YOU ARE SITTING quietly in a café with a couple of friends when suddenly the door bursts open and in rushes a stranger with a wild, excited look on his face.
“Good news!” he shouts. “You’ll never guess! The greatest news you can imagine!”
What on earth can he be talking about? What could his good news be, and why does he think it justifies barging into a café and telling strangers about it?
Scenario 1: Perhaps the doctors just told him they had managed to cure his daughter of the disease that was killing her. That would be great news indeed, at least for his immediate family and friends, but it does not explain why he would announce it to strangers.
Scenario 2: Perhaps he heard that the local football team had won a great victory against their old rivals down the road. In some parts of my own country, people would indeed celebrate such a thing as good news, though most fans probably would have been at the pub watching the game with him. Why leave the celebration to tell the nonfans at the café?
Scenario 3: Perhaps, in a region with high unemployment and poverty, he just learned that people had discovered huge new reserves of coal, oil, or gas. Suddenly there would be thousands of new jobs and a new start for everyone. I know places where that would cause otherwise quiet people to burst into a room and shout the news to everybody. That might justify such a dramatic announcement.
I start with these scenarios because I think we have lost touch with a basic element of the Christian faith. The Christian faith, in its earliest forms, is presented as good news. That is the original meaning of the Old English word gospel. I am arguing that the idea of seeing the Christian faith as news that is good is itself, ironically, news to many people today. Even those who know in theory that this is what gospel means often fail to appreciate the significance of the fact. We need, I suggest, to ask afresh: What is the good news that Jesus himself announced and told his followers to announce as well?
Most people—including many Christians—never ask themselves this question. We assume we understand the gospel because it seems so familiar and so entrenched. So we skip over the significance of why Christianity comes to us in the form of an announcement of the best possible news. The word gospel now carries different meanings. We talk of “gospel truth” when we want to stress how reliable something is. In some churches, “preaching the gospel” means explaining how to become a Christian—a formula we use to make sure we arrive in heaven safe and sound. For others, “gospel” is simply a type of music—though, granted, gospel music does often give the impression that something exciting is happening.
But when Jesus and the early Christians spoke of good news—which they did a great deal—they meant much more than this. They really did see it as news, and they believed this news was so good that it was worth announcing as widely as possible. Many churches and many Christian preachers and teachers manage to ignore this. Usually people outside the Christian faith don’t realize that this is what Christianity is supposed to be about.
Let’s go back to the stranger in the café. Each of the options I suggested has a particular shape that helps us understand more deeply what is meant by good news.
N.T. Wright - Simply Good news - Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good
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ISBN 978–0–06–233434–3 (hardcover)
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N.T. Wright - Simply Good news - Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good - Contents
1.What’s the News?
2.Foolish, Scandalous, or Good?
3.Surprised by King Jesus
4.Distorted and Competing Gospels
6.Wrong Future, Wrong Present
7.Surprised by God
8.Praying the Good News
More from N.T. Wright
About the Publisher
N.T. Wright - Simply Good news - Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good - Foolish, Scandalous, or Good?
THE MAN WAS a Jew, born and bred in what is now southeastern Turkey. He was called Saul, a Hebrew name that, in his Jewish culture, had ancient royal associations. In Greek, however (Greek was the standard language around the Mediterranean world, like English is in many places today), the name Saul carried unpleasant overtones. It’s as though somebody from a non-English culture had a name like Wimp or Slob and decided that in the English-speaking world he would change it to something less likely to evoke snickers. Saul changed his name to Paul.
I begin there because Paul must have realized early on that the good news he was called to announce would evoke quite enough snickering as it was. This has always been the case, and it is still the case today. That doesn’t mean the good news is in fact incomprehensible, or meaningless, or stupid. But it will sound like that to some who hear it, which is what we should expect.
Paul believed he had a royal commission to announce the new good news to the world. The word he used for this commission, apostle, has become a dead metaphor in today’s world, but for him it carried a special sense: commissioner. One who has been charged with a responsibility. One who is responsible to the king for carrying it out.
That king was, of course, Jesus.
So Paul found himself, after many early adventures, in the wealthy and thriving seaport of Thessalonica (modern Salonika or Thessaloniki). It was the capital of the region. He didn’t spend long there, because his message and the effect it had on some people quickly made him unpopular.
When he wrote about the experience a few weeks later, in a letter to the small group of people whose lives had been transformed by his good news, he highlighted two things that most of his original audience in Thessalonica probably found odd—and offensive. He talked about a “different god.” And he talked about someone called Jesus. We begin our exploration here because Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the earliest written record we have of the good news.
Despite Paul’s talk about God, he was not telling people about a new religious system. Nor was he urging them to adopt a new type of morality. He wasn’t offering them a new philosophy—a theory about the world, how it worked, how we could know things, how we should behave. Other teachers at the time were offering things like that, but Paul’s approach was different. True, his message would eventually affect those areas, too. But many people today assume that Christianity is one or more of these things—a religion, a moral system, a philosophy. In other words, they assume that Christianity is about advice.
But it wasn’t and isn’t.
Christianity is, simply, good news. It is the news that something has happened as a result of which the world is a different place. That is what the apostle Paul—Paul the royal commissioner—was announcing.
To many people then, and to many today, this was and is either nonsense or offensive or both. One can debate the merits of a religion, moral system, or philosophy, but a news event is discussed in a different way. Either the event happened or it didn’t; if it did happen, either it means what people say it means or it doesn’t. So we begin to see the enormity of Paul’s challenge. He is announcing that a world-changing event has happened, and he is announcing it to an audience composed of people who assume they would have heard of a world-changing event if one had really occurred. And they hadn’t.
Paul himself pointed out in another letter that his message was “a scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), much like the rugby result that was foolishness to Americans and scandalous to Australians. What sort of event did Paul have in mind? We have seen that everybody in the Roman world knew a major military victory could change everything. Our world today is still shaped, in powerful ways, by Augustus’s victory and the way he then organized the empire.
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