We tend to overlook how often the gospel of Christ crucified is described as “power.”
Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, he declares, “because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Writing to the Corinthians, Paul insists that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). He takes painstaking care not to corrupt the gospel with cheap tricks like manipulative rhetoric, what he dismissively sets aside as “words of human wisdom”—“lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The “incomparably great power” that is working in those who believe is tied to the exercise of God’s mighty strength when He raised Jesus from the dead (Eph 1:19–20).
There is superb irony in all this, of course. When Jesus was executed in the first century, the cross had no positive religious overtones. The Romans had three methods of capital punishment, and crucifixion was the most painful and the most shameful. Yet here were the Christians, their leader executed as a damned malefactor, talking about Him with gleeful irony as if He were reigning from the cross.
So central was the cross in Paul’s estimation that he could write, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:2–5).
But this stance, of course, is not exclusively Paul’s. Martin Hengel and others have shown that in the first century, the four canonical books we refer to as “Gospels” did not use the word “gospel” as if it were a literary genre. In the first century, no one spoke of “the Gospel of Matthew” or “the Gospel of Mark” or the like. Rather, each of the four relevant books was “the gospel according to Matthew,” “the gospel according to Mark,” and so forth. In other words, there was only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of the kingdom, with multiple witnesses.
This one gospel included the good news of Jesus’ coming, ministry, teaching, and miracles, but it necessarily culminated in His death and resurrection to redeem lost sinners to God. Otherwise it was not “the gospel.” That is why the recent book by Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, is so misguided. McLaren thinks he can accurately unpack the teaching of Jesus apart from consideration of the cross and resurrection. But that is precisely what the four canonical “Gospels” will not allow us to do. Indeed, some wag has said that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might almost be considered four passion narratives with extended introductions. That is why the second- and third-century heretical so-called “gospels”—The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Judas, and others—are not really “gospels” at all—these late, pseudonymous documents leave out the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Thomas is merely a collection of 114 sayings, with two snippets of narrative. This is certainly not the one gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Thomas. At the end of the day, it is not by Thomas, and it does not bear witness to the gospel. It is a late document forged in gnosticism, perhaps of Syrian provenance. It is embarrassingly far removed from the emphasis in the New Testament on the gospel of the crucified Redeemer.
Apocalyptic imagery comes to our aid once more. In Revelation 12, the ancient serpent, Satan himself, makes war on the offspring of the “woman,” on the people of God—in short, on Christians. He is filled with fury, we are told, because he knows he is doomed and his time is short.
How, then, do Christians overcome him? First, they overcome him on the ground of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11). This takes us back inexorably to the great vision of Revelation 4–5, to the gospel, to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Second, they overcome him “by the word of their testimony” (12:11). This does not mean they give their testimonies a lot; rather, it means they bear testimony to Jesus and to what He has done. So there it is again—the ongoing mandate for Christian missions, this bearing of public testimony to the triumph of Christ on the cross, is irreducibly tied to the conquest of Satan, and to our own security. Here is where real power lies—in the ignominy and odious shame of the cross. This is so stunningly important to Christians that “they do not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11).
Christians know, above all people, that by nature we were all objects of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3). But we have been reconciled to God by Christ Jesus, and we urge others to be reconciled to Him too (2 Cor 5:11–21), for in the cross, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Thus we see ourselves, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, somewhere between the City of Destruction, which by God’s grace we have abandoned, and the Celestial City, toward which we press, urging people all around us to join us on our pilgrimage. We have tasted so much; there is so much more to come.
The power of God in the cross of Christ has begun its transforming work, but we long for the consummation of all things, the dawning of the new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness. We long for consummated resurrection existence, when the sheer God-centeredness of everything will be our incalculable delight. At that point we will experience worship as we ought to experience it, and God will be all in all.
Until then, precisely because we have tasted something of the power of the cross, we implore men and women from every tribe and language and people and nation, “Be reconciled to God.”
O let us see your glorious face, perceive
Shekinah brilliance shining in the gloom
Behind the veil, transcend the sacred room
And pierce the Paradise of bliss. We leave
Our worship hungry yet: can we achieve
The beatific sight? Dare we presume
To beg for more, outpace the trailing plume
Of glory, and pure rays of light receive?
It’s not that we feel cheated by the grace
You freely give: each glimpse of your divine
Perfection crushes us—yet gives a taste
For holiness transcendent, pure, refined.
Our worship’s still a poor discordant thing;
But one day we shall see, and we shall sing.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions, edited by Martin Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch.