A couple of weeks ago, I started up a series on evangelism looking to address many related points to our understanding of evangelism. And so, in part 2, I want to begin to lay out what I believe the gospel is centrally about. And I think the best place to start from is that of the Gospels and Jesus himself.
Many might be aware of Scot McKnight’s new release, The King Jesus Gospel. I haven’t read it yet, though I’ve seen excerpts quoted, and I will probably read it one day in the near future. But, from what I can tell, McKnight seems to be on the right track with a more biblically informed foundation of the gospel (which means a more Jewish understanding). And you can read almost any work of George Eldon Ladd or N.T. Wright and get the same solid focus on what the gospel is centrally about.
One point that seems to be coming through McKnight’s book is that to know the gospel, one needs to start by turning to the Gospels. But that’s not what most do, do they?
Matter of fact, I’ve seen people questioning whether the Gospels actually contain the gospel. I think this is due to the fact that a more reformed theology has dictated our understanding of Scripture and the gospel for quite some time, rather than getting a more biblically robust understanding of these. Even if you don’t consider yourself reformed, there are specifics we have inherited because of this major vein to which we are connected as evangelicals.
There is no harm in such a tradition. And I used to fall very much in line with reformed theology. But let me challenge us to read Paul’s letters and not embrace all the particular reformed definitions that exist for things like the gospel, justification, salvation, election, predestination, original sin, etc. It is a very difficult task. But if we can somehow move towards that, I think it might allow us to read Paul as Paul, and the Gospels as containing the gospel.
Therefore, with the gospel, I think we must start in the Gospels, with the great announcer of the Gospel, the Evangel, the Good News. That is Jesus.
Yes, I know. We could start in the Old Testament. And I will draw from it. But we have a faith centralised in Jesus. So I think it important to ground ourselves there.
What was the gospel for Jesus?
I think if we read the Gospels themselves, we cannot walk away without saying that the gospel for Jesus was the kingdom rule of God. This comes forth right from the beginning:
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23; see also Matt 9:35)
But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)
You see, for Jesus, the good news was about the coming kingdom of God. And it had come! It was near! (Near did not mean ‘almost here, but not quite yet’.)
Some might argue that, for the gospel to be of the kingdom, this is to say that the gospel comes from the kingdom of God, but it is not about the kingdom of God. And so this is why the gospel should be centered solely in what we have been preaching for centuries – that forgiveness of sin is granted through Christ’s death on the cross and that Christ rose again (i.e. as is discerned from reading passages like 1 Cor 15:1-4). And we also add in the great qualifier that one can now have a personal relationship with God.
These 3 aspects make up the central truth of the gospel. Or so it goes.
The problem is this – As far as I can tell, nowhere in all of the Gospels do you find on Jesus’ lips the connection between a) the evangel and b) the cross, resurrection and a personal relationship with God. You can discern those 3 elements from the Gospels. But you do not find them intrinsically connected to the gospel by Jesus himself.
Ok, let me back up and go ahead and say it – I do not deny the reality or importance of Christ’s death on the cross, his victorious resurrection over sin and death, and that God calls humanity into relationship with Him. I do not deny that the Bible teaches these things whatsoever. They are very important, even central aspects of the work of God in Christ.
What I deny is that 1) Jesus connected those things with the gospel and 2) that we should apply those things as the first and central aspects of the gospel that we see proclaimed in Scripture.
Remember, Jesus came proclaiming the very good news (!) that God’s rule had come. God’s rules was not ‘up there’ in the clouds (though Scripture utilises such imagery and language at times to speak of the kingdom of heaven). But the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven (these 2 being synonymous), is not ultimately about a place up there that we go to once we die. God’s kingdom was about God’s rule being made known, becoming a living reality in our age/world. And so Jesus proclaimed this and he lived it out.
But why was Jesus proclaiming that the good news was about God’s rule coming to earth?
Well, this is where a little first century, second temple Jewish thought might be helpful. I am no expert here, but as I understand it, the Jewish people of the first century believed they were still in exile. True, at the end of the Old Testament, a return from exile took place (actually 3 of them). And the temple had been built, the city of Jerusalem had been restored. But God’s people, the Jews, still believed they were in exile and they needed to be set free from the oppressor of the varying nations that had ruled them (like Egypt and like Babylon). Thus, they awaited a messianic figure to come and set things right.
With this knowledge, we would expect that the days of Jesus were full of anticipation. And the word messiah would have invoked all kinds of images of what this guy would do when he arrived. Some good images, some not so good.
But when Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, he backs it up with the fruits of the kingdom. We have these famous words of Jesus quoting the old Isaianic song:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19; see Isa 61:1-2)
The good news was that God’s rule had come. And now His people could be set free, healed, liberated and enjoy the Lord’s favour. Hence why Luke would continue on in ch.4, recording great healings and then quote Jesus himself with these words: I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent (vs43).
And this was the expectation of Jewish people. They would have been very familiar with verses like this:
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” (Isa 52:7)
The gospel, the good news, was about God’s Messiah coming with God’s rule to liberate God’s people. That is about as clear as I can state it. God’s people wanted to know their God reigns. In Jesus, the story and promises of Israel were coming to a head. God was going to accomplish Himself what no one else could in Israel.
Now, as an important repercussion of the rule of God coming through God’s Messiah, there would be the door opened to forgiveness of sin via the brutal cross of our humble Lord. And he would not stay dead but would raise out of the grave, conquering death and sin. And God is calling humanity, not just Israel, into relationship with their Father. There is no doubt on these 3 aspects at all.
But Jesus never made these aspects inherently central to the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. They were a means to a greater end – that God’s kingdom rule was coming on earth as it was in heaven.
But what about Paul? Again, what about 1 Cor 15:1-14 and the plethora of references to the gospel in his letters? And where does the cross, resurrection and relationship with our Father come in? Well, I will come to these in due course. But I simply wanted to start by looking at Jesus and the Gospels, the place where I believe we need to begin when considering what the gospel actually is.
Jesus’ gospel was that of God’s coming rule to set His people free.