Chapter 11: The Kerugma

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 11: The Kerugma

The Essence of the Gospel

So far we have been thinking of the diversity of the Gospel, and we have been seeing how each of the NT writers had his own grasp and experience and expression of the Gospel; but behind the diversity there is a unity. The area in which the diversity moves is not unlimited; the diversity is the expression of a common essence of the faith.

To that essence of the Gospel the name kerugma has been given. The noun kerugma is connected with the verb kerussein which in turn describes the work and the function of the kerux. It is this last word which gives us the real key to what the kerugma is. Kerux is the Greek for a herald'; kerussein means to proclaim as a herald proclaims; kerugima is such a proclamation. The keru- gma is then the basic proclamation of the Gospel. It is that essence of the Gospel about which there is no argument. It will have to be explained; it will have to be expounded; it will have to be systematized; it will have to be worked out and applied in life and living; it will have to be conceptualized until it becomes theology. But the kerugma itself is that basic statement of the Gospel which is proclamation and about which there is no argument. It is the foundational statement of the faith of which a man says: "This is what I believe, and it is from this that I start."

Let us then examine this basic message, this unity which lies behind the rich diversity of NT thought. (The definition of the kerugma is connected with the name of the English New Testament scholar Dr C. H. Dodd, and in particular with his book The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments. The application of the kerugma to the various strands of NT thought was further worked out by Dr A. M. Hunter in his book The Unity of the New Testament. The actual statement of the kerugma which we propose to take as a basis for our consideration of it is taken from Dr Dodd's commentary on The Johannine Epistles in tbe Moffatt Commentary (p. xxviii).)

1.The crisis of history has arrived; the prophecies are fulfilled; and the Age to Come has begun.

Right at the beginning we must remember that the earliest Christian kerugma is necessarily expressed in Jewish terms; it is the proclamation of men who were Jews, and whose whole background was the Old Testament, and its design was to convince Jews of the truth of Christianity. This first statement of the kerugma arises from a basic line of Jewish thought which we have noted before. Ihe Jews by NT times divided all history into two ages. There was this present age, wholly bad, wholly under the domination of Satan, incurable, unreformable, irremediable, destined for nothing but total destruction and obliteration. There was the age to come, which was the age of God and the reign of God, and in which the world and all that is in it was to become new. So then this initial statement of the kerugma lays down three things.

(a) With the coming of Jesus Christ something new has happened. The coming of Jesus Christ does not mean simply an alteration, or adjustment, or even a reformation of the existing order. A government may, for instance, reshuffle its cabinet, but nothing really new has been brought it. A government may introduce new policies and new measures, but they are aimed at the reformation of an already existing order of things. But with the coming of Jesus Christ something totally new has happened. Into life there has come something which did not exist before, and which without him could not exist; and that something is not something which has emerged from the human situation; it is something which has entered life from outside, from God.

(b) In spite of that, this something is connected with the past. It is the fulfilment of all the hopes and dreams and visions which the Spirit of God has put into the minds and hearts of men in all the ages of the past. Although it has come from outside history, it is nevertheless that towards which all history has been moving. It is the event in which all human, but divinely inspired, hopes and dreams find their realization and in which history finds its consummation. lt does not grow out of the past, and yet without the past it could not have happened. It is the coming of that power which realizes the hopes and dreams which could never become actualized until the new power entered into life and into the world.

(c) The result of this coming of Jesus is a new kind of life. It is not primarily a new kind of knowledge. It is a new kind of living. It is not primarily a new way of knowing, although it is good news about God. It is primarily a new way of living, the bringing into life of a new quality, which could never have humanly emerged and which had to be divinely given and inspired.

2. ]esus of Nazareth, of the line of David, came as God's Son, the Messiah.

The place of Jesus in this new scheme of things is not simply that of the great leader or reformer or even prophet. His place is that he is God acting in the world, God entering into the human situation, eternity invading time. He is not to be explained in human terms, nor is he to be expressed in human categories; he is to be explained and expressed in terms of God. He is more than even the messenger and the instrument of God; he is God entering into the human situation in order to change it as only God can change it. To that end certain statements can be made of Jesus.

(a) He did mighty works. To the human situation he brings power, power to deal with the sin, the sorrow, the suffering of the human situation. He does not simply bring a message or a new kind of knowledge; he brings a new kind of power, which can be seen in visible action, which is able to meet and to defeat the results and the consequences of the sin of man.

(b) He gave a new and authoritative teaching or law. To the human situation he brings authority, such authority that he can look back on the ancient pronouncements of the Law, show their inadequacy, and then say: "But I tell you . ." (Matthew 5:22, 28, 34, 39, 44). With him there is no expressing of an opinion or the suggestion of a possibility; he needs to cite no authority; he needs to qualify none of his statements with the proviso that he may be mistaken. He speaks the last and final word on life and living. In him roen are confronted with what to believe and how to live-and there is no argument.

(c) He was crucified, dead and buried for our sins. This too was the fulfilment of prophecy, however paradoxical and impossible the idea of a crucified Messiah might seem to Jewish thought. So to the ideas of power and authority there is added the idea of sacrifice. Jesus in his life and his death paid in full the cost which was necessary to set right the human situation.

(d)He rose again the third day. Here is the idea of victory. Jesus rose victorious over the worst that sin could do to him, and in the end conquered even death. It is the simple fact that in the early Church it was not so much the crucified Christ as the risen Christ that the early preachers preached. They never preached a sermon without insisting on the fact of the resurrection (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 4:10; 5:31; 10:40; 13:30; 17:3, 31; 26:23). It was with the figure of the victorious and the ever-living Christ that they confronted men. The preachers of the early Church would have felt that a message which stopped at the Cross had omitted the greatest fact of all, the fact of the resurrection.

(e) He was exalted to the right hand of God. Here is the idea of the glory of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is crucified and crowned. After suffering on earth he reigns in glory. He is not only risen; he is the risen Lord.

(f) He will come again as Judge of the quick and the dead. The message was a message that history was going somewhere, that it was not simply dragging endlessly on, that it was not a circular repetition, that it was not a series of chance and unconnected events, but that it was a process moving towards a consummation. That consummation was to be the return of Jesus Christ as Judge, and the establishment of God as Lord over all. Here we have the idea of the final lordship of Jesus Christ.

So the kerugma presented men with a statement of the power and of the authority of Jesus Christ, of his sacrifice, his victory, his glory and his final lordship.

3. The apostles and those in fellowship with them constitute the Church, the New Israel of God, marked out as such by the outpouring of the Spirit.

Here there arc by implication certain basic facts about the life of the Christian.

(a) The Christian is called to life in a community. Christianity is not simply a matter between a man and God. It is not simply a relationship between a man and Jesus Christ. It is also a relationship between a man and his fellow-men. The new life is based not on individualism but on fellowship.

(b) That community is in the world but it is different from the world. Its difference is to be expressed not by withdrawal from the world but by living in the world; and part of its duty is to transform the world in which it lives. It is a community which has a threefold responsibility -- a responsibility to Jesus Christ, a responsibility to the fellow-members of the community, and a responsibility to those who are as yet outside the community.

(c) The idea of a "chosen people" remains, but the idea of that which constitutes the "chosenness" is radically altered. The Jews interpreted the idea of the chosen people in a racial sense. For them to be a member of the chosen people was to be a circumcised Jew. Stated in its crudest form, as indeed it sometimes was, this meant that a Jew needed nothing other than his Jewishness to be in a specially favoured relationship to God. But now the chosen people are all those who have accepted Jesus Christ. The chosen-ness does not now consist in membership of any nation or in any external mark upon the body; it consists of a relationship to Jesus Christ. The chosen people are those of every race and nation who have taken Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

(d)The mark of the new community is the possession of the Spirit. Those within the new community should be recognizable by a new vitality and a new power and a new ability to deal with life and to cope with life which cannot be possessed by those who do not possess the Spirit.

4. Therefore repent, believe in Christ, and you will receive forgiveness of sins, and a share in the life of the Age to come, or Eternal life.

The kerugma finishes with three imperatives.

(1) There is the summons to believe in Christ. That is to say, there is the summons to accept the claim of Christ, to take him at his word and to believe that he can do what he has promised to do. To believe in Christ is to believe that his claim to a special and unique relationship to God is true, and that therefore he has the right to make the demands which he does make and the power to fulfil the promises which he has given.

(2) There is the summons to repent. Obviously, to accept the claims and the promises of Christ is to set out in a new direction. It is to face God instead of turning away from God; it is to change one's mind about life and to accept a new set of values for life; it is to effect, through the help of Christ, an ethical change in life, so that action and even thought become cleansed and purified.

(3) There is the summons to accept. That which is offered is the life of the Age to Come or eternal life. That is to say, what is offered is a foretaste here and now of the divine life of God. It is to find the beginning of heaven even in time.

Whatever be the diversity which we find in the New Testament, at the back of it there is the kerugma. The offer of the krugma, and of the New Testament, is a faith which is centred in Christ, which issues in life, and which looks to eternity.