Are the Gospels Just Filler?

Jason Micheli —  March 21, 2013 — 6 Comments

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

Jason Micheli

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6 responses to Are the Gospels Just Filler?

  1. Daniel English March 21, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    Really good thoughts, really good questions.

    One thing that has been coming to mind a lot, lately, is how many of us live out of a story that starts in Genesis 3. We have been infected by “sin”, God can no longer stand the sight of us (I admit this might be a little extreme, but nonetheless), thank God he sent his Son to die for my / our sins, so that way I / we don’t have to burn eternally in the “lake of fire”.

    BUT, is that really the theme of our scriptures? Is that the picture the Gospel writers are really painting? Are we to understand Jesus’ own vocation as such?

    Note: I am not saying sin doesn’t matter. Nor am I saying sin isn’t a serious matter to God. I just believe God is all about LIFE. Creation flourishing, and God inviting us to imagine what that can look like lived out.

    Thanks,

    -de

  2. Bob Oelschlager March 22, 2013 at 7:58 AM

    The Sermon on the Mount does matter. Cheap grace is an illusion well articulated by Bonhoeffer in “The Cost of Discipleship.”

  3. Bob Oelschlager March 22, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    Knitting together threads from this post, Mike’s commitment, and Bonhoeffer on the Beatitudes:

    Jesus called his followers “blessed” as those who had responded to his call. It was the call itself that made them poor, afflicted and hungry. Hardship is the circumstance of disciples in every area of life. They have no security, no possessions, no power, no experience, and no knowledge. They have given up everything for his sake and in this state they are blessed; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    The meek are those that renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ. They leave their rights and the protection thereof to God and in turn they shall inherit the earth.

    Disciples renounce their own righteousness, and become hungry and thirsty for the forgiveness of all sin and for complete renewal; and are satisfied.

    The merciful have an irresistible love for the downtrodden, the sick and the wronged and are glad to incur reproach.

    The pure in heart are those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus, that he may reign in them alone,

    Peacemakers keep the peace by enduring suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others.

    Bonheoffer concluded, “The Sermon on the Mount is there for the purpose of being done.”

  4. Books I recommend:

    The King Jesus Gospel by Scott McKnight is helpful discussion of some of the key differences be-tween the plan of salvation and the Gospel of the “King and His Kingdom” (my phrase, not McK’s) and how our focus on the former affects discipleship and more. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a good place to start.

    The Heart of the Story: God’s Masterful Design to Restore His People by Randy Frazee is a good retelling of the Biblical story that highlights God’s ongoing desire to dwell with humans. He missed a few key texts, such as Exodus 25:8 and if I remember correctly, does not talk about God giving dominion to humans, but he deserves credit for giving unity to the Bible by tracing one of its key themes.

    The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen is another attempt to show the unity of the Bible as a single story of God working not just to redeem his people but also to restore creation to its original goodness. I was not fully satisfied with their discussion of the mission of the church, but they do a good job showing that God does not want to rescue us from this world but to work through us to restore it (see John 17:9-19, esp vs 15).

    From Eden to the New Jerusalem by T Desmond Alexander also shows, like Frazee, how God has wanted to dwell with humans but he stresses the idea of garden temples. He cites several works of Greg Beale; The Temple and the Church’s Mission sounds promising (esp in light of Ephesians 2:19-22; see also I Peter 2:9-10).

    Living in the Overlap: How Jesus’ Kingdom Proclamation Can Transform Your World by Steve Schaefer. In the 1950s, G E Ladd’s began to show that the New Testament taught that Jesus inaugu-rated the Kingdom with his teaching, preaching and death. For many years, other scholars further de-veloped this idea, but in the past few decades, writers are beginning to discuss what this understanding of Jesus’ ministry might mean for us today. This is the only one of the books of this latter kind that I have read thus far and I found it to be helpful but there might be better books out there (The Kingdom of Christ by Russell Moore also looks good and is on my list).

    The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan by Alan J Thompson shows convincingly that the apostles did in fact continue to preach the same gospel as Jesus, i.e. that the Kingdom of God has arrived. The fact that the book begins and ends with very clear references to the Kingdom is one strong line of evidence that he presents (see Acts 1:1-8 and 28:23-31), but he of-fers many other ‘convincing proofs’ as well.

    Myles Munroe has written a number of books that deal with the Kingdom of God. Thus far, I have read two of them— Rediscovering Faith: Understanding the Nature of Kingdom Living and God’s Big Idea: Reclaiming God’s Original Purpose for your Life—and found each to have both some amazing and powerful insights into the nature of the Kingdom and God’s purposes for humans on earth, and some chapters that were flat and uninspiring. Generally the first100 pages (or so) of each contains the best insights.

    Finally, I have read two books by N. T. Wright: Simply Jesus and How God Became King and found both very insightful. If I had to recommend one, I’d suggest the latter, for he shows how we have dis-torted the message of the Gospels and thus missed their significance.

  5. One reason many people no longer understand the significance of the gospels (and think they are just ‘filler’) is because so many teachers and preachers have reduced the gospel to the plan of salvation—how do I get right with God? But the gospel of the gospels i.e. the one that Jesus AND the apostles after him preached is the gospel of the Kingdom—the claim that God was at work in and through Je-sus to reclaim the earth and re-establish God’s abundant-life-giving rule. For reasons not yet clear, God chose to rule the earth through human beings, i.e. He put us in charge of the earth, commanding us to be fruitful and have dominion over the earth (see Gen 1). We were not supposed to do this autono-mously, but in fellowship with God, so that all of the earth would actually be brought under God’s be-nevolent rule—but with us as stewards or ‘governors.’ Myles Munroe uses the term ‘colonize’ to de-scribe what some call the ‘creation mandate’—to plant more ‘garden temples’ throughout the earth and thus bring it all under heaven’s rule (see God’s Big Idea; see also T D Alexander). As you know, Adam and Eve chose to reject God’s plan and to do things their own way, which not only alienated them from God and each other (the ‘blame game’ began in Gen 3 and murder erupted in ch 4), but affected all of creation in a negative way (see Romans 8:.

    After Adam and Eve sinned, God restarted His ‘project’ a number of times (Alexander, Frazee and Bar-tholomew & Goheen all note that the stories of Noah, Abraham, Israel (esp at Sinai), David, and more make this point). While these leaders had some level of success, in the end they all failed. So, when the time was ‘full’ i.e. when conditions were right so that people could understand the idea of col-onization (for the Romans were ‘masters’ of that plan—but see also Alexander the Great who also pre-pared the world) Jesus came as a second or Final Adam to renew God’s original ‘agenda.’ The point is: Jesus did NOT come to enable us to go to heaven (which means most of our ‘evangelism’ is off target); we may go there for a temporarily, but because we were created from earth and ‘commissioned’ to live and reign on earth, we will return here to do just that. Revelation 21 describes the new Jerusalem coming down to the new earth adorned as a bride for her husband; it indicated that God will dwell with his people, and all the earth will be blessed and acknowledge God’s glory, just as the God intended at the beginning (suggesting that the faithful will be working in this endeavor).

    To put it another way, the point of the teaching and preaching of Jesus as well as his miracles and ex-orcisms is that the Kingdom has arrived!; the promises God made regarding the new era in which God would reign on earth are being fulfilled. Jesus would have to die to break the power of sin, death and evil, and yes, for our individual sins too (but I hope you see that Jesus’ agenda is far greater than ‘me and my salvation, that it has ‘cosmic’ significance; see Col 1 & 2; the entire book of Ephesians, but especially 3:10). Now, the Kingdom is not here in its fullness, but if and when contemporary Jesus’ followers come to understand what Jesus accomplished and the authority He regained and then gave to us, (see Matt 10; Luke 9 and 10; and especially Matt 28:18a, a phrase that is often overlooked), we too might just turn the world ‘upside-down’ (see Acts 17:6; I’d say ‘right side-up’).

    I could say more for I have been researching this topic for a book on this and other related themes (my working title is: What Jesus Came to Do: The Rest of the Story), This entry is already too long so I will end it here by saying I will give the titles of the books I mentioned as well as a few more recommenda-tion for understanding God’s purpose for humans, what Jesus’ life and death meant, including his ministry and message, and what all this means for us in a follow up entry.

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