There is a common trope in which someone says “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” and then tells both in such a way that the good news doesn’t really seem all that good. For example, he might follow up by presenting one piece of news which horrifies his listener who then says something to the effect of “that’s terrible, what’s the good news” only to be told “that was the good news!”
God’s Word also contains good news and bad news. Indeed, the very name of the good news in God’s Word is good news, for this is the meaning of the Greek word “euangelion” and the English word “Gospel” that translates it. In a much older form of English the word good was distinguished from the word god by a long o rather than a double o and the word spel meant tidings or news. Good news, therefore, was Godspel, which eventually contracted to our Gospel. The bad news is not named bad news, but it is bad news. By contrast with the good news and bad news in the popular trope, however, the bad news does not detract from or overshadow the goodness of the good news, but rather makes that goodness shine all the brighter. It is because of the bad news that the good news is good news.
The bad news of the Bible is called the Law. The Bible speaks of the Law with several different but related meanings. The Law can be a Covenant, the Covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. It can also be the books that contain that Covenant and the historical narrative of its coming to be starting from the Creation of the world and ending with the death of Moses on the eve of Israel’s entering the Promised Land. Used in this sense, the Law is one of the major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Since the other parts of the Old Testament point back to the Law in various ways its name is sometimes used as shorthand for the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. Sometimes, however, the Law is used in a more abstract sense than these. In this sense it means God expressing Himself and relating to people in His capacity as Sovereign Ruler over all His Creation, requiring that they do or don’t’ do certain things, promising the reward of blessing if they obey and threating punishment if they disobey. The principle of the Law used in this sense is captured in Leviticus 18:4-5:
Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.
The Law is bad news because since the Fall of Man brought sin upon the entire human race nobody can meet the Law’s requirements. Some people think that God accepts less than perfect performance of the righteousness He requires in the Law. Such people have not thought this through very well. If someone were brought before a human judge and charged with having brutally murdered his neighbour and this man’s lawyer were to argue that yes, his client has committed murder in this one instance but it needs to be weighed against all the people that he did not kill, we would regard the judge as incompetent and unfit for his office if he were to accept this spurious reasoning and set the defendant free. Since we expect better than that from human judges, how much less ought we to expect that the Supreme Judge Who is perfect in His Justice will act in this manner. The Apostle James tells us:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (Jas. 2:10)
In actuality, of course, our sin is much greater than that of St. James’ person who has offended in only one point.
The core of the Law, as God handed it down to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, is the famous Ten Commandments. These God had written on two stone tablets. Although the book of Exodus doesn’t spell this out, tradition and reason tell us that the first four were on the one tablet and the last six on the other. This is because the first four Commandments are all about duties directly to God, whereas the last six are about duties to God that also affect our fellow man. Here are the Commandments as they can be found in the twentieth chapter of Exodus following the preamble that reads “ I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
5.Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
While certain commandments pertain particularly to thoughts (the tenth) and words (the ninth), the righteousness that God requires of people consists of keeping each of these in thought, word, and deed. This is a point Jesus stressed in the ethical component of His teachings over and over again. God demands of us a righteousness that is internal as well as external. In the Sermon on the Mount He taught that being angry with someone without a cause violates the sixth commandment and that that lusting after a woman violates the seventh. In Matthew 12:36 He warned “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment”.
It has been often noted that the Ten Commandments are overwhelmingly negative in tone. With the exception of the last of the first table and the first of the second table they are all prohibitions, “thou shalt nots”. Jesus, famously, summarized the Commandments, and indeed, the entire Old Testament, in two positively worded commandments. Asked what the great commandment in the Law was, He said “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Matt. 22:37). This commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 where it immediately follows after the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” in the preceding verse. Jesus went on to say:
This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:38-40)
Unlike the Ten Commandments as worded in Exodus, both of these Commandments are positives, thou shalts, rather than thou shalt nots. The truth of what Jesus says about all the law hanging on these can be seen in that the entire first Table of the Ten Commandments is summed up in the first and greatest commandment and the entire second Table is summed up in the second. By reducing ten mostly negative commandments to two entirely positive ones, ones that are all about love even, Jesus does not make the Law any less bad news, however. Note that the extent of the love required in these commandments is specified. We are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, in other words with all our being. Can any of us say that we have loved God to that extent for even a second in our entire lives? If we cannot say that then we must confess that we have been and are in constant, unremitted, violation of the greatest of God’s commandments our entire lives.
Jesus’ two commandment summary of the Law, therefore, must not be understood, as many unthinkingly misunderstand it, as a softening of the message of the Law. It is not the Gospel that Jesus summed up in the two commandments, but the Law, the bad news. Indeed, stripped down to its very essence in the two commandments, its message of bad news is more glaring, more obvious. The message is that we must abandon all hope that when we come to the end of our lives and stand before our Creator and Judge to give an account that we will be able to present to Him in our account of our lives the righteousness that He is looking for, the righteousness that will satisfy His demands. This is the bad news message of the Law. The message is what it is, it needs to be said, not because of a defect in the Law, not because God’s standards are too high, but because of a defect in us, because we are sinful and wicked.
The bad news of the Law is the dark background against which the good news of the Gospel shines bright.
We turn now to that good news. The most well-known and well-loved verse in all the Scriptures, John 3:16, has often been called “the Gospel in a nutshell” and deservedly so. That verse reads:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The Gospel starts with the love of God. The bad news of the Law tells us that we are sinners who cannot meet the righteous standards of our Creator. The Gospel tells us that nevertheless God loves us. Furthermore, it tells us that because God loves us, He acted. He gave us a gift. Not just any gift, He gave us that which is most precious to Him, His only-begotten Son. Not His “one and only Son” as recent mistranslations would have it – God has plenty of children by creation and adoption – but His only-begotten Son, His only non-created, natural Son, Who shares His essence, and is therefore Himself God, not a different God, for God is essentially One, but the same God as His Father.
When the Bible says that God gave us His only-begotten Son this means that He sent Him into the world to be born into the human race and become One of us. The account of how He did so is a very familiar one. A little over two thousand years ago the angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin named Mary with the message that she was highly favoured by God and that the Holy Ghost would come upon her and cause her to conceive and bear a Son Whose name was to be Jesus and Who would be the Son of God. An angel was also sent to her fiancé Joseph to assure him that Mary had not been unfaithful, that her child was the Son of God, and that he was to take her as his wife and raise the child. The couple, who were descendants of King David, had to travel to Bethlehem due to a census ordered by Augustus Caesar and while there, the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, for there was no room in the inn. Angels appeared in the sky nearby and announced the birth of the Messiah – the long promised Saviour King of David’s line – to shepherds tending their flocks, who went to see Him and found Him where the angels said they would, lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Wise men from the east, guided by a star, arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to pay homage to Him. The story of these events, recorded in the early chapters of the Gospels according to Saints Matthew and Luke, has been told around the world on the anniversary of their occurrence for two thousand years. God’s gift of His only-begotten Son was the world’s first Christmas gift.
The purpose for which God in His love gave us His only-begotten Son is clearly stated. That purpose was that all who believe in God’s Son would not perish but have everlasting life. Everlasting life here does not mean merely life that lasts forever, but life in the eternal Kingdom of God, from which all evil is forever banished. It is the opposite of what it means here to perish, i.e., to go before God as one’s Judge, weighed down with the guilt of all one’s sins, receive the sentence justly due those sins, and face the eternal consequences of one’s wickedness.
Now, since the message of the Law, the Bible’s bad news, is that we are all sinners who deserve to perish, how does God’s Christmas gift to the world of His only-begotten Son effect its intended result that we, instead of perishing, have everlasting life in His eternal kingdom?
The events we remember at Easter are needed along those we commemorate at Christmas to complete God’s message of good news.
In the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul declared “unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand” (v. 1). Here is that declaration:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. (vv. 3-8)
The list of witnesses is the evidence St. Paul gives for the truth of the Gospel he preached, which consists of the events remembered on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday – the death of Christ for our sins, His burial, and His Resurrection. Jesus Christ died for our sins. He had no sins of His own. While the eternal Son of God became truly One of us when He entered the Virgin’s womb and was born into the human race, the Holy Ghost, the third Person of the Trinity Who worked the miracle whereby the Son of God became Man, prevented His human nature for bearing the taint of Adam’s Original Sin. The devil tempted Him to sin, as St. Mark mentions in his Gospel with fuller accounts provided by SS Matthew and Luke, but He did not succumb to the temptation. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Therefore, when He allowed Himself to be crucified that He might die a criminal’s death, it was for our sins that He died. St. Paul elsewhere says:
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:21).
St. Peter put it this way:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: (1 Pet. 3:18)
Jesus, the Son of God, the only Man Who could face the Law and meet its demands, took the guilt of our sins upon Himself and paid for them, so that He could share His Own perfect righteousness with us. Death having no claim on Him other than our sins which He freely took on Himself, having paid for our sins with His death, He defeated death and rose again from the grave, never to die again. His eternal resurrection life, He shares with us along with His righteousness.
This is how in the events of Easter weekend, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, accomplished the end for which God had given Him to the world as the first Christmas gift. The account of Jesus Christ, from Christmas to Easter, is the Bible’s good news, the Gospel. It is good news because it tells us how God in His love, has given us a Saviour Who met the need which the Bible’s bad news, the Law, has revealed in us, our lack of righteousness due to our sin.
The Gospel, the good news, operates on a very different basis from the “this do, and thou shalt live” basis of the Law, the bad news. The Gospel, in its unadulterated, Scriptural, form does not first tell us about Jesus, then call on us to perform some act on our part in order to benefit from Christ and His work. In the Law God says “do”, in the Gospel He says “it is finished”. The Gospel is good news to everyone who believes it for it is to those who believe the Gospel, who believe in Jesus Christ Whom the Gospel is all about, that the promises of the Gospel, such as that of everlasting life in John 3:16, are addressed. The Law is powerless to produce in us the obedient righteousness it requires of us (Rom.8:3). The Gospel creates in us the very faith to which it speaks by providing us with Someone in Whom to believe.
Believe in Him.
Believe in Him.