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Is Jesus a social justice campaigner?

This morning I started listening to Dr Sean McDowell with Greg Koukl about ‘what was the mission of Jesus?’, based on Koukl’s 2021 book, The Legend of the Social Justice Jesus. I haven’t read the book as I hadn’t heard of it before today, but I would like to read it as I found from the podcast that there were a number of issues with which I disagreed. I’d like to look into them some more and check my own thinking. What I did like was the approach Koukl took, which was to go through the gospels to find each reference to the mission of Jesus, and each reference to the poor, in order to answer this question directly from the Bible without any omissions. It is the approach I took in my own recent study of the nature of the Israelites’ sin against God according to God’s word through the prophets.

My initial concern regarding Koukl’s message is whether it is appropriate to ask the question of what the ‘main’ mission of Jesus was. Is it appropriate to argue that whilst Jesus did care about physical needs and did care about the poor, the heart of his message – the reason he came – is purely spiritual, tied to forgiveness of sins and salvation of the soul?

For evangelicals, this has a simple answer: the main mission was Jesus’ death and resurrection which allows us to live with God forever in eternity if we believe in him. But the question itself is problematic because it assumes that there are other aspects of Jesus’ mission which don’t matter as much as the ‘main’ one, whatever that is, and that is an assumption that ought to be carefully checked. Indeed, evangelicals have often been criticised for focusing so heavily on the cross that they throw out, neglect or overlook other parts of Jesus’ mission. We end up with a theology that is based on conversions and ‘get out of hell free’, ‘escape ticket to heaven’ type messages that have little to nothing to say about any concern God may have for life on earth now. Indeed, the implication is that God has no concern about what happens on earth now except maybe to make life a bit nicer sometimes for some Christians. This is also seen in understandings of Jesus’ death which so focus on substitutionary atonement, usually with a penal element, that they ignore other important mechanisms of the cross such as Christus Victor.

As Greg Koukl says, “the important thing is not getting Jesus on our side but making sure that we are on Jesus’ side. What side is that? Who is the real Jesus; the one that Paul preached; the one that the disciples followed and were trained by and proclaimed in the book of Acts? What was his mission? What did his forebears – those who came before him to announce him – say about him? What did Jesus say about himself? This is the question that I was pursuing.”[1]

“The reason Jesus came… is such a life-changing, life-transforming purpose that even life itself is not worth deviating from that purpose, which is why early Christians gave their lives. Its’s hard to imagine anything more important in any human being’s life right now than this question, like Jesus asked his disciples, who do you say I am? And the answer they give to that is going to seal their eternity.”[2]

“So what I decided to do – and I’ve done this on a number of different topics – is the simple methodology that if anybody wants to get a clear take on, in a certain sense, the full counsel of scri0pture on a particular issue, then they need to read through every single verse in the category of Scripture that you’re interested in – in this case the gospels – and isolate every verse that pertains to your issue… and then you can get a clear idea of what the full counsel of the text says about the issue that you’re looking for.”[3]

Koukl went to the gospels to ask, what do those texts say about the poor, and what do those texts tell us about Jesus’ mission? In terms of Jesus’ mission, there are the words of Jesus himself and also the heralds of Jesus (John the Baptist, Anna, Simeon, Mary, Zacharias). And, he says, “What I was stunned to find is that Jesus never campaigned on behalf of the poor, Jesus never campaigned on behalf of the disenfranchised, Jesus never campaigned on behalf of the outcast… he never did any of those things. It turned out that even the more conservative folks, who were saying ‘well this is part of Jesus’ ministry but it wasn’t the whole thing and the main thing’, they’re mistaken because it was never part of Jesus’ ministry at all.”[4]

Koukl is keen to stress that this does not mean that Christians do not need to care about issues of justice, or that the Bible does not elsewhere talk about the duty of God’s people to the poor and oppressed. Rather, what he is saying is limited to the very narrow question of the relationship between Jesus and the poor and his message or mission. The question is, has he got it right when he says that Jesus has a main mission, and that main mission was penal substitutionary atonement, forgiveness of sins and spiritual salvation?

Part 1: the gospel heralds of Jesus

In the podcast with Sean McDowell, Koukl starts with the heralds of Jesus. I will present them in the order that they happen, rather than the order that Koukl used in the podcast. I don’t know the depth to which Koukl explores these verses elsewhere in his works, but in the podcast he didn’t give any hint that these verses might mean anything more than salvation to a future eternity with God. There was no indication that Koukl had considered the depth and breadth of meaning for words like 'kingdom', 'Davidic' and 'shepherd', let alone that he had considered it and come to a theological basis for rejecting any understandings wider than forgiveness of sins and salvation into eternity with God. However, if Koukl has addressed these meanings then I will be glad to read his work and understand why he does not think that they are important to understanding Jesus' mission.

In Matthew 2:6, reference is made back to Micah 5:2,4: from Bethlehem will come a ruler over Israel who will shepherd his flock. Micah says that this ruler’s origins are from of old, and that when he rules, God’s people will live securely for his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. Firstly, the word ‘shepherd’ is important. Micah could have used the Hebrew word for ‘save’, yasha, to refer to Jesus’ actions regarding the flock – although as this word is used in the Old Testament to mean rescuing someone from an enemy, trouble or illness[5] it wouldn’t help Koukl’s case for arguing for a primarily and mostly spiritual salvation. Micah could have said that Jesus will govern or rule his flock, although again there would have been a need to bring in understandings of what God's rule is, looks like and means. But Micah chose the word ‘shepherd’ – a word with both protective and nurturing elements. The shepherd tends to the wounds and illnesses of his sheep; finds good water, pasture and resting places; searches for lost sheep to bring them home; protects the weaker sheep from the fatter, larger sheep; and fights off any attackers. Proclaiming Jesus as the shepherd of his people is a far wider statement than merely focusing on his (penal) substitutionary death on the cross. To interpret this as being only about forgiveness is sins is to ignore everything that the Bible, and Jesus in his own parables, tells us about what it means for Jesus to be a shepherd.

Matthew 4:16 quotes a passage from Isaiah: the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light. However this phrase is interpreted, there is no obvious reason to assume that it means merely that some people living on earth now will get to go to heaven in the future. The metaphor of dark to light covers a wide range of issues, not merely to do with salvation into a new heavens and earth.

A third Old Testament reference is made regarding the announcement of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias, and again at the start of John’s ministry. John is to be a messenger preparing the way of the Lord. He proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Here there is a clear focus on salvation and forgiveness of sins, which was also a key part of John's message: repent.

Shortly after the message is delivered to Zacharias, Mary receives a visit from the angel Gabriel informing her that she will become pregnant with a son who “will be great and will be called the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32). This is an overtly political statement. The realities of Jesus’ first and second coming, and the now-but-not-yet presence of the Kingdom of God between those two events, means that exactly how this political statement plays out is ambiguous. God certainly hasn’t brought his kingdom to earth with power and might, but rather with service and humility. Nevertheless, it remains a political statement to say that Jesus will reign.

A key part of the Davidic line was to rescue people from oppression; to be a better king than Saul and the various later kings; and to usher in peace and flourishing as described in the prophets and as would have happened had the Israelites obeyed God’s law. To simply read ‘Davidic kingdom’ as referring to spiritual salvation only is to ignore what the Bible tells us about David, God’s people, the kingdom of God and God’s aim for all creation.

After Mary becomes pregnant, the angel Gabriel visits Joseph to reassure him and tell him that Mary “will bear a son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21) “So there now”, Koukl says, “we’ve got salvation from sin that’s entering into this profile that is being developed at this very outset of Jesus’ life.”[6] What Koukl doesn’t do is explore the meaning of the word ‘save’. The word that we translate as ‘save’ is ‘sózó’, and it means far more than our English conception of 'salvation' as an escape ticket to a future eternity with God. The word 'sózó' means save, rescue, heal and preserve. In Matthew alone, it is used to refer to saving God’s people from their sins; rescuing the disciples from a storm; healing a haemorrhaging woman and that woman’s hope for healing; salvation of those who endure to the end; saving Peter from sinking; the need to lose your life to save it; Jesus’ coming to save (protect; heal; rescue) the lost (perishing; dying); a query over who can be saved given the command for generosity; another reference to enduring to the end; a reference to the end days being shortened otherwise no-one would be saved; and people mocking Jesus for not physically rescuing himself from the cross.

It is clear that sózó has a depth of meaning that is not present in English interpretations that speak of ‘salvation’ as though it is merely access to a future glory, distinct from any change in material, physical reality on earth. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. If the gospel writers deliberately use ‘sózó’ for a range of applications, why do we seek to narrow its meaning whenever it is used in a doctrinal rather than narrative sentence? What good reason to we have to do so? So I found it disappointing that Koukl did not reference here the wider meaning of the word ‘sózó’ in Greek compared to the English ‘save’, for you can’t understand the mission of Jesus without understanding the meaning of both the word ‘save’ and the phrase ‘kingdom of God’.

At the circumcision of John the Baptist, Zacharias prophesies that God has “visited and accomplished redemption for his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation… salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us… to give to his people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins… to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:68-69,77,79). This passage is not just about salvation into heaven, but also rescue from our enemies, scope to serve God freely, and entrance into peace.

At the birth of Jesus, a group of shepherds are told that “today in the city of David there has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” When Jesus was presented at the temple as a baby, Simeon announced that “my eyes have seen your salvation… a light of revelation to the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30,32), whilst Anna “spoke of him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2: 38). Again, to neglect the full meaning of sozo is to miss out on key theology regarding Jesus’ mission and what he came to do.

Koukl claims that “there’s not any reference to his rescuing the oppressed, taking care of the poor, helping the downtrodden. All of these references [that herald Jesus’ coming] have to do with something entirely different. It has to do with forgiveness of sin and ushering in the Davidic kingdom as Jesus the Lamb of God takes the punishment for everyone else, so that he can forgive us and cleanse us and redeem us and pave the way for spiritual salvation for those who trust in him.”[7]

I disagree. It is clear that part of Jesus’ mission was to take away the sin of the world and to offer adoption as God’s children to all who put their faith in him. But this does not mean that Jesus’ mission can be helpfully distilled down into this one issue, as though the only thing that matters is that Jesus restores our relationships with God as individuals. Jesus came to do far more than that: seeking not just spiritual relationship but physical healing; not just relationship between God and an individual but to also restore relationships between individuals and between humanity and creation; not just a future eternity with God but the start of the kingdom – the rule or government – of God on earth now, as it is in heaven. Christianity is not just about getting to heaven when you die; it is about the whole of your life, the life of the people around you and the life of the natural world.

Christianity is far richer than the salvation of our souls to a future glory with God, and attempts to define the 'main' mission of Jesus is like asking whether light is 'mainly' a wave or 'mainly' a particle: it isn't a question that works. I understand the tendency towards this answer, as it is the one that I tend towards as well for fear of becoming so socially-concerned that I lose the gospel altogether, but the answer to not over-balancing on one side is not to over-balance on the other.

[1] Koukl G (03/03/2022) What was the mission of Jesus? A conversation between with Greg Koukl. Dr Sean McDowell (podcast) Time: 4min21sec [2] 7min51sec [3] 11min25sec [4] 17min10sec [5] [6] 22min12sec [7] 25mins15sec; emphasis by Koukl

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