Something happened on that memorial Pentecost of A.D. 30 that separates religion from gospel. After the Holy Spirit had connected all the dots in the minds of the apostles through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, they were ready for the world (At 2:1-4). Even after Jesus had graduated them from His final “school of prophecy,” the Spirit had to connect the eternal incarnation of the Son, to the eternal offering, resurrection, ascension, and reign of the Son of God to the right hand of God. It was then that they were ready to stand up and go to work before the multitudes (At 2:14).
It may have been about midday when Peter finally stood up with the eleven and unpacked the gospel with only a few words. He first revealed that all the rushing “wind storm” that had transpired at the beginning of the day was actually prophesied (At 2:14-21). And then he got down to gospel business in the reign of Jesus who was now both Lord and Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth was miraculously proved to be the One sent from God. He was miraculously validated to be the Christ of Israel. However, the confirming miracles that validated His Messiahship were not the gospel (At 2:22; Jn 3:2). Neither was the gospel the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at the beginning of the day, for it was the mission of the Spirit to glorify the Son, not Himself (Jn 16:14).
Those who exalt miracles and the Holy Spirit invariably minimize the power of the gospel. Their obsession with miracles and the Spirit diverts their attention away from the power of the incarnational gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of exhaling and focusing on the resurrectional ascension and reign of the incarnate Son of God, many obsess over those beliefs or ministries that are important, but not primary. Instead of focusing on the power of the gospel, they are searching for some power in the Holy Spirit to somehow confirm their own faith. We must never forget that the power to both save and transform lives is in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It takes no diploma in theology to know enough about the work of the Holy Spirit to conclude that in His work in our lives, He would never seek to displace or minimize the transforming power of the gospel of the Son of God. If He did, then He would fail in His work to glorify Jesus (Jn 16:14). Gospel-living Christians must always keep in mind that the Holy Spirit will do His work regardless of our understanding thereof. Though we may not understand all of the Spirit’s ministry for the saints, one thing is definitely clear: The Holy Spirit would never do anything to divert our attention away from the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we would claim that the Spirit must insert in our lives more power than the gospel, then we have asserted that the power of the gospel to transform lives is limited. It was never Jesus’ intention to send the Spirit in order to subsidize the power of the life-transforming gospel.
The personal ministries that later came into the organic function of the church was not the message of the apostles on Pentecost. Later discussions in the epistles that emphasized corrections in dysfunctional behavior between the disciples was not the message. When churches become sectarian, and thus competitive for members, they often use their uniqueness as a message to “convert” others to their particular sect. But the uniqueness that later characterized many autonomous groups of Christianity was not the message of Peter and the apostles. That which cuts religious people of faith to the heart was the message of the gospel of King Jesus. This was the apostles’ message to the Pentecost audience.
We cannot overemphasize this point for many have used the epistles to construct a systematic theology that has become their identity, and subsequently, their evangelistic message. Their supposed doctrinal purity is used to approach other religious people in order to convert them to one’s own particular sect. A theological message has thus replaced gospel preaching.
The crucifixion of God’s gospel Messenger in the flesh was not a subpoint of the apostles’ message. Because the cross was in the eternal plan of God, it was the core of the gospel message (At 2:23). “But God raised Him up,” was the confirming proof that Jesus Christ was the One about whom the prophets had spoken. And not only the resurrection, but there was an ascension to the throne of David in fulfillment of promises to David that One would reign upon his throne of authority (At 2:25-32). And then Peter revealed more: “This Jesus God has raised up, … being exalted at the right hand of God” (At 2:32,33). “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this same Jesus whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (At 2:36).
We must keep in mind the spiritual situation of those who heard this first announcement of the gospel. These were the “elite” of the representatives of the Jews’ religion. They knew their Old Testaments better than most people today. But when Peter was making these statements about the Man whom God had miraculously proved to be the One who fulfilled over three hundred Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah/Christ of Israel, they were overwhelmed. They were stunned.
Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and a host of other prophecies concerning the Suffering Servant of Isaiah became reality. They did not need to return to their synagogues after Pentecost in order that a Rabbi read again to them the picture that God had painted for Israel throughout 1,400 years of history. They could quote all the prophecies by memory, for they were all as the two men on the road to Emmaus. The One that God said He would send was beyond the misguided hope of a restoration of national Israel. He was the One who “was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5).
The Jews’ murderous tragedy was turned to grief because they realize that they had become servants of Satan to lay the stripes on the back of the Suffering Servant by delivering Him over to the Romans for crucifixion. There were certainly tears of grief as they mourned over their participation of laying the stripes on the One who was sent to restore them again to an eternal fellowship with the God they had worshiped since before the days of Abraham.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (At 2:37).
This is the emotional impact that the gospel should have on every sincere heart. If it does not, then one either does not understand the gospel, or he understands, but with a hardened heart, walks away. In walking away he has judged himself unfit for eternal dwelling in the presence of the loving God who gave His Son for them. He does not, therefore, know God.
[Chapter from the forthcoming book, RESTORING THE LOST LOVE.]
The Holy Spirit knew that there would eventually come the skepticism of the Gnostics the latter part of the first century, which theology would be formalized gnosticism in the second century. Since God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all, the Gnostics erroneously assumed that the revelation of God through Jesus Christ meant that Jesus Christ was only a phantom. There could be no such thing as an incarnation because God could have no contact with evil flesh. Those who would teach such would be of those about whom John later wrote: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess that Jesus Christ is coming in the flesh” (2 Jn 7). They would not confess that Jesus Christ is now what He was after the incarnational resurrection.
Jesus’ final coming in the flesh of man is foundational in defining the gospel. There could have been no cross if He had not first come in the flesh. The Gnostics, therefore, denied the gospel by denying the eternal incarnational sacrifice of the Son of God. The Gnostic’s denial encourages us to reaffirm the prerequisite for the truth of the gospel. There could have been no gospel if there were truly no incarnation, which incarnation was in some way eternal, for He is coming in the flesh, into which flesh we will become like He now is (1 Jn 3:2).
We must conclude that the gospel (good news) was first revealed through the incarnation of the transcendent God who came into the physical world of our existence:
- An unending incarnational existence: Now we have come to a necessity that explains the superlative, “God so love the world” (Jn 3:16). The gospel revelation began on earth with an unending incarnational birth in Bethlehem that will extend to the final coming of Jesus in the flesh of a glorious body. The incarnation would continue even into eternity wherein Jesus will dwell among His brethren in the presence of God. The gospel necessitates the incarnation of the One who was originally in eternity in the form of God (Jn 1:1,2,14). If Jesus were only a man, then there is no such thing as the gospel. If there were no incarnation, then there would have been no offering. His sacrificial offering demanded His incarnation in the flesh of man. So, the Gnostics were wrong.
- Eternal (sufficient) atoning sacrifice: Since it was not logical or possible that created animals could possibly atone for sins against the eternal God (Hb 10:1-4), then there had to be a volunteer from God to repair the damage our sin created in our fellowship with God. That which was in the form of God, the Son, had to make the eternal gospel journey from the presence of God to the our presence on earth, and eventually to a sacrificial cross (See Ph 2:5-8). There was no other way.
We must conclude that the incarnation of the Son of God moves our understanding of the gospel beyond the cross alone. The fact that God the Son gave up being in the form of God in the spirit assumes the suffering that all of us in the flesh confront throughout our own lives. His suffering in the flesh began in a manger in Bethlehem and extended to the first driven nails through His flesh on the cross. When we speak of the incarnation, therefore, we understand that the sacrifice was more than the cross. This explains what John meant when he identified the deceiver as the one who denied the incarnation. We thus understand that the gospel sacrifice of the incarnation went far beyond His few hours on the cross.
His was an extreme love for us in that He was willing to be eternally incarnate in the flesh in order to transition us from our present flesh into that gloriously transformed flesh in which He now exists (See Ph 3:21; 1 Jn 3:2). (For more research on this subject, consult Book 73, chapters 1-3, The Gospel of God’s Heart, Biblical Research Library, www.africainternational.org.)
Comprehending the incarnational journey of the Son of God from the form of God in the spirit to the flesh of man is most difficult to comprehend (Ph 2:5-11). In fact, from a human perspective it is incomprehensible, for we are not God. But the more we understand our sin, and our inability to live without sin, the more we begin to catch a small glimmer of hope in understanding the awesome love of God.
Understanding that the eternal God who existed in spirit would contemplate venturing out of eternal, spirit dwelling into our sin infested world is stunning. It is overwhelming. It is humbling. It knocks all pretentiousness out of our souls. It moves our hearts to the declarative question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rm 7:24).
In the preceding question, it was as if Paul—the self-confessed chief of sinners—could now understand the revelation of the Spirit that poured forth from the tip of his fingers on a quill while he scribbled the inspired words of the Romans manuscript. We assume that his hands were quivering in thanksgiving as he inscribed these thoughts. A tear may have smudged the ink as he followed with an outburst of gratitude: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rm 7:25).
The heart that is not emotionally overwhelmed by the eternal incarnational coming of the Son of God into the flesh of man is certainly a heart that is beyond submission. It is a heart that has disqualified itself from dwelling in the eternal presence of the God of sacrificial love. It is a heart that does not know God.
- The resurrectional ascension and reign: The resurrection of Jesus was necessary to validate the purpose of the cross. The cross would have no power if there were no hope of eternal living for all those who would fall prostrate before the incarnational offering of the Son of God. The resurrection proved Jesus to be the Son of God (Rm 1:4,5). It also proved that those who obey the gospel will have life eternal as a result of their obedience to the gospel for the remission of sins (At 2:38).
The ascension was necessary in order to prove that the supposed resuscitated Jesus did not wander off into obscurity and die, as some Gnostics of the second century claimed. Reigning at the right hand of God, precluded ascension, and ascension precluded true resurrection from the dead. All of this is good news. It is gospel.
The cross alone would be meaningless if it were not for the resurrection. The resurrection could be questioned without the ascension. And the ascension would be meaningless without somewhere for Jesus to be in reference to our existence in the midst of Satan here on earth. This is all gospel, for the sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God solved our reconciliation with God for eternity. His resurrection solved our fatalism in believing that this world is all there is. The ascension solved our wonder as to where He went. And His reign solves our anxiety problem that no matter what transpires in this life, Jesus is still King of kings and Lord of lords with authority over all things (Mt 28:18; 1 Tm 6:15). This is great news! This is gospel!
[From a forthcoming book, by Roger E. Dickson, on the gospel of the incarnate God.]
There is a vast difference between the relational fellowship of the saints of God and those of a religious social club. The revelation of this difference lies at the heart of 1 John 1:3:
That which [the incarnational Son of God] we have seen and heard we declare to you so that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the biblical definition of our relationship with God and with one another. John prefaced this statement with the declaration of the incarnational Word: “For the life was manifested and we have seen and bear witness and show to you that eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 Jn 1:2). John wanted to focus the attention of His readers on the “incarnational Word” with which he had commenced his epistle:
That which was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked [Gr., gazed] upon and our hands have handled, we proclaim concerning the Word of Life (1 Jn 1:1).
A more clear statement in any language could not have been made that explains the fellowship (relationship) of the saints with God and one another. The saints’ relationship with one another is a fellowship that is based on the gospel fact that “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). And since all the saints have obeyed the gospel of this incarnate Word, then He, not ourselves, is always the foundation of our relationships with one another. There can be no other foundation for true Christian relationships.
Christians are drawn together because of their common obedience to the incarnational offering of the Word on the cross, His burial for our hope, resurrection, and His present reign over all things. Connection (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our common obedience to this gospel is what establishes our relationship with God and one another. Our obedience to the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is the impetus, the foundation, the eternal bond of fellowship that we have with the eternal Word of Life, and thus, the guarantee of living forever. The Christians’ relationships with one another is far beyond the relationship of friendship.
We hear a great deal today about relationships in the religious world. Religions throughout the world have invented every possible stimulus to produce relationships among the members of their respective churches. We have heard on numerous occasions the statement that “Christianity is about relationships.” And, it is. However, are the relationships of religion truly based on the incarnational and resurrected Word of Life that the members have obeyed in their burial and resurrection with the Word of Life? Or, are they manufactured relationships through relational encounters of the members with one another in order to enhance friendships?
If our relationship with one another is not first based on our obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life, then we will become a religious social club when we come together in assembly as friends. If our relationships are simply fabricated and maintained by the art of human relational mechanisms of psychology, then the gospel soon passes from being the primary purpose for which we come together in assembly. We must remember that the relationships that gospel-obedient Christians have with one another goes far beyond friendships. There is something much deeper in the relationships of gospel-obedient disciples than having “good buddies,” or being faithful in attendance at the local church social club.
The bond of the relationships that gospel-obedient disciples have with one another is not initially based on their friendships with one another. John clarified that we have a relationship (fellowship) with one another because of our common obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life. Paul explained that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Co 12:13). And because baptized disciples are one body, they organically function as a body of relational disciples (See 1 Co 12:15-27).
Cult members have strong relationships with one another. They are driven together because of their great respect for, or fear of, the leader of the cult. Religions often lean toward cultism in the sense that the “pastor” is the attraction of the hour of assembly and center of reference for the faith of the members. Assemblies that are generated and maintained around a dynamic personality can never be the relational fellowship that is so natural with gospel-obedient saints. Gospel-obedient saints are drawn to one another because of their common obedience of the gospel of the Word of Life. They are relational before they show up at any assembly that is designed to promote relationships. In other words, the relationships that Christians have with one another are divinely generated, not humanly manufactured. If one simply wants to be a co-religionist with other religionists, then he can simply “join the church of his choice.” But when one joins himself to Jesus through obedience to the gospel, he is added by God to a family of gospel-obedient disciples (At 2:47).
Religionists assemble in order to experience either a relational or experiential event that would enhance their relationships with one another. But gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly because they have established a relationship (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through their obedience to the gospel. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into a covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). Their motivation for assembly, therefore, is not to establish a greater relationship (fellowship) with one another and God, but to celebrate the fact that they already have a gospel-obedient relationship with one another and God because they have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their individual addition to the body of members has brought them into a relationship of a gospel-obedient family of disciples.
It is for this reason that we question the assembly of those who have come together with little desire to celebrate the gospel through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. By this we mean that those who assemble on the first day of the week and fail to partake of the communal (fellowship) Supper of the incarnational Word of Life, have either forgotten, or never established the purpose for which the saints assemble in the first place. If we assemble without the Supper, then we are simply renewing our friendships with one another. Our assembly has become no different than the assembly of the local “Rotary Club.” If our purpose is simply to come together with the saints in order to reestablish our relationships, then we have become a religious social club that can cerebrate nothing greater than our friendship with one another. If we have come together to fulfill our narcissistic desire to enjoy a Sunday-morning entertainment event, then we have failed to come together for the purpose of honoring the incarnational Son who came in the flesh in order to establish our covenant relationship with Him.
Saints who come together simply to reestablishing relationships, experience an emotional event (speaking in tongues, or concerts), or simply out of obedience to law, have not yet understood the purpose for the saints’ assembly. If they have lost their way in this matter, then they are not drawn in attendance to the Table of the Lord. Their assembly simply becomes an attendance to a Hollywood experience. If Jesus does not take center stage for our assemblies, then our assemblies have become narcissistic productions in order that we “get something out of the Sunday morning event.” Those who fail to show up at the Table of the gospel have identified themselves to have lost their motivation by the gospel of Jesus.
The early disciples came together in a relational manner in order to experience together the celebration of the Word of Life. It was this Word that the early apostles handled, touched and gazed upon. Because of their relationship (fellowship) with the Father through the incarnational Son, the saints came together to remember and celebrate the incarnational sacrifice and risen Word who came down out of heaven into this world in order to take us out of this world. The saints in Ephesus remembered and celebrated this gospel event every first day of the week in a fellowship meal that surrounded the Supper of the Lord (At 20:7).
The “breaking of bread” among the early disciples was a fellowship meal that they enjoyed with one another in their remembrance of the blood and body of the Lord. The Holy Spirit reminded the Corinthian saints that their participation in the feast was a relational (fellowship) experience.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, it is not the fellowship of the body of Christ? (1 Co 10:16).
The Corinthians started to marginalize, or corrupt the Lord’s Supper during this love feast. They turned the “breaking of bread” into a drunken occasion where they revealed their inconsiderate relationships for one another. Because their assemblies digressed into pleasing themselves (narcissism), they were not able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper that should have revealed their fellowship with the Lord and one another (See 1 Co 11:20,21). In other words, their dysfunctional relationships with one another in assembly revealed that they had a dysfunctional relationship with the One who should always be the center of attraction for every assembly. They had lost their way for coming together for a love feast that should have been an expression of their love for one another (See 1 Co 11-14).
When we produce attractions to stimulate attendance, then our assemblies move away from a clear focus on the gospel. When people are not motivated in life by the gospel of Life, something other than the gospel must be the stimulus for them to attend the religious assemblies.
Gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly in order to celebrate the reason why they have a common bond with one another. It is because they have fellowship with one another through their common obedience to the gospel that they come together in assembly. Every Christian has a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit because of his or her obedience to the gospel (Rm 6:3-6). And because this relationship has been established by obedience to the gospel, they have a relationship with one another before and after any assemblies.
Christians can come together because they are good friends. But their relationships with one another in friendship never has priority over their friendship with Jesus through their obedience to the gospel. In fact, the friendship (relationship) of Christians is based on Jesus, not simply on a relational friendship they might have with one another as neighbors in a community.
Those religious groups that minimized the observance of the Lord’s Supper in their assemblies have lost their way, if indeed they ever knew the way to a gospel covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through baptism into Christ. Because they have not focused on obedience to the gospel, their assemblies have often become narcissistic Hollywood productions, religious parties as some in Corinth, or simply the observance of ceremonial rituals that bring some comfort to those who are ridden with guilt.
Unless the gospel is preached and obeyed, assemblies will always be religious ceremonial exercises or concert experiences. Unless the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is restored as the center of reference for assembly, the attendees will never realize the worshipful experience that results from an assembly that is focused totally on the resurrected and reigning Son of God who first brought them together in their common obedience to the gospel.