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Friday, August 19, 2011

For the Sake of the Gospel

A mother staying up all night for the sake of a sick baby; an Olympic athlete training tirelessly for the sake of a gold medal; a fireman rushing into a burning building for the sake of a trapped child; an executive turning down a big promotion for the sake of her family……

We all know what it means to make deliberate choices for the benefit of someone or something that we view to be of far greater value than that which is being sacrificed.

Whether it means realigning our priorities, doing without certain personal comforts, or even risking our very lives, there’s no telling how far the human spirit is willing to go for the sake of someone or something that is held in high regard.

That’s the way Paul felt about the Gospel.

For the sake of the Gospel, he was willing to endure hardship, imprisonment, even death in order to complete his God-given task of advancing the Good News of Jesus and His Kingdom.

For the sake of the Gospel, he became a servant to a wide range of people: the religious and non-religious; the moral and immoral; the defeated and demoralized; whoever. He didn’t take on their way of life or change his core message, but he was intent on adapting to people and connecting with them where they were at in life, taking Christ into the context that was most familiar to them.

For the sake of the Gospel, Paul vigorously defended the “purity” of the Gospel by publicly rebuking Peter for not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel, leading others astray, and even hypocrisy. Though Peter’s actions seemed innocent enough on the surface, Paul saw it as a threat to the Gospel; an unwitting attempt by Peter to impose Jewish ritual on Gentile believers and alter the very heart of “Paul’s Gospel” in the process.

For the sake of the Gospel, Paul also chose, on at least two important occasions, to willingly comply with Jewish ritual: First, by circumcising Timothy near the start of his second missionary journey; then, by freely participating in a Jewish purification rite himself at the end of his third missionary journey. In both cases, his intent was to honor the Jewish community and express his solidarity with Jewish believers by becoming a “Jew to the Jews” so that the Good News of Jesus and His Kingdom would continue to move within the Jewish context.

Paul was willing to put up with anything rather than hinder the Gospel of Christ. He saw himself as Christ’s ambassador; as someone entrusted with both a message and a task; as someone compelled to faithfully discharge the trust committed to him.

Clearly, Paul held the Gospel in high regard and I suspect that if you’re a recipient of God’s grace you feel the same way. In some manner, those of us who have been transformed by the person of Jesus Christ ascribe great value to the Gospel. Despite our shortcomings, the overwhelming desire of our heart is to faithfully discharge the trust committed to us.

It motivated Paul and it motivates us. There may be a lot of things that we don't agree on, but one thing is certain: we're determined to take this message to the nations. In fact, the high regard we have for the Gospel is really a source of great hope for the continued advance of the Gospel.

However, despite our zeal, is it possible that we, as the people of God, are somehow hindering the very message we hold so dear? No doubt when you read something like that your mind immediately jumps to one or both of the following conclusions:

First, because of the worldliness we see in the church, we primarily think in terms of hindering the Gospel by our blatant disobedience to God's commands.

Not "walking the talk" is most definitely a major hindrance to the Gospel, however, there is a huge difference between someone who is indifferent to their sin and someone who is grieved by it. Since this blog is primarily addressing people who hold the Gospel in high regard, my comments are meant for those who value the integrity of the Gospel in spite of personal struggles in their walk with Christ. I'm not primarily addressing those who are indifferent to sin, I'm addressing those who are grieved by it.

Second, because of our passion and commitment to the Gospel over the years it's absolutely unthinkable to us that hindering the Gospel could possibly have anything to do with me, my church, or my ministry.

And perhaps that's true! But how would we ever know anything different, if we don't see the need and haven't taken the time to grapple with our deeply rooted assumptions about missions and ministry from a Kingdom perspective? Furthermore, how would we know otherwise, if most of our reflections, discussions, and actions ultimately center on "organizational issues" dealing with buildings, budgets, and programs?

Paul said he was willing to put up with anything rather than “hinder” the Gospel of Christ.

I find that statement absolutely amazing. For one thing it’s in the context of Paul choosing not to exercise his apostolic right to make his living from the Gospel, which, interestingly enough, immediately precedes his “all things to all men……for the sake of the Gospel” discourse.

More importantly, by choosing not to exercise his apostolic right in that one occasion, Paul felt that he was making a deliberate decision to place the Gospel at an advantage. Not a manipulative advantage, mind you, but the choosing of a course of action that more accurately reflects the implications of the Gospel (and Paul had very high standards).

In other words, if he had chosen to exercise his apostolic right, Paul felt that he would have somehow hindered the Gospel. In order to avoid that possibility in this particular circumstance, he was willing to put up with anything, including not “cashing-in” on his apostolic right. Why? For the sake of not hindering the Gospel!

The same applies to becoming all things to all men. Paul saw this too as a way to place the Gospel at an advantage by choosing a course of action in his relationships with people that was consistent with the truth of the Gospel and, by insinuation, to avoid hindering the Gospel somehow (or, at a minimum, to avoid missing the opportunity to put the Gospel in the best light possible) by choosing not to become all things to all men.

There was no hard-and-fast rule, but Paul seemed to have a sixth sense for when something was advantageous to the Gospel and when something was a hindrance (which is why he went ballistic with Jewish ritual in Galatia and yet submitted to it at times in Jerusalem). I suppose the closest thing we’ll ever get to understanding Paul’s thinking on this delicate balancing act was his discourse on disputable matters in Romans 14-15, but I digress.

As I already suggested in my post on “Implications of a Kingdom Mindset,” the lens through which Jesus viewed the world was the lens of the Kingdom. As we examine Paul's perspective more closely, we see that the lens through which Paul viewed the world was the lens of the Gospel.

Of course, the western church system also has a lens by which it views the world but it is not necessarily the lens of the kingdom or the Gospel.

In my opinion, when we lose sight of the Kingdom, the end result is a religious "system" whose main objective is the perpetuation of the religious system. When we lose sight of the Gospel, or more specifically, the advance of the Gospel, the end result is a purposeless people whose main objective becomes spiritual "consumerism" or the pursuit of "knowledge."

The challenge for us today is not to view the Kingdom and the Gospel through the lens of the western church system, but to view the western church system through the lens of the Kingdom and the Gospel.

That is certainly no small task! It is not enough to simply try to attract more people to our church programs. It will require us to think through the implications of a kingdom mindset and be willing to once again take a risk, yea, even, an intentional step of faith, for the sake of the advance of the Gospel in our community.

When we concern ourselves with the advance of the Gospel it will most definitely take us out of our comfort zone. It will mean scrutinizing our forms, rituals, and prevailing mindset; taking a closer look at our deeply rooted assumptions in the light of Scripture; and making deliberate choices to align both our thinking and our actions with the implications of a kingdom mindset.

In fact, if you hold the Gospel in high regard and there’s even a small chance that we, as the people of God, are somehow hindering the message we hold so dear, for the sake of the Gospel, can we do otherwise?

Just how far are we willing to go for the sake of the Gospel? Does it include a second look at our western church system and how we might be inadvertently hindering the message we hold so dear?

Does it include opening up new pathways for the Gospel right here in our community without demanding that people participate in our western church system?

Does it include serving new believers in their everyday relational networks even though they may never be a part of our western church system?

I pray so! For the sake of the Gospel, I truly pray so!


  1. Once again, Bill, a very good post. I like the pace at which you are developing your argument, because it would be impossible to do it justice otherwise. I fully agree with what I take as your main point, that the Gospel and the Kingdom need to be the lens through which all else is viewed, not the other way around. I believe you imply (if not state explicitly somewhere in a previous post) that the Jewish religious system that Paul addresses is analogous to our western religious system. I definitely see that, but I also see a nuance you may not have addressed, (or even agree with). I would like to assert that there are two distinct religious systems that often get confounded when thinking about 1st century Jewish religion. The first is the biblically mandated sacrificial system that was required of God’s covenant people and fulfilled in Christ, the second was the non-biblical oral traditions that Jesus condemned. Galatians deals with a bit of both—circumcision being part of the former, and (I think I am right on this) not eating with Gentiles being representative of the latter. I don’t think the Law anywhere prohibited eating with Gentiles, especially Gentile God-fearers, of which there were many in Scripture. I believe Paul was opposed to Gentile Christians participating in legitimate old covenant rituals, not because rituals are a lesser form of spirituality, but because God was destroying the old system in favor of one that incorporated Christians from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds (Galatians 3:26ff; Ephesians 2:14ff) All this is to say that when we are casting a critical eye on western religious systems (as we should), let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Which brings me to the question: Are there, in your opinion, (and by analogy to the Jewish religious system) biblically mandated components of the western religious system (such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper) which are not truly western and can be taught across cultures?

  2. Hi Kris, great questions!

    If I understand you correctly, let me respond by commenting further on the passage I referred to in Acts 21:17-26 about Paul engaging in Jewish ritual for the sake of the Gospel.

    The context is the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. After Paul finishes his briefing, the leaders in Jerusalem tell Paul that they have a problem and need Paul’s help.

    The problem was that many thousands of Jews had come to believe and these new converts have been informed that Paul teaches the Jews living amongst the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, not to circumcise their children, and not to live by Jewish customs.

    To solve the problem, the leaders in Jerusalem suggest that Paul take part in a purification rite, so that “everybody will know there is no truth to these reports about you and that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” And, of course, Paul agrees to it.

    What the passage never tells us is whether Paul takes part in the ritual because the rumors were completely false (and Paul was indeed living in strict obedience to the law at all times), or the rumors were true, but Paul took part in the ritual simply to be a Jew to a Jew.

    It also never tells us whether the rumors were true about Paul teaching Jews living amongst the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, etc.

    I lean toward the perspective that Paul kept “strict” Jewish ritual only when it was necessary do so (i.e. for the sake of the Gospel), and that he did indeed teach Jews living amongst the Gentiles that they had the freedom in Christ not to keep Jewish ritual (of course, God's moral law is another matter entirely).

  3. Kris: In response to your question about “Biblically mandated components of the western religious system” that apply to all cultures, I’d say you answered the question in your question; the key phrase being “Biblically mandated” or as I prefer to say, non-negotiable absolutes from Scripture.

    We have argued over baptism and the Lord’s Supper for centuries and I suspect we will continue to argue over it for centuries more.

    Some dunk, some sprinkle; some baptize infants, some baptize only after personal conversion; some use real wine, some use grape juice; some use wafers, some use a loaf of bread; some do it weekly, some do it monthly or quarterly; some do it in a home, some do it in a church building; some only allow clergy to administer these “sacraments,” some allow anyone to administer them; etc., etc., etc…

    I personal feel that the believers in the rocky soil nations should be given the freedom to grapple over these matters for themselves rather than “imposing” a particular denominational bent.

    Now that is easier said than done, but in an ideal world, that would certainly be preferred.

  4. Agreed, there is much diversity of practice regarding baptism and the Table among those who practice them. Also agree that rocky soil Christians should (and will) work out these things for themselves. Still, I think the Western religious system has become dominated by what I will call a minimalist view of the Christian practices of baptism and eating a memorial meal. If that is true, are we "imposing" this minimalist view on rocky soil cultures?