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