There has been debate about whether the gospel is individual and spiritual, or social. When we talk about our social responsibility it is often said that that isn’t the gospel, that we are just to call people to repentance and then they are to take responsibility for their own lives. This is a convenient gospel for those of us in better social positions. But there are whole groups of people for whom life isn’t that simple. Doesn’t the gospel require from us a responsibility to the welfare of others? That is, if the gospel changes our heart, which is the Evangelical view of the gospel message, then doesn’t this change require a whole new perspective from us towards the sufferings of others in our world? Shouldn’t there be a joining, rather than a tension, between what has been called the Evangelical view and the social view of the gospel? In the Prophets of the Old Testament, aren’t these two issues the same thing: a new inner heart for a new outer social awareness and compassion?
As we discuss in other modules, this distinction is entirely a Greek and Western one. In the Hebrew mind the debate doesn’t arise. So when Jesus was declaring the gospel message in his ministry, he wasn’t declaring a spiritual or a social gospel. He was declaring a gospel that was both of these at once. He was declaring a Hebrew gospel. In the Hebrew mind, the concept of salvation was holistic. Shalom means wholeness for the whole person and the whole social condition of life. Shalom is a term that applies to our communities and land. It is a Promised Land phrase. “May God bless you in your whole being, in your whole social condition and the whole land in which you dwell as a part with all others, including those who would be your enemies. May they also come into peace, shalom, with the community!” This is the Hebrew blessing. We have greatly corrupted this blessing, to make it focus on ourselves and our personal prosperity. And we have taken the peace component out of it, and haven’t thought that the gospel is about ways in which we, with new hearts, learn to work for peace with others in our world. This has contributed to our lack of care for others, and the disintegration of our land, at home and abroad. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is an enlargement of this Hebrew blessing and to show how it is lived out by Jesus’ followers.
This holistic gospel is especially evident in Luke. The gospel is presented as the kingdom of God, with a new king ruling over our lives, commanding change by faith in both our spiritual and social conditions. This king is to be obeyed, so that our relationships with our neighbour and enemy are transformed, at the very least on our part who claim to be the king’s followers. Obedience isn’t to a rule, but from a new heart, following the king through love, who gave himself for all. Faith isn’t to be treated as a private affair, for this would be a false faith. Our king, our neighbour and our community own us fully, by a debt of love, just as we have been redeemed from death without charge.
So when the Pharisees and others came to John for baptism he rebuked them, saying they should bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. This fruit was social. On one hand, those who had were to share with others, whether food or clothing. On the other hand, people were to be content with their wages. In recent times we have had disputes over capitalism and socialism. Repentance and faith make such disputes irrelevant. If those who have capital share with those in need, and those in the workforce are content with what they have, then the whole community is healed. Isn’t this what all our economic and political theories promise? That is, in God’s kingdom there is to be no revolution. We are to serve our neighbour from contentment, not greed, willing to suffer. We are to overcome false powers by the example of Jesus, who submitted to Pilate, but defeated satan by selfgiving. This revolution of respect, or going the extra mile, is the only 26 revolution our king permits. Any other revolution plays into the hands of the satan, and opens the door for his kingdom in human affairs and suffering.
But before speaking of John the Baptist, Luke begins the story of the gospel with Mary, in what we call Mary’s Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Here again we have a Hebrew blessing: Abraham’s blessing! It’s the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel, through the birth of Jesus Christ. It isn’t a fulfilment through Zionism, but a new kind of politics, one from the heart. It isn’t racial, but anyone who joins the Messiah becomes part of God’s fulfilled Israel. Mary’s praise is from the soul and spirit, yet it is also of a political renewal through the people of God in the world. We see this in the book of Acts: a new community undo the political and racial divides in the empire, and bring love, justice through mercy and restoration to each one in their community, and offer the same in real service to all outsiders. It is this way, through this new heart, that God brings down the lofty from his throne and brings up the lowly. It’s a conquering from within the heart. This is how God conquers the heathen. And it’s a holistic gospel, about our entire land. God renews the world, bringing about the new land he promised. As we trace Luke through his Gospel into Acts, we see his quite deliberate Hebrew gospel theme.
It took me years to see the significance of Mary’s prophecy. Firstly, it’s a woman, declaring a new kingdom in which the lowly, in this case a peasant female, is brought into importance. This is to be the style of everything God does, opposite to the cultures of man. The child is to be served. But this prophecy seems too political, too social. Where is the new birth mentioned? It doesn’t seem at all like Paul’s description of the gospel message, or so I thought. But this is how much we have misunderstood Paul. When Paul speaks of salvation, he isn’t speaking of just spiritual or private, but he is speaking of new community. He is speaking of the new kingdom in our nations, just as Mary was. The fact that Mary’s Magnificat appears so insignificant in what we hear today, shows the extent to which we really don’t get the gospel message. We say we follow Jesus and he is Lord, but yet don’t really relate to what he came into this world to do.
Just an example of how badly we have misinterpreted Paul, according to our Greek bias. “But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the hope of righteousness God has promised to us.” (Galatians 5:5) How have we understood this verse? We have taken it something like this: “We patiently wait for the promise, though we have trials in this life. But if we remain faithful, when we die and go to heaven, there we will receive the promise of righteousness, that is, spiritual salvation in the presence of God in heaven.” But that is not the promise. When we see “righteousness” here, Paul means the justice that Mary spoke of, and Mary took her prophecy from Hannah’s praise song: “He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honour. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order.” (1 Sam 2:8) The promise of righteousness is the Hebrew promise. It means God is going to set the world in order, by filling the earth with righteousness, meaning justice. This is the hope we currently live by, and our community lives reflect this hope in 27 the way we serve others today. We know this is the future of the world and our service today is our current prophetic witness to this reality. Paul’s gospel hope was the same as Mary’s: social renewal through the rule of God in our hearts.
Back to Luke and Jesus’ opening of his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth highlights the same themes. He announces the Jubilee of God, which is holistic redemption. The Hebrew theme in the background is the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of Israel from Babylon. It was not just a gospel for the individual, but for the whole community. It was not just spiritual, but for the whole person and land in which they dwelt. It was a new way of living, with the Torah as their guide. But now with Jesus’ ministry the change is real. The Torah will now be within our heart, making us new, and drawing us together into a new fellowship that becomes a renewing witness to our world. Again, in Jesus’ announcement, the gospel is good news to the poor. In Luke’s emphasis, this isn’t just poor in spirit, but the good news of a changed world through a renewing church. Luke contrasts this with the brutal reality of empire depicted throughout the first century.
I can’t highlight Luke’s gospel from the beginning of his work to the end, except to say that he blends spiritual and social factors together, as he announces a new king who is bringing change to our heart, relationships, love and care for others, and thereby renewing our land. This is the Hebrew hope. They tried to do it in the Old Testament through the law, but failed. Now, through a Spirit baptism, God does in us what the law could not do. The result? The fulfilment of Isaiah’s visions about waters flowing in the parched land, meaning a renewed world, where dictators like Egypt and Babylon had trodden all under feet. And today, the same happens through the greed of the world. God’s answer? The church, living by a different motive and calling, prophetically calling people to be followers of Jesus in this world by faith, raising up the least, instead of serving the self.
This is how Luke’s critique of the elders of Jerusalem goes. Their lack of a spiritual heart is shown by their lack of social care to others. They are unavoidably linked. Any attempt to sever the link between spiritual salvation and care for our neighbour and enemy exposes a false heart. God made one world, not separating spiritual from physical, and called us to live in it fully, honouring him and his whole creation, caring for it, rather than spoiling it and the lowly people through our ambitions. The Hebrew gospel reflects God’s purpose in the beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” These two are linked. Any Hebrew gospel is one that links these two. There is a Hebrew revelation about God, which the gospel must honour and be faithful to. We have honoured a Greek version that is gnostic. Gnosticism is individualism. Gnosticism claims to be spiritual, about heaven, about the heart, while denying creation and the world. While the church has condemned Gnosticism in its councils, it has largely embraced it in privatised religion throughout its recent Western history. Gnosticism is separation from the suffering of others. Hebrew faith calls us to a renewed inner person, a renewed community, a renewed world, and a renewed creation.