The small community of gospel believers in the first century was like a fragile flower stubbornly pushing its way through a rock face. An odd medley of race, status and gender, they germinated in a hostile environment and refused to stop sharing the potent message that would change the world. The ‘weak’ community grew from around 20 followers of Jesus in 30AD, to 30 million believers by the 4th century AD. The fragile flower of the gospel could not be thwarted.
Our text today is Romans 1:16-17:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Paul penned these words at a time when Christians who believed and spread the gospel message were persecuted, crucified, burnt as human torches, thrown to the lions and crucified. The cost of the gospel to these early believers in Rome is well depicted in the 2018 movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.” (It is worth watching). The only reason these ordinary men, women and children laid down their lives, instead of being silent or accommodating, is because they knew that it was the most powerful message the world would ever hear.
Felicitas lived in 101-162 AD. She and her seven sons were martyred in Rome. Her efforts to share the gospel with others were noticed by the pagan priests who then notified the Emperor. Before being martyred, she witnessed the death of each of her sons. The authorities gave her the opportunity to recant her witness after each son’s death, but she refused.
In Africa, a report by Open Doors claims that there were more recorded killings of Christians due to their faith in northern Nigeria in 2015 than in the rest of the world put together: 4028 out of a worldwide total of 7100 deaths in just one year. It is difficult to imagine the tribulation of these brothers and sisters in Christ on our own continent.
The gospel of Jesus Christ
Jesus prayed 24 hours before his own humiliating crucifixion, “The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). From the first century to now, Christians have been shamed and killed because they were not ashamed of the gospel. They lost everything, not because they enjoyed being martyrs, nor because they wanted to belong to a cult (although there is great comfort in community). They willingly died because they knew the gospel was true and too precious to compromise. Here are seven truths that kept them spreading the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ:
1. They were convinced that no other message or religion provides a Saviour to bridge the gap between sinful human beings and a holy God (Rom 3:21-23). They knew that no one but Jesus can forgive sin and make us right with God through grace and not works (2 Cor 5:19; Eph 2:8-9). The punishment they deserved had been meted out on God’s own Son (Rom 3:25-26; 2 Cor 5:21).
2. They believed the incarnation—that Jesus, the Nazarene carpenter, who did miracles and spoke with authority and grace, was Yahweh himself in human form. They believed that Jesus had brought God’s kingdom to earth as he had promised through the prophets. Like Thomas and Peter, they recognized Jesus as God’s Messiah, their Lord and Saviour, not just as a moral teacher (Mark 8:27-28; 29-30; John 14:10-11).
3. They loved people enough to share the good news of undeserved grace. They were willing to take up their own crosses (literally) and follow their Master (Mark 8:34) because they were called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20).
4. They had no doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead, as witnessed by hundreds of people who had seen him (1 Cor 15:1-2; 3-5; 6-7). The resurrection assured them that they too would be raised when Jesus returns to earth in glory, as King and Lord of all (1 Cor 15:23).
5. They believed Jesus’ prophecy that the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations before his Kingdom would come in its fullness (Mark 13:10; Matt 24:14). They saw themselves as ‘gospellers’ until his return.
6. They loved Jesus more than life itself, because of his loving sacrifice on the cross. They knew that their hardships were nothing compared to their Saviour’s, momentary sufferings against the backdrop of the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 1:6-9).
7. They knew that the gospel would triumph over every obstacle until it brings believers into eternal joy in the presence of the God of the universe. The hope of the gospel was worth the ultimate sacrifice.
You will notice that I have deliberately used words like “know”, “convinced”, “certain”, “believed”. That does not mean that these believers were free of doubt, fear and despair. They were just human like us. But they were convinced by the Jesus they had experienced, and the gospel was too precious a gift to dilute its potency. They knew enough to entrust Jesus with their lives.
This was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it remains just as powerful and precious today.
Revolutionary gospel vs impotent placebo
But today, the word “gospel” is often vaguely linked to ‘good tidings’ or stories about Jesus.
In an age where experience is prized above truth, and belonging above believing, it is easy to lose the revolutionary core of the gospel message.
If we reduce the gospel to platitudes, Jesus’s moral teachings, church programs and rituals, God’s powerful elixir will be diluted. The ‘gospel’ will become a comforting placebo that is impotent to save the lost.
I have seen this firsthand in some church services I have attended, most notably, my son’s school confirmation. It made me sick to the stomach how the gospel was barely mentioned as the foundation for twenty young boys’ serious confession of faith. After hours of ritual and ceremony, they were pronounced “good Christian gentlemen” without a hint of the essential Biblical truths which make our faith so precious. It bore no resemblance to the robust, costly faith of these ancient saints and, quite frankly, was a mockery to our Saviour’s precious sacrifice.
The true gospel as preached by Jesus, the apostles and the early church in Acts, was the announcement of a momentous event that would change the course of the world forever. The gospel is revolutionary in the truest sense. The event itself was the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, with Jesus Christ as its undisputed King. The gospel can be summarised in one profound affirmation:
JESUS IS LORD!
In next week’s devotion, “A Kingdom Gospel”, we will look at Jesus’ stunning gospel announcement in Luke 4:18-29. The following week we will examine the great commission of Matthew 28 in “A Fragrant Gospel.”
Live it out!
Are we sometimes slightly ashamed of the gospel for fear of offending people who disagree with us?
Do we truly understand that the gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?”
Is there a cost for us in following Jesus and being a ‘gospeller’ in the environment God has placed us?
Do we look and pray daily to find common ground with people in their brokenness and alienation, to point them to Jesus?
Father, I know that your Son will one day return to this earth in glory, with the angels. Help me to keep a constant vision of that day in my mind, so that I will not be afraid to lose myself for the sake of the gospel. Do not let me be ashamed of you in my generation, so that you will not be ashamed of me when you return as King. I seek to honour and please you alone. Thank you for the precious gift of the gospel. (Mark 8:34-38). There is no other name–Jesus Christ our Lord.
Worship the Lord Jesus with this beautiful reminder of the gospel by Andrew Paterson, Is he worthy?