As the gospel went out into the known world, it encountered people from all kinds of religions and philosophies – particularly people from a Greco-Roman religious background. Many of the religions that the gospel encountered concerned man trying to placate the gods.
The greco-roman gods were a capricious lot – given to mood swings, internal bickering, eating, drinking and generally more concerned about themselves than about the world. The most a person could hope for was, even if the gods were not in favor, that they would leave him alone. Thus, a person’s religious obligations would consist of placating the gods with the right rituals, sacrifices, etc. so that they would not be inclined to zap him when in a niggly mood!
When the philosophers came in, they began to reject the idea of religion in favour of man’s ability to make his own way in this world, in effect trying to provide answers for the questions of life without resorting to religion. But for many people, relying on their minds to provide answers did not work out so well either and they were left empty without any source for help.
Into this space came the very unique and distinctive gospel of Jesus Christ – For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, may not die, but have eternal life. The distinctiveness was in three very bold and radical truths.
Firstly, God loved the world. Unlike the gods of the time, God, the Father, loved His creation. He was not absent. He was not busy with His own agenda. He was not indifferent. He actually loved His creation. This was a radical notion at the time.
Secondly, God’s love was so great that He took the initiative to reconcile man to Himself. The Christian faith was not about man reaching out to God, it was about God reaching out to man.
Thirdly, this gospel was for ‘whoever believes’ – no other qualification was required. For those gentiles who were attracted to the message of the ‘one God’ of the Jews, the most they could hope for was to be proselytes. They could never be ‘Jews’ – and by extension, God’s true children. But here was God taking the initiative and saying – you do not need to be ‘pre-qualified’ – race, religion, righteousness, circumcision, etc. This invitation is for all.
Powerful indeed was this very distinctive gospel of Jesus in the context of the first century. Powerful indeed is this distinctive gospel in our own times.