Chapter 3 The Gospels
Messiah - Freeing by the Spirit
Sinners - Freedom and forgiveness
Parables - Freedom to interpret
Women - Freedom to learn and grow
When I began preaching I had a very limited grasp of the good news of freedom in the Gospels. There were some texts that proved he was the Son of God, and I interpreted others to mean we are sinners deserving eternal damnation. The crucifixion needed to be described to show what it cost Jesus to make the payment instead of us so the Father's wrath could be satisfied. And there were examples of individuals who accepted this by faith and so were forgiven and given a place in heaven.
I still hear this truncated good news preached from radio and television stations. I have no doubt that in God's grace some are brought to faith through this kind of message, but I suspect millions more find it the very opposite of liberating.
Slowly the Holy Spirit has shown me that salvation is much more than accepting a payment to save myself from hell. A key verse was "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Instead of focusing on the amount paid, I began emphasizing the freedom that the ransomed enjoy. A definition of a servant is someone who cares about the freedom of the served. So I connected the suffering servant spoken of in Isaiah with the Messiah, whose costly servant ministry is to serve the many peoples of the world by freeing them. And we are to serve the church and the world in the same way.
In 1958, ten years after I preached my first sermon, Mollie and I attended a conference in Winona Lake, Indiana. Many of the cars had bumper stickers announcing what was meant to be good news. "When Jesus comes this car will be driverless." What do you do with that information? It certainly moved me right away from threatening people with the Rapture (which is still the main topic of Christian bestsellers).
For a time I continued to use the Gospels to warn that the current "wars and rumors of wars," nations rising against nations, famines and earthquakes proved that the second coming (the parousia) was imminent. I think it was another ten years before I discovered that Jesus' prophecies of the end (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 17:22-37, 21:5-24) without exception referred to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.
That made it clear that Jesus' warnings of judgment were primarily against the Pharisees (Matthew 23), the Sadducees who denied the resurrection, and the priests, who had enslaved the people by their religion (our title is Religions Enslave) . Instead of the temple being a house of prayer for all nations, it had become a den of robbers. Jesus used exactly the same metaphorical language (portents) that Isaiah had used for the fall of Babylon to picture the end of the city (Matthew 24:29 quoting Isaiah 13:10,13). And this would be the sign of his coming in the generation of his hearers to topple the religious establishment of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:36, 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32).
In explaining the meaning of the Gospel in a nutshell (John 3:16) we are told "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). That convinced me we have no business using the threat of the imminent end of the world, or terrible judgment, to persuade sinners to repent and accept their forgiveness. Love is accepted freely, never forced by fear. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:18). I used to teach that we are only freed from fear when we have been perfected in love. But the point is that God's love does without (casts out) the use of fear. John goes on to say that "he who keeps using fear as a motivation hasn't got it right at all" (what the Greek suggests) and the reason is that "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:18-19). Loving parents do not terrify their children into loving them. They love them first and unconditionally, and they rejoice if their love is reciprocated. Nor do they threaten punishment if their children's love does not meet their expectations.
As we saw in the prophets, there is certainly the Messiah's judgment on nations and religious systems that destroy the freedom of ordinary people. We can extend that to make clear that he will in due time intervene to topple religions anywhere in the world that trample on the freedom of people. But eternal judgment in the Gospels is the free choice of individuals who either love the eternal light of the Messiah or love the darkness of eternal death. "This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19-21).
And John had already explained that "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was continually coming into the world" (Greek imperfect continuous, John 1:9). Putting the two verses together we are assured that for everyone in every nation there has always been a freedom to love the light of God (the Messiah) or reject that light (argued in Clark H.Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy, Zondervan, 1992, p.33). The freedom is not a cerebral act or decision, but a response to all that is true, and beautiful, and loving in the eternal Son of God.
Obviously this reflects a huge model shift in the way I now preach the good news. In an article titled "Evangelical Megashift" (Christianity Today, February 1990, pp. 12-13) I suggested that I was not the only one moving in this direction. I realize that many evangelical scholars think I am wrong in commending such ideas. But I continue to study what the Gospels actually say about the good news of freedom which we have to communicate to the world. And I hope I am still open to change my mind. But I am not likely to be moved by arguments from evangelical tradition ("That is not what we believe").
So I will focus on four topics which illustrate the way I preach freedom from the Gospels at this time in my theological pilgrimage.
Messiah - Freeing by the Spirit
In the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospels the Greek word christos was translated by the word Messiah (Hebrew mashiakh) instead of the commonly used term Christ. So the New Testament begins with "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah" (Matthew 1:1). The Greek word "Christ" has become a swear word, and meaningless for many, so I welcome this change. It is important, not only for the interpretation of the Gospels, but for our dialogue with Jewish friends who still await the Messiah's coming.
In the previous chapter I suggested that instead of looking (as did the prophets) to the Sovereign King who was already reigning among all nations, Judaism began thinking the Messiah will come one day for the Jewish people, but there was little sign of him being active to help them. 1900 years later some thought the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the wars that followed, suggested the LORD had indeed intervened. Others said it was just Jewish courage and determination. And Orthodox rabbis objected that no help should expected till the Messiah came.
But now I sense among thinking Jewish people a growing interest in the person of Jesus. After all he is recognized all over the world as by far the most important person in their history. Through his followers the Jewish Bible is now read in hundreds of languages, and the stories of Abraham and Moses are the delight of millions of Gentile children. The problem is that the covenant with Abraham was "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3) and both his Arab and Jewish children have forgotten that promise.
In the sermon in his home town of Nazareth Jesus defined his mission by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18 taken verbatim from Isaiah 61:1). The good news is that the work of the Spirit results in freedom for the downtrodden, those in bondage, the blind, the oppressed. This is obviously metaphorical of the many kinds of freedom that the Messiah was and still is concerned about, not only among the Jewish people in the time of Isaiah, and the Jewish people in his days on earth, but among all nations.
Jesus contrasted the funeral dirge of John the Baptist's ministry with his own wedding dance (Matthew 11:16-17). The two lifestyles were radically different. The last of the prophets was abstemious and ascetic, but Jesus "came eating and drinking." Religious people even accused him of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:18-19). This was puzzling because after my conversion the student group in my college taught me the total abstinence which I preached for twenty years. I gave that up when I realized that Jesus' first miracle was when he turned water to vintage wine for a wedding reception. 150 gallons is a lot of wine for what must have been quite a party! (John 2:6-10).
For a long time I was bothered by Jesus' comment that "among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11). How could the greatest of prophets not even be part of the Messiah's kingdom? Eventually I realized that both were involved in freeing us but in very different ways. An X-Ray technician frees us by giving us the diagnosis, but the physician frees us by treating the condition . Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached repentance. But that is nothing to do with digging up and feeling bad about our sins. There is an experience of deep contrition (which often comes much later), but Christian faith begins as soon as we turn in the right direction to find the freedom that God has for us (the Hebrew word shubh means turning).
John the Baptist called people to turn to receive the diagnosis of what was wrong, and the Messiah calls us to turn to be freed by the inner healing of the Spirit. This is why John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets, but he was not part of the good news of the Kingdom. As with the Old Testament prophets, he could only point in the direction of the Messiah for healing.
In our modern world we have an abundance of prophets to give us the diagnosis of our broken world. They may not view themselves as religious, but they warn us that smokers die of lung cancer, drinking and driving don't mix, those who sleep around carelessly get AIDS, child abusers cause permanent damage, and if our environment is abused , there will be no water to drink or air to breathe. These all do the John the Baptist work of warning us of consequences, but they have little to offer us by way of freedom by inner heart cure. (I see I first argued this in "The Truth about Consequences," Christianity Today, April 17, 1987, now on this website as "John the Baptist: The Truth about Consequences").
When I began reading the Gospels in this light it became clear that in freeing us and our world Jesus had no intention of being a one man band. Once they had learned the basics of life in the Spirit the twelve were quickly sent out to extend the Messiah's liberation ministry all over Galilee and Judea, and then to the whole world (Matthew 10:5-7, 28:19-20). Soon another seventy were entrusted with this responsibility (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-2). They would "do the works that I do, in fact will do greater works" (John 14:12) by the power of the Holy Spirit..
We have seen that the Holy Spirit was already at work through individuals in the Old Testament period. But for the purpose of proclaiming the good news among all nations the Holy Spirit would empower a world-wide church (Luke 24:45-49). And in the Book of Acts we can see how the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost freed this church to subdivide into communities of the Spirit in every city and its surrounding area. As we will see in Paul's teaching about the church as a body, each church was to be further subdivided organically so that every member had a share in doing the Messiah's liberating work in hundreds of different ways.
Sinners - Freedom and forgiveness
In the section on Genesis I indicated I no longer view sinners as condemned to eternal damnation (as in Augustine's doctrine of original sin). That inevitably changed the meaning of the word sin in the Gospels. In Jesus' ministry the sickness that needs healing is not merely accepting the offer of forgiveness from judicial condemnation. Salvation is to free us from every kind of physical, mental, and spiritual bondage.
When Jesus said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17), he was speaking about a greedy tax collector. When a helpless paralytic was lowered through verandah roof, it was his friends who had the faith to bring him, and Jesus said "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5) to free him from paralysis. He used the same words for a woman of the street (Luke 7:48). Having suffered a hemorrhage for twelve years, another woman who came up in the crowd was told "Your faith has made you well" (Mark 5:34). When ten lepers were healed, only one of them was made whole (Luke 17:19).
In each of these cases sinners were freed for a new life. In no case is it suggested that they were healed from judicial condemnation. That brought me to see that sin impacts us from within our bodies through the genes that we were given and from all directions of the world system around us. As with earthly physicians there are many conditions from which we seek freedom. In some cases there is a sense of guilt from moral failure. Others are riddled with unnecessary guilt (explained in Living Totally: Without Guilt). Many feel discouraged and useless. There is massive anxiety, fear, and terror. And it is only by supernatural power to forgive others that a Christian community can do its work.
We also know that much that goes wrong in our world is not the person's fault. It is monstrous to say that getting AIDS from tainted blood, thalidomide babies, or child abuse are due to bad karma in a previous life (an essential doctrine of both Hindu gurus and Buddhist priests, which cuts at the very root of human freedom). The Messiah wants to free us from the effects of the sin that pervades our being and the whole society we live in. Sin expresses itself in a host of different ways that can only be healed from the heart by the Holy Spirit. That is why the Gospels illustrate for us the resulting freedom. They do not philosophize about the original cause.
Parables - Freedom to interpret
As a student I was taught to view the parables of Jesus as having a "correct" (approved) interpretation, which the best commentaries would discuss and settle for us. Why then were they given as stories, rather than the propositions of clear theological doctrine? The answer was that we often need a picture illustration to help us understand a theory. That encouraged me to use more illustrations in my preaching, rather than a diet of heavy doctrine, which people gratefully appreciated.
I soon learned that parables are not to be read as allegories in which every detail is designed to have a meaning. The Good Samaritan tells us what a neighbor is. Don't fasten on the oil and wine, and the two denarii for the innkeeper. The Prodigal Son has to do with what God's kind of love is about. I should not confuse that by guessing at the spiritual meaning of the ring, and the shoes, and the dancing.
But then I found I could be moved on another occasion by a quite different interpretation. Was that equally valid, or would Jesus need to explain the correct meaning? "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, but he explained everything in private to his disciples" (Mark 4:33). For example Jesus showed his disciples how to interpret the parables of the Sower and the weeds in the field (Matthew 13:3-30). But then why did Jesus leave other people perplexed, and only give explanations to his inner circle of disciples? Most of the parables are just told as stories and no explanation of their meaning is provided.
Eventually I came to see that the parables were deliberately created to leave us free to think and arrive at our own conclusions. What Jesus explained was one way to use the parable. There was no correct answer. For example the parable of the Sower probably referred to some of Jesus' disciples losing interest, and some giving up completely (John 6:66). It is a picture of what goes on among the baptized in every church. It could also be an encouragement to go deep into the Word of God. The parable of the yeast in the bread can point either to the spread of evil in the world or to the transforming power of the good news. That freed me from worrying about what the correct answer was meant to be. I can approach the parables with great excitement wondering what new slant the Holy Spirit is going to give me for that particular situation.
Jesus told parables which at that time certainly referred to the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-2, 15-34). "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time" (Matthew 21:41). "The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city" (Matthew 22:7). But these parables can also be relevant to a church whose candlestick is about to be removed, or the Messiah's coming to deal with false teachers (Revelation 2:5, 16), or his interventions to topple an oppressive government. As I write the Taliban religious teachers of Afghanistan have been decimated, and people rejoice at the new freedom in Kabul and Kandahar.
Not only are we free to use the parables to speak in a variety of different situations, but this openness of interpretation suggests that parables are meant to free us from the logic which our minds impose on the creative freedom of the Holy Spirit. Religions and Ideologies profess to be for our good, but freedom for ordinary people is very rarely in mind. We might compare the use of koans (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) in Zen Buddhism. Their purpose is to free the mind from the bind of human logic, and give an experience of enlightenment (satori). But it demands the self-effort of a very rigorous body-mind training (zazen), which only a few can attain. Jesus' parables are for ordinary people to enjoy, and the Spirit can use them to give a variety of interpretations and insights, and they are both for individuals just beginning their search and those who have gone deep into spiritual experience. Zen and Jesus' parables both offer freedom, but of a quite different kind.
Women - Freedom to learn and be respected
In Jesus' day most rabbis did not think women were fit to learn the torah. Only men could engage in theological studies and become rabbis. In Afghanistan the Taliban took this to its logical extreme. Religious leaders did not allow women to go to school, practice a profession, or go shopping without a male relative. In Saudi Arabia Wahabbi mullahs still deny women the freedom to drive a car.
But we forget that male chauvinism has also had a long history in the west. In England till 1918 preachers ranted against the suffragettes who wanted freedom for women to vote. It took a long struggle before the medical and legal and other professions allowed women the freedom to exercise their skills. And large denominations of the Christian church still exclude women from responsible ministries.
Jesus did not start a political revolution to free women, but he initiated certain changes which eventually would free women in radically new directions. He was eager for the woman of Samaria, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the women disciples who accompanied him (Luke 8:2-3) to be freed to hear the word of God.
The tradition in the Middle East and many other countries was that a woman could be divorced any time she did not please her husband. To this day in Arabia all a man has to say is "I divorce you, I divorce you," and she has to get out of his house. Recently it was announced in Dubai that the theologians (male of course) had pondered the question and decided that this could be done on a cell phone!. But there was no way a woman could leave a violently abusive man.
So the first thing Jesus did was to introduce the very radical principle of mutuality. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:10-12). If a man could divorce his wife, she must also be allowed the same freedom.
In this text he also pointed out the social cost of divorce. He did not forbid divorce in all cases, but the freedom to divorce inevitably adulterates what both parties had expected from a happy marriage (see Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage). Every divorce is a failure of love on one side or the other, or both. Divorce may in some cases be necessary but it always causes confusion and the adulteration of the family. If there is remarriage there is continuing confusion in both families. And as we know in our day, it is not only the parents but the children whose lives are hurt.
This explains why Jesus can make what would otherwise be an unreasonable illogical statement. "Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:32). How can an innocent woman commit adultery merely because her husband divorces her? Obviously Jesus has widened the meaning of adultery to the adulteration of a marriage (as he did in describing adulterous looking, Matthew 5:28). When a woman who had looked forward to a lifetime of happy marriage is suddenly divorced, her expectations are caused to be adulterated. The words "except on the ground of unchastity" explain that the situation is different if she has already adulterated her marriage by promiscuity on the side. The family is already messed up. And Jesus' point is that the same applies with men.
As we will see in chapter 6, Jesus used baptism as a means of enrolling disciples to begin learning. Any teacher has to mark her class off from others: "These are the children I intend to teach" And Jesus certainly intended women to have the freedom to learn in his school. After the Day of Pentecost Peter and the other apostles took it for granted that women should be baptized to become disciples in the same way as men. We read that "more and more believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women" (Acts 5:14, see 8:12). There is no way the apostles would have initiated such a change unless Jesus had previously welcomed women to baptism and discipleship in his ministry.
Before his conversion Paul was a male chauvinist rabbi like the rest. He had viewed women disciples as being as great a danger to rabbinic tradition as Christian men. "Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women to be committed to prison" (Acts 8:3). His purpose on the Damascus Road was that "if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:2). We don't know how long it took him to come to terms with women disciples discussing the torah in the Christian churches. But by the time he came to Philippi on his second missionary journey he found a business woman named Lydia. "The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, Paul stayed at her home, and she hosted the first Christian congregation in Greece" (Acts 16:15, 40). When they celebrated the eucharist, I imagine she presided at the table.
In 1977 I argued for the ordination of women to preside at the Lord's Table in the Diocese of Toronto. And I wrote my support when the Church of England was deciding whether Jesus would be pleased with women functioning as priests (after all Maggie Thatcher became prime minister!). My argument was first that in the New Testament women as well as men are priests (this should have been obvious from the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, 1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Secondly In Paul's teaching of the church as the body of the Messiah, there is no distinction of functions between men and women.(see chapter 4 under "Body"). Admittedly there are some verses that suggest married women should not rock the boat when the new churches of the Holy Spirit began functioning in the Roman world. But by the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was teaching a tenfold mutuality in marriage. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband . . . The husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does . . . The unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband" (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). No modern feminist could ask for more. It was Jesus who brought from heaven this astonishing vision of freedom in marriage for men and women. It would have been unthinkable among the Jewish rabbis. And it is still hard to swallow for the mullahs, priests, and religious teachers of all religions (Religions Enslave: God wants us Free, especially women).
In spite of this Satan still manages to circulate the lie that Jesus was loving but his apostle Paul was a male chauvinist bigot. So we turn to the one I have more and more learned to admire as the apostle of freedom.
Chapter 4 Pauline Theology