What is the difference between the life of the Church and the Gospel message? Between the Mysteries of our faith and the good news of Jesus Christ?
Are they identical, or should distinctions be made?
The King and the Kingdom
As Orthodox Christians, we are blessed with an immense heritage. From the central tenets of holy tradition to the various customs of nations that have over the centuries been grafted onto the vine of Christ’s holy Body, there is no shortage of things for us to do, see, and hear. Baptism is only the beginning of our journey into the kingdom of God, and we are ushered onto a path of spiritual renewal that should endure forever.
And yet, we must be careful to not confuse the life of the kingdom with the King of Kings himself. There is a danger in only seeing truth in our rituals and even Mysteries when the message needed by our world is simply Christ Incarnate, crucified, and risen for our salvation.
The Christian Gospel is not synonymous with venerating relics, for example, but neither is it an exclusion or ignorance of the same.
If we consider the Gospel message from even the most simplistic Roman and old covenant backgrounds, it’s easier to understand how a conflation of both the Gospel and the life of the Church is not only inaccurate but also dangerously misleading.
The Gospel of Caesar
Considered from a Roman perspective—arguably a dominant narrative in the New Testament witness—a Gospel is “good news” of significant, Imperial relevance:
In the first century, there was another usage of the term “good news” (euangelion) besides the Jewish one. In the Greco-Roman world, euangelion was a technical term that declared an epic event, which could range from the birth of an emperor to a smashing military victory. For example, an ancient Roman calendar inscription from about 9 B.C. declared the following concerning the emperor Augustus: “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings [i.e., good news] which have been proclaimed on his account.” Augustus was considered a savior because he brought the end of a long period of civil war.1
Considering this backdrop, the good news of Jesus is that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6:15). He is the new and true Caesar—the God-Man that can never be defeated, not even by death. Christ has come to supplant all other earthly kings and princes, and is ruler over all, seated at the right hand of the Father (Col. 3:1).
Better yet, Jesus is an infinitely benevolent, merciful, and righteous King and Judge. This is truly good news for the entire world—for the poor and brokenhearted, the blind and the crushed (Isa. 61:1–2 LXX; cf. Luke 4:18–19).
And because this is ultimately an Imperial and counter-cultural message, the early disciples of Christ were persecuted and even killed for this good news. We see in the Acts of the Apostles how they had “turned the world upside down … saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 7:6–7).
In a real sense, Paul and Peter’s chains were largely the result of daring to preach that Jesus is the true Caesar of the world.
The Messiah of Israel
Secondly, considered from an old covenant perspective, Jesus it the true Messiah of Israel.
In fact, he is the personification and recreation of Israel in himself. He is the new and true tabernacle, the true and rebuilt temple, the triumphant Davidic king, and the return of God’s people from exile. Israel is now reborn in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the captives have been set free—even those in Hades!
And better yet, this new Israel has now been expanded to encompass all the nations of the earth (Isa. 54:1ff). The people who were once not God’s people are now his very own (Hos. 2:23). Just as Joel prophesied, God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh and the reversal of Babel has begun (Joel 2:28–32 LXX).
For both Jew and Gentile, this is truly good news.
The Life of the Kingdom
All things considered, these two perspectives provide a succinct and basic overview of the Gospel message.
Christ has come, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Jesus is the Messiah, Christ is risen, and we can be saved as a result.2
None of the above requires instructing a person in how to make the sign of the Cross, how to venerate relics, or how to adhere to the Apostles’ Fast. This is because there’s an obvious distinction to be made between the King of Kings—the very heart of the Gospel message—and our new life in his kingdom. As I said at the beginning, Baptism is only the beginning of our life in the kingdom of God—it doesn’t tell the whole story, nor does it guarantee a fitting end. We must endure and persevere by faith.
Once a person has been adopted by God, entering into Christ’s kingdom, they are instructed in the ways of kingdom living. If Jesus Christ is the true Caesar and King of Israel, it’s only natural that we would need to learn to abide by the “rules” of his dominion.
And this is the life of the Church. This is the Mysteries, the clerical hierarchy, the hymns and asceticism of the Orthodox way. Once initiated, we are shown the way of life as bondservants of the true Caesar and Davidic king.
So then, going back to the original question—whether or not the Gospel and the life of the Church are the same—we must rightfully answer in the negative. They are not the same, because one is the door to Life and the other is the act of truly living; one is the King himself, and the other is the “rule book” of his kingdom.
The various customs and traditions of our Church are not the Gospel themselves. They are what it means to live out our lives in Christ’s kingdom because the Gospel is true. Because Jesus really is the King of Kings and we are—through the life of the Church—granted that kingdom in him.
To focus first on the ways of the kingdom—or to cause others to do the same—is both misleading and dangerous because of how easily it can take our focus away from Truth himself. Rather than evangelizing simply by our actions or way of life, we must use words and point others to the one who can first-and-foremost show what it means to live and act as a true person.
More than ever, our world needs to hear this simple Gospel message. Orthodoxy uniquely maintains the true and unadulterated Gospel, but we must carefully maintain focus on the heart of that message: the God-Man Jesus Christ, Incarnate, crucified, and risen for the life of the world.