Redistribution of Meaning

Perhaps the most jarring thing about it is how completely ‘unjarring’ it has become.

It’s become normative to ransack biblical literature to add symbolism and depth to a message. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing biblical phrases and images co-opted by artists, musicians, entertainers, and most prominently, politicians. A recent example was vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s description of America as “the hope of the world.” But the practice is not limited to him, or his party. In fact, it has become customary for politicians of every shape, size, and color to sprinkle their speeches and campaigns with just a dash of biblicisms, infusing their message with meaning.

Far from jarring, this is actually expected. We expect our politicians to co-opt biblical phrases, shift their meaning, and use them to anchor their political exploits.

In contrast, the early followers of The Way co-opted imperial phrases, gave them new meaning, and used them to herald the Kingdom of God.

Have you ever heard of the word gospel? “Sure,” you say, “It means good news.” Most readers will be quick to link it with Jesus, 2000 years of church history, and the modern term ‘evangelical.’ Funny thing is, everyone else in the 1st century had already heard term ‘gospel’ too. And they too knew that it meant good news. When they heard ‘gospel’, they too quickly thought of ‘salvation.’

The gospel was the good news that the ruler of the world had crushed his enemy, ushered in a new era, and brought peace to the world. This was good news to all men! The good news of salvation!

Sound familiar?

The thing is, they were referring to a slightly different gospel. For the average 1st century Greek or Roman, the word ‘gospel’ was generically used for news of victory, the joyful proclamation of a victory in battle, the salvation of a city in peril. And they all made the quick jump to its specific use within the the imperial cult, the worship of the Roman emperor. When they heard gospel, they knew it referred to the good news that the divine ruler brought peace and salvation to a world in peril.

And so as the New Testament authors and early church adherents fished around for the words to describe their new faith, to herald the Kingdom, they chose a word that struck to the very heart of the dominant political system of their day. Gospel. They ‘stole’ a word that was commonly used to announce the evil king’s temporary victories, and used it to joyfully, courageously herald the consumate victory of the one true King.

The co-opting of the term ‘gospel’ sounded the death knell for the imperial cult in particular, and all other religions in general. And everyone who listened heard exactly what they were saying.

Only today, it seems a bit different, doesn’t it? Rather than communicating in a way that strikes a fatal blow to placing one’s hope in political systems of our day, we’ve expected (demanded?) our politicians to ransack the biblical canon, strip-mining the promises of God to advance their personal causes.

It’s not jarring that it happens. It’s jarring that this redistribution of meaning is celebrated, lauded, and even pointed at as evidence of someone’s Christian faith.

It was clear from the way the ancient ones spoke that they believed the true Emperor must subjugate the empire. It seems apparent from the way many speak today that they may actually believe that the political machine must subjugate our faith.

Like I said, jarring.


About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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3 Responses to Redistribution of Meaning

  1. Mike Banas says:

    This phrase really stood out to me:”…strip-mining the cause of God to advance their personal cause.”
    Good stuff Tim.

  2. Frank Deno says:

    you should have ended the article with:
    “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit”

  3. sent2preach says:

    I love the thrust of this article, especially with so much emphasis being placed on the urgency of politics right now. It reminds me of another jarring quote that a friend recently posted from a book about Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the quote was actually from Inge Karding, but it read “Among the public there spread the expectation that the salvation of the German people would now come from Hitler. But in the lectures we were told that salvation comes only from Jesus Christ.” Jarring indeed.

    I have to be honest though, because I struggle with a particular portion of the article that may not seem significant to many. The idea that the men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to pen the scriptures had to “fish around” for words to say what the Spirit told them to write is hard for me to accept as true. I could be wrong, but I think scripture would support a similar conclusion.

    If there is indeed word theft going on, then that accusation may not be rightly levelled if it is being directed solely at the inspired authors. They were merely attesting to what they heard and saw, much of which being the actual words of Christ. I would imagine that Jesus knew exactly the word He meant to use when he chose the term we now translate as “gospel.” I also think it would be a safe bet that the multiple messenger angels dispatched by the Father were given clear directives before their heralding the King’s arrival on earth using similar terms. It’s all very difficult to reconcile, especially knowing that God’s “good news” was around and set in motion long before any human ever had a chance to be called an emperor and popularize such a term in a purely flesh based sense.

    I hope that it doesn’t seem that I am going a bit far with my comment, so please forgive if my words seem unkind, they’re not intended to be. I just wonder if I am alone in this struggle to reconcile the idea that any word of Christ and His Spirit could be considered an imperial phrase co-opted by men, it doesn’t sit well in my spirit. Perhaps a better explanation is that Jesus and the Spirit understood the human familiarity with the term and the resulting ability of the men of that era and locale to understand it’s huge implications. I’m more incline to believe that this is exactly why specifically chose to use such a term to describe the earth shaking events and occurrences that they had waited so long to bring to pass.

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