Being ‘gospel centered’, ‘gospel focused’ and ‘gospel driven’ are buzz words today in large segments of the evangelical world. I have found that most of what is considered ‘gospel’, however, is not the gospel at all. Most of what is labeled ‘gospel’ is simply a message about the gospel. Make no mistake about it, presenting a message about the gospel is not the same as presenting the gospel.
The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’ and Jesus Christ is the personification of good news. Simply put, He is the gospel! In the New Testament, Paul & the apostles would proclaim the actual person of Jesus Christ. This was much more than a message containing some propositional truths about Christ and a few things He did. I’m convinced that all of our problems are rooted in a small vision of Jesus Christ. Simply put, the church is in desperate need of a large and stunning view of Jesus Christ! This view of Jesus Christ is rarely presented, however.
Several months ago, Frank Viola spoke at a conference called ‘Momentum’. I believe that what he shared there is the gospel that many of us have never heard. Frank has agreed to participate in this blog’s first ever blog interview in which I ask him several important questions about the message that he delivered titled ‘Epic Jesus’. Please take a few minutes to read this blog interview about the message. If you have not yet heard Frank’s message ‘Epic Jesus’, you can listen to it online by clicking here. There’s also an e-book available that’s based on the talk.
1. At the beginning of the message you quoted the following line from C.S. Lewis’ work ‘Prince Caspian.’
Aslan to Lucy: “Every year that you grow, I will get bigger in your eyes.”
Can you elaborate how this statement reflects our own spiritual growth in the Lord?
Let me first thank you for inviting me on your blog to do this interview. I have grown to appreciate you much, and I am thankful for our friendship.
Regarding your question, I believe that Lewis’ words on the lips of Aslan is an excellent metaphor for spiritual growth. When we grow in Christ, He becomes greater and more glorious in our eyes. This is because we are getting to know Him better. And in knowing Him better, we love Him more.
Those who do not love Jesus of Nazareth haven’t been awakened to see exactly who He is. One of the jobs of the Holy Spirit is to reveal Christ to our hearts. That revelation has a starting-point in a person’s life, but then it grows, deepens, and becomes more solid.
Jesus taught us that the greatest of all commandments is to love God. In one of his epistles, John said, “We love Him because He first loved us.” Our love is ignited when the love of God in Christ touches (or melts) our hearts.
The author of John’s gospel calls John “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Jesus loved all of His disciples (and all people), for He is Love enfleshed. Yet John had such an awareness of Christ’s love for him that he saw himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
In the same way, if our eyes are opened to see the epic greatness of Jesus Christ, then something happens inside of us. First, it wipes everything else off the table. That which competes for our devotion suddenly bows at the sight of His peerless worth.
Second, desire and affection for God in Christ are awakened within us. Our love for Him rises to new heights. That love is not provoked by duty, guilt, or shame. It’s rather drawn out by a fresh glimpse of His beauty and majesty. John’s words, “We beheld His glory . . . full of grace and truth,” take on a new meaning.
So to my mind, our progress in Christ correlates with fresh apprehensions of Him. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:17ff. seems to capture this idea.
In short, my motive in delivering the message Epic Jesus (and putting it in written form) is to stir the hearts of God’s people to see just how uncommonly incredible their Lord is. That He is so much more than we have imagined. (I speak from my own experience here, as well as from observation.)
For me, this is the basis of everything. The greatness of Christ in the face of the diluted and piece-meal way that He is often presented today is a passion of mine, and it’s one of the things that provoked Len Sweet and me to write Jesus Manifesto.
Jon Zens, who heard “Epic Jesus” live, said that it should have been titled, “Christ is All, But There’s Still More . . .” I think that describes the Lord rather well.
Personally, I can’t help but weep when I’m struck with His greatness. (I almost lost it at one point while giving the talk.) As A.B. Simpson once put it, “Preaching without spiritual aroma is like a rose without fragrance. We can only get the perfume by getting more of Christ.”
2. In the message, you gave a complete definition of the term ‘Kingdom of God’. Here is the definition that you gave:
Kingdom of God: “the manifestation of God’s ruling presence.” Jesus Christ is the ruling presence of God.
Can you elaborate on this a bit more and also share why you think there is so much confusion about what the ‘kingdom of God’ actually is?
To my mind, the confusion exists because Scripture never defines the kingdom of God. It only illustrates it. Therefore, it’s open to be defined by anyone’s theological or political agenda.
Today, the kingdom of God is commonly defined and understood as Act. That is, for many believers, the kingdom is about humans doing something, usually performing supernatural acts or engaging in social justice. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who view the kingdom as Being in the sense of a particular religious experience or being in a place like heaven.
Right or wrong, my understanding of the kingdom is that it is embodied in Jesus Christ. Jesus is both Act and Being. Consequently, each word of my definition points to this reality.
Let’s break the definition down. The kingdom of God is the manifestation of God’s ruling presence. The word “presence” points to the fact that the kingdom cannot be separated from the King. So the kingdom is the Being of God. The kingdom has a face. It is the face of God in Christ. (It is for this reason that some of the early church fathers called Jesus the autobasileia, which means the self-kingdom.)
The words “ruling” and “manifestation” have in mind the Act of God, namely His reigning and His image-bearing, respectively. This throws us back to Genesis 1, where God gave humans the task of bearing His image and exercising His rule in the earth.
However, the part of the story that’s commonly left out is that the only way that the first humans could ever think to fulfill the commission of image-bearing and ruling was by God’s own life. They had to have divine life deposited within them. In other words, they needed the Being of God to accomplish the Act of God.
This is where the Tree of Life comes in. Adam, Eve, and their descendants were to eat from the Tree of Life, thereby receiving God’s own life within them. And this life would enable them to fulfill the commission. (The Tree of Life contained God’s life in accessible form.)
Recently, I read a book by one of my friends who is a noted scholar. It’s all about the meaning of the gospel and brings back into view the Lordship of Jesus. The book discussed the matter of ruling and image-bearing also.
Strikingly, however, there wasn’t anything about the indwelling life of Christ to carry out these two tasks. And there was nothing about the eternal purpose of God. While there was a great deal about Jesus as Lord (which was quite good), there was nothing about Christ as our life.
These two themes (the Lordship of Jesus and the indwelling Life of Christ) are inseparably linked in both the gospels and the epistles, and they are the centerpiece of God’s eternal purpose. Without the indwelling life of Christ, the Lordship of Jesus becomes something quite external (more on that later).
In From Eternity to Here, which you graciously reviewed here sometime ago, I sought to develop these themes in detail by tracing them chronologically from Genesis to Revelation. In one section of that book, I argue that Jesus is the Being of God (He is God’s Person and God’s Life) and as such He fulfills the Act of God (manifesting God’s ruling presence in the earth).
But the wonder of the gospel is that Jesus has come to reproduce Himself into all who repent and believe upon Him so that we too may bear His image and exercise His rule (Act). And that can only happen when we live by His life (Being) with others (“let them have dominion”).
This is the storyline of the gospels, and it puts us on a collision course with the meaning of the kingdom of God and the church.
3. You mentioned that we make a big mistake when we try to separate the kingdom of God from the church. There was one statement regarding this subject that you made in the message that really jumps out at me. Here is what you said:
“To separate the kingdom from the church is to separate light from visibility.”
Can you elaborate on this statement a little bit more?
I give examples of this point in the message itself. It’s also dealt with in a two-part article entitled Kingdom Confusion. But the main point is that Jesus, Luke (in Acts), and Paul all use different language to describe the same thing.
The kingdom – the manifestation of God’s ruling presence – is made known in and through what Luke and Paul call the ekklesia. The ekklesia is the community of the King. It’s the very body of Jesus on earth . . . the kingdom society . . . the divinely-chosen instrument for God’s move on the planet.
Hence, the ekklesia embodies the kingdom, just as Jesus embodies it. You cannot separate the kingdom from the church anymore than you can separate the kingdom from Christ. After all, the church is the very body of Christ.
Dispensational theology separated kingdom from church. And I believe this is profound mistake that has found its way into the bloodstream of the evangelical mind. While kingdom and church are distinct, they are not separate. So it seems to me anyway.
4. In most discussions about the Garden of Eden and mankind’s time there, I have found that there is not a lot of discussion regarding the Tree of Life. Most of the focus seems to be on the other tree which is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why do you think that is? Here is a statement that you made in the message that I think is vitally important:
“The tree of life is on the earth again.”
Can you elaborate on this a bit more?
I’m indebted to Watchman Nee, T. Austin-Sparks, Stephen Kaung, and DeVern Fromke for shaping my understanding of the Tree of Life. I understand the Tree of Life to be the visible reservoir for imparting God’s own uncreated, eternal life into human beings. It was the means by which Adam, Eve, and their descendants were to partake of God’s life and fulfill the Adamic commission to express God’s image and exercise His reign. This was not an individualistic commission, but a collective one. Note the words “let them have dominion” and “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1.
John 1 is a replay of Genesis 1. And we find the same corporate element there as well. “And of His fullness have we all received” . . . “to them gave He the power to become the sons of God,” etc.
When the first humans sinned, the Garden was closed off and the Tree of Life barred. (The closing of the garden by the cheribum is fascinating as it replays itself in the rest of the Old and New Testaments, but I digress.)
When Jesus Christ came to earth, He was the visible reservoir for imparting God’s own uncreated, eternal life into human beings. He was the reality of the Tree of Life.
Read the gospel of John with the idea that Jesus is the Tree of Life come to earth again. It will take on fresh meaning. Examples: “He who eats me shall live by me” . . . “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly” . . . “I am the life.” Peter says that we are “partakers of the divine nature.” Paul says that after His resurrection, Jesus became “a life-giving Spirit.” And John repeatedly says that Christ is eternal life in his gospel as well as in his epistles.
Traditionally, Christians have viewed the matter of eternal life as something relegated to the future. But eternal life is a certain kind of life. It is divine life. And the Scriptures speak of it as something that we can both receive and experience now.
You are right in that there is not much discussion about the Tree of Life and its practical application among evangelicals today. And I want to see that change. The emphasis in today’s evangelicalism seems to fall into two major categories:
1. The traditional idea: Jesus is Savior. So believe on Him and you will go to heaven and escape hell.
2. A reaction to the traditional idea: Jesus is more than Savior. Jesus is Lord. Not just of your own personal life, but of the whole world. So try to follow Him in all areas. But this is usually presented in an external way: “Read what He said and did; then try to do it yourself.”
I believe that both of these views fall short. They are correct, but not complete.
Yes, Jesus is clearly Savior and Lord, but He’s more than that. The overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament . . . a la, Jesus, Luke, Paul, Peter, etc . . . is that Jesus Christ is LIFE. And we are given the high and glorious privilege of partaking of His life, becoming united with Him in life, and allowing Him to live His life in and through us. Thus the Christian life becomes, “Not I, but Christ” (as Paul put it). And that’s what following Jesus as this world’s true Lord and Savior is practically about.
From my standpoint, this is the missing ingredient in evangelicalism today. (And it’s why there are countless Christians who are moving beyond evangelical.)
It’s one thing to work for God. It’s another to work with God. Yet it’s still another to have God work through you and others.
In Jesus Manifesto, there’s a chapter on the Tree of Life that people can download for free to get a clearer idea of my thoughts on this theme. I’ve also explored it in more detail in a message entitled Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ.
Learning to live by the life of Christ, in effect, is the sum of the spiritual life and journey. But it’s a process. All of us are still in school, and we will always be on this side of the veil. It’s not “add-water and stir.” That’s been my experience and observation, anyway.
5. One of the most stunning & breathtaking parts of this message was what you shared about how time and space relate to the person of Jesus Christ. I have never heard anything quite like this before. Here is a quote from the message that I would like for you to elaborate on a bit more:
“He is the Alpha & Omega already.”
There are two schools of thought among theologians regarding time and eternity. One school is represented by Augustine. The other by Newton.
Augustine believed that eternity is timelessness. It is non-linear, having no beginning nor end. Newton believed that eternity is marked by linear time that never ends in either direction. To Augustine, God is outside of time. To Newton (and people like Oscar Cullman who came after him), God is in time.
I believe that Augustine’s view, repeated and elaborated by people like Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, T. Austin-Sparks, et. al is the one that better comports to the biblical perspective. Lewis articulates this view wonderfully in his classic Mere Christianity, and I quote him in the talk.
That particular part of the message is drawn from a chapter I’m writing for a future book. The chapter explores every occurrence in the New Testament where the phrase “before the foundation of the world” . . . “before the world began” . . . “eternal” and “eternity” are used. When I traced those terms throughout the New Testament, I was riveted by what I discovered.
It’s been reported that a student once asked Martin Luther, “What was God doing before he created the world?” Luther’s response was, “He went into the woods and cut rods with which to punish good-for-nothing questioners!” Calvin’s response to the same question was similar: “God was not idle, but was creating hell for curious questioners!”
While I respect Luther and Calvin, I don’t agree with their sentiments toward this question. To my mind, what happened “before the foundation of the world” is of critical importance. And it is for this reason that the Scriptures are not silent on the matter.
Tracing this subject in the New Testament caused me to apprehend the vast immensity of Jesus Christ in profound new ways as well as the enormity of His purpose where it concerns us mortals. Statements like “Before Abraham was I AM” . . . “I am the Alpha and Omega” . . . and “all things were created in Him” took on fresh application. The boundless love of God acquired new dimensions and the security it brought to my heart was overwhelming.
As I’ve stated in From Eternity to Here, in Jesus, eternity and time meet. In Jesus, the divine sphere and the human sphere intersect. In Jesus, the material of the heavenlies and the material of the earthlies overlap.
Time and eternity are fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is the Temple of God and the Garden of Eden in living-breathing-walking-and-talking form. He is the embodiment of “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s the back-story of what was behind that part of the talk. I’m glad you were touched by it.
6. You gave a definition of ‘organic’ church in the message. Can you explain your definition of ‘organic’ church? (a group of people living by Christ’s life in community).
Can you explain why this cannot be an individual pursuit?
I make one overarching point about the ekklesia in the talk. It’s a point that—I have been encouraged to discover—many who are part of all types of church forms, movements, denominations, and streams are resonating with. In fact, most of the people who have heard the message so far and given positive feedback on it are part of what I’d call “traditional churches.”
I’m very happy about that because “Epic Jesus” is for every believer. It’s not a message about church practice or structure, and it’s not for people who have a particular view of church.
In that connection, I always find it sad when people read (or hear) about one book I’ve written, and then make blanket conclusions about my entire theology based upon it. Usually that one book is Pagan Christianity.
Based on a cursory reading of that book (which is not a stand-alone volume), or imbibing hearsay about it, some people have the misguided idea that my whole shtick is to promote a certain form of church as being the only form. Or to advocate a certain model of church or leadership.
By contrast, when people read that book carefully along with my entire ReChurch Series, they discover that my view of church is very simple: It is Jesus Christ in corporate expression. This is essentially what Bonhoeffer taught—the church is “Christ existing as community.”
Put aside the word “organic” for a moment (the word has become virtually meaningless today). The church is that which is united to Christ (1 Cor. 12:12). The ReChurch Series reexamines what Jesus, Luke, Paul, and the other apostles meant when they used the word ekklesia (“church”) and explores some of how that meaning can be reclaimed and experienced in our day.
Yet out all the books I’ve written, Revise Us Again is one of my favorites. It’s a book dedicated to exploring 10 neglected areas in the struggle to follow Jesus. And it says very little about the church.
In that regard, there is great latitude in my heart for various church structures. While I have my own deeply-rooted convictions about church life, it’s not a make-or-break issue when it comes to Christian fellowship.
For that reason, I have good friends who are Anglican, Baptist, Episcopal, Pentecostal, CMA, Orthodox, Charismatic, Methodist, Reformed, and Catholic. And many of them are clergy. Jesus Christ is the basis for our unity, and nothing else—not even our ideas about church forms or leadership.
That which chiefly interests me is what Tozer called “the deeper Christian life.” And it all revolves around the supremacy of Christ and the grand mission of God (i.e., His Eternal Purpose). That is the central thrust of my ministry, and it’s woven throughout all of my work.
One of the most insightful statements that someone made about “Epic Jesus” is that it summarizes the main points of everything I’ve ever written or spoken. As such, it’s a good introduction to my little contribution to the body of Christ for those who are interested in it (I hope I’ve contributed something). One may disagree or agree with that contribution, but they will get it all in concentrated form in that one talk (or eBook).
Consider it a capsule.
My hope is that people who hear or read it will come away loving the Lord Jesus more. And that they will view Him, the Christian life, the mission of God, and the church with a new lens that will set them ablaze and steal their hearts for the Savior.
Jesus Christ is the most amazing Person in the universe, worthy of our worship, devotion, and love. Worthy of our very lives. The reason for that worthiness goes way beyond Him dying for our sins . . . as incredibly wonderful as that is. But He is so much more that Savior and Lord. I can’t find a word in the English language to describe Him better than the word “Epic.” Hence the title.
My blog is called Beyond Evangelical. Those of us who have moved beyond evangelical are all about this beautiful Person whom we lovingly call “JESUS.” We understand that we are nothing. He is Everything.
When I resume blogging, I will not be writing much about organic missional church. Rather, I’ll be writing mostly on the other six topics to which the blog is dedicated. My blog audience, which is incredibly diverse, has made clear that they want to hear more about the other six topics. (I’ve already written a vast amount of material on organic missional church here and here.) So this is confirmation for what was already in my heart for the days to come.
7. Coming back to the introduction to this interview, what is the gospel in a nutshell?
Let me first say that I believe you are correct in your observation that “Epic Jesus” can be described as the gospel. Albeit, I presented it to a Christian audience. (In this regard, I agree with N.T. Wright who often stresses that Christians need to hear the gospel in a fresh way.)
If I were speaking to a non-Christian audience, I’d give an appeal to repent, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and be baptized in His name. And I would probably change a few other things as well. At the same time, I think the message can benefit those who don’t yet know the Lord. Yet the target audience is Christians.
During my early years as a believer, I was taught that the gospel is a plan—”the plan of salvation.” Some Bible teachers in the past framed that plan into “4 Spiritual Laws” and “The Romans Road.”
But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve come to the conviction that the gospel isn’t a plan. The gospel is a Person. The message of the gospel is Jesus Christ as Lord (=world ruler), Savior, the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament (including the Adamic commission, the prophets, the priests, the kings, the sages, the temple, the sacrifices, the land, the Law, the promises, and the entire story of Israel), and Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.
In the first-century Roman world, “gospel” was used to describe the announcement that a new emperor had taken the throne. “Heralds” would be “sent” throughout the Roman Empire to announce this “good news.” Interestingly, the Roman emperor was also called “Savior” and “Lord” and was regarded as the one who would establish “peace” in the Empire.
Consequently, when the apostles (“sent ones”) used the term “gospel” and declared that Jesus was now the Lord and Savior of the world, it was a direct affront to the Roman hierarchy, especially Caesar (see Acts 17:7, as an example). The believing Jews no doubt connected the gospel-preaching of the apostles to Isaiah’s prophecy—a proclamation that God Himself was now reigning in the Person of Jesus (see Isa. 52:7).
If you examine everywhere the term “gospel” is used throughout the New Testament, you will discover that it’s always bound up with the Person of Jesus (His work is united with His Person. While people regularly separate His work from His Person, you can’t separate His Person from His work. The same is true with His teachings).
In His preaching and teaching, Jesus consistently pointed to Himself. In fact, the early church regarded the four gospels to be “the gospel.” And what do those four gospels present? They present Jesus: His life, His story, His teaching, His work.
Read the four gospels carefully sometime and count the number of times that Jesus speaks about Himself. You will have no doubts that His message—His gospel—was Himself. (I’m thrilled that some evangelical scholars are writing about this now.) Paul, Peter, John, et al. preached the same gospel as did Jesus. Their message was also Christ.
Jesus, in all of His fullness, is the good news.
But the gospel is also bound up with the eternal purpose of God in Christ—which is not separate from Jesus—or as Paul calls it, “the mystery.” Consider Romans 16:25:
Now to Him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .
Texts like Ephesians 6:19 and Ephesians 3:7-11 also associate the preaching of “the mystery” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ” with the gospel. This point is often missed among those who teach about the gospel today, for the eternal purpose (“the mystery”) gets very little air-play in evangelical circles today—even though it’s at the heart of New Testament revelation.
Epic Jesus is a message that attempts to unveil “the mystery of the gospel” as Paul framed it in Ephesians 6:19.
8. Lastly, how can people hear the message and order the new e-book?
They can freely hear the message in various forms at http://www.ptmin.org/epicjesus
The eBook is also available on that page in Kindle, Nook, and PDF versions.
There’s also a FAQ page on my blog where I’m available to answer questions about my writings and spoken messages: http://www.frankviola.org/faq
Thanks again for your interest in these things and your dedication to the Lord, Jamal.
Love you, brother.
Yours in the costly but glorious quest,