What did Jesus preach as the gospel? Did he even preach the gospel? Did you know that some pastors don’t even believe Jesus preached the gospel? My word search brought up a number of instances where the noun ‘gospel’ is used in the Gospels. Lets have a look.
Step 1) Do a word search on the noun gospel in the New Testament and comment on repeated themes.
- ‘good news’,
- ‘word of God’ and
- ‘word of the Lord’.
I have assumed in Acts where the expressions ‘word of God’ and ‘word of the Lord’ also refer to the gospel.
Performing word searches on ‘gospel’ and its other synonyms will result in a comprehensive look at what the scriptures say about the gospel. From there we can build up an understanding of the gospel from explicit references. Then we can look for similar themes and patterns in other locations to glean more information because we know from the original search what themes and concepts to look for. It would be potentially misleading to assume we know what the gospel is before hand and jump to passages that do not explicitly refer to the gospel. This approach to learning about the gospel could miss important information as well.
However, just because we find a whole heap of themes associated with the gospel. That doesn’t necessarily mean we can merge them all together to form an ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ gospel message. Consider this diagram;
Within any given message, the gospel may not necessarily be the whole message. Most likely it will be part of the whole message (first block). Not always will it also be a single block within the whole message either. It might be threaded between a series of other themes (second block). Those other themes commonly associated with the gospel might form a parallel set of themes often added to the gospel message but are not the gospel itself (third block). We need to keep these possibilities in mind.
I have already performed the word searches. I don’t think it necessary to show readers of this excursus all the results. After receiving these results and thinking them over I have been able to add to my study a number of passages which do not explicitly refer to ‘gospel’ or the other synonyms. However they fit into the same themes I have discovered on my initial search. So Ive assumed we can learn about the gospel through them as well. Consequently, I refer to them in the same assortment of themes below. I have established these themes by the context of the passage and my own structures of thought.
In my search, a large number of results returned little information to help answer ‘what is the gospel?’ I have mostly ignored them in my analysis.
Names given to the gospel
The following list describes all the names given to the gospel in the New Testament;
- Gospel of God (Mk 1.14; Rom 1.1; 15.6; 2 Cor 11.7; 1 Thes 2.2,8,9; 1 Pet 4.17)
- Gospel of the Grace of God (Acts 20.24)
- Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God (1 Tim 1.11)
- Gospel of His Son (Rom 1.9)
- Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mk 1.1; Rom 15.19; 1 Cor 9.12; 2 Cor 2.12; Gal 1.7; 1 Thes 3.2; 2 Thes 1.8)
- Gospel of the Glory of Christ (2 Cor 4.4)
- Gospel of the Kingdom (Mt 4.23; 9.35; 24.14)
- Gospel of your Salvation (Eph 1.13)
- Gospel of Peace (Eph 6.15)
The clear majority of names of the gospel include references to God and Jesus Christ.
I believe the names signify;
- the primary people proclaiming the gospel are God, Jesus his Son and the Holy Spirit,
- the owner of the gospel is God the Father, Jesus his Son and the Holy Spirit, and
- the content of the gospel message is in some way about God and/or Christ.
Looking in the Gospels
The gospels were written after Jesus’ death and resurrection. However they describe the life of Jesus and then focus on his death and resurrection. These bibliographies of Jesus are traditionally called ‘gospels’. Our interest here is – the books that are called ‘gospel’ describe historical events where Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the gospel. We have two different kinds of gospel. The ‘gospel’ that describes the life of Jesus and the ‘gospel’ that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed. We should be aware of possible distinctions between the two.
The biographies of Jesus describe historical situations where the gospel is mainly proclaimed to people who do not follow Jesus. We can locate these people in the C1, ‘sinner’ category above. We should expect references to the gospel will adopt a forward looking perspective (C1 to C2,C3,C4,C5) in these historical situations. Proclamations of the gospel in this context are to people who are not yet saved or have received any of the benefits and effects associated with believing the gospel.
I’ve created a brief description of the contents of the gospels here.
Covenant Promises and Prophecies
Jesus and his followers proclaimed a form of the gospel before his crucifixion (Mk 1.14; Lk 3.18; 9.6; 20.1). What did Jesus and his disciples proclaim? Some of these references noted are ambiguous regarding the content of what they proclaimed. But not all;
‘Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”’(Mk 1.14)
In response to the gospel message Jesus exhorts,
“Repent and believe in the gospel”’ (Mk 1.14-15)
Here is another example.
9 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.
6 And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. (Lk 9.1-2,6)
They proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God.
To help you understand how the proclamation of the coming kingdom is good news I need to unpack some of Israel’s history for you using this diagram below.
The main elements of the Jewish story of salvation are;
- the Abrahamic covenant and promises (approx 2000 B.C.),
- the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt (approx 1300 B.C.),
- the giving of the Jewish law starting from Mount Sinai,
- the wilderness progression to the promised land, and
- entering the promised land (approx 1200 B.C.)
Some of the Abrahamic covenant promises and prophecies relating to the kingdom of God are below;
[12:1] Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12.1-3)
 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Gen 12.7)
 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Gen 15.4-5)
 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,  the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,  the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,  the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15.17-21)
Once Israel had claimed the promised land for herself, then came the Davidic promises;
 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Sam 7.12-13)
The theme of the kingdom of God is seen in God’s promises above. God will bring together a people (the offspring of Abraham), a land and a king. These three together constitute a kingdom.
However, looking again at the diagram above Israel was exiled from the promised land due to disobedience at about 600 B.C. They were allowed to return one hundred and fifty years later, but ever after remained under the control of foreign rulers.
To remain under the rule of a foreign power was not how Israel understood God would fulfill his promises.
The Jews after their return from exile were waiting for God to fulfill his covenant promises and prophecies.
So if we consider the first century and the previous history of Israel. The basic questions the Jews were asking were;
- ‘When is God going to fulfill his promises and prophecies?’ and
- ‘Who is the Christ who will bring about their fulfillment?’
In this context, Jesus and his followers were proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. This is the theme most commonly associated with the gospel in the synoptic biographies of Jesus (Mt 4.23; 9.35; 24.14; Mk 1.15; Lk 4.43; 8.1; 16.16).
Proclaiming the Kingdom of God carries an implied reference to God’s kingdom promises of God’s people coming together under God’s rule in God’s creation. The Jews of 1st Century Israel knew of these promises. They were waiting for their fulfilment.
The good news Jesus and the disciples proclaimed was that these promises were being fulfilled. We can sum these up to describe them as the kingdom promises of God’s rule over God’s people in God’s creation.
The answer to their question ‘When is God going to fulfill his promises and prophecies?’ The good news is – Now.
When Jesus and his followers proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, they commanded people to repent.
The underlying ideas behind their calls to repent were;
- God’s kingdom is coming (this is the Gospel message Jesus and his disciples proclaimed),
- he will come in judgement to restore His kingdom (dividing righteous from the unrighteous),
- the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (e.g. Gal 5.19-21; Eph 5.1-5; 1 Cor 6.9-11),
- therefore repent because the kingdom of God is at hand and they will be judged.
The synoptic gospels also associate ‘good news’ with healing (a part of salvation) and release from captivity (Mt 4.23; 9.35; 11.5; Lk 4.18; 7.22). For example Jesus quotes Isaiah 61.1-2 in Luke 4 saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
He then goes on to say,
‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Lk 4.18-21).
The answer to the question ‘Who is the Christ who will bring about their fulfillment?’ The good news is – Jesus is the promised Christ and he is bringing about their fulfilment.
Old Testament prophecies set the historical context of the gospel and suggest the people were awaiting their fulfillment. These prophecies are part of the gospel message Jesus and his disciples proclaimed. These covenant promises and prophecies of God made in the Old Testament are part of the background to the gospel message.
Story of Jesus
A story or a narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events. The first four books of the New Testament are narratives of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.
The Christian church has traditionally named these first four books;
- ‘The gospel according to Matthew’,
- ‘The gospel according to Mark’,
- ‘The gospel according to Luke’, and
- ‘The gospel according to John’.
These titles given to the biographies of Jesus have been given by the early Church. The names ‘The gospel according to’ reflect the early understanding they are different versions of the same gospel preached by the apostles.
They are called the gospel because they are the Gospel.
Which implies the early church understood the gospel to be the narrative of Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial and resurrection.
The Gospel according to Mark reinforces this point and starts with
‘in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mk 1.1)
Then Mark continues telling the story about Jesus’ life (Mk 1.1).
Traditionally the authors of the gospels are called ‘evangelists’ because they are sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mt 26.13 and Mk 14.9 suggest the content of the gospel is the story of Jesus.
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Mt 26.6-13; cf. Mk 14.3-9; Lk 7.37-39; Jn 12.1-8)
Jesus says, ‘wherever this gospel is proclaimed’. What is Jesus referring to? Jesus seems to be referring to the current state of happenings in his life. When his story is told, ‘what she has done will also be told in memory of her’. It’s notable that each of the gospels refer to this same incident highlighting they all think it is important to remember the woman and what she has done.
Jesus is referring to his own life story as the gospel.
Jesus is also saying something about the application of the gospel here. Applied in the right way the gospel, according to Jesus, will remember the people involved in it.
John is more likely to refer to the gospel as the ‘testimony about Jesus’ (Jn 3.33-36; 5.31-37; 8.12-18). A testimony provides first hand evidence or proof for an event or state of affairs. To give a testimony about another is to provide a witness to events in their life, who they are and what they have done. John’s repeated description of the gospel as a ‘testimony about Jesus’ (Jn 3.11,32-33; 5.31-32,34,36; 8.14; 19.35; 21.24) implicitly describes the gospel as an account of who Jesus is and his story.
At the end of his biography on Jesus, John simply states, ‘but these are written’ (Jn 20.31). John refers to his ‘book’, his biography of Jesus knowing he was writing his version of the gospel. The biography of Jesus – the story of Jesus – is the gospel.
The Person of Jesus
This point follows from just above. What are the gospels about?
Christ or Christos (Gk.) means ‘Messiah and anointed one’. The root of the verb chrio, in Greek meant ‘to smear, rub, spread.’ In the LXX, because of the connection with ‘rubbing or smearing oil,’ the term was associated with ‘one who had been anointed, or set apart, for a special task.’ In the Hebrew Bible, the ‘anointed ones’ were the king and the high priest, occasionally a prophet (all three offices are associated with Jesus; cf Jn 6.14; Heb 9.11; Rev 19.16). In later Jewish writings in Greek, Christos came to mean ‘the Messiah.’ The Christ is the expected, ‘end time,’ messianic figure and the title draws upon God’s promise to David of an unending heir to his throne (2 Sam 7.14). This era would be initiated by a figure who would actualise the promise of the end time reign of David’s line. (‘Christ’, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words)
This same theme of the hidden identity of Jesus runs through each of the gospels. People in the gospels are always wondering, ‘Who is the Christ?’ (Mt 22.42; 26.63; Mk 14.61; Lk 2.26; 3.15; 22.67; 23.39; Jn 1.19-20,41; 4.29; 7.27,31,41-42; 10.24) Jesus asks famously in each of the synoptics, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Highlighting that each of the gospel writers thinks this is an important element in the narrative.
 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. …  From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Mt 16.13-21)
 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”  And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mk 8:27-31)
 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”  Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one,  saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9.18-22)
At the end of John’s gospel, John writes,
 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20.30-31)
Revealing the identity of Jesus as the Christ – the Son of Man – or the Son of God is a key theme in John’s gospel (Jn 11.25-27).
The primary intention and argument of the gospels is to declare and prove Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus says, it is the revelation of the Father who enables this belief (Mt 16.17) Jesus is the Christ, he is the figure who actualises the end time reign of David’s line. All people owe him allegiance.
Jesus is occasionally referred to by different names and titles. At the beginning of John’s biography, John describes Jesus as the ‘word of God’ (Jn 1.1-18; cf Rev 19.13). The expression ‘word of God’ we know from other locations is virtually synonymous with the gospel. John says, all who believe in him (Jn 3.16), the ‘word of God’ receive eternal life (Jn 1.1,12-13) and will not be condemned (Jn 3.16-18,36). Believing in Jesus, the ‘word of God’, has the same benefit as believing in the gospel. John records, belief in Jesus as the Christ and allegiance to him, has the benefit of granting eternal life and resurrection (Jn 3.15-16,36; 6.40,47,54; 10.28; 12.50; 17.3; 1 Jn 1.2; 5.11,13,20).
Both the beginning (Jn 1.1-18) and the end of John’s biography (Jn 20.31) support the conclusion – Jesus is the gospel. So in John’s biography, when Jesus is proclaiming himself (Jn 4.26; 6.35,48,51; 8.12,28,58; 9.5; 10.7,9,11,14,36; 11.25; 13.13,19; 14.6; 15.1,5) he is also proclaiming the gospel, with himself being the primary object of belief and trust.
The passages I have quoted where Jesus refers to his own story as the gospel also define the scope of preaching. The gospel must be proclaimed to the ‘whole world’ (Mt 26.13; Mk 14.9).
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt 24.3-14)
Did you know the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about wars, famines and natural disasters in the world because they believe it is the gospel?
Like with the woman in Mt 26.6-13 Jesus says ‘this gospel of the kingdom’. What is he referring to? Once again (as with Mt 26.6-13) I think he is referring to his own life’s story and the events surrounding it.
Regarding the scope of preaching, Jesus says the gospel must be ‘proclaimed throughout the whole world’. At other times during his ministry, Jesus also repeated the command to preach the gospel to all nations (Mk 13.10; 16.15).
What does this mean? Well in the biographies, Jesus and his followers only preached the gospel to the Jews located in Israel. These early commands of Jesus tell his people to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews) in other lands.
The gospel according to Matthew ends with the statements;
 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.18-20)
Jesus commanded the apostles to do four things;
- Go – To all nations – Jews and Gentiles.
- Making disciples of all nations – to share the gospel with all nations that they might believe.
- Baptising these disciples in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Symbolically incorporating them into the death and resurrection of Jesus through baptism.
- Teaching – these disciples to observe all he has commanded them.
The gospel according to Mark ends with the statements;
 And he [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. …  So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. (Mk 16.15-16,19-20)
The apostles were commanded by Jesus to do two things;
- Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.
- Baptise all believers.
The passage says that those who believe the gospel and are baptised will be saved and those who do not believe the gospel will be condemned. The gospel saves, not baptism. However baptism is commanded, so neglecting to be baptised is sinful. The effect of believing the gospel is salvation – otherwise condemnation. Gospel ministry is accompanied by signs and wonders.
The gospel according to Luke ends with the statements;
 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,  and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,  and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. (Lk 24.44-48)
Jesus describes background to the gospel message when he says ‘everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled’. Then he helps the disciples understand what the Old Testament scriptures say about him by ‘opening their minds’. Finally he exhorts them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. We’ve seen the call to repent tied to the proclamation of the Kingdom in the gospels, so I assume Jesus’ suffering and death are likewise linked. Probably in the sense that his death and resurrection usher in the Kingdom of God.
The gospel according to John has these statements near the end;
 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20.21-23)
This tricky passage is called by scholars the ‘Johannine Pentecost’ because it is seemingly different from Luke’s account as to when the apostles received the Holy Spirit. Jesus sends his disciples, ‘breathed on them’ and said ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Like in Luke’s gospel Jesus commissions his disciples and describes gospel ministry as extending forgiveness of sins to others. Forgiveness of sins is a chief benefit of believing the gospel message.
 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20.30-31)
One of John’s last statements distinguishes the content, intent and benefit of the gospel message. John says ‘written in this book’ and ‘these are written’ referring to his gospel. He wrote his version of the gospel ‘so you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’ spelling out what he wants his audience to believe. Lastly, but not least, ‘by believing you may have life in his name’.
This finishes todays post on ‘What is the gospel?’. In the next post we look at the book of Acts and the epistles.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2014. All Rights Reserved.