Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
Participation in the Gospel
Updated: Mar 30
Normally, when someone like me says that you need to “share the gospel,” we mean that you need to take the message of the gospel and explain it or proclaim it to someone who does not know it. However, for a moment, I want us to consider this concept from another starting place.
Sharing is participation.
When you invite someone to come share a meal with you, you are not asking them to come and learn about food. You are not asking them to watch you eat. You are not asking them if they know about dinner. No, when you invite someone to share a meal with you, you are welcoming them to your table and asking them to participate in eating with you. It is an experience, not merely an idea or even a message. Sharing a meal is an action. It is active participation.
In Scripture, this idea of participation occasionally uses different ideas or metaphors. The most obvious passage is 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
Here Paul is talking about communion at the table, and he is reminding them that this is no passive ritual. When we partake of the cup, we are participating together in a meal. When we partake of the bread, we are participating together in a meal. But there is more! When we take the cup, we are sharing. We are participating in the blood of Christ. When we take the bread, we are sharing. We are participating in the body of Christ. At that table we are sharing in the gospel. We are participating in the good news even more than just knowing about it.
Paul uses the same language to encourage unity at the church at Philippi: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1-2).
Paul is not just telling them to learn how to get along. Paul is not just telling them to learn a doctrine about the Holy Spirit. Paul is telling them to participate in the Spirit, to take part in the Spirit and the Spirit’s work in the church. Sharing is participation.
But to further explain the significance of this idea of participating in the gospel, it is actually helpful to briefly take a tour of a road rarely traveled. It is helpful to ask what Christianity is not to help us understand what Christianity is.
Early in the history of Christianity, there was a developed a heretical version of Christian doctrine known as Gnosticism. If you look up “Gnosticism” on the internet, you will get all kinds of conspiracy theories about how there was an alternate version of Christianity that might have been the real version of Christianity, but instead, powerful political forces alignedwith the theology of Rome and gave us the Christian doctrines we know today. For the sake of time, let me just say that is all rubbish.
However, there was a very real group of quasi-Christian people who were known as Gnostics. They were not a rival version of Christianity that finished in second place, but rather a heretical version of Christianity that was intentionally rejected as being contrary to the message of Jesus Christ.
Most of what we know about the Gnostics comes from two sources. First, we have the early Christian authors who wrote books and letters stating their opposition to Gnosticism. We could add the elderly apostle John to that list of people rejecting Gnosticism as we will see today.
Second, in 1945, a farmer in Egypt uncovered a small library of documents that had survived from ancient times containing the writings an actual Gnostic community. This collection of documents is collectively called the Nag Hammadi Library. It is not a top secret document hidden in the Vatican. You can find it online or anywhere books are sold.
What is interesting about the Nag Hammadi library is that it gives us firsthand knowledge of what these people taught and highlights for us the difference between Christianity as taught by the apostles and this imitation that was quickly and consistently rejected by Christians everywhere. Let me give you an example.
In the Nag Hammadi Library, there is a section that explains their view of baptism. Early Gnostic Christians believed that at baptism you transcended from this “from the blindness of the world into the sight of God, from the carnal into the spiritual, from the physical into the angelic … We were brought from seminal bodies into bodies with a perfect form. Indeed I entered by way of example the remnant for which the Christ rescued us in the fellowship of his Spirit. And he brought us forth who are in him, and from now on the souls will become perfect spirits.”
The Gnostics believed the gospel was about leaving behind your humanity. They believed being made of matter, that is to say, being human, was what was wrong with us. They believed being human was the disease, and the only hope was to escape our humanity.
The true gospel is different. Christians maintain the teachings of Genesis that all that God created was good and that humanity was very good. We believe that sin is the disease to be cured, not our humanity. We hold that the chief evidence of the redeemable goodness of humanity is the gospel - the story of God becoming one of us.
For the apostle John, this is of the utmost importance. In 1 John 5:6, John writes: “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” John claims that the Gnostics had gotten a huge part of the gospel wrong. He points out that the Gnostics only had part of the gospel. They believed in spirit. They even believed in water baptism. But they did not believe in the power of the blood of Christ.
He continues in verses 7–8: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” John claims that there are three testimonies to the gospel, three great components represent in three great symbols we come to participate in. We know Christ by participating in water, blood, and Spirit.
When you read the Gospel of John, he introduces us to Jesus by using the words of another John, John the Baptist, who introduced Jesus to the world at his baptism in Jordan.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:29–31).
First, Jesus is identified by the water baptism of John. Water is a symbol and a component of the Christian message. But keep reading.
And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
Second, John emphasizes that indeed the Spirit did offer testimony to Christ and his message at the baptism in Jordan. Yes, Christianity is about water and Spirit, but that isn’t all. For the last witness and symbol of the message, you have to wait for the end of John’s Gospel, when John himself stood at the foot of the cross of his friend, Jesus of Nazareth.
But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:33-35)
John says, “I was there!” He tells us that the gospel is more than a spiritual event or rebirth through water baptism. The gospel is the blood of Jesus Christ. There was water that day too, but John begs us not to forget the blood.
Now perhaps we can finally understand his cryptic statement in his epistle. “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”
Okay, fine. That was a lovely esoteric journey through John’s rebuke of ancient mysticism, but what is the point? Stay with me.
The gospel is the not the story of a man who was baptized in water in order to escape his humanity to become a spirit. The gospel is the story of God. It is the story of God becoming one of us and participating in our humanity in order to save it. It was a man who was baptized in the very real waters of Jordan. He had no sin and no need of forgiveness, but he was baptized anyway to share it with you. He was a human being upon whom the Spirit descended and announced the approval of God. He was a human being who was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted in all points like as we are yet without sin. He was the man Jesus Christ who went to the cross and bled very real human blood for crimes he never committed. The gospel is the story of Jesus coming to share in, to participate in, and to redeem our humanity.
How do we participate in water, blood, and Spirit? Jesus came to share with us, but let’s reverse the question. How - after the passage of ages - can we participate in his story? John has already told us to look for water, blood, and Spirit.
For two millennia, Christians have shared the gospel by participating in three great symbols of our faith. First, we share in the blood of Christ in communion. At the communion table we find a cup and a loaf, but we see more. When we eat and drink we share in the blood of the new covenant. We participate in the cross and his sacrifice for us.
Second, we share in the water in baptism. In a little water tank or stream, we find water, but we see more. We see the Jordan river and our Lord being baptized. We see the Spirit descend like a dove and a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” We see the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday morning, a new birth of a new creation after his death. We see a new identity as part of a church family, all sharing in baptism together. We participate in that identity and in that resurrection when we share in this water.
Third, we share in the Spirit when we turn to the Word. In this old book called the Bible, we find old words from days long ago, but we see more. We see the Spirit of God at work in the lives of ancient people and we share in their faith. We see how the Spirit leads and where the Spirit leads. Some see a dusty relic of an ancient time. We see an opportunity to share in the Spirit, our tutor in the wisdom of Jesus Christ.
These three symbols show us more fully what the gospel says and what the gospel is. We are driven to his cross, raised in his resurrection, and led by his Spirit. We are not merely knowers of ancient truth. We are participants in an eternal story. At the bloody cross, we find our passion and our purpose. At the watery resurrection, we find our future. And, by his Spirit, we find our path.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.