. We usually leap from “All men sin” (which Peter did not say on this occasion) to “Jesus died for our sins.” Last week I called us all to ponder why Peter focused as he did on God’s righteous judgment and Jesus’ good works of power. (If you want to reread that message, here’s the link to it.

Now let’s continue:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify…” (Acts 10:39a-42a)

At the heart of the good news is a simple fact: Jesus, the Messiah, is alive. He selected a finite number of people to see him after his resurrection. It became their task to tell everybody, first of all, what they had seen–namely, that Jesus was alive. Our basis for saying so is that we have seen him. 

In our case in the 21st century, we are the disciples of those who saw him and reported what they saw. However, it is also the case that many of us have seen that He is alive through our experiences with him. He speaks to us directly, and our lives change dramatically when we believe him and respond to him. 

It is important to notice that the Christian faith begins with plain facts. I was still a pretty young man when God showed me Romans 1:3-4, in which Paul was describing what he called “the gospel of God”:

“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 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…”

The point that He was making to me was that He provided human beings with physical evidence. He gave us proof that Jesus was whom he claimed to be by raising him from the dead. I learned, and never forgot, that God was not opposed to our looking for evidence, and that in fact He approves of it enough to give us real, physical evidence.

Corresponding to that, we should never forget that Christianity, alone among the religions of the world, rests on a simple, demonstrable fact: Jesus is the chosen one of God, and we know it because He raised Him from the dead. We have a specific event in history that we point to.

But that’s not the only thing to which we’re supposed to testify. Peter went on with the next major point in our testimony:

“…that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42b)

Whoa. Again, we’re seeing something that does not usually come up when we speak of the Good News.

I remember being surprised when I first noticed this in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s at the end of Romans 2:16, where Paul finished describing the judgment that will occur at the end of all things, “…that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” The judgment was right there, and Paul made it plain that this was his gospel. And now, we’re seeing that what was remarkable to them about it was that they now knew who would be the Judge: it was going to be Jesus. Both Peter and Paul mentioned this detail in their presentations of the good news: Jesus was to be the Judge.

I think that that was relevant because of the last item that came out of Peter’s mouth on that occasion:

“To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Finally we’re seeing something that usually shows up when we talk about the Good News. But don’t miss the connection between “We know the Judge personally” and “Your sins will be forgiven.” The context of forgiveness was the judgment of which they had spoken already. The point of “forgiveness of sins” was that when the Judge looks at those who believe in him, he will judge them kindly; and at least part of what’s implied is that he’ll judge kindly because they’re members of his family. This explains why both Peter and Paul began their gospel presentations with basic instruction about the judgment that all humans will face. “Forgiveness of sins” has specific and direct relevance to that context.

Of course, it has relevance in other contexts that are related. We stand before God our Father right now and are accepted and loved, with our (sometimes still present) sins forgiven, even before That Day. This is actually a very Jewish thing; many Rabbis identify “Judgment Day” as occurring every year (on Yom Kippur), with the Almighty assigning good or bad results in the coming year according to what we have done in the previous year. Christians don’t believe that exactly, but we do accept that God evaluates our behavior and treats us according to what character formation we need.

The writer of Hebrews drew on that image when he compared Jesus to a high priest who knows our weaknesses and is able to help us overcome them. Jews, of course, did not wait until the End of All Things to visit the priest and make sacrifices for their sins; they did it more or less regularly. And so do we:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Let’s recap Peter’s “good news” as he presented it to the Gentiles on that occasion:

  • 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. 
  • God sent us to preach  
  •  (a) that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all, and 
  •  (b) that He’ll judge kindly all who believe in him.

Apparently those who heard the message believed it, and apparently believing it was good enough for God, because what happened next was that God poured the Holy Spirit onto them just as He had poured Him out on the Jews in Acts 2.

Again, I’ve flown by my self-imposed word limit thingy. Next time I will make a few comments about the declaration, “God accepts anybody who fears Him and does what is right,” because in my experience Christians begin to wonder why we preach Jesus at all when they hear that, and then they ignore it. It’s a reaction that I find hard to fathom; yes, that statement is inconsistent with what most of us have been taught, but why would it suggest that we stop preaching Jesus? I’ll discuss this next time, along with some other bits of good news that Peter didn’t get to mention before God interrupted him.