The cross, the death of Christ, the forgiveness of sin. Those are the essential elements of the gospel, the evangel, the good news.
But here’s an interesting thing worth noting – those points never fall from the lips of Jesus when he speaks about the gospel in the gospels. It actually never comes up.
Now, hold on. Before any knickers get in a twist, I’m not dismissing the cross, the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sin. I just want us to first note that’s not in Christ’s vocabulary when he speaks about gospel.
Here’s a problem that, I believe, arises amongst many Christians: When we want to talk about the gospel, we run to Paul’s letters. The gospels are the story, the biography of Jesus, but it’s Paul (and other epistle writers) who gives us the meaty doctrine about what is actually the gospel.
However, it might just be that we need to start with the gospels to think about the gospel. And we might consider starting with the great evangelist (or “bearer of good news,” as that is what evangelist means), which is Jesus, when we start talking about the gospel.
This is what someone like Scot McKnight would suggest in his book, The King Jesus Gospel. The gospels contain the gospel.
Maybe a good place to start is the beginning of a gospel account – something like Mark 1:14-15.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Doesn’t sound much like what we announce (or preach) when we speak of the gospel.
According to Jesus, the gospel is about the time being fulfilled and the kingdom of God being at hand.
And we follow the whole storied gospel account to clarify what Jesus means with the time being fulfilled and the kingdom order of God presently being at hand. And we’ll probably need to dive into some other works to help point us to understand what this actually means. At least that’s what I try and do.
Now, what “time is being fulfilled?”
It’s the whole storied account of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) as seen through the lens of the Hebrew people. There’s a story that’s been going on a long, long time. Matthew reminds us of this in the first 17 verses of his account.
Interestingly enough, Paul says something similar in Gal 4:4 – “But when the set time had fully come…”
The Jews were still awaiting the coming of God’s kingdom, which would become a reality through God’s kingly Messiah. Jesus is born right into that climactic period.
It was a familiar story for the Jews, remembering their ancestors locked away in Egypt. And though the prophets foretold a second exodus from Babylon back to the land centuries earlier, they questions arose of whether their situation was actually bringing God’s order to earth as in heaven. These people of Hebrew descent believed they were still in exile, under the oppressive enemy, needing God’s new era to break into life on earth. They were disillusioned even though they were back in the land and a temple stood in their beloved city of Jerusalem.
Somehow things were not right.
In walks Jesus, announcing that the time is fulfilled. This is it, this is what you’ve been waiting for!
Oh, yes. Things are going to unfold a bit differently than they imagined. God’s kingly Messiah was announcing the arrival of the order of God, but in quite a unique way. And this is where we need to remember the cross – kingdom come by death.
But the announcement of Jesus, the evangel on the lips of Christ, is that the time was ready to be fulfilled and the kingdom of God was coming.
And how are they to respond? Repent (turn around and think differently) and believe this gospel – the gospel that God is fulfilling the century long story of his people by the arrival of God’s rule on earth as in heaven.
The gospels are actually the gospel: the story of how the whole Christ event – the birth, life, teaching, ministry, miracles, death, burial, resurrection and ascension – ushered in the reality of God’s renewal. This the story of the gospel. This is the good news found in the good news text.
And this gospel doesn’t simply narrow down into the cross, though the cross remains a very important element. It’s not synonymous with the four spiritual laws or quoting a smattering of verses from the book of Romans (and we’ll come to Paul in the next installment).
Rather, the gospel is clarified as found on the lips of God’s Messiah, Jesus.
If you want to know the gospel, read the gospels. And try and read them as best you can as a first century Jew hearing this announcement over and above any announcement that rang across the Roman empire of that day.