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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: The Gospel Story and Wandering in the Desert

The question of what counts as “the Gospel,” is oft-debated among Christians, but most of those debates come down to questions of “how much is included” rather than questions of what the core narrative underlying salvation history is.Many people have been told a version of the gospel that is summarized in five steps:1. God creates everything, and all is well.2. Adam rebels against God’s command, causing all creation to fall. God’s sense of perfect justice mandates that, outside mitigating circumstances, the all-powerful Almighty would be forced to punish all people for all eternity.3. God curses the serpent who brought about this calamity (Genesis 3:15), promising that the woman’s “seed” and the serpent’s “seed” would be at odds, but the woman’s “seed” would crush the head of the serpent’s while the serpent would strike the heel of the woman’s offspring.4. Fast-forward 4000 years. Jesus comes as the promised “crusher of the serpent’s head,” and through His sacrificial death, God now has the ability not to roast everyone forever.5. Fast-forward to either the day of Judgment or the death of the believer, where said believer is pardoned/forgiven of all sin through Christ’s sacrifice and allowed into heaven.Anyone who reveres the Bible should take significant exception to the above version of the Gospel story. There are several problems with it from a scripture-based perspective, but I will just mention a few.First, it casts as marginal about 80% of the Bible. If the gospel story is rooted in scripture, one has to be rather skeptical of any version that considers incidental everything from Genesis 4 to Matthew 1.Second, if we step off our 20th century perch, we recognize an immediate chronological issue preventing the above from being the “Gospel” Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and Co. were spreading. If the above represents the Gospel story, then someone in 50 AD trying to spread such a tale would be claiming that nothing that has happened in the last 6000 years (give or take) is critical. Imagine someone today trying to start a theological/philosophical/sociological movement that claimed nothing essential to the overall scheme of things has occurred between now and the first generation of humanity.Thirdly, it is a very self-serving, anthro-centric gospel. It is a story revolving about how we are blessed in the way we want. Note there are two separate issues here: both that we are the primary beneficiary and the manifestation of that blessing is exactly what we humans think of as the greatest gift: immortality.While there are many, many more problems with the above (as shall become evident later in this article), I am going to finish here with what is perhaps the most obvious biblical problem with the above: it suggests as core concerns items that have practically no presence in the evangelical writings of the apostles themselves!

Mark wrote his entire gospel without reference to the fall or the curse on the serpent. So did Luke. So did Matthew. So did John. Furthermore, neither of these items appear anywhere in the many evangelism periscopes found in Acts. If numbers 2 and 3 of the above 5-step gospel are critically important, you would think they would show up somewhere in the actual writings of the apostles to those they were trying to convert! Indeed, the only place Genesis 3:15 shows up in the entire New Testament is Romans 16:20, where Paul depicts the prophecy as neither fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice nor, even, by Christ Himself!

Indeed, not only does this 5-step gospel not match the evangelistic sermons found in Acts, but it suggests a purpose for the Christ altogether alien from the Later Prophets [Isaiah, Jeremiah, …, Malachi] who spoke through the Spirit of the coming savior. We Gentile Christians tend to plunder these books to prove that Jesus is the Christ while ignoring completely what the same prophets describe as the reason and purpose for the Christ’s coming. There are many deeds and accomplishments ascribed to the Christ throughout those many, many pages of scripture, but “saving us from God’s eternal, righteous judgment” is not one of them.This is not to say the 5-step gospel has no inkling of truth behind it. The fall is, at least indirectly, the principal calamity subverting creation. There is a promise involved, and an afterlife, and Christ’s work is certainly at the gospel’s heart. I want to describe here an alternative less alien to the apostle’s preaching and scripture as a whole.

Fundamentally, the gospel story is a description of how God blesses Jesus and, secondarily, how both humanity and all creation are blessed through that blessing. This might sound odd, that we are not the primary targets of God’s love and blessing, but Christians in general need to get used to putting Jesus as the center of the universe instead of themselves.

Paul hints at this blessing in Galatians 3:16 as part of an explanation as to why it was possible for Gentiles to have any part in Christ’s salvation. His point is that the promised blessing was not to Abraham’s descendants (plural) but to Abraham and his descendant, who is Christ.

And if we tug on these promises, and try to see things from the perspective of a 1st century Jewish Christian instead of a 21st century Gentile, many things become much clearer. Let’s do just that.

The Basis for the Gospel

The center of the gospel is not a problem to be a solved but a promise to be fulfilled. To be sure, there is a problem to be fixed, but its solution is a secondary item. The center of the gospel was a promise made to Abraham (which the promise made to David is an extension of). This sounds harsh to us Gentiles, but scripture very much defends the view. I would cite in particular Hebrews 2:16, but the Bible is rife with discussions placing the promises made to Abraham and David at the root of salvation, not the curse of the serpent. [Isaiah 37:35, Jeremiah 23:5, 30:9, 33:15-21, Ezekiel 34:23-24, 37:24-25, Hosea 3:5, Amos 9:11, Matthew 1:1, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30, 21:9, Mark 10:47-48, 11:10, Luke 1:27, 32, 69-76, 3:8, 13:16, 18:38-39, 19:9, 24:49, John 7:42, Acts 2:33-39, 3:25, 7:17, 13:23-24, 26:7, Romans 1:3, 4:16, 9:7, Galatians 3:7-8, 14:29, 2nd Timothy 2:8, Revelation 5:5, 22:16.]It would not be too much an exaggeration to say the Bible is a description of the fulfillment of these promises. But what was promised? And how were these promises actualized?

The First Promise

The first promise to Abraham was an inheritance in Canaan, aptly called “The Promised Land.” God showed that the time had come for that fulfillment by breaking the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. This Exodus was not the fulfillment of the promise, but was proof to those who had a stake in the inheritance that God planned on making good on the promise. The signs in Egypt, the successful escape, the manna, the covenant on Sinai, these were all pledges or indications that the Living God has the power and the desire to fulfill the promise made to Abraham.However, that in-between-time in the wilderness was a very taxing one for the Israelites. They had a stake in the inheritance and they had been saved from their oppressors, but they had not received the inheritance or life of ease that had been promised to them. They were wandering around with only manna to eat and only God’s signs as proof that God would see them through.We Christians should meditate on the story in Exodus 16-33 and Numbers 1-14. The Israelites were pulled in two directions. They had had better food and stability in the servitude endured in Egypt, and they were looking forward with only the promise of God that eventually they would have something better to do than wander around with only bread to eat. We might see them foolish today, but in reality they were just a people having trouble keeping their eyes on the promise in the straits of difficulty.They did not have the faith to obey God. That might sound like a strange statement because we generally separate “faith” from “works,” and “obey God” sounds like “works.” But the writer of Hebrews 3:17-19 describes it in exactly that way. They did not have faith that God would provide for them, so they refused to go into Canaan [see Numbers 14:1-30]. They had a stake in the inheritance, but they forfeited that stake through disobedience. They died in the desert, never entering the Promised Land. They had been saved from Egypt, but did not receive the blessing they had been saved for.

The Second Promise

The second promise was that all the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s descendant. Before going forward on this, it is very useful to summarize the first promise:

  • Abraham was faithful to God and God freely promised the land to him. [Note that this is the biblical understanding of “grace,” not that God “forgives” or that our righteousness is irrelevant to God. The Biblical understanding of “grace” is that God chooses to do what God wills without obligation to us. God can be swayed by our good deeds, but is under no requirement to be. Paul’s point in many of his epistles is that Christ’s coming was not part of the Mosaic covenant, so even if the Jews had kept the law, they would have no exclusive claim on the Messiah. Christ’s coming was based on a promise freely given without regard to the Law (Galatians 3:17-18), so God had every right to save the Gentiles through Christ as well as the Jews.]
  • His physical offspring piggy-backed on this promise and received a stake in the inheritance.
  • The purpose of the whole Exodus was that God would have a righteous people of God’s own.
  • There were two blessings: one in which a group was saved from oppression and given a pledge of the coming fulfillment of the promise, and the second was the fulfillment itself (possession of Canaan).
  • Being a descendant of Abraham gave someone a stake in the inheritance, but disobedience could prevent someone from receiving this inheritance.

I have taken pains to call out these matters because Christ’s salvation mirrors them and is described by them so well. Christ was faithful to God and so God exalted Him, giving Him Lordship over heaven and earth [see Philippians 3:8-9, among other places], He is thus the principal benefactor of the promise, as He has inherited the world [Romans 4:13]. Those who have faith become adopted sons of Abraham and receive a stake in this inheritance (Romans 8:16-17, Galatians 3:29).Just as Abraham’s physical children piggy-backed on his faith and received a stake in his physical inheritance, those who have the same kind of faith he had, become his spiritual children and can piggy-back on Christ’s merit to receive what He has received, a resurrected body free of selfish temptation. Romans 6 discusses this at length, but in general it was this reward that was the focus of early Christian evangelism: Acts 23:6, 24:21, 26:6-8, 1 Corinthians 15:13, 21, 2 Corinthians 1:9, Philippians 3:10-11. Today we conflate “afterlife” with “physical resurrection,” because all we care about is immortality, but for the Jews these items were quite different. The Jews and the nation of Israel in general had an understanding of a spiritual existence of some sort for many, many centuries [see 1 Samuel 28:15], but belief in an actual physical resurrection only started to spring up during the exile period, a few centuries prior to Christ.Moving on to the third bullet, the purpose of Christ’s exaltation is the same as the purpose of the original Exodus, to have a righteous kingdom for God [Jeremiah 33:15-21, Ezekiel 37:24-25, Hosea 3:5, Malachi 3:3, Acts 3:26, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:24, Revelation 22:3-4, among others].Regarding the fourth bullet, Christ’s teachings, model life, and (most importantly) His resurrection are the manna now, showing God’s power and desire to fulfill the promise. The Holy Spirit is many times called a “pledge” and “the promise.” These are the signs and proofs for our faith.The Israelites were enslaved externally in Egypt. They were put under forced labor, and they had Egypt’s idols thrust upon them. These external slaveries were broken in the exodus. The New Covenant breaks the internal slavery to sin. This is not slavery to the “punishment of sin.” When I speak of “slavery to sin,” I refer to what Paul describes in Romans 7:15-25: the inability to do God’s will and refuse to buckle under our desire to serve ourselves. Paul refers to this as a type of spiritual “death” that all inherited from Adam’s rebellion. [See Romans 5:12-21]It was this weakness and concomitant refusal to repent that had caused Israel’s downfall. This behavior is given as the reason for the new covenant [Jeremiah 31:31-34]. This is the problem cited again and again in the Old Testament: even when God’s people were freed externally, they did not have the internal strength to do God’s will. This is the slavery Christ speaks of John 8:34, the slavery He says He will free people from. And it is this slavery that Paul says Christ’s death was meant to end in Romans 6:6 and Romans 7:6.It is the Spirit that breaks us free of these things, the ‘first fruits” of the more glorious existence we will have later when we are no longer dogged by the selfish flesh.And, just as the Israelites did, we too are wandering in a desert. We who have received the Spirit have been freed from captivity to sin, but we have not received the inheritance. We have the promise of a renewed body in an eternal kingdom to look forward to, but we live in a dying, decaying world that tests this faith. We live in a world that teaches us to rely on what we can see and touch (like our retirement accounts) rather than on God to provide. We live in a world that tells us God is not real and those who live by God’s commands are wasting what precious time we have. We are constantly called to look back at our own Egypt, a much worse existence, but one that requires no faith in the unseen. We are tempted to live by the laws of this world, the lies that say our image before other people is more important than our image before God.These temptations are dangerous, just as they were to the Israelites in the desert. For, while the Spirit is a pledge of the “Promised Land” (Our resurrected bodies: See Romans 8:23), we risk forfeiting this inheritance by not following Jesus’ commands. This is why Paul uses the words he uses in Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:24-25, Galatians 5:21, and 1st Corinthians 6:9-10 to describe why even believers are in danger if they continue in sin. Hebrews 10:26-31 also speaks on this topic, but the clearest description on the fifth bullet (which we have now progressed to) is given by Peter in quoting a prophecy about Christ in Acts 3:22-23, the latter verse reads:

And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.

To “heed” Jesus does not just refer to the commands we think of, like not stealing, but also refers to our having the kind of faith that Jesus refers to in, say, Matthew 6. Faith that God has the power and inclination to take care of us so we do not choose to depend on the power of the world. Some of the greatest punishment visited upon Jerusalem was due to the Jews seeking aid from Egypt when their enemies attacked them. God was incensed that Judah would seek aid there rather than trust in the Almighty. When we hoard up excess wealth in our barns rather than give to the poor (which Christ demands) and trust God to navigate our future, we are essentially doing the same thing that caused judgment to reign down on Judah. [See Isaiah 31] When we try to live by the rules of the world, we are turning back to Egypt, just as the murmuring Israelites did in the wilderness. We should not expect this epic of our existence to be all fun and games. It certainly wasn’t for Paul, John the Baptist, Peter, etc.We cannot simply live in this world with the perspective of this world and wait for our inheritance to come to us. We have to accept that Christ calls us out into the desert to rely on God to provide. And while we are in the desert we cannot live by the conventional wisdom of Egypt. We must, instead, live by the commands of Christ, even when they seem foolish. It was hard for the Israelites in the desert to rely on God, and it hard for us to do so now. It was hard for the young man in Luke 18:22-23 to sell his possessions and give to the poor. It is hard to put our priorities and insecurities to the side and take on God’s priorities instead.

Thus, the gospel is not a story about how God saves us from God’s own justice, but rather a story about Christ’s exaltation to lead a Kingdom of people after God’s own heart, a kingdom those who believe have an inheritance in, but that inheritance can be forfeited, as the writer of Hebrews remarks, through disobedience. We are not being saved from God, but rather we are saved from spiritual infirmity for God.

The Judgment, then, is not about God’s justice but about Christ’s choosing those who will contribute to the society He is lord over. Given that the aim of that society is to do God’s will, it is no surprise that Christ says in Matthew 5:19,

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.