Do the Gospels present ‘the gospel’, as we would call it? Or do they have something else in mind entirely?
Today, when we talk about ‘the gospel’ we tend to think of the doctrine of justification by faith, of forgiveness of sin by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
And yet, is this what the Gospels themselves present as the gospel?
The first chapter in Jonathan Pennington’s Reading the Gospels Wisely attempts to answer this very question. I’ll be drawing heavily upon his insights below.
‘Gospel’ in Mark
- Mark 1:1 seems to indicate that Mark sees his entire document as ‘gospel’ in some sense. So in providing us his letter, Mark has chosen to tell us certain things about the life of Jesus in order to tell us the ‘gospel’.
- This goes for the other Gospels, which have been titled so for a reason – they present ‘the gospel’.
- The word ‘gospel’ is used six more times (Mark 1:14-15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10, and 14:9). According to Jesus in Mark 1:14-15, the gospel is the news that the time of God’s promised reign has finally come, in the person of the Messiah. All other references in Mark seem to rely upon this definition.
‘Gospel’ in Matthew
- Matthew uses the word ‘gospel’ five times (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; 26:13 and the verb form is used in Matt 11:5)
- The first appearance is in a phrase (Matt 4:23) that’s repeated (Matt 9:35), and together they form as bookends to Matthew chapters 5 through 9.
- The contents of Matthew 5-9 are summarized by the phrase in Matt 4:23 (and 9:35). Interestingly, ‘teaching’ is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and ‘healing‘ in Matthew 8 and 9!
- The healing in 8-9 are not coincidental. They are a taste of all things being made new in Christ, a future work that is here in Christ but also not-yet until His return.
- So in Matthew the ‘gospel’ means much the same as in Mark. The return of God’s reign and restoration, in the person of Jesus.
‘Gospel(ize)’ in Luke
- Luke doesn’t use the word ‘gospel’, but he does use the verb, ‘to proclaim good news’, which literally would be ‘gospelize’. This appears ten times in Luke.
- In all the references, God’s reign and Christ’s kingship are in view.
- The most significant use is in Luke 4:18-21, a quotation from Isaiah about God’s future restoration, which Jesus claims has come in Himself (v21)!
- Again, in Luke, ‘gospel’ appears to be the same.
‘Gospel(ize)’ in Isaiah
- Isaiah, considered by the early church almost as the fifth Gospel sits as the foundation for many quotations and references in the Gospels.
- Isaiah 40-66 in particular, describe the “hope in the restoration of God’s reign” (15). It is described as help for the poor and needy (Isaiah 40:29-31; 41:17; 55:1-2), renewing of all things (42:9-10; 43:18-19), healing of blindness and deafness (42:18; 43:8-10), forgiveness of sins (44:22; 53:4-6, 10-12), and the making of a covenant (41:6; 49:8; 55:3; 59:21).
- All of this is accomplished through God’s anointed Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 45:4; 49:3-5; 52:13-53:12).
- This restoration through the Messiah is described as a ‘proclamation of good news’ (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1).
Pennington summarises ‘gospel’ in the Gospels as thus:
The New Testament authors, building especially on the Isaianic vision, define the “gospel” as Jesus’s effecting the long-awaited return of God himself as King, in the power of the Spirit bringing his people back from exile and into the true promised land of a new creation, forgiving their sins, and fulfilling all the promises of God and the hopes of his people.
So how to does this reflect on the popular notion of ‘gospel’ as forgiveness of sins?
Well, for starters, we have oversimplified things a little. The gospel is much bigger than simply forgiveness of sin; it is the message of the coming of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus. It is God making all things new in Jesus. It is God’s promises beginning to be fulfilled in Jesus, and then ultimately fulfilled in His return to consummate his kingdom.
But how do we enter this kingdom? Through receiving the benefits of His sacrificial death: justification by faith! (John 3:3; 1 Cor 6:9; Col 1:13-14). To preach the gospel is no less than telling them of salvation by faith, but we should do a little more, by telling them of God making all things new in Jesus, of the ability to enter His kingdom now!
When someone is saved, they are not merely forgiven to go and live any life they want.
They are forgiven to enter His kingdom!