In my previous articles, I have said that modern evangelical gospel presentations don’t do justice to the true biblical gospel. Instead of presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ as is, they isolate a small feature (going to heaven after one dies) and make it the holy grail of Christian hope. This not only misleads many, but also distorts the true purpose of the gospel: mission to restore God’s good yet fallen creation for God’s glory. I have also said that the gospel is a story of the person and works of Jesus Christ who proclaimed and brought God’s kingdom on earth. It is embodied in freedom from the power of sin, death, and the devil which have ruined humanity and the whole creation. In his death and resurrection, Jesus is vindicated as the Lord of all. So new creation has begun.
This gospel is given to us in four different stories of the same person. As someone who was raised in a Christian family, I was blessed to hear the story of Jesus even before I could walk. Yet this blessing comes with a “curse”: I am accustomed to one gospel story – a combo/synthesis of the four Gospels. I can never read each Gospel in a fresh manner. I always presuppose a combined story. So I tend to lose the distinctiveness of each Gospel.
Once upon a time, a 2nd century theologian named Tatian tried to combine the four Gospels into one story. But the church rejected this. In fact, a 2nd century church father named Irenaeus once compared these four canonical gospels with the four-faced creature in Ezekiel. Four faces of the same creature. The four shall remain four.
In this three-part series, I’d like to take some snapshots throughout the Gospel of Luke, the face of calf according to Irenaeus. Imagine yourself as a first-time reader of the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps, just perhaps, you might catch something you didn’t realize before. Think of this as a movie review. I hope it will whet your appetite for the real thing.
Part 1 is primarily based on the following passages: Luke 1:51-53, 2:27-35, 4:17-21, 4:24-27, 6:20-26, 7:20-23, 9:20-31, 22:20
Luke’s gospel is an orderly narrative written about the things fulfilled. Addressed to a well-respected Roman citizen Theophilus, Luke wanted Theophilus to have a solid foundation for his new faith. This faith was known as the Way of Peace, Luke 19:42. This way of living was rejected by many Jews. Jesus wept for this when he entered Jerusalem. Yet this Way of Peace was embraced by many Gentiles. True biblical peace, shalom, is confidence for our well-being in God in the midst of severe turmoil. It’s feeling safe when your little boat is in the midst of an ocean when a huge sea storm hits. It’s easy to have peace when you live in a wealthy suburban area such as Plano Texas. But can you have peace when you live in Syria?
See, that shalom is humanly abnormal. It goes against the fabric of human DNA, our survival instinct. It’s God-given peace, possible since we are created in God’s image, provided that we embrace our identity as God’s children, that is, our divine DNA. This is only possible when we follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of kings in whom the one true God is fully revealed, who once suffered, died, and rose again.
Mary praised God since the baby in her womb was destined to be the Messiah, the Davidic King who would overturn those in power. But who were those people in power? Many Jews longed for the day when the power of the Roman Empire was overturned. God will help Israel his servant, she said. Likewise, when John the Baptizer was born, his dad Zechariah gained his voice back and praised God. John would be the forerunner of this Messiah who would deliver Israel from the enemies. Twice he mentioned that in his song. Such an excitement: “Our long awaited freedom will come! Israel will be saved. Romans the oppressors will be crushed.” Can you blame him for such a “vengeful” and “politically incorrect” utterance? If we lived in such a ghetto, we would feel the same. We would want justice, which means vengeance.
Finally, baby Jesus was born! The angels told the shepherds, “Peace on earth!” Peace? First-time readers of the Gospel of Luke may wonder, “How can this baby bring peace when he is destined to overturn the powerful? This coup d’état requires war. Isn’t the ancient wisdom saying true: peace comes only through war?” But these readers are even more confused when they read Simeon’s oracle: My eyes have seen your salvation … Falling and rising of many in Israel. Well, Israel is God’s chosen, how can many of them fall when salvation comes? This is strange.
Then the baby grew up. He knew that he was God’s special son at least when he was 12 years old. A bar mitzvah boy. Bar-Mitzvah means a son of the commandment. He knew his Hebrew Bible, at least memorized the five books of Moses. When he was in the temple, he told his mom, “Don’t you know I am among the things of my Father (a better translation of Luke 2:49)?” The temple, God’s works, God’s people. When he was baptized, God himself proclaimed that Jesus was his beloved son. He was a king (i.e. use of Psalm 2 in this saying). But not only so. God also proclaimed that Jesus was his servant, anointed by the Spirit (i.e. use of Isaiah 42 in this saying). He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness but emerged victorious. He was a great preacher, accepted by all in Galilee.
But then … Luke gave the story a twist. The famous preacher was rejected in his own hometown. Why? Several reasons, but one thing is clear. Jesus told the Jews in the synagogue that the Gentiles would receive God’s salvation and many in Israel would not. So they responded, “Blasphemy! We are the chosen people. They are the enemies. That’s our sound doctrine, the treasured theology of Israel’s election. This Joseph’s boy is a false prophet! He must die.” Thus the falling and rising of many in Israel happened. Not all ethnic Israel are true Israel. Jesus redefined Israel around himself. A true Israel is not defined in terms of biological DNA, but based on one’s response to Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18-21. It’s the good news brought by God’s chosen son and servant. This gospel was taught in his words and demonstrated in his works. That’s how the kingdom of God came.
Now what happened in Nazareth became a pattern for Jesus. Right after Peter’s great confession, Jesus told the disciples his mission: go to Jerusalem to proclaim his gospel, be rejected by those in power, killed, and raised from the dead. What kind of mission is this? It sounds like a suicide mission. But clearly, Jesus saw no other way. This mission is God’s way to bring salvation, the second exodus, to the restored and redefined Israel. That is, Jews and Gentiles who follow him. His blood would be shed to seal a new covenant promised in Jer 31:31-34. Through this mission, God’s law would be written in our hearts, our sins would be forgiven, we would be Yahweh’s people, and Yahweh would be our God. Yes, this is a suicide mission. But it’s God’s only way for setting up the Way, the Way of true peace on earth. A peace brought not through war and violence, but by self-denial and love. Not by power of practical politics, but by the power of forgiveness.
But wait! Let’s rewind. If the Jews who rejected Jesus followed the Hebrew Bible (more or less the Old Testament), did Jesus contradict the Hebrew Bible? No. Trapped by their hatred and bias, many Jews read their Hebrew Bible through a Zionist-nationalist lens. Perceiving themselves as the righteous one and Gentiles as God’s enemies, they turned the passage of peace into pride, the promise for deliverance into military zeal, and the prayer for perseverance into vengeance. They filtered out passages which talk about the true mission of Israel. Israel was tasked to bring light to nations. Instead, Israel wanted to bring death to them. So when Jesus corrected them, they treated Jesus as a false prophet. And a false prophet must die.
Let’s be honest! How easy for us Christians to become like these Jews. When the church is cornered by unbelievers, how do we react? Isolate ourselves and become self-righteous? Justify ourselves as the chosen ones and the rest as those awaiting God’s judgment? Remember, our mission is not so different from the Jews: to become the light of the world. Will the new Israel succeed in carrying the mission of the Lord? Or will it fail like the ethnic Israel? Let us not be presumptuous, thinking that we will never fail since we are “chosen.” That’s what the Jews thought. And in their confidence, many of them missed their Messiah, crucified their own King, and thereby failing their mission.
So is it possible for us who hold fast to our evangelical assurance of salvation to take God’s grace for granted? New Testament writers are serious about the danger of falling away. In fact, the greatest proponent of the doctrine of grace says to the saints in Rome, “Behold, the goodness and severity of God! On those who have fallen, severity. But on you, God’s goodness – if you persevere in goodness. Otherwise, you too will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22)