‘The gospel in the public square’ – what does it look like?

Oct 1, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I’ve written before about my fascination with the last few chapters of Acts, which portray the apostle Paul on trial again and again. Here are some more reflections.

While there are great differences between the early church and contemporary Christianity in the West, Luke was writing to an audience of Christians in a context in some ways similar to our own. The Christian faith was not banned; it was possible for churches to exist and even to flourish in local communities, whether Jewish or gentile. The message of the deity of a crucified working class man was sometimes ridiculed but on the whole, especially among the gentiles, took its place among a myriad of religious beliefs. In most cases the church would have grown quietly and steadily through friendship evangelism. Some would have argued that there was no need to antagonise the authorities by public declarations of Jesus’ supreme lordship, or the non-divinity of temple idols.

Paul himself was commissioned to preach the gospel first to the Jews, and then the gentiles. He could have done it quietly, through local fellowships which he planted, avoiding controversy, focussing on small groups and one-to-one. But he didn’t. It seems everywhere he went, he clashed with the authorities as his gospel was shared in the public square, and as he testified boldly to the authorities. There’s no doubt that this would have caused embarrassment to local believers. “We agree with Paul’s beliefs”, some would have said, “but can’t he be more winsome? He’s picking fights; he’s antagonising people with his tone; he’s drawing the attention of the powers that be to the fragile church.”

In the last of Paul’s defence speeches, in the trial before Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul sets out his message and his motives in a comprehensive way. His understanding of the gospel can’t be seen just as a set of beliefs which can be assented to by individuals as they are incorporated into an unobtrusive local community. Here are ten key elements of the apostolic gospel:

1. It’s about the reality of the spiritual realm, God’s miraculous intervention in the physical world demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection (26:8) and his appearance to the apostles of whom Paul was the last (26:14-15).

2. It’s about forgiveness of sins through Christ, deliverance from the power of evil, and the formation of a new community (26:18). Evangelicals have traditionally majored on the first of these only!

3. It’s about light in the darkness. Paul mentions this three times in his defence (26:13; 18; 23).

4. It’s about a saving and eternal relationship with God, received and activated by repentance and faith (26:20). Repentance involves a radical change of worldview, as God’s word becomes the authority; faith means that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”: an end to identities based on the enthronement of self.

5. It’s worked out in practice with a changed life (26:20). It’s impossible to sustain the view commonly promoted today, that some kind of positive regard for Jesus, and belief in his love, can go together with a blatant disregard for the bible’s clear moral teaching.

6. It’s controversial. It should challenge both those outside and inside the Kingdom; it will lead to indifference, ridicule and furious opposition, as Paul said he himself felt in his former life (26:9). If it’s always received positively it’s probably not the whole gospel (Luke 6:26).

7. It’s for people of all races and nationalities. While the focus of much of the evangelical church is on local mission along natural lines of shared background, Acts shows a constant intentionality to go beyond the barriers of social groups (26:17-18; 209; 23).

8. It’s public truth. Paul assumes that even the secular rulers know the story about Jesus, because “it was not done in a corner” (26:26). There is no sense from Paul that given the opportunity to speak truth to power, he should talk in generalities about doing good and living well, and avoid mention of Jesus and his call (compare with contemporary church spokesmen here and here).

9. It’s for the powers, human and spiritual, as well as ordinary people. Paul was called to “testify to small and great alike” (26:22). It’s certainly for family and friends, it’s good news for the poor and effort needs to be made to bring the message to the disadvantaged. But also it is for rulers, because it has global, multinational relevance. Paul takes the opportunity to evangelise the king while defending himself! (26:27-28).

10. It’s embodied in the suffering and vindication of the Saviour, of the apostle, and hence of the church. Paul has been unjustly imprisoned for two years in Palestine, and will face further incarceration and then death in Rome. But he has a chance to testify at the highest level, and is essentially declared innocent by his judges (26:31). In this he follows the pattern of Jesus’ life, but in his earlier anti-Christian days he was responsible for creating the same pattern for Christians in Judaea and Damascus (26:10-11).                            

It’s worth saying more about this last point. The gospel is not just a message to be believed, but a pattern of life to be experienced. Jesus suffered, died and was raised to life. Paul in this trial scene is in dire straits humanly speaking but is experiencing God’s powerful action through him for the good of the gospel in the public square. When Christians suffer today for their faith (either because of persecution, or the more common daily experiences of resisting internal sin or coping with difficult situations), the gospel is not just a message of personal salvation and justification, but actually taking up our cross; an experience of God with us in the “dying” and “being raised up” by him.

If the church treats the gospel not as public truth but as an internal blessing for the church and ‘fringe’ only, it loses the powerful testimony to the rulers, and can easily become pietistic and inward-looking. If it sees the gospel as a positive theological message but neglects the dimension of death-and-resurrection experience through being “in Christ” in suffering, it’s prone to a human-centred faith, managing life to avoid hardship, rather than following the Spirit’s leading as Paul did.

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