The life and teachings of Jesus are the basis of Christian faith. But how have we understood them? What about his exhortation to repent as in Mark 1.15 ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’. The common understanding of this, as in the Chambers dictionary, is ‘‘to regret, be sorry for, what one has done or left undone and to change from past evil or misconduct.’ However the Greek word is metanoia which means to change or enlarge your mind. This is about seeing something differently, and changing our beliefs. See also Rom 12.2 ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Of course this can lead to sorrow for past actions and to a change in behaviour but it is not the primary meaning.
Does God judge us if we don’t repent? Are we seen as sinners outside of God’s grace and love? These teachings are at odds with the overwhelming message of God’s love. ‘The Lord your God is with you, he will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing’ (Zeph 3.17). Jesus said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself’. All the Law and the Prophets (ie the Bible) hang on these two commandments’ (Mat 22.37-40). So love is the litmus test for understanding the bible. And if this is how much we are asked to love, then God must love even more. We are God’s children (! Jn 3.1), made in the image of God (Gen 1.27), and the life and the light of God dwells within us all (Jn 1.4, 9).
If we don’t live by that inner love and wisdom, our lives can suffer and feel like hell. Jesus likened this to the fires that flared on the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem called Gehenna. This is our freedom and our choice not God’s punishment, and Jesus exhorted us to follow his way to avoid this suffering. Gehenna is translated as hell in the bible. Gehenna/hell is about suffering now, not our destiny when we die.
Historically the church believed that God needed to be feared and obeyed and would punish us if not, assigning us to hell when we died, so the bible can read as if this is so. For example, Mat 10.28 ‘Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. The word One is not even in the Greek text and this does not refer to God. We do not have bodies after death so it cannot be talking about when we die but rather a hellish experience of life now by making choices that are not life affirming, what the bible calls ‘sinning’. The essence of sin in the bible is not that it displeases God because we have broken God’s rules, but because we are hurting ourselves and others. It means being wide of the mark, of the best that we could be. Jesus said ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mat 9.13) because he came to help those who were suffering like this. This is ‘salvation’ – being brought to a healthier/more whole place. And note that the righteous were recognised as such without referring to faith in Jesus. As John 3.17 says ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’.
A quite recent teaching theologically is that the reason for Jesus’ death was as a sacrifice for us, and without this we could not be accepted by God (called substitutionary atonement). This again undermines God’s love for us and for Jesus, and also Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. His death is a sign of that love, as he said himself ‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15.13).
Since Jesus our relationship with God has changed. In the Old Testament the closest relationship you see is God speaking face to face with Moses. But Jesus embodied God, and crucially showed us that God indwells us all. He said ‘I pray….that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us….I in them and you in me’ (Jn 17.20ff), and also ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’ (Jn 15.5).
Jesus was a man, but in no way did he form the basis for the male dominance that we see today. He showed feminine as well as masculine qualities, for example ‘How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Lk 13.34). One of his chief disciples was Mary Magdalene. And the word he used to address God – Abba or Dad in koine Greek, is Abwoon in the original Aramaic which is a blending of Abba (father) and Woon (womb).
So Jesus came modelling and teaching that we can live and be transformed by the indwelling love and Spirit of God. ‘If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’ (Jn 8.36). It is indeed good news.
(Bible quotes are from the NIV)