“What Does It Mean, to Obey the Gospel?”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
We’re several installments into a series examining the oft-used but seldom-defined word, gospel. We’ve dispensed with the notion that it’s some kind of magic ritual or talisman, and instead focused on the recurring pattern of descent into darkness and death, followed by ascent into light and life. God has used this pattern over and over, and he demonstrated it most clearly in his Son, both in his sojourn on this earth before returning to his rightful home in heaven, and in his death, burial, and resurrection, which was the culmination of his earthly ministry. We considered in a past installment one passage in which the Apostle Paul discusses this same point, recalling how Jesus “was in the form of God,” and yet
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The fact of Jesus’ earthly descent and ascent fulfills and validates his heavenly descent and ascent. As Paul makes very clear, the ascent was in neither case merely a return to the prior circumstance—otherwise, what would be the point, if no lasting benefit resulted from the process? When Jesus ascended, he was granted a new and glorious name. Whereas his identity, and in some measure his very existence, has been deliberately hidden from the foundation of the world until his advent on this earth, now he is proclaimed across the whole world as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (cf. Re 19.16). In short, the benefit far outweighed the cost.
But what does any of that matter to us? Well, what did Paul say, just before that theologically dense and intricate statement about Jesus’ descent and ascent?
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
nevertheless plunged into this fallen world, in pursuit of the worthiest of all goals. While the passage provides ample fodder for minor doctrinal points, it would be a disastrous—and all too common—mistake to neglect the commandment Paul constructed it to serve! We are to imitate Christ, in emptying ourselves of the things we think we deserve, and in some cases really do deserve. We are to consciously go to our own deaths. But why? For a reason comparable to Jesus’: having humbled ourselves completely before God, we stand to receive a reward that mimics the one he gave to his Son.
But as we’ve noted in previous installments, this death, burial, and resurrection, in imitation of Jesus, takes place, of course, at a believer’s baptism!
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
It’s right there, in black and white! When we act out Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, in the symbolic act of burial in water—a method by which God repeatedly demonstrated this same pattern in the Old Testament, let’s remember—we are spiritually joining Christ in death, and therefore can reasonably look forward to joining him in an eternal resurrection, too!
But is that all it means? Of course not! As in the Philippians passage, Paul here uses a beautifully clear articulation of something already commonly understood, to explain a commandment:
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.
That singular occasion of death, burial, and resurrection in baptism must resonate and be acted out daily! Despite being transferred into the kingdom of heaven, the newly-baptized believer still has to live, for now, in the world, in a body of flesh susceptible to all manner of temptation. This is why Paul brought up the Christian’s prior death to sin.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
Paul’s not talking to unbelievers, encouraging them to put earthly things to death by being baptized—he’s telling Christians to keep killing these earthly inclinations, because our journey toward God is ongoing! He says the same in Ephesians 4.22, 2 Corinthians 4.11, Galatians 5.24, Romans 8.13, and other passages far too numerous to list here. So what does it mean, to obey the gospel? As we discussed in a recent article, baptism is a major act of obedience to the gospel; but it must not stop there! Obeying the gospel is a continual, daily endeavor.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”