Is Our Gospel Too Small? A Look at Luke 4

by | Jan 10, 2024 | Faith | 21 comments

Is our gospel too small? A look at Luke 4
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Something funny happened on two of the podcasts at the end of 2023.

Both guests talked about the gospel in light of Luke 4.

Both Scot McKnight and Andrew Whitehead, all on their own without prompting from me, summarized the gospel using Luke 4. They each had compelling and profound reasons behind why this one passage, out of all of Scripture, best summed up the “good news” of Jesus. 

I was very taken by what each of them had to say. In this blog post, I’d like us to take a few minutes to explore why this one chapter is so very important and what it means for us, today, as we follow Jesus. 

Luke 4 Declares The Mission

In Jesus’s first sermon, according to the Gospel of Luke, He stands up, opens the scroll, and reads a passage from Isaiah chapter 61.  Then, He looks up to His audience and basically says, “This is My mission.”  

His mission was to preach the Gospel to the poor, to liberate the oppressed, to set free those who are in prison. 

The NIV translates the passage in this way:

“and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:17-19, NIV

This is Jesus’s first time on the scene and He’s sharing, ‘this is what I’m here to do.’ 

Interestingly,  at the end of this passage, Jesus says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Now that is really fascinating because there’s not a person in Israel at that time who wouldn’t have recognized that verse from Leviticus 25; He’s speaking about the Jubilee. For those who may not be familiar with this concept, the year of jubilee was a decree from the Lord that was to release people from debt and slavery and to create economic justice and distribution.

Jesus preached a Gospel that was—as Scot McKnight calls it— holistic redemption.  The whole of life can be transformed by the redemptive power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. That includes entire communities as well.

  This “Gospel” was in Effect before Jesus died

Often when we read this passage, we think that Jesus is making the whole thing spiritual based on him dying on the cross. So it’s not really the blind seeing; it’s merely the blind see because He died and gave us new life. No captives are actually set free; it’s just that we’ll be set free because He died and rescued us from death.

This certainly is one way to see it. But it is not how Jesus’ hearers would have heard it.

When Jesus originally preached this, He said “today this is fulfilled.” Today. That meant that before the cross, there was already good news. There was a kingdom that was coming to earth that was already good news–and that’s what we seem to have forgotten.

The Gospel Isn’t Just Personal, It’s Communal

When we look at what Jesus had to say in Luke 4, we can see something revolutionary: the gospel is not just about whether or not I get into heaven; it’s also about the kingdom of God coming to earth in community. We learn that God cares about the poor, the blind, the captives, the marginalized, and that as the kingdom of God comes to earth, it will have real world impacts for these people.

The gospel certainly has something to do with each of us personally (and in light of the cross, we would proclaim Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again), but that’s not actually what He was talking about at the time. 

He was talking about a new kingdom, a transformation of the way we do life.  And how we understand the character of the kingdom of God and how we relate to one another matters, and will impact our understanding of the gospel.

So many of us were taught growing up that the gospel is simply “your sins are forgiven because Jesus died and now you’re going to heaven.” You’ve fallen short, but Jesus has come to save you. So put your trust in him and then you will go to heaven–and that’s it. There’s really nothing else to do.

As Andrew stated on our podcast, that’s certainly a big part of it. But it is an incomplete picture of the gospel. When we look at what Jesus is saying here in Luke, He’s saying, “I’ve come to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim good news to the poor.” 

The gospel is so much more than a get-out-of-jail free card

It’s about redemption. It’s about caring for the poor and the hungry. We talk about economic injustices in the United States and in Canada. However, in Israel–in Galilee where Jesus lived– something like 90% of the people would have ben poor (We don’t know for sure.  We don’t have demographics, but it’s a likely number based on the information we do have).  A strong majority of people lived at the level of subsistence.  And around 7-10% of the people lived in luxury.  

The people who listened to Jesus preach this message of Jubilee in Nazareth—the people who were happy— they were the poor.  They were the marginalized.

The kingdom of God was good news for the marginalized in Jesus’ day–and it wasn’t just good news in terms of, “don’t worry, one day you’ll be in heaven and all of this won’t matter.” It was that something was going to change now. 

Is the gospel good news today? 

If our gospel isn’t good news to the poor in the here and now, if it doesn’t set people free–then is it actually good news?

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The Billy Graham Gospel Of Individualism

Many of us have been trained to view the gospel as an individualized get-out-of-jail free card, but so many others are hungry for more. And yet, if we try to speak on how much bigger the gospel is than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe,  we’re called a liberal or a socialist or possibly many other things. 

One reason, I believe, that western Christianity has perpetuated this idea of individual salvation may have started with the Billy Graham era. Now, I preface this by saying that I believe Graham was a great man who did a lot to introduce people to Jesus. However, it seems to me that he entered into the scene and then he did these huge crusades, and the whole idea was to get people to become Christian. How do you become Christian? You say the prayer.

And so Christianity got diluted into just saying this prayer and then you’re in. It very much became a get-out-hell-free card. And Christianity became about what you believe rather than how we live out the gospel. 

Yes, of course it’s by faith, not by works. But in stressing saying a simple prayer, have we missed the larger picture of what Jesus came to do? After all, James also said that faith without works is dead and that you’ll see the faith by the works. And Jesus said, who loves me will obey my commands. 

And so yes, we’re saved by faith, but there needs to be a lot more than that. And I feel like what a lot of Billy Graham and the evangelists and that whole mentality did to faith was it just made it simply,”as long as you recite these words, you’re all good.”

The danger in this understanding is that it that can make people feel really spiritually superior over other people, even when they’re acting quite atrociously.  

It allows people to ignore the systems around them that are disadvantageous to so many who are suffering–and to even say that seeking justice is NOT a part of the gospel, because you’re ignoring the cross. 

That just doesn’t line up with Luke 4. It just doesn’t.

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Repentance and The Gospel

Where does personal repentance fit into this? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently.

John the Baptist does talk about repentance in Luke chapter 3, and the readers of the Gospel of Luke see this.  And when people asked him, “What should we do for repentance?” John the Baptist had one basic message. Namely, help the poor: 

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Luke 3:10-14, NIV

Likewise, Jesus’s vision from the very beginning had this Jubilee vision of liberation of people from all sorts of injustices.  

If we truly believe that we are called to live out the gospel, we must ask ourselves, “Who is suffering,  and what can we do to meet them where they’re at? What can we do to bring the kingdom of God to earth, as it is in heaven, rather than just telling people–forget about what’s happening on earth; at least you get to go to  heaven!

It was so interesting to have two podcast guests say the same thing.

And it as so interesting that they said it so close together, in just a few weeks.

To close out this post, I would just like to take a moment to quote Scot McKnight from my interview with him:

“If that’s not the Gospel, I don’t know what is… I have a pretty sneaking suspicion that Jesus knew what He was talking about.  And if that’s what He says is the Gospel, that’s what the Gospel is.”

Scot McKnight

Is the gospel too small? A look at Luke 4

What do you think? Are we missing something with the gospel? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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21 Comments

  1. Laura

    I think we (I’m mainly referring to westernized Christianity as I’m from the U.S.) have made the gospel too small. The Good News is not about us, as individuals, getting that membership into heaven and focusing on believing the right Christian things which I think some of them are petty such as the literal 7 days of creation, what political party is the most Christian, gender roles, and an obsession with end times prophecies. If you don’t believe these things, then you’re not really a Christian. A lot of Christians don’t seem to take Jesus seriously enough and choose to take Paul’s teachings literally. Some examples are what Paul said to one church about not having women speak, the way women should dress, gender roles in marriage, yet many women mentioned in the Bible did not adhere to said roles. So, churches make doctrines on of Paul’s teachings far more than encouraging members to help the poor and offer freedom to the marginalized, but if they do that, they get called “woke”.

    I think of Jesus speaking to the rich, young ruler who wanted to get into heaven and asked how. When Jesus told him to sell all his possessions to the poor, the ruler was disappointed. Jesus did not say to just believe in Him and say a prayer of salvation. As Christians, we should care more about helping those in need over focusing on a literal 7 day creation, gender roles, and end times prophecies. Jesus never told us we had to believe in these things which a lot of Christians insist you must in order to be considered a good Christian.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, “a lot of Christians don’t seem to take Jesus seriously enough and choose to take Paul’s teachings literally.” I think that’s exactly what happens! And Paul would be appalled.

      Reply
  2. Em

    This gives me chills. I love how your faith and theology posts always expose what the Bible teaches. It’s so fascinating and such a great experience to see passages in different ways. I’m sad that I consider them different when it seems like that’s the way I should have been looking at them all along.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Em!

      Reply
  3. Stefanie

    This was a new concept for me about two years ago when I started deconstructing. I had only ever heard of the gospel in terms of the correct rules you need to follow to stay on God’s good side and not go to hell. That idea that the “good news” could be *actually* good, like literally good in the here and now was a radical concept. I was taught at church to expect suffering. That following Jesus was going to bring hardship, but if you didn’t give up, you would receive your crown. And they had a whole bunch of scriptures to back up this idea.

    So, sex is supposed to be good? And not a sacrifice you perform to keep your husband and God happy? That was new.

    And I’m actually supposed to experience peace and joy? Not just in the theoretical, metaphorical sense when I consider that all this suffering will one day be over? That was new.

    There are actually not supposed to be any poor people among us? (Everyone shared as they had need) That was new.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It’s been really new for me too!

      Reply
  4. John

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but this is one of your best ever articles. Such an important message to share.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Jen

    I grew up with the say the prayer mentality, and it actually served to keep me in abusive situations. I already had a hunker down and endure mindset, so waiting for heaven just fit right in.

    As the LORD is setting me free, He’s also talking to me about the poor. Of course, the poor means literally those who don’t t have enough, but we can be and are poor in many more ways than just materially. And surely that crosses over into the oppressed, the captives, and the prisoners. I’m pondering how Jesus meant “poor” both literally and figuratively. Your ministry, Sheila, is working with the poor in spirit, the oppressed, the captives, etc.

    It’s always a bit stunning when I’m reminded that God has good for me NOW, not just in eternity. Such a good discussion.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It really makes you see God differently, doesn’t it? It’s like, God actually cares about what is happening to me. He cares about my well-being, not just my soul. That’s a God that you can be personal with.

      Reply
  6. Angela

    Excellent post. But Frank Viola and others who talk about these things blame D L Moody for creating the “say the prayer, go get others to say the prayer” type culture, which became very much Baptist culture which Billy Graham simply inherited and took seriously.
    It didn’t help that our culture is overly individualistic in general.

    As to helping the poor, I would emphasize that this is mostly the poor that you know. First the poor in your extended family, then in your acquaintance circle, then in your community…all of which you generally can know for sure what they need and how to help better than someone far off. Imagine if every prosperous person did that and more people volunteered locally, which you can do even if you don’t have extra money. A lot of the need would be eliminated pretty fast, leaving more time and services for the hard things and trained people– like helping people needing to get out of drug addiction, abusive behavior, sex trafficking, and criminal activity. Utopia isn’t going to happen, but things could be a lot better. I know people who create small businesses like window washing and then hire people who need jobs and can’t find them. I’m missions minded, so I’m absolutely delighted about any good things we do far away, but it’s innapropriate for people to just give to missions or to giant international charities and not take care of their own poor. It’s also wicked for some people to teach that practically helping others isn’t the good news, it’s some kind of heretical “social gospel.” Just because every act of kindness doesn’t work out or fix someone’s life permanently doesn’t mean that it was wrong to do. Yes let’s be wise, let’s be led by God in individual cases, but also let’s change the mindset that this is optional because essentially the whole Bible is about this from Genesis to Revelation. The prophets were yelling at Israel about this very thing, Widows and orphans. The Hebrew tsedekah, righteousness, is the word Jewish people use to mean charity to this day–actual acts of kindness and helping the poor. The ancient Romans said about the early Christians, “They not only take care of their own poor, they take care of ours also!” Christians also famously nursed the sick in plague ridden places where even the doctors had fled out of fear.

    Thanks Sheila, for the way you both humbly listen and grow, and also boldly share.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s interesting about Moody! Come to think of it, I remember something about him and the prayer now.

      That’s so interesting about the Hebrew word for righteousness! I’m going to ponder that.

      Reply
    • Kristy

      A very wise comment, Angela. I appreciate it so much. It’s given me much to ponder. I love what the ancient Romans said about the early church, and wish it could be said of us today. It seems to me that Sheila and her team are functioning as modern-day prophets calling the evangelical church (in particular) to repentance. It’s not an easy or a pleasant role, and I too give them thanks.

      Reply
  7. Phil

    Hey there Sheila. Appreciate the post today. Right up my alley on my spiritual journey. I was listening to a podcast with Paul Tripp and Nancy Guthrie a while back. Nancy has quite the compelling story. She opened my eyes to the fact that we often stop at Jesus was born, crucified, and was resurrected to save us from sin. I have to admit I am guilty. However when you look at what I just wrote it doesnt even follow human logic. That’s it? So we just get go to heaven and there is nothing more? Our Sunday school class was going to move to Revelation this year but we decided to take the next year and just talk about Jesus. Honestly I do not know the story in Revelation well. I have been investigating here and there in preparation of hopes to get there next year with our class. What I do know is that Jesus will come again and he is going to take my dust with him and create a new kingdom. Whatever that is I get to be part of. While that may not sound exciting as written, what I do know is it will be perfect. Perfect sounds good to me. The word Peace comes to mind as I think through this. What would true peace feel like? Hmmm that sounds exciting 😁

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Peace honestly does sound exciting!

      Reply
  8. Ellie

    I am so thankful I grew up on the whole Bible. Even within my family, I questioned *our* faith because some of it didn’t align with what Jesus taught or how God directed the Hebrews in the Torah to treat others! Thank you for your ministry – you are such a blessing!!

    Reply
  9. Kristy

    This makes me think of something I’ve been hearing a lot lately. I recently discovered “Jim Cantelon Today” (decades ago, he was the youth pastor in the youth group where I first met Christ, and I have such respect for him) and I watch it every Sunday on YouTube. He talks all the time about how the two great commandments are about the vertical — loving God, righteousness — and the horizontal — loving our neighbours, social justice. I think that what the Bible teaches is that we need both. Not that I would say that “praying the prayer” is not enough for salvation. The thief on the cross did not have time to go around putting his new faith into action, yet Jesus told him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” But we will surely be held accountable if we do not use the opportunities that we have to act as Jesus’ hands and feet and heart of love to the world around us. And it’s important to be reminded of that. I think that most of us need that (at least, I do).

    Reply
  10. Rachel Peachey

    Well. It looks like you have almost joined the ranks of the Anabaptists in your theology, Sheila.

    Welcome. 😀

    Now if only our modern day anabaptists could get themselves cleared of all of this horrendous theology that leads to abuse that has been getting absorbed from the evangelical side and adopted freely in our midst.

    Maybe someday, somehow we can all find true freedom in Christ. Truly understanding the freedom of a life surrendered to following Jesus with everything we’ve got. 🙏🏼

    Appreciated this article. So right on.

    Reply
  11. Willow

    Yes!

    I grew up being taught the “good news” was that “Jesus died for your sins, so now when you die you go to heaven instead of hell.”

    I always found this to be rather distant and conceptual, and wondered why it was powerful enough to get someone killed and set the world afire with a new religion.

    A few years ago, God poked me with a different understanding: The Good News of Jesus is that we are FREE. Not in the afterlife, but in the here-and-now. The Divine (the Holy Spirit) lives and breathes inside of each of us. We have direct access to God and are accountable to God alone. Every human is formed in the image of God; we are all equal, all siblings in one big family. Absolutely nothing wielded by any other person can separate us from God. Hence, no human can have any true power or control over another; even death was rendered powerless. In God we live and breathe and have our being.

    We do not have to wait for the future. We are free right now – and always have been. This is the good news that set the world aflame. Spreading the “good news” means informing others of their freedom and doing all we can to ensure they can exercise it; that they are not constrained by infirmity, poverty, or any other type of oppression: we are all captives in the attempted power or control of others, and we are called upon to set the captives free.

    Reply
  12. EOF

    I love this so much. I’ve spent thirty years trying to understand what the good news is, never finding a satisfactory answer. This is beautiful, and it finally answers the question for me!

    And so interesting that as I’m reading this, I’m separated from my husband. I’ve posted many comments here over the years about my spiritually abusive marriage, and I can’t express how freeing it is to be away from that — and to be supported by my church in this separation. I’m feeling the good news in my own life! And even better, I’m watching my children flourish! Your resources were a big part of what made that possible, so thank you.

    Reply

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