What Is “Gospel”? The “Gospel” and “Kingdom” in Acts, Part 2

emptytomb2Paul before the Jerusalem council

(Acts 15:7-11) After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

(This sounds just like Galatians.) Paul summarizes the gospel —

  • It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved
  • The receipt of the Holy Spirit confirms God’s acceptance of a person

Paul on Mars Hill in Athens

(Acts 17:18-31) A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?”

Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

In this gospel sermon, Paul takes a different tack. The gospel is —

  • God created mankind so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us
  • God commands all men to repent
  • God will judge
  • God proved all this by the resurrection of Jesus

We don’t often think of the resurrection as proof of God’s purposes, God’s closeness to us, God’s judgment, and God’s command to repent, but this is Paul argument.

Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders

When Paul left Ephesus, he spoke to the elders passionately about the gospel and kingdom.

(Acts 20:24-35) However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.

25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

The “truth” is the “gospel of God’s grace” and “the kingdom.” Wolves will distort the gospel that Paul had been preaching.

32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

Christians receive an inheritance (the kingdom) by “the word of his grace.”

Paul tells them it is more blessed to give than to receive — his point being that he worked with his own hands to make money not only to support himself but to give to the “weak,” which would be better translated “sick” or “afflicted.”

Paul’s lesson on giving was on the importance of work to help the needy — so important that even an apostle would take time from preaching to do this.

Conclusions

In Acts, the words “gospel” and “kingdom” are largely found in the preaching of Paul and in descriptions of the spread of the kingdom. We don’t see Luke saying: “This happened because it’s the nature of the kingdom.” But if we go back to the Gospel of Luke and see how “kingdom” and “gospel” are used there, we readily see that Acts shows the early church being the kingdom.

(Acts 2:42-47) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

While Luke speaks of breaking bread in his account of Jesus’ instituting communion, he uses the same language in Luke 24:30 and later in Acts 27:35, both of which appear to be a common meal. It’s hard to say with any confidence that Luke intended his readers to take “breaking of bread” as necessarily referring to taking communion.

(One could argue, with some force, that all the meals at which bread was “broken” are eucharistic. One cannot, however, simply pick the meals he prefers with no justification other than a desire to reach a pre-determined conclusion.)

The main point of the references to breaking point seems to be to exemplify v. 44: “All the believers were together …” Their hearts were so closely knit together that they shared with those in need, ate in each other’s homes, met in the temple courts, and praised God.

This is not a lesson about Sunday morning worship so much as a radically changed lifestyle — one that modern church has largely missed.

(Acts 4:32-35) All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

You see, Luke once again notes that the believers “were one in heart and mind.” Unity characterized the kingdom, but not so much unity in doctrine as unity of purpose and heart. They were so united that “there were no needy persons among them.” The wealthy freely gave up their investments to support those in need.

Why does Luke make such a point of this? Why does Paul conclude his talk with the Ephesian elders by saying it’s more blessed to give than to receive? Because this is an important part of the good news — going back to the Magnificat and Isaiah and even the Law.

Just so, when we take “break bread” to mean “eat a crumb; sip some juice” rather than to enjoy hospitality in one anothers’ homes, so much so that we give to help support each other, we miss the point of Acts 2:42-47. You see, we start by assuming this is about the rules and so we find rules. But looked at from a non-legalistic perspective, this is about how “love one another” is realized in a church — making the rest of the passage stand out as equally important.

We also see the apostles and missionaries suffering persecution but overcoming opposition from the governmental and religious officials and from the wealthy to preach the gospel. You see, the gospel challenged the power structures and the comfort of the rich — and they preached anyway.

But they didn’t seek to overthrow those in power or to take power. Rather, they obeyed God rather than man, God protected them (not all, but enough to preserve the growth of the kingdom), and they defeated the powers.

Now, none of this is to dismiss salvation by grace through faith. That is certainly part of the gospel — and the focus of the gospel in some, but not all, of Paul’s sermons. The point is that salvation is salvation into a community and kingdom in which we share in God’s purposes.

That is, Christians are called to be Christlike, and Christ is Godlike. And God exists in relationship as a being that seeks relationship in love. And we entirely miss the point of the gospel when we separate it from God’s purposes and Story.

(PS — I’m not arguing against weekly communion. I’m quite in favor of weekly communion. I just think the notion that weekly communion is somehow sufficient to bind a church together as we see happening in Acts is, well, very far removed from reality. How we do better is for another day — but the answer isn’t to argue over what the rules are.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to What Is “Gospel”? The “Gospel” and “Kingdom” in Acts, Part 2

  1. Alan says:

    Jesus instituted communion at a meal. It is apparent that the Corinthian church also took communion at a meal. We have no examples of communion being taken apart from a meal. We justify the crumb and the thimblefull of grape juice from Paul's rhetorical question, "Don't you have homes in which to eat?" But he was rebuking the selfish, indulgent way in which some of the Corinthians ate the meal — not the idea of taking communion at a meal. I think we've misappropriated Paul's rebuke of the Corinthians.

  2. Charlie Herndon says:

    Interesting. I was just having a similar converstion with my wife on this last night. Without a doubt, the Lord's Supper was given to us by Jesus for a purpose. And yet, to be so important, there really is not a whole lot written about it in the New Testament. And though I have always believed, or assumed, that we are doing the right thing to observe it EVERY first day of the week, I also realize that the NT writings are not loud and clear about making sure you 'get the communion in every week!' I'm thinking Jesus is not so much concerned that we have a consistent pattern of eating the 'pinch of bread with the sip of juice,' as he is that we, as a result of the act, renew our consciousness of: what he did for us, what it has meant to me to be forgiven and transformed, what sin may still be in my heart, how pure my relationships with others in the body are and how they are progressing, how present he is in me and for me, and how I might better proclaim his death until he comes. My "Lord's Supper Observance Record" will show 40 years of weekly 'bread and cup' with few misses. His "Heart Monitor of Lord's Supper Observance Effectiveness Record" on me will surely reveal that it was often an outward act only. Thus, I have forfeited much grace along the way that could have been mine from him.

  3. J.T. says:

    One of the stated purposes of the Lord's Supper, as indicated in 1 Corinthians 10 & 11 is to insure that and to demonstrate that the congregation is indeed "one body." Mere symbolicaly taking a pinch of cracker and sip of "wine" does little to insure or demonstrate the unity o the body. Combining the memorial supper with the love feast does both: it helps to make us one and it demonstrates that oneness, not only to ourselves, but also to the strangers among us.

    How we get from where we are to where we need to be, I do not know. But less ritual and more fellowship would be a start in the right direction!

  4. Royce Ogle says:

    Are some of our people sick and have some died because they took the supper unworthily, that is not focusing on the Lord's body? Or was that just for the first century chruch? I have yet to hear a preacher address this other than this one.

    Royce

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Charlie,

    John Mark Hicks started a series of posts on this and then went on vacation (very, very frustrating). Anyway, he seemed to be leading to the point that all meals are potentially eucharistic, as he notes all the meals in Luke-Acts have eucharistic features.

    (Luke 22:19) And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."

    What is "do this"? Taking a pinch of bread each Sunday and only on Sunday? Jesus was in a Thursday night meal. The Passover? Not likely.

    Maybe "this" is breaking bread — that is, every time we break bread, we are to remember Jesus. When we take bread with fellow believers, we remember Jesus as a body — a particularly reverent event because it's the body remembering the broken body of Jesus.

    Anyway, it's an interesting thought. I can't wait to see what else JMH has to say. (And, no, I'm not advocating this position or saying this is JMH's position. Just thinking outloud.)

  6. Jay Guin says:

    JT,

    Agreed! Especially if that fellowship is often across congregational lines. Every city should have an annual communion for all Christians together.

  7. nick gill says:

    Jay,

    You could always just order JMH's <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=r9wKAAAACAAJ&dq=come+to+the+table+hicks&quot; rel="nofollow">Come To The Table! I loaned out my copy and it never came home. I don't know if someone liked it too much, or if they thought is was so "liberal" that they'd rather trash it than return it. Either way, I really miss my copy. I try and practice the eucharistic potential in every Christian meal — but I usually fail miserably, I think.

    I think we've shanghaied Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 11 and used it to support our twin desires for efficiency and sermon-centrality.

    Jay, your emphasis on "one in heart and mind" is also one of Eugene Peterson's favorite ideas — he writes extensively about it in The Jesus Way, in a section that lays together the ways of living of Josephus and the Zealots:

    There is an important word that manages to convey both what zealotry without violence looks like and what it consists of. The word is homothumadon. Some words resist translation. We don't translate "Amen." We don't translate "Hallelujah." We don't translate "Hosanna." These words accumulate layers of meanings through the centuries and radiate rich associations and connections. When we translate them they fall flat. Homothumadon is one of these words. It is too bad that it wasn't included in the list of "untranslatables." We have to do the best we can by taking the word apart and then putting it back together again.

    The word is used twelve times by Luke as he narrates the story of the resurrection community in the Acts of the Apostles, and once by Paul in Romans. It is usually translated "of one accord" or "of one mind" or simply "together."

    When the 120 were gathered in the upper room praying and waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit, they were homothumadon (with one accord; RSV) (Acts 1:14)

    After that great Pentecost gathering when the Holy Spirit descended on them the Christians continued to be daily homothumadon (together), in the temple, praying and breaking bread in their homes (2:46)

    After Peter and John had been delivered from prison by an angel and gave their report to their friends, they all "raised their voices homothumadon" and prayed (4:24).

    In the middle of the signs and wonders of those early days they were homothumadon (all together) in Solomon's Portico as people brought their sick friends and family members to be healed (5:12).

    When Philip went into Samaria on a preaching mission, "The crowds homothumadon [with one accord] listened eagerly to what was said by Philip…. So there was much joy in that city" (8:6, 8)….

    At the council of Jerusalem, as the apostles hammered out the policy that would keep converted Jews and Gentiles together, they sent the results of their work to Antioch, saying, "It has seemed good to us homothumadon (having come to one accord, RSV) (15:25)

    Paul provides the final entry of the word in the New Testament near the end of his great letter to the Romans, praying that "homothumadon (together) you may with one voice, you may glorify the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (Romans 15:6)

    I wonder who used the word first, Luke or Paul, companions in missionary travel. Who was the first to come up with the lilting, polysyllabic adverb that marked the way our ancestors responded and were present to what God was doing, totally engaged but without a trace of violence? "Of one mind" or "together" or "of one accord" seem too tame to me. Homothumadon is a compound word. Homo means the same. Thumas means a strong emotion of anger, and the final syllable don suggests that the word is adverbial. It is the middle component — thumas — that won't translate.

    Thumas is a fiery word, surging with energy. Flying off the handle, losing your temper, lashing out — except in the context of the resurrection community, there is nothing negative in it. No meanness. No violence. How do we get that intensity, that fire, that focused and controlled energy into a single English word that is energetic in love and peace and congenial community? I can't find one. That's why I just want to say homothumadon.

    There was something burning within those followers of Jesus, drawing them together in the same mind and spirit. Something akin to the energy of anger but without anger. Something as fiery as the Zealots, but without the zealot violence. Usually when we talk about unanimity, we are describing what takes place in a meeting late at night when half the people have gone home and the rest are exhausted and nodding off, and the nods are taken as yeses and so there is a unanimous vote. That is not homothumadon. Homothumadon has fire in it. It is the passion of a consensual unanimous response to something God does. We don't work it up; it is always dependent upon something God has just done, or is about to do, or we are participating in. It is not something we bring about by conflict resolution or arbitration. It is fire. And it marks the church as it is formed by the Holy Spirit.

    To get this right it is important to observe that homothumadon is not a theological or spiritual word as such. I gave seven citations in which it describes our response to God; but there are four other uses in Acts when it is used of negative, mean, or simply neutral emotions (Acts 7:57; 12:20; 18:12; 19:29). So there is no virtue in homothumadon as a thing in itself. We find the Zealot fire without the Zealot violence in this word only by staying close to the actual resurrection context of the stories in Acts. Apart from a resurrection context, the word can turn ugly. Fans at a football game experience homothumadon when their team scores, which sometimes leads to rioting. On the other hand, everybody in the room when a baby is born experiences homothumadon in the fresh beauty of new life that prefigures resurrection life, in awe before the mystery.

    But the distinctive thing in the early church is that they were following the resurrected Jesus, with a compelling sense that something had happened out there which was not active in here among them. The Holy spirit did something in Jesus and then he did it in them. The primary action takes place in Jesus and only then in us. It is beyond us but then gets into us. We are following and believing and worshiping — and then, there it is: homothumadon.

    This is not whipping up enthusiasm for Jesus. This is not arguing or persuading people into agreement. This is not managing various self-interests into a workable program or plan. This is not contrived by us.

    But it must be recognized by us. The conviction behind the possibility of this uniquely Christian homothumadon is that the resurrected Jesus is still doing what he has always done, and he is doing it in our world, in our neighborhood.

    The difficulty of experiencing homothumadon is that typically we aren't paying any attention to the resurrected Jesus, or don't know what to look for, or are impatient in the waiting, or are distracted by more glamorous and riveting events and circumstances that promise shortcuts.

    There was no lack of homothumadon in the world of Josephus. War is probably the most powerful action in human experience for getting us to feel and think and act together, as one, homothumadon. And wars, both big and small, neighborhood skirmishes and full-scale battles, were breaking out daily as the early church was in formation. How did the Christian community maintain its fire without getting caught up in the violence, whether with words or swords? How did the Christians stay on track, on the path of following Jesus?
    –from The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson, pp 261-264

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