Note: This is Part 1 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Part 1, Gospel Change
Part 2, Gospel Discovery
Part 3, Gospel Acceptance
Part 4, Gospel Approval
Part 5, Gospel Response
Part 6, Gospel Faith (Coming March 11, 2012)
Part 7, Substitute Gospels (Coming March 18, 2012)
Part 8, Gospel Depth (Coming March 25, 2012)
Text: Matthew 22:34-40
For the next eight weeks, we are going to take up the topic of the Gospel. Gospel is a word that is comfortable and familiar. We use it easily in our vocabulary, particularly in and around church and fellow believers. But, as with most familiar things, what is familiar begins to lose its richness, depth, and detail the more we encounter it. So I want to go back and explore this word. I want us to be reminded over these next eight weeks of what the Gospel means for us. Let’s take out this familiar blanket, this comfortable sweater that we call the Gospel, and let’s reminisce and explore all that it still has to offer us.
Word studies are typically parts of sermon preparation that are largely left in the pastor’s study. The sermon benefits from them, but the details of them don’t usually make it to Sunday. That said, I think a short word study on “Gospel” is appropriate as we launch this eight week journey of exploration. A good word study considers two elements. One is understanding the English word and the way it is used in our language and throughout the Bible translations we read. The other is to understand the original language word that stands behind the English translation.
The background of our English word “gospel” stems from an old Anglo-Saxon compound, “God-spell.” Back then, a spell was simply a story. So the God-spell was God’s story. Of course, words change and develop over decades and centuries of use, and we no longer use the word “gospel” as simply the identifier for God’s story. But it is a helpful reminder that whatever we think of the Gospel, the background is that it is God’s story.
The Greek word from the New Testament which is usually translated as “gospel” is euangelion. Listen closely, and you can hear our English words evangelism, evangelize, and Evangelical. All of them are derived from this Greek word. Euangelion is found in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke or John and only twice in Acts. It is found sixty times scattered across twelve of the thirteen letters of Paul (only in Titus does he not use it).
Outside of, and particularly prior to, the New Testament, a euangelion was the reward given to someone who brought good news. But in the New Testament, the word changed and morphed to become the good news itself. The euangelion picks up the mantle of good news bearers Isaiah mentions again and again. And, appropriately for the use of the word Gospel, in the New Testament, the good news recounts the activity of God on behalf of humanity. That is, the Gospel is God’s story. And God’s story happens to be very good news.
In Matthew 22, Jesus is in the middle of his last week of earthly life. He had entered Jerusalem triumphantly in Matthew 21 and would be betrayed, arrested, tried, and denied by the time the reader gets to the end of Matthew 26. In Matthew 22, Jesus was speaking against the religious authorities of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He is questioned back and forth in challenges by them. The very last question Jesus was asked was posed by a lawyer from the Pharisees who asked Jesus what was the greatest of the laws. This was Jesus’ response:
And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’
Now, you may be saying to yourself, but I thought we were talking about the Gospel! Now we’re going to the Law and the Prophets? I suggest to you that Jesus’ summation of the Law and the Prophets speaks to the heart of God’s work on our behalf – to God’s Good News Story.
Let me ask you to give me a show of hands. How many of you here this morning can say that you have always and forever, or perhaps even in just this moment, loved the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind? Not a word of gossip. Not so much as a white lie to dispel the truth or turn the attention away from you. Not a word spoken in uncontrolled anger. Not so much as a sheet of paper taken from an employer or anywhere else. Never considering using your vacation time for anything other than the spreading of God’s Kingdom, because you love God and what He loves. Anyone?
Well, at least the second commandment is easier. Love your neighbor as yourself. No one here has ever had a problem with loving their neighbor as themselves, right? You know, the illegal immigrant who is scared to drive anywhere for fear of being caught. You know, the sexual predator who moved in two doors down? The drug addict who persists in knocking at your door without regard for time or day – or night? The former family member who uses every maneuver to twist and hurt and block all of your efforts? Never had a problem with any of these neighbors, have you? Anyone keep this one perfectly? What about neighbors who pursue agendas you stand against – abortion, homosexuality, prayers at government meetings, and so on? Have you been utterly loving to them the way you might demand that they be utterly loving to you?
This is the problem. These are the two basic ideas we need to hold dear and live out, and we are absolutely no good at doing them. No one has ever been. History is full of examples of how to not obey these two commands. And history is very unyielding in revealing any who managed to do so consistently and thoroughly. We know the stories of the worst offenders: Germany in the 1930s, Rwanda in 1994, the United States in the first two-thirds of the Twentieth Century. And the newspaper or news channel gives us ready fodder every day with the latest poster child for how not to follow the two greatest commandments.
We have such a hard time with it because we simply cannot carry them out. One writer has suggested that since the fall in the Garden of Eden, we are most prolific idol-makers, willing to take practically anything and worship it, as long as it is not God himself. Modern day idols might be a sports team or celebrity, shopping, car or lawn care, our career, a political party, or our monthly financial statements.
Beyond being idol factories, we are bent most definitely towards loving ourselves and ourselves only, not our neighbors. We concern ourselves with making sure our image and reputation hold up to what we want them to be. We make sure that we are taken care of, even if that means someone else is sacrificed. We buy our cheap goods at Wal-mart without so much as a passing thought to the person on the other side of the world who actually put the thing together. We are frustrated when the world tries to revolve on its axis without speaking first to me, myself, and I about whether it remains convenient for it to do so.
You see, we can’t love God. And we can’t love our neighbors. We simply cannot do it. We no longer have the hearts and emotions of our innocent forebears, Adam and Eve. We are corrupt and broken, utterly. We no longer work or do as we should; as we are commanded.
Now, this is not for lack of trying. We apply social pressure on people to conform to the way we are taught we are supposed to look, behave, and think. We have standards for dress, hair, meals, books to read, movies to watch, times to pray, projects to donate to, companies and causes to boycott, and so on. We lobby for certain laws to be in place so to legislate the morality we want our religion to demonstrate. We frown upon card playing, Sunday lawn care, smoking, and playing the lottery. But let me ask this: if someone did all of these things and fulfilled all of our expectations, would it make them love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and would it suddenly mean that they would love their neighbor as themselves? Would their, on account of this, then appear in the Lamb’s Book of Life?
We know the answer, and it is no.
So why do we keep pressuring for it? Christianity is not an outside-in religion. Salvation never starts with behavior and then moves to the heart. One does not ask a non-believer to clean up before getting saved. Getting the world to act like our idea of Christianity will not bring one soul closer to Christ. All it might do, as far as such a campaign were successful, would be to make identifying the real Christians that much more difficult for those genuinely interested in finding God and the Good News He offers.
God’s Good News is not a behavior modification regimen with a shiny golden ticket to heaven at the end. God’s Good News is the provision of redemption and graced righteousness that will transform the heart, and as that transformation works itself out, will begin to manifest changes that display in a progressive order as Peter wrote in his second letter:
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2Pe 1:5-9 ESV)
First comes faith and the cleansing from sin, and then we who believe add virtue (or moral excellence), then knowledge, then self-control, and so on until finally we add the capstone of love and go on to increase continually in all of the areas. The starting point is faith. The ending point is love, and based on Jesus’ identification of the great commands, a love of God and of our neighbors. But love, the behavior, is not the starting point. It is the outcropping of the transformation of the heart that God does at salvation. God does not transform the heart after we have loved Him enough.
This is the Good News of the Gospel: that God has come to provide a way to change us not from the outside in, but from the inside-out. And as we experience this inside-out transformation, we will find that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and that we do love our neighbor as ourselves – after all, God loves them, too, and we love God, so we love the ones God loves.
So if you are trying to work out your salvation by adding on rules and regulations and behaviors, let me tell you that you are going about it the wrong way. If you are seeking to make a nation of Christians, we will fail if think civil laws can accomplish it. God’s love of you is not based on what you do. Actually, His love is in spite of what you do. There is a truth that is expressed as a prayer by a Raleigh pastor named J.D. Greear that I want us to all pray this week. Speak this to God: “There is nothing I have done that makes You love me less. And there is nothing that I can do that will make You love me more.” [From: this book.]
God’s love for you is already perfect and complete. It cannot be added to nor subtracted. It is not based on you or your actions. It is agape – unconditional. He cannot love you more than He already does, despite anything you have done, said, thought, believed, or achieved. Neither can He love you more however much you strive and accomplish for Him and His Name and His Kingdom.
God loves you. Despite yourself. Despite whatever you might do in an effort to love Him or to spite Him. God loves you. And He has made it possible for you to obey the greatest commandment – to love Him in return with all your heart, soul, and mind. He wants to get inside you and transform your heart. With your heart changed, then the rest will come naturally. But it starts with your heart.
Have you been increasing in the adding to your faith virtue and to your virtue knowledge and to your knowledge self-control and to your self-control steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and ultimately love? It is possible. But only through this Good News, God-story that we call the Gospel that begins and ends with a God who loves you and wants to transform you from the inside-out.