Thursday, September 6, 2012

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and The Focused Gospel

When John the Baptist arrived on the scene in first-century Palestine, his message was direct, simple, clear, and focused: repent! Matthew records this historical event clearly and simply in Matt. 3:1-2, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Once more, Matthew focuses on the fact that Jesus, as soon as He began His public ministry also had a message, a proclamation, if you will. In Matthew 4:17, he says, From that time Jesus began to preach and say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus’ message was identical to John the Baptist’s message. It was direct, simple, clear, and focused.

Mark echoes Matthew’s words verbatim in verse 15 of his very first chapter which indicates that he too, thought this message was significant. By placing Jesus’ message of repentance at the very beginning of his gospel, Mark emphasizes that message to his audience. After Jesus gives the great commission or mission to His eleven disciples, it does not take long before they have their first chance to carry forward with Jesus’ message. Peter, in Acts 2:38, commands those who were convicted by their wickedness to repent! This message comes in the middle of the miracle of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of a new era, a new dispensation. After the miracle at the gate called beautiful, Peter gets a second chance to deliver a sermon. Once again, in Acts 3:19, Peter thunders away with the word, repent! In fact, I suggest you read Acts 3:11-26 to get a feel for the content of this sermon. It was nothing like most modern, watered-down, hyper-sensitive kind of sermons that most Christians are used to. It was much more than that. It was focused on one thing: repentance! In Acts 8:22 Peter once more proclaims this message of repentance to Simon the Sorcerer. It is a recurring theme in the NT gospel.

When the apostle Paul had the magnificent opportunity to appear before the great Areopagus in Acts 17, his message was also direct, simple, clear, and focused. He, too, thundered the truth that God requires men to repent! Paul did not shy away from talking about coming judgment as the reason men should repent. The Areopagus could either mean “Mars Hill” or the preeminent governing council in Athens. If one gives Acts 17:19 any weight, it seems this very well could have been a formal or at least informal hearing before the elite Athenian council. Luke writes, “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming?”[1] It would seem unnecessary to bring Paul into Mars Hill in order for him to tell them more about this strange new teaching. Concerning the Areopagus, Hubert Martin writes in the Anchor Bible Dictionary,

“The council was long composed exclusively of aristocrats, and in the transition from monarchy to aristocracy it gradually assumed many previously regal powers and functions. In the first half of the 7th century b.c., still at the height of its authority, the Council of the Areopagus was the main governing body of Athens, with far-reaching and undefined religious, judicial, censorial, and political power, including a general control over the annual selection of the nine archons, the city’s chief magistrates who “went up to the Areopagus” after their term of office, where they then sat for life.[2]

Hence, Paul’s audience was comprised of not only sophisticated aristocrats, but the most powerful men in all of Greece. If ever one were to expect some political rhetoric, it would be now. However, Paul apparently sees no use for softening or complicating his message and proceeds with a defense and attack method in his sermon, what Witherington calls, Forensic Rhetoric. Witherington writes, It is not surprising that Paul must resort to forensic rhetoric, for, while he may not be on trial per se, the scene does suggest that he must present an argument for his teaching at a hearing before the officials of the Areoapagus, officials charged with maintaining the religious order of Athenian society.[3] Paul had closely scrutinized the idols of Athens according to v. 23. He took the time to carefully examine the worship practices of the Athenians. He understood their practices. From this understanding, he launches his criticism of Athenian idolatry. In so doing, he both defends the one true Christian God and attack of the polytheistic worship he has come to witness in Athens. He message is really quite simple: repent. Paul did not wax political nor did he engage in a philosophical approach to the gospel. In fact, he warns against both of these practice throughout his letters, recognizing that the gospel, the simple, clear, focused gospel of repentance delivered in a direct manner is the power of God unto salvation. Moreover, this gospel, delivered in this way, precludes all boasting of men who would take credit for their methods, their style, their personality as if they had accomplished something.

What can we learn from this in 2012? What can the cultures around the world learn from this? What can Christians living in American culture learn from this? We must learn to keep the gospel simple, clear, and direct and never forget that it is at the center of who we are and what we do. The gospel of repentance is the core of our mission. The Christian group’s mission is to glorify God in every way. One of the fundamental ways we do that is through making disciples of all people groups. That begins with repentance.

The Church is distracted with numerous social, moral, and cultural causes. For some reason, the Church thinks that its fundamental duty is social and moral reform. We think it is our job to ban gay marriage and to recover from the abortion tragedy. We spend a lot of money and time on these cultural, social, and moral issues. Not one NT book was written to the unbelieving culture. In fact, there isn’t one letter in the NT that instructs the Church to reform its culture by turning the gospel into a vehicle of social and moral reform. Cultures change and are reformed only through divine activity. Such divine activity is the work of God on human hearts. We all have our pet issues that we like to talk. What happens all too often is that we think those issues are the ones we should be talking about through the lens of the gospel in order to bring men to Christ. Sad as it may sound, in most cases these issues serve as carnal, moralistic distractions from the true proclamation of the gospel.

The Church has lost its focus. And in so doing, she is in grave danger of losing the simple gospel of repentance in exchange for a social and moral role that she was never called to serve to start with. Never are we more distracted than during election season. We engage in all this talk about who is going to win and if it will be good for the church or the country. We even engage in judging others because they may vote differently than us. Or worse than that, we judge people for not voting at all as if there is some divine mandate in Scripture for Christians to vote! The job of the church is difficult enough when she focuses, as she should, on the things that matter. When she loses her focus, spiritual risk increases.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all shared one thing in common when it came to preaching the gospel. It was simple, clear, direct, and focused. The message was that man must repent of his current state, and recognize His sovereign Creator and Redeemer for who He is or face divine judgment. Repentance is proffered through God’s only Son, Jesus Christ who took that divine wrath in our place. Repent is the message! Change your entire course of action, your thinking, your speaking, your behavior, your very existence! Abandon you and cling to Him! Repent! Turn from darkness to light, slavery to freedom, death to life! Repent!

What does this blog have to do with President Obama and his challenger Romney? Absolutely nothing! And that is the point.


[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 17:19.
[2] Hubert M. Jr. Martin, "Areopagus (Place)" In , in , vol. 1, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 370.
[3] Ben Witherington, III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 518.

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