WHAT MAKES THE BIBLICAL MESSAGE SO VIRAL?
Two Sundays ago, I spoke at Living Word Community Church in Newbury Park, California and asked the question: “What made the Gospel message so viral in the first three centuries…and throughout history?” Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity” speaks of how the early church spread from a few thousand Christ-followers in the first century to over 33 million followers by the year 350 A.D. The Christian movement spread to become more than fifty percent of the global population in just 300 years.
What made the early Christian message so viral? The answer is found in Galatians 1:3 where Paul writes, “Grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age.”
This was the message Paul proclaimed on his first missionary journey to the people living in the region of Galatia, containing the cities of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. People there knew they needed rescuing. They knew something was messed up in their world, in their culture, in their relationships, and in their lives—just as in ours.
THE GREATEST RESCUE
The Good News that Paul proclaimed is that Jesus came to rescue us by giving Himself for our sins. But soon after Paul left, some people followed and told the Galatians that what Jesus did wasn’t enough, that they needed to rescue themselves by adding to what He did. They had to keep the Old Testament Law and be circumcised (Acts 15:5).
Upon hearing this, Paul fired off a letter to the Galatians saying,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7).
“We who are Jewish by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:15-16).
Paul is really saying that as hard as he and his fellow Jews tried to merit God’s acceptance they failed. The Jews who were circumcised and tried to keep God’s law were no different than the the Gentiles whom the Jews considered “sinners” because they fell short of the Jewish standard of rightness. The Jew was just as trapped in unrighteousness as the Gentile.
Paul goes further, all the way back to Abraham, and shows that the father of the Hebrew race did not gain a right standing with God by his own efforts, but by faith in God’s promise (that would ultimately be filled by Jesus). He writes,
“Consider Abraham: he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand then that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you'” (Gal. 3:6-8).
Paul counters those who were saying the Galatians must rescue themselves by self-effort, and reasserts that the doorway/entrance/portal to rescue is the good news of God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice.
This past year (2010), millions of people around the world were riveted by the attempt to rescue thirty-three miners
trapped almost half a mile underground in Chile. Their gold and copper mine collapsed, leaving them 2,300 feet below the earth’s surface. For the next seventeen days they subsisted on scant rations intended to last only forty-eight hours. Each man ate just two teaspoons of tuna and one biscuit every two days, washing it down with a sip of milk.
It wasn’t until August 22nd that a probe reached the men gathered in a shelter measuring 500 square feet, no larger than a studio apartment.
Their only hope was to be rescued from above.
On October 9th a giant U.S. operated drill finally bored a man-sized hole through the earth, through which a specially designed capsule named Phoenix could be lowered. It wasn’t until October 13 and 14, after 69 days of being trapped, that the miners were brought up through the shaft one miner at a time.
This is what Galatians is about. That is what the Bible is about. This is what the Gospel is about. We are trapped in this “present evil age” and can’t dig our way out. Religion, philosophy, and morality are man’s attempt to dig through the enormous ceiling entombing us. They are as futile as the minors attempts would have been to try to dig through the massive amount of earth separating them from freedom.
God initiated a rescue plan from above. He drilled a rescue shaft and sent down the rescue capsule of Christ.
The rescue shaft is the Cross of Christ. Galatians 1:3 (quoted above) speaks of grace and peace based on our Lord Jesus Christ giving himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age.
God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice is the entrance to the rescue shaft. The rescue capsule is Jesus. We put our trust in Him to be able to pass through the shaft toward peace with God, which we exit the shaft into. By stepping into the rescue capsule of Christ, we pass through the shaft, which Paul calls being “crucified with Christ:”
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness [being right with God] could be gained through the law [our effort to rescue ourselves], Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:20-21).
In other words, there is only one way out. If we could dig our own way out, then Christ died for nothing. He didn’t have to come. He didn’t have to die. He didn’t have to suffer. Lots of people think they can dig their way to being right with God. Some reason, “let’s dig back through the collapsed entrance.” Others suggest, “no, let’s dig our way straight above us.” Still others, “Let’s dig straight down…maybe we’ll come out on the other side of the world.” These are the approaches of religion, philosophy, and accumulating good deeds—but there is only one way to be rescued—get in the capsule!
Digging my own way through life was my approach to being trapped. As an atheist (and later agnostic) during my college days, I believed that if I needed religion I could invent my own. In a sense I was right. I didn’t need religion; I needed rescue. Relying on self, I wasn’t digging my way out, I was digging the hole deeper. My marriage and my life was slowly collapsing around me. Then I stepped into the capsule of Jesus and came up through the shaft of the Cross of Christ into new life with Jesus.
“GIVEN THE SHAFT”
This gives a whole new meaning to the word “shafted.” I was “given the shaft.” I have “been shafted.” I stepped through the rescue shaft entrance of grace, into the rescue capsule of Jesus. I passed through the rescue shaft of the Cross of Christ to being put right with God (credited with Christ’s righteousness) and was no longer stood guilty before God because Christ took the penalty for my sin (justification). I emerged through the shaft into peace with God and new life in Christ.
RESCUED FROM, RESCUED BY, RESCUED FOR
The Good News is that we are rescued from this “present evil age” bythe rescue capsule of Christ.
But we are not only rescued from; we are not only rescued by; we are rescued for. We are rescued for fruitfulness. We are rescued to live fruitful lives. We are rescued for fruitful service. As we come out on the other end of the rescue shaft of being crucified with Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit to empower us to live fruitfully. Paul asks,
“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law of by believing what you heard? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3-4)
Paul goes on to tell us what a fruitful life looks like:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 522-23).
We are called to live fruitful lives as sons and daughters of God:
“You all are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized [put our trust in Jesus to rescue us] into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26).
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).
When we pass through the shaft of the Cross of Christ we become God’s sons and daughter and are heirs of the promises God gave to Abraham. These promises all the way back to the book of Genesis were that God would bless Abraham and bless the nations of the world through Abraham.
“The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:8-9)
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed…meaning Christ” (Gal 3:16).
“The Scriptures declare that the whole world is a prisoner to sin [trapped], so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22).
Once rescued, we have a role to play in rescuing others. We are rescued from being trapped in this present evil age, we are saved by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ, and we are saved for fruitful lives that help rescue others. God gives us His Spirit and makes us His sons and daughters when we are shafted. The Spirit empowers to bear His fruit of love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus imparts to us new life and makes us heirs of the promises to Abraham.
To reach for these promises, we eagerly await (Gal 5:5), we serve one another in love (Gal 5:13), we live by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), we do good to all people (Gal 6:10), and, of course, we proclaim the good news that we can have grace and peace because Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us.
So—have you been shafted? If so, are you living fruitfully and reaching for your inheritance?