The other day, I picked up a novel and the quote on the back was:
'I read this book at one sitting, finishing at four in the morning. I couldn't put it down until I knew what happened in the end.'
Well, tonight we're finishing the book of Acts. And you may be looking forward to knowing what happens in the end, because we've been following the story of the apostle Paul – of how his enemies tried to use the Roman authorities to get rid of him, of how Paul appealed to the Emperor, Caesar, to hear his case, and how he finally arrived in Rome for that to happen. So you may be thinking, 'At last, we're going to hear about Paul appearing before Caesar and what happened – was the case against him dropped, or was that the end of Paul?'
So let's turn to Acts 28 and read the remaining verses for this series:
He [Paul] lived there [in Rome] two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28.30-31)
Which makes you glad you didn't stay up till four in the morning to find out what happened to Paul in the end. Because Luke (who wrote this) doesn't say. Now in chapter 27, God explicitly told Paul, during his shipwreck,
'Do not be afraid… you must stand before Caesar.' (Acts 27.24)
So I think we have to assume that he did. And yet Luke says absolutely nothing about it. And the reason is: that Luke wasn't writing the story of Paul. He was writing the story of the gospel. He was writing the story of the risen Lord Jesus spreading the gospel worldwide. So for Luke, the number one thing isn't what happens to Paul in the end, but what happens to the gospel.So look down to v31, again:
proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28.31)
And it's as if Luke's saying, 'That's not just what Paul was doing right to the end. That's what the church in every generation should be doing right to the End, when Jesus returns – that's what you should be doing.'
So from that last verse, v31, I want us to ask tonight: What does Luke say we should be proclaiming? And how does our sharing of the gospel, individually and as a church, compare? So maybe you can think back to the last time you were asked something like, 'So what do Christians believe?' And you can compare what you said with what Luke says we should be saying – and see how you could do better next time. And we can think of our gospel-sharing as a church – eg, what comes across at invitation services, or through Christianity Explored, or the Holiday Club. And we can compare that with what Luke says should be coming across – and see how we could do better.
That's the aim tonight. So let me give you a moment to answer this question to yourself: if I asked you, 'What is the gospel (the Christian message) in one line? 'what would you say?
Some of you might have said, 'John 3.16: 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.' That's the gospel in one line. Others might have said, 'Jesus died so we can be forgiven.' That's the gospel in one line. Well, look how Luke sums it up in v31. He says: sharing the gospel means,
proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28.31)
Which isn't talking about two different things – no.1, the kingdom of God, and no.2 the Lord Jesus Christ. It's talking about one thing – the kingdom of God, of which Jesus is King. Because 'Christ' simply means 'the King God has appointed.' So that's my summary of what the gospel is all about: the kingdom of God, of which Jesus is King. And I've got three headings tonight:
1. The background to the gospel
2. What is the gospel?
3. 'So what?' when it comes to sharing the gospel?
Firstly, THE BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL
Acts 28.31 says: the gospel is all about the kingdom of God, of which Jesus is King (or Lord). Now in the Gospels, Jesus uses that phrase 'the kingdom of God' all the time. Eg, in Mark, the very first thing Jesus says is:
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1.15)
So what does the Bible mean by 'the kingdom of God'? Well, here's a rough definition:
The kingdom of God is where everyone is willingly and perfectly living under God's rule.
Ie, it's where no-one and nothing is against God's rule – where there's no sin and none of the consequences of sin. And that's the way we were made to be, as I've tried to illustrate in this first picture:
The crown stands for God, the circle stands for the world and the stickperson stands for us. And we were meant to live in relationship with God as King – looking up to him to tell us what we're here for and how to live, because he made us and so he knows. And Genesis 1 and 2 describes the original man and woman living like that to begin with. And that's the kingdom of God.
But looking at the news, or looking honestly at our own lives, that's clearly not how things are now. Which Genesis 3 says is because that original human pair said to themselves, 'We don't want someone else telling us how to live – we want to rule our own lives.' And they began a rejection of God's rule that's been going on ever since, and which we were born into. Which I've pictured next:
So our natural way of thinking is to cross God out of the picture and say, 'I don't want to live under your rule – I want to live my own way.' Which is why the stickperson is now wearing his or her own little crown. And everything that's wrong with us and the world is a consequence of that rejection of God's rule, God's authority.
Let me illustrate with the consequence of rejecting a parent's authority. Imagine I'm walking along with Naomi, our 2-year-old. And there are puddles too deep for her wellies. And I say, 'Naomi, don't go in the puddles.' And this is the hard part to imagine, but just imagine she doesn't listen. And she flirts with the puddles. So I say, 'Naomi, don't go in the puddles, because if you do, you'll get wet feet.' But she continues to flirt. So I say, 'Naomi, don't go in the puddles, because if you do, you'll get wet feet – and when we get home, I'll send you to your room for not listening.' But she flirts, gets wet feet and gets sent to her room. So there are two kinds of consequence for her there. There's the direct consequence of getting wet feet – that's just inherent in jumping in deep puddles with wellies that are too small. But there's also the indirect consequence which I've imposed – of getting sent to her room.
And the Bible says that, similarly, there are two kinds of consequence of rejecting God's rule. There are the direct consequences which are just inherent in all of us going around thinking we're number 1 in the universe. And I've pictured those consequences next:
So if I think I'm the ruler and my will should be done, and you think you're the ruler and your will should be done, who's going to be the ruler when we meet? Who's going to get their own way? It's a recipe for conflict and hurting and being hurt. And in fact all our problems in relating to one another go back to the root problem of not relating to God as King.
But then there's also the indirect consequence of rejecting God's rule – which the Bible says God imposed on us, and isn't part of how we originally were. And that consequence is mortality and death, as pictured next:
So, the crown stands for God. He's still there, even if we cross him out of our thinking: not believing in God doesn't make him go away (any more than not believing in gravity while jumping off a high building will make you float to earth like a feather). And between us and God is that judgement of mortality. And the message of our mortality is that he won't let us reject his rule indefinitely. The day will come when, through death, he'll call us to account. And the Bible says that if we've rejected him in this life, we'll remain cut off from him beyond this life. Which sounds very hard. But when you think about it, you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King. And, as someone put it, 'If you don't want to do God's will, you wouldn't want to be in heaven, anyway.'
Now what I've sketched out so far is not the gospel. It's just the background to the gospel. But if we don't get that background across in conversation or preaching or Christianity Explored or the Holiday Club talks scheme (or whatever), the gospel will make no sense to people. so,
Second, WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?
Well, it so happens that Paul's letter to the Romans (written about three years before he finally got to Rome) comes next after Acts. And in the first five verses, Paul unpacks the gospel of the kingdom of God of which Jesus is King. So look across to Romans 1, v1:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (Romans 1.1)
Now most people know that 'gospel' means 'good news'. And the thing to take onboard is that that means news in exactly the same way we talk about the Six O'Clock or Ten O'Clock News: it means events that have really happened and are therefore true for everyone (like the events of Thursday night when Uruguay beat England 2-1). And that needs emphasising because the world loves to say to us, 'Look, your beliefs are just your private beliefs.' But the answer is, 'No, what I believe about Jesus really happened – they're no more 'my private beliefs' than Uruguay beating England 2-1 is my private belief.' And the gospel is the news of the events by which Jesus has acted to re-establish the kingdom of God. And the two key events, as we'll see, are his death and resurrection. So, onto Romans 1, v2:
the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures [ie, the Old Testament (OT)] (Romans 1.2)
As we saw under heading 1, the OT is the background to the gospel – it says how things were meant to be, and what's gone wrong. But above all, it's about God's promise to put it right again. In terms of the next picture, it's about God's promise to rescue a people from the left hand side of the picture to the right hand side, for this life and eternity:
And in OT times, God built a model of what that will look like. I have an engineering friend who worked on the original Ford Focus. And he told me that, after a certain amount of time on the drawing board, they started making a quarter-size model of the car to give them some idea of what it would look like. And in OT times, God built a model to give us an idea of what the kingdom of God will look like. And I've pictured that model next:
The model was the kingdom of Israel – God's people living under kings like David, who were supposed to lead them in living under God's rule. Now of course it was a thoroughly imperfect model – because both people and kings were part of the rejecting-God's-rule problem that we're all part of. But it gave some idea of what the kingdom of God means. And in our OT reading, 2 Samuel chapter 7, we heard one of the key OT promises made to David. God promised him:
"When... you lie down with your fathers [ie, die], I will raise up your offspring after you… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever." (2 Samuel 7.12-16)
Now that was fulfilled to some extent in David's human successors (Solomon, etc). But they were all part of the rejecting-God's-rule problem. And, anyway, that promise sounds too big to be fulfilled by a merely human king. Because it sounds like it's pointing to someone who's going to re-establish God's kingdom forever and rule over it forever. And as it turns out, that someone was God's Son – which you can see if you read on into Romans 1, v3 which says that the gospel is…
concerning his Son [ie, God's Son, God the Son] (Romans 1.3)
And then we're told about his entry into the world and his exit, which both have huge significance. So, v3 for his entry:
concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Romans 1.3)
Ie, he was born into David's family line. Now biologically speaking, Jesus wasn't Joseph's son – his conception was the miraculous entry of God the Son into human life. But Joseph did belong to David's family line so, legally speaking, Jesus was born into David's line as a sign that he'd come to fulfil that 2 Samuel 7 promise – he'd come to be the more than merely human King, who wasn't part of the rejecting-God's-rule problem, and who could therefore be the solution.So that was his entry into the world. Read on into v4 for his exit – he
was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1.3-4)
So there in v4 are the two key gospel events – Jesus' death and resurrection. And when those responsible crucified him, they were basically saying, 'We don't believe you are the Son of God or our rightful King.' But when God then raised him from the dead, he was basically saying, 'He is my Son. And he is your rightful King. And I am putting him on the throne of my kingdom. And how you respond to him will determine where you stand with me, in this life and forever.'
So, that's Paul's summary in Romans 1.1-4 of the gospel of the kingdom of God, of which Jesus is King. And my guess is that you may be thinking, 'Hold on, where's the cross and the forgiveness of sins that Jesus paid for there? Isn't the cross the heart of the gospel?'
And the answer is: yes, the cross is the heart of the gospel. But it's not the whole of the gospel – and you can distort the message if you make it the whole of the gospel. As an example of that, here's a picture of the earliest summary of the gospel I was taught as a teenager. It goes like this: 'Man is separated from God by his sin. It's like a great gulf that we can't cross from our side…'
'… but God bridged it from his side when Jesus died for our sins, so he can now forgive and accept us:'
Now there's truth in that summary. The trouble is: it doesn't get across at all the message of the kingdom of God of which Jesus is King. Because the goal of what Jesus did is not simply that we're forgiven. The goal of forgiveness is to bring us back into a relationship with God where we're treating him as we should – namely as our King. Whereas: that summary doesn't mention that Jesus is our rightful King.
Well, look lastly at Romans 1, v5:
Jesus Christ our Lord [v5:], through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith (Romans 1.5)
So verses 1-4 are Paul's summary of the gospel. Verse 5 is his summary of the response God is looking for, from us. And the response is:
the obedience of faith (Romans 1.5 ESV)
Or, as the NIV puts it,
the obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1.5 NIV)
So what is faith? It's not just belief in God – Jews, Muslims, some Buddhists and lots of other non-Christians have faith in a God. And it's also not just believing that Jesus is the Son of God – I've seen people get to that point, eg, in Christianity Explored, but not yet be trusting in him, committed to him. Christian faith is trusting Jesus that, because he died to pay for your forgiveness, he can and will forgive you all your past rejection of God's rule – and all your future failure to live for him, as well. In terms of this next picture, Christian faith means trusting Jesus that, when I ask him to forgive and accept me, through his death on the cross, he brings me from the left hand side of the picture to the right hand side, forever:
But remember: Paul says the response God is looking for is not just 'faith' but 'the obedience that comes from faith.' And the point is that when you trust in Jesus and his death, and you realise where that's got you – from the left hand side of that picture above to the right, from death to forgiveness, from no relationship with God to new relationship – it makes you want to live for him as King. It creates the desire to obey him – even though this side of heaven, we never fully live out that desire. So genuine faith and (albeit imperfect) obedience always go together like two sides of the same coin – 'heads and tails'; 'faith and obedience'.
Thirdly, 'SO WHAT?' WHEN IT COMES TO SHARING THE GOSPEL?
Well, I've mentioned a number of 'So what?'s along the way, but here are two final applications.
No.1: Be careful to learn the gospel from the Bible.
Whether we're chatting about the gospel with a friend, or giving a talk on Holiday Club, or preaching at an invitation service, we need to be careful that what we're saying is the gospel which the Bible is saying. So just listening tonight, I hope you've been asking yourself, 'Is that how I put it? Or has this pulled me up about not saying some of the things I should, or not emphasising what the Bible does?' of course we've got to find ways of summarising the gospel and putting it in our own words. But we've got to be careful – witness that summary I mentioned earlier, of the cross bridging the gulf. That shows how easy it is to lose the Biblical emphasis – of the kingdom of God of which Jesus is King. And that's lost in quite a few evangelistic tracts you can pick up – you need to be careful about which of the many out there you choose to use. Eg, I read one the other day which put the gospel entirely in terms of becoming friends with God. But unless you qualify that very carefully, it can create the impression that God's a mate who's there for you and gives the odd bit of good advice. Which is a long way off calling people back to Jesus as their rightful King.
Let me mention two resources to help us in this department. One is a book – Know & Tell The Gospel, by John Chapman (Matthias Media – available on our church bookstall and also from www.thegoodbook.co.uk ). The other is the 'Two Ways to Live' gospel outline – where the crowns and stickmen come from. If you Google 'Two Ways to Live', you'll find a great website where you can learn that outline (www.matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/ ).
Application no.2: remember that the gospel centres on Jesus, not on us and our felt needs.
It's sometimes said that in sharing the gospel you have to start with people's felt needs, and show them how Jesus can meet those needs. And there's some truth in that. Because name any felt need you like– guilt, low self-esteem, lack of purpose, sinful habits you can't break, etc, etc – and Jesus can meet them. But the pitfall of that approach is that you end up presenting Jesus as 'the meeter of my needs', and not clearly presenting him as the rightful King whom I should be living for. And to avoid that pitfall, we need to learn to show people how their felt needs are just symptoms of the root problem of rejecting God's rule.
The other pitfall with that approach is that plenty of people will say they have no great felt needs – 'Life's good, so why would I need God?' they say. And with an unbiblical, man-centred gospel, you don't have much to say to that, do you? But with the Biblical, God-centred gospel, you do have something to say. Something like... 'Well, it doesn't matter whether or not you feel a need for God. Because the fact is: he's there, and he's sent his Son Jesus to bring us back under his rule – and if that doesn't happen, we're on a collision course with him when we die, however good life's been.'
Well, all of that comes out of Acts 28.31, where Luke says we should be...
proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28.31)
But as a postscript... if you're still wondering what happened to Paul, the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that the case against him was dropped, that he was released after those two years' 'house arrest' in Rome, and that he enjoyed a few more years of spreading the gospel before being re-imprisoned in Rome and killed under the increasingly anti-Christian Emperor Nero.
But Luke would say, 'Why did you bother telling them that? Because what really matters is not what happened to Paul in the end. What really matters is what Paul was doing with the gospel right up to the end – and whether you'll do the same.'