Words like salvation and repentance have become neatly packaged concepts in the Evangelical world: words that we’re sure we’ve got the hang of and understand what they mean. In my last post I looked at repentance, and here I want to suggest a broader way to understand salvation: a word which has come to mean that which happens to an individual who commits their life to Jesus: they are ‘saved’ from hell – the consequences of their sins (whatever hell might mean) – and guaranteed eternal life.
However, a Jewish understanding of salvation in the First Century would not have been primarily about ‘life after death’, it would have been about God’s Kingdom coming fully onto this earth, bringing with it all the things that the Old Testament prophets spoke about: abundance, peace, a direct knowledge of God and intimate awareness of his presence, restored relationships between people and between people and the wider created order.
We see this in the disciples’ question to Jesus in Acts 1:6: ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’. Even after having lived with Jesus and heard his teaching; having watched him die and then seen him as a resurrected person, their focus and understanding of what Jesus was doing was still on the literal restoration of Israel, rather than on an individual being ‘saved’ and gaining eternal life.
This is not to say that that aspect is not a crucial part of salvation, for it surely is, and, as one reads the letters of the early church in the New Testament, one can see how that realisation developed as the first Christians reflected on who Jesus was and what he had done. Rather it is to suggest that salvation is impoverished when restricted to this notion alone.
Salvation, then, was – and still is – about the kingdom of God. It is about seeing God’s kingdom established on this earth, and salvation for individuals, communities and nations means entering into the kingdom of God and being set free from Satan’s hold. Because of this, the lines are blurred in the Gospels between salvation as including the natural elements, as physical healing, as demonic exorcism and as something that leads to eternal life in Jesus.
I find two incidents particularly interesting.
Firstly, in Luke 8:26-39, we hear of a man who is set free from a multitude of demons. Our English translations tell us, in verse 36, that ‘those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured’ (NIV), but the Greek could equally well be translated that they ‘told the people how the demon-possessed man had been saved’.
The second incident is the beautiful story – in Matthew 9 – of the woman who touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed of the bleeding that has kept her not only physically ill, but socially estranged from being a part of the people of God. In all three cases where the word ‘healed’ is used (vs.20 – 22) the word ‘saved’ could, again, equally well be substituted. The story would then read, ‘She said to herself, “If only I could touch his cloak, I will be saved”. Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter”, he said, “your faith has saved you”. And the woman was saved from that moment’. Here is a woman saved by Jesus: physically healed and brought by him into the Kingdom of God.
Now read these incidents in the light of Jesus’ reading from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue (in Luke 4). In placing this incident right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Luke makes it clear that an important part of Jesus’ Kingdom announcement was the Jubilee motif. Found in Leviticus 25, the Jubilee legislation was based around the return, every fifty years, of people to their tribal and familial land. It included the cancelling of debts, the freeing of slaves, the regular resting of land and animals and the possibility of the redemption of land by relatives of the original owner. Its aim was to be a radical system of social reform that prevented massive social inequalities occurring.
The Jubilee concept became a part of the hope of the exiled Israelite people for the future. Chris Wright says, ‘its two central concepts, restoration and release, became symbolic… of the new age of salvation when God would intervene to establish his kingdom of peace and justice. Then there would be the restoration of all things to their intended purpose, the release of God’s people from sin and all that oppresses and binds and enslaves’.[i] Jesus takes this motif, with all its implications – personal, social, physical, economic, political, and spiritual – and declares to the people listening, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (v.21).
Jesus thus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come in him. This kingdom was good news (see Luke 4:43) and it was good news because the salvation that Jesus brought was personal, social, physical, economic and political.
That has not changed for us today and we rob the good news of Jesus of its full potential when we restrict it only to the attainment of eternal life. When we pray for someone to ‘be saved’ we are praying that they might enter into God’s kingdom and be set free from Satan’s hold, and that will have implications on all levels. As we seek to be, say and do good news into society, we remember that, whilst it is centred on an individual receiving new life, it goes much further than that too: we also preach that a part of this new life is that people can be set free from economic oppression; that relationships can be mended; that political repression can be stopped; that healing can come from physical and psychological ailments and that whole communities (and ecosystems) can experience the blessings of God’s kingdom.
This blog post is coming out of thinking I’m doing for the Spring Harvest 2013 event: ‘The Source: Encountering Jesus Today’, at which we are looking at how Jesus is the good news and what it means to be, say and do that good news today. There’s still space, so if you fancy more thinking along these lines then come along!
[i] CJH Wright, Living as the People of God: The relevance of Old Testament ethics, 102.