Saturday, October 18, 2008

Good news to the poor

by John D Ramsey

John the Baptist lived his life in poverty. He dressed funny. He never cut his hair. He ate insects and wild honey. There is no record that he ever held a paying job. He lived for the singular purpose of proclaiming the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When he saw his cousin, Jesus, approaching, John witnessed the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and he prophesied saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.” John’s prophesy alludes to Isaiah 53. Although John prophesied a Savior who would die as a sin offering for the world, his expectations of Jesus was somewhat different. John preached that the kingdom of heaven was near. This was true, but John did not understand what dimension of the kingdom he was announcing. Despite the limitation of his vision, John faithfully pursued his ministry. He was the one who was to come before the Messiah –

“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

Matthew 3:3 (NIV)

Some men followed John, but John did not promote himself. In fact, after John baptized Jesus and after Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, John saw Jesus three times. The first time, he told the crowd who was gathered, “Among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” John 1:26, 27 (NIV) The next day, when John saw Jesus approaching, he told his disciples,
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

John 1:29-34 (NIV)
The next day, John saw Jesus again approaching and he told two of his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God!” John’s disciples left him and followed Jesus. When Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist said, “He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30 (NIV) Jesus began preaching the same message that John had preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In fact, Jesus’ disciples continued to baptize people with water as a symbol of their repentance. Though Jesus’ initial ministry looked much like John the Baptist’s, Jesus’ ministry did not take on the political overtones that John the Baptist expect that it would.

When John the Baptist’s ministry was winding down, and Jesus’ earthly ministry was gaining momentum, a discouraged John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him whether Jesus was indeed the Promised One, or whether there was yet another. Jesus responded by sending this message to his cousin John, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” Luke 7:22 (NIV) With these words, Jesus alluded to a prophecy found in Isaiah 61 and affirmed to John the Baptist that he had indeed fulfilled the prophecy. Jesus ministry testified that he was the Anointed One of Israel. He asked John to examine the evidence and conclude that despite John’s other expectations, Jesus was indeed who John had proclaimed him to be – the Son of God.

Whereas John’s message was that repentance was essential for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus’ message was a message of even brighter hope. The blind had received sight, the lame had walked, lepers had been cured, the deaf heard, the dead were raised to life. You can almost hear the crescendo as Jesus recited his message of hope. From the blind seeing to the dead resurrecting, Jesus’ words swelled from the dramatic to the exhilarating. Nevertheless, Jesus most powerful statement this series is reserved for last. He says, “The good news is preached to the poor.”

Why is preaching good news to poor more dramatic than healing the blind, lame, leprous, and deaf? This is Jesus’ most dramatic statement because not all are blind, not all are lame, not all are leprous, nor are all deaf, but in one way or another, we all are poor. Jesus’ message of good news he gives to everyone who will receive it.

Jesus preached good news to the poor, but he did not exploit them. After feeding the five thousand, the people wanted to make Jesus their king. Jesus rebuked them saying, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” John 6:26 (NIV) The people of Galilee were prepared to surrender their political clout in exchange for free food. Yet Jesus did not seek political followers. He continued saying, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The crowd was willing to revolt against Rome to make Jesus their king, but Jesus told them he would freely give them something more valuable than the free food they sought – he would give them eternal life.

Had Jesus been a military or political leader or even a community organizer, he would have used his power to engender dependence upon the Galileans. Nevertheless, the “good news” that Jesus preached was not a message of political power or governmental reform. The message that Jesus preached was salvation by faith in the Son of God.

When Jesus stood on trial, Pilate asked him whether he was the king of the Jews. Jesus answered him, saying, said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18:36 (NIV) Pilate was convinced, but it mattered little to him if the Jews wanted to execute their king. Pilate had a sign placed on Jesus’ cross saying, “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” When the Jews objected, Pilate insisted, “What I have written, I have written.”

Jesus’ death on the cross was not an accidental outcome. Jesus’ last words to Pilate affirmed his purpose, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” John 18:37 (NIV) The word translated, testify, is the Greek word, martureso, from which comes the English word martyr.

The truth that Jesus spoke cost him his life. John records a great irony; the truth that Jesus taught was that – the way, the truth, and the life – must die to bring life to men. This was the good news that Jesus preached to the poor.

Hebrews explains that Jesus presented his own blood to God the Father as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of man. Paul tells us that, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV) Peter explained it saying, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 5:24 (NIV) Genesis chapter two and Romans chapter three explain that the penalty for sin is death, yet Jesus took our penalty so that we could share his life. The Father accepted the sacrifice of his own son, and raised him from the dead. All those receiving his mercy, by faith will die with him, and by faith, they will be made alive with him: good news indeed.

When Jesus came to earth as a man, he did not even attempt to organize a political movement. Rather the Son of God, the Creator himself (according to John chapter one and Hebrews chapter four), became a man so that he could carry the sins of men into judgment by his death on the cross. When Jesus comes again, it will not be by the consent or authority of men. Revelation chapter eleven speaks of the day when Jesus will return, saying,

The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Christ,
and he will reign for ever and ever.

Revelation 11:15 (NIV)

When Jesus comes again, he will come in power, glory, and with all authority. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians that Jesus will “pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled.” He goes on to say that upon Jesus’ return, those who do not obey the “[good news] of our Lord Jesus . . . will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9 (NIV) Yet Jesus will be glorified and “marveled at among all those who have believed.” 2 Thessalonians 1:10 (NIV)

In 2000 years, the message of the Gospel has not changed, yet often the message many so-called Christians preach differs from the Gospel. The message of the Gospel calls upon men to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near. The message of the Gospel is good news to all the poor because eternal life is given freely to all who believe. The message of the Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ will someday return bringing relief to those who love him and destruction upon those who do not. Every other message pales in comparison to the great truth of the Gospel.

The better we understand the Gospel, the more we realize that only the Gospel matters. The Gospel may be the only good news we hear for the rest of the year. That is okay. The Gospel is the best news of all time.

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