Paul’s Political Gospel

I was reading Romans 1 yesterday and it struck me afresh how political the gospel was for the early church. In the opening of his letter, Paul summarizes the gospel in this way:

“From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news. God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be apostles. This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake. You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles.”
The Good News was that Jesus descended from David, he was declared “God’s Son” (or “Son of God”) through his resurrection, and he is declared “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Much of that language is familiar to us – perhaps so familiar we miss the way it wold have been read in its original context.
  1. “Good News” (or “gospel”) was not any good news, but was largely Caesar’s word in Paul’s world. It spoke of the “good news of political or military victory” and perhaps especially brought to mind the ascension of a new emperor to his throne.
  2. In a very concise summary of the gospel, Paul makes a point of establishing Jesus’ connection with David, who of course, was a king. (On this point, let’s not forget that Jesus was singularly interested in proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom – not some ethereal “spiritual” reality, but God’s will done on earth as it was in heaven.) Paul wants to establish Jesus’ royal cred.
  3. Paul reminds us Jesus was declared the “Son of God” with power by his resurrection. In Paul’s context, “Son of God” was royal language – a way of referring to the king.
  4. Jesus is declared “Christ” and “Lord.” “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” – the Anointed One or King. “Lord” was also Caesar’s term – in a world that was organized by households, and households were headed by “lords,” Caesar was said to be “Lord of lords.”

So, in Paul’s short summary of the Good News (of Jesus’ victory), he declares Jesus to be the King and Lord in direct opposition to Caesar’s claims to be king and lord. (Remember, he was writing all of this to Rome.) The gospel is not some bargain cast in consumerist terms about getting out of Hell or going to Heaven. It isn’t even primarily a message about us, though it is to us. It is the declaration that “The old king – the usurper – has fallen and the rightful king has won the victory. Everything is changing!” (It’s helpful to read this through the eyes of Daniel’s dream in Daniel 7, where God judges and condemns the monstrous powers of the world and installs his rightful king – the “Son of Man.”)

And the only appropriate response to this declaration? Paul says he is declaring this news to provoke “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles. In other words, he declares that the pretenders to the throne have been exposed for the sham they are, the rightful king has taken his place as ruler of the world, and we need to align ourselves to the new reality, to the new way of things.

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Paul’s Political Gospel