The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Trouble is, I never do know the whole truth. God alone has that privilege. My fragmentary view is so partial that the best I can do is listen carefully and share humbly.
I even face this problem as I read the Bible. God didn’t give us an encyclopedia of absolute truth on all topics. He gave us a record of his involvement with human beings who often didn’t know or do right. Some practiced polygamy, or believed in other gods. To handle Scripture well, we need to discern between what they did and the revelation God gave them.
We face the same issue. We live in a culture that isn’t all that God intends, but we’re often unaware of how our culture distorts our understanding of God.
So, how can I be more mindful of my cultural bias? I need to hear people from other cultures, people from other eras, and people who understand how our worldview developed over time.
Here’s an example. This Old Testament scholar and his son are helping me to understand how our culture has moved away from God as the authority over us, towards a culture that revolves around the self:
Our modern cognitive environment is defined by an ideology that historians and philosophers call humanism, which is a values system that places the fulfilling of human desires and the promulgation of human happiness (now sometimes called “human flourishing”) as its highest values. This is specifically in contrast to a value system that places fulfilling divine desires and according proper honors to the divine as its highest values, which we might perhaps call axiological theism. This was the ideology of the Middle Ages, though modern humanistic Christians will usually conflate them and argue that producing human flourishing is the divine will and desire. …
The point is that when God exists in a humanistic value system, his purpose is to promulgate human happiness or human flourishing; this in turn is the meaning given to the phrases God is good and God loves us. The image of Christ the King who demands our service and reverence (the pantokrator that dominates every medieval church) is replaced by the image of Christ the Servant (e.g., Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45; Phil 2:7) who meets our every need.
— John and Harvey Walton, Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology: Reading the Biblical Text in Its Cultural and Literary Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 94.
Which way around is it? Does God exist to serve us, for our benefit? Or do we exist to serve God? What would be different if we had this the right way around?
We hear the humanistic gospel in churches and online every week, preachers proclaiming a good god who is ready to serve me with whatever I need. He’s just waiting, as my servant, to give me forgiveness, healing, prosperity, whatever breakthrough I desire for my personal, relational, financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I’m sure you recognize this message from sermons you’ve heard.
The kingdom gospel is the good news that God is sovereign over us — the sovereign who so loved his rebellious realm that he sent us the prince of heaven, the one and only Son who restores his reign to the earth so that we don’t perish under evil but live in his eternal reign. Our heavenly sovereign did not set out to condemn his rebellious realm; his gracious goal was to rescue the realm, bringing it back under his governance through his Son (John 3:16-17).
We respond to this good news by recognizing God’s anointed (the Christ) as the authority over us (our Lord). We’re astounded by the grace our sovereign shows towards his earthly realm, calling us to leave the rebellion and return to the family under his Fatherly care (repent), to trust his leadership by giving allegiance to the ruler he set over us by raising him from the dead (faith), to live as the community that reflects his astounding love for us (loving and forgiving). The community under the king is his kingdom. That whole story is the good news of the kingdom, the gospel Jesus proclaimed.
That’s the context in which it’s meaningful to say that Jesus exercised his authority as a servant. As the servant of the Lord, the king gave his life to rescue his people, to restore earth as a kingdom of heaven. Forgiveness is an amnesty for the rebellion against God’s authority. Resurrection is the future reversal of all injustice when Death no longer has any hold in the world. Healing is the power of the age to come sometimes experienced in the present. Prosperity is a world where no one claims, “This is all mine” while others starve, where the kingdom is given to the poor. Prayer is approaching the throne to seek the king’s help with our present needs.
Human flourishing is not the selfish goal of the Christian faith; it’s the joyous outcome of a world in submission to its heavenly sovereign. And as we anticipate that day, the king calls his followers to a cross-shaped life, bearing away the sin of the world so that it no longer dominates his world.
The gospel is not primarily a message about personal relief from guilt and a better life for struggling individuals. The gospel is the good news of the regal Lion, who — in his own being, as a Lamb — bears away the sin of the world so it is renewed as his realm, his kingdom.
This is the gospel of our Lord.