What exactly is the central message of the gospel?
Many Christians would begin with John 3:16, and by saying that God, in his infinite love and mercy saved us from the punishment our sins deserve through the death of Jesus Christ, defeating death allowing us to have eternal life. This is true, yet Willard suggests that our focus on eternal life after death really misunderstands Jesus' main message and leads to a kind of hopelessness about how we are to live now.
"When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins. On the left is removal of social or structural evils. ... Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living" (41)Willard translates John 3:16 as follows:
God's care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God himself (1)Eternal, or "the undying life of God himself", life begins now. Christ healing and touching us, working in our everyday lives.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Sometimes when I'm reading I get really excited. I sense that I am finally going to have an important question I've been wondering about answered. This was the case when I read this:
The phrase kingdom of the heavens occurs thirty-two times in Matthew's Gospel and never again in the New Testament. By contrast, the phrase kingdom of God occurs only five times in that Gospel but is the usual term used in the remainder of the New Testament. What is the significance this variation in terminology? (73)Willard devotes many pages to this, but the gist of what he is saying is this: the world translated "heavens" meant, in the context of both the old and new testaments, the space where God is. Importantly, this was considered to be the "air or atmosphere which surrounds your body" (67). "The heavens" are not far away, neither in time nor space. They are here and now. (This is really hard for me to explain in a few words; you should either read the book or talk more with me later!) When Jesus said "the kingdom of heaven is at hand", he did not mean that it was arriving soon or in the future. God is in this very real world he has created, and offers to us the possibility of living in this heavenly reality.
To more clearly answer the above quotation:
Matthew, the quintessentially Judaic Gospel, as a matter of course utilizes the phrase he kingdom of the heavens to describe God's rule, or "kingdom". It captures that rich heritage of the Jewish experience of the nearness of God that is so largely lost to the contemporary mind. (73)
The Brilliance of Jesus
I will close by leaving you to meditate on the brilliance of Jesus. Willard cautions that "The world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness" (135) This discourages our faith, and doesn't really make sense. As Willard writes,
Can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? (94)
I've been reflecting on this, because as Willard also says, "It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent" (94)