The other day I heard someone, by way of stressing the necessity of Christians to speak out on “hot button issues,” say that it was part of preaching the Gospel.
I was taken aback. While I, as recently as my last column, have affirmed the importance of speaking out on issues such as the sanctity and dignity of human life, opposing abortion is not the same thing as proclaiming the Gospel.
How do I know this? Because it is possible to oppose abortion without being a Christian or even a believer in God. Case in point: the late, great Nat Hentoff. A self-described atheist who was “thrown out of Hebrew school, [and] flaunted his unbelief, even eating a salami sandwich in front of his house on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement,” Hentoff was nevertheless strongly pro-life, even though it cost him both personally and professionally.
The same is true a fortiori of issues such as the definition of marriage and religious freedom. Again, how do I know this? Because, as with abortion, a great deal of cultural apologetics is devoted to teaching Christians how to make their case in a way that does not pre-suppose the existence of God, never mind the person and work of Jesus Christ Our Lord.
If this isn’t proclaiming “the Gospel,” what is? As you know, the word “Gospel” is the English translation of the Greek euangelion, which means “good news.” What you might not know is that euangelion, like other New Testament words such as kyrios (Lord), and Parousia (presence), was strongly associated with the imperial cult. For instance, the birth of Caesar Augustus was described as “the beginning of the good tidings (euangelion) for the world.”
The New Testament writers were, of course, well aware of these associations. Their repurposing, to use a modern term, of this language was intended to put the Empire and all its pretensions in their proper place: at most a parody of the real thing.
That “real thing” is the Gospel, the true “good news.” And here is the Good News as articulated by the genius responsible for the Epistle to the Hebrews: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (Hebrews 1:1-4)
Mary Healy, in her magisterial commentary on Hebrews, writes that “for readers today who have inherited two millennia of Christian teaching, it is easy to overlook how astounding these statements are. Hebrews is speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who had suffered a Roman criminal execution only a few decades before—and it ascribes to him a role in the creation of the universe!” (Healy, 33)
With apologies to Dr. Healy, I don’t think that contemporary Christians “overlook how astounding these statements are” —I think that the enormity of what is being said is lost on them, and with it, what makes the Gospel “good news.”
“The Son,” who is not explicitly named until Hebrews 2:9, “is the Omega, the heir of all things at the end, because he is the Alpha, the one through whom all things were created in the beginning.” He “sustains all things by his mighty word. That is, he continues at every moment to uphold all things in existence; the universe is entirely dependent on him.” (Healy, 36)
The son is the “very imprint” of God. As Healy notes, “the word for ‘very imprint’ in Greek is charaktēr, which refers to the impression that a stamp or seal makes on a soft surface. In the ancient world, coins were made by stamping hot metal with a die on which a portrait had been engraved; the coin would bear the exact impression (charaktēr) of the die. The Son, then, is the exact representation of the Father. To see Jesus is to see exactly what God is like (see John 14:9; Col 1:15). In the fullest sense of the term, Jesus has the ‘character’ of his Father.” (Healy, 37)
This Son is now seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, but not before He accomplished purification from sin through the act of love in which He died.
This is the “good news” in euangelion. Not just that we are saved from our sins and that when we die we will go to someplace we call “heaven.” It’s the news that God has “decisively intervene[d] in history to restore the fortunes of his people and bring his plan to completion.” The Son’s self-abasement has opened “a doorway to a new and glorious life,” a life that begins now.
It’s a life free from the “primordial fear not only of physical death but of every form of diminishment that is a sign of approaching death—bodily ailments, loss of youthful attractiveness, career disappointments and failures, being treated unjustly or rudely, getting bested by others.” (Healy, 69)
Those “little deaths” and the fear behind them, which lead to “various forms of escapism and addiction, [and induce] us to grasp the false security nets proffered by Satan,” lose their power over us, setting us free to pursue “the will of God with freedom, peace, and confidence.”
What’s on offer is nothing less than an entirely new way of being human, made possible by the one “who sustains all things by his mighty word.”
What does this “new way of being human” look like? Healy cites the example of St. Francis of Assisi. “As his contemporaries recount, it was impossible to harm Francis. If you insulted him, he would thank you for reminding him of his sinfulness. If you threatened him, he would rejoice at the persecution. If you took his cloak, he would try to give you his robe as well. In his very vulnerability, he was invincible!”
Invincibility. Now that’s good news.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.