Man’s highest calling is to put God first. Jesus made this clear when he said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). This statement encompasses everything within our being, and Jesus drives the point home by using the word “all” three times. All that we are is to be directed towards God with loving devotion. Jesus’ statement of man’s ultimate purpose has great clarity in its simplicity, yet is very profound in its all-consuming goal.
Just as man’s highest calling and purpose is found only when we put God first, our greatest failings have their roots in putting ourselves first. Original sin was the result of Adam and Eve putting themselves before God; putting their reasoning before His command; giving in to the temptation that they were somehow missing out if they remained under God’s authority. When man chose to put himself first, sin, and all the suffering and misery it brings, found entrance into the world (Rom 5:12), and our relationship with God was broken by our rebellion (Rom 1:21, 25).
The gospel is God’s message to fallen man, telling us how we can be restored to right relationship with Him. Since the root problem is man putting himself first, the goal of the gospel is to restore God to His rightful position of being first in our life in every way. Yet, the gospel is frequently reduced to a people-centered message of personal salvation. The message I hear most Christians and churches proclaiming is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. While this is certainly true, it is only a portion of the truth, and if the gospel is reduced to this message alone, it is not actually the gospel of the Bible that restores right relationship with God.
A study of the scriptures reveals an aspect of the gospel that is generally ignored by today’s Christian culture. The gospel message focuses first on who Jesus is, not on what he has done for us. This emphasis is communicated consistently throughout the scriptures. In the Bible, when someone is proclaiming the gospel, they typically start with who Jesus is; they establish his position of authority and our accountability to him before they talk about what he has done for us. Look at these statements that are made in the context of proclaiming the gospel.
Exalted to the right hand of God… (Acts 2:33)
God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. (Acts 8:35)
At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 9:20)
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)
If you to skim through the book of Acts and check out the passages where someone is presenting the gospel to the lost, you will find that not once does anyone start their message by telling people how much God loves them, neither do they present an opportunity to pray a prayer that secures eternal life for them. Consistently, throughout the scriptures, a presentation of the gospel begins first with who Jesus is.
This is no small thing. The gospel is not a transaction whereby we punch our ticket to heaven by checking off some boxes. People aren’t saved just by raising their hand, or simply asking for forgiveness (Acts 3:19), or repeating someone else’s words. The gospel is an invitation to enter into a relationship with the person, Jesus Christ, and it is in this relationship that forgiveness and eternal life are realized. This relationship is with the Son of God, the Judge of the living and the dead, the King of kings who has been given all authority in heaven and earth. People must first have a proper response to Jesus and his authority before they are in a position to receive what he has done for them. Jesus did not die on the cross so that people can continue to live a life of independence with no consequences. He died to restore a proper, healthy relationship between God and man. We don’t get to resist Jesus’ rightful place of authority over our life, and still cash in on what he did for us. If the gospel is reduced to only sharing what Jesus has done for people, it becomes a personal salvation message; selling the benefits but giving little attention to who Jesus is and what is required to be in relationship with him. Since the gospel is an invitation to a relationship with this King Jesus, then it is not something we just believe, it is also something we must obey (Heb 5:9, 2 Thess 1:8).
One of the best examples of how the gospel message should be presented, and how powerful this message can be, is seen in the account of Philip going to Samaria and preaching there (Acts 8:4-14). After Stephen was killed, great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, and it says “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (vs 4). They didn’t preach a people-centered, personal salvation message. They preached the fundamental truths of the word of God. It says specifically that Philip went to Samaria and “proclaimed to them the Christ” (vs 5). And that “They believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (vs 12).
What does it mean to preach the kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God can best be understood as God ruling. If you break down the word king-dom, you get this — a king’s domain, or where a king has dominion. Jesus is the King ruling over God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is present whenever Jesus’ authority is welcomed and obeyed. Living in the kingdom of God carries the responsibility of living under Jesus’ authority but also the wonderful benefit of living under his loving care.
The kingdom of God was the new message that Jesus came to proclaim.
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. (Luke 16:16 NAS)
He [Jesus] said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose. (Luke 4:43 ESV)
When the scriptures refer to the “gospel of the kingdom of God”, they make it clear that the gospel is much more than a personal salvation message. It is the good news that through Jesus’ victory on the cross, God’s rule has come to earth, into our world, and we are invited to live in His kingdom, under His rule and under His care.
What does it mean to preach the name of Jesus Christ?
The name of Jesus is not just a means of identifying and addressing him. When the scriptures talk about the name of Jesus they reveal who Jesus is; they declare his glory, his honor, his position of authority, and the fact that everything and everyone is to be subject to him.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11 ESV)
he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Eph 1:20-21 ESV)
To preach the name of Jesus Christ is to present a Christ-centered gospel. It is a message that highly exalts who Jesus is, instills a sense of awe, and calls people to respond to him in humility and submission.
The account of Philip in Samaria goes on to say that they “received the word of God” (vs14). They didn’t just pray for forgiveness in response to a personal salvation message. Instead, they responded to the message of the kingdom, to the rule of God, to the message of an exalted Jesus who reigns with absolute authority. This powerful message brought a whole city to Christ!
The Bible doesn’t present a point-by-point script that we’re supposed to follow when we share the gospel. It tells stories of people spreading the gospel, and these accounts reveal a pattern and the amazing results that came about. Part of the method that helped turn the city of Samaria to Christ were the miracles that Philip was performing among the people there.
And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:6-8 ESV)
The miracles caused everyone to pay attention to what Philip had to say. A Christ-centered gospel, combined with miracles, is an incredibly powerful witness that produces amazing results! These two are meant to work together, and in the Bible you consistently see miracles accompanying the preaching of the gospel. As a matter of fact, most of the miracles in the New Testament are connected with the preaching of the gospel. However, we can’t preach just any message and expect miracles to happen even if we want them to. Miracles are God’s way of confirming the message that is being preached.
And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. (Mark 16:20 ESV)
So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. (Acts 14:3 NIV)
We’ve all seen political advertisements where the aspiring politician comes on at the end of the commercial and says “I’m Joe Blow, and I approve this message”. That’s exactly what God is doing when He enables those preaching the gospel to work miracles. The miraculous accompanies and confirms the gospel message. This is communicated quite clearly in the Bible. However, this raises a very troubling question. Is the church in the United States proclaiming a gospel message that actually meets God’s approval, that He is willing to endorse? It’s a fact that we don’t see miracles on the scale that they occur throughout the New Testament. We don’t even see miracles on the scale that they are presently occurring in countries like China and India. I’ve heard people say that here in the US we just lack the faith that is needed to consistently see miracles taking place. While that may be an issue, I don’t think it’s the main problem. As I stated earlier, the message I hear most Christians and churches proclaiming is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. This is a people-centered, watered down, personal salvation message that falls far short of the Christ-centered gospel that is proclaimed throughout the scriptures.
People are important. They are important to God and they should be important to us. They are so important to God that He sent his son to deal with our sin by dying on the cross. But people being important does not mean that we should put them first; that we should put their needs before God’s position of preeminence. If we really believe people are important, if we are passionate about seeing them restored to right relationship with God, then we will endeavor to reach them with a gospel that is Christ-centered, that keeps God first and calls people into submission to Him. The fullness of life that God desires for everyone to enjoy is only realized when He is in His rightful position of being first in our life in every way.
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor 5:15 NIV)
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