What is the gospel the apostles preached?
The METHOD in the ‘What is the Gospel?’ series reviews most references to ‘gospel’ and ‘good news’ in the New Testament and seeks to reveal a core message common to most.
TRADITION: I will compare my results to what the early church (c.e. 100-400) said the gospel is.
- Only one Gospel (Gal 1.6-7)
- Primary text (1 Cor 15.3-5, 22-25)
- The Apostles preached the gospel in Acts
- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Gospel
- Early Church
- Etymology of ‘good news’
- Common Misunderstandings
- Closer look at Acts 13.15-41
Only one Gospel (Gal 1.6-7)
According to what Paul says in Galatians, there is only one gospel (Gal 1.6-7). But we should note there are numerous references to the gospel and examples of people preaching the gospel.
From all our references to the gospel we should determine what is;
- Common to each (necessary), and
- Unique to particular sermons (optional).
Primary text (1 Cor 15.3-5, 22-25)
I believe 1 Corinthians 15 is the best and clearest outline of the gospel in the bible. I’ve categorised its content using different colors.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. …
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order:
Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Cor 15.1-5, 22-25)
Breaking it down into various parts here are some observations from the text.
- The gospel declares Jesus is the ‘Christ’. The Christ is the promised King who would fulfill God’s promises and prophecies about the coming kingdom of God.
- The gospel is a sequence of events in Christ’s life. His death, burial, resurrection, appearances/witness and second coming (‘Christ’, Sequence of events).
- The gospel is connected chronologically to the Old Testament (‘according to the scriptures’). This includes the story of creation and Israel, the promises and prophecies predicting the coming of God in the person of the Christ who would suffer, die, rise again and usher in his eternal kingdom.
- Paul says Christ died for our sins. More on this below.
The Apostles preached the gospel in Acts
I assume outright the apostles preach the gospel in Acts. However, I cannot be sure where. Their messages may contain the gospel, but we should not assume everything they say is the gospel.
In my series I compare each of the sermons with 1 Cor 15.3-5,22-25 to verify whether they contain the Paul’s understanding of the gospel or not.
Below are the Acts sermons that most closely resemble 1 Cor 15.3-5, 22-25.
Sequence of Events
References to Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection on the third day, and his appearances to witnesses are clearly common to all the messages.
Its clear from the apostles sermons they relate the death, burial, resurrection and appearances of Jesus in story form.
Only Paul refers to Jesus’ burial in his sermon in Acts 13. So its hard to argue it is necessary. But it is part of the narrative.
Peter and Paul refer to Jesus’ second coming to judge in Acts 17 and 10. Again this is not in all sermons. But it also is part of the wider narrative. Looking to the future.
There is no such thing as a gospel presentation that does not recount (in broad terms at least) the narrative of Jesus’ life. (Dickson, J., The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More than Our Lips, Review)
According to the Scriptures
A clear aspect of each of these messages are quotations from the Old Testament proving Jesus is the Christ (‘according to the scriptures’). The following verses highlight this aspect of the gospel message.
32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, (Acts 13:32–33)
2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts 17:2–3)
8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David [according to the scriptures], as preached in my gospel, (2 Tim 2.8)
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures [according to the scriptures], 3 concerning his Son [story of Jesus], who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God [Jesus declared the Christ] in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1.1-4)
Died for our sins
I don’t think the gospel message is structured around the concepts of atonement and forgiveness. None of the sermons in Acts mention that Jesus’ death was for others (e.g. ‘for our sins’). This particular reference is only in the 1 Corinthians 15 outline. For this reason I think it’s probably related to the Corinthians particular context and their perception of the cross (cf. 1 Cor 1-2).
I’m not denying Jesus died for others. Praise God he did! I’m denying the apostles in these examples of the gospel say his death was for others. If they don’t say it they must not think it was that important. Otherwise they would have made it explicit, clear and repeated it often.
In most messages which include the narrative there are differing allusions to salvation. These include, but are by no means limited to forgiveness (Acts 10,13) and justification (Acts 13). Because none of these allusions to salvation are common for all the messages. Any particular allusion cannot be deemed necessary (e.g. Justification).
Peter says Jesus came to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of their sins (Acts 5.31). When Peter preached to the Jews who crucified Jesus he urged them to repent of their sin (Acts 3.19) and be baptised (Acts 2.38).
When the apostles caught people in sin, they urged them to repent of that sin. If they did not believe their audience had sinned in some way they did not urge them to repent (e.g. Acts 10,13).
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Gospel
The Christian Church has traditionally named the bibliographies or narratives of Jesus life, death, burial and resurrection;
- ‘The gospel according to Matthew’,
- ‘The gospel according to Mark’,
- ‘The gospel according to Luke’, and
- ‘The gospel according to John’.
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 1.15)
And then goes on to narrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Likewise in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus defends the actions of a woman preparing him for his death by referring to his life and ministry as the gospel saying;
“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 26.10-13)
I say all this because some might think there are two kinds of gospel. These being
- the narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and
- some sort of message about sin and salvation.
This is a mistake because as I’ve already stated, Paul says there is only one gospel (Gal 1.6-9).
I acknowledge, there are many variations of that one gospel. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Acts 2.22-36, Acts 3.13-18, Acts 10.38-43, Acts 13.27-33, and 1 Cor 15.3-5,22-28 all describe the same story of Jesus, but each are unique in their own way. The story of Jesus is common to all.
Note: Jesus and the disciples are described as preaching the gospel when they announced the coming kingdom of God and Jesus as king as the Old Testament had led Israel to expect. I’ve blogged on this previously. After Jesus died and rose again the gospel was able to build on the theme of the kingdom of God (e.g. Acts 20.25), adding Jesus life, death and resurrection to their proclamation.
The whole Gospel story has many features and provides a wealth of material that can be used for evangelism, discipleship, comfort, teaching and correcting (1 Cor 15; Mk 1.14-15; Mt 26.6-13; Rom 1.16-17; 2 Tim 2.8).
- Prophecy fulfilled
- Jesus’ authority
- Over Creation,
- To Forgive Sin,
- To Teach,
- To Instruct and Command,
- Over Sickness and Over People
- Declares Jesus as the Christ
- Future Prophecy and Judgment
- Law of Moses
- Lords Supper
- Passion, Death on the Cross, Burial, Resurrection and Appearances
The bibliographies of Jesus were called the gospel by the early church because they believed they were the gospel.
If we looked at the entire New Testament, the contents of the gospel the apostles preached is most clearly reflected in these texts.
There is only one gospel, and the story of Jesus is what is in common to most (if not all) passages referring to the gospel in the New Testament.
Here are some quotes from the early church and their understanding of the gospel.
“Papias (c. 60-130) was an early bishop of Hierapolis and a disciple of those who knew the apostle John.
He insists the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke contained the very gospel message preached by Peter and Paul respectively.
He informs us Mark had been apostle Peter’s personal assistant. After the apostles death Mark put into writing all that he could recall of Peter teaching, being careful ‘to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements’. The result was what we call the Gospel according to Mark.”
(Dickson, J., The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, Loc 2041 of 3524)
The next quote is from an early church father named Ireneaus (c. 130-202)
“For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.
After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.
Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.
Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
(Ch 1, Ireneaus, Against Heresies, Book III, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers)
More well-known is Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine replied: Well, in answer to your own questions, you tell us first that you believe the gospel, and next, that you do not believe in the birth of Christ; and your reason is, that the birth of Christ is not in the gospel. What, then, will you answer the apostle when he says, “Remember that Christ Jesus rose from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel”?
You surely are ignorant, or pretend to be ignorant, what the gospel is. You use the word, not as the apostle teaches, but as suits your own errors. What the apostles call the gospel you depart from; for you do not believe that Christ was of the seed of David.
This was Paul’s gospel; and it was also the gospel of the other apostles, and of all faithful stewards of so great a mystery. For Paul says elsewhere, “Whether, therefore, I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.” They did not all write the gospel, but they all preached it.
The name evangelist is properly given to the narrators of the birth, the actions, the words, the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. The word gospel means good news, and might be used of any good news, but is properly applied to the narrative of the Saviour.
If, then, you teach something different, you must have departed from the gospel. Assuredly those babes whom you despise as semi-Christians will oppose you, when they hear their mother Charity declaring by the mouth of the apostle, “If any one preach another gospel than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
Since, then, Paul, according to his gospel, preached that Christ was of the seed of David, and you deny this and preach something else, may you be accursed! (Ch 2, Book 2, Against Faustus)
And lastly Chrysostom;
We assert, therefore, that, although a thousand Gospels were written, if the contents of all were the same, they would still be one, and their unity no wise infringed by the number of writers. So, on the other hand, if there were one writer only, but he were to contradict himself, the unity of the things written would be destroyed. For the oneness of a work depends not on the number of its authors, but on the agreement or contradictoriness of its contents.
Whence it is clear that the four Gospels are one Gospel;
for, as the four say the same thing, its oneness is preserved by the harmony of the contents, and not impaired by the difference of persons. (John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, Gal 1.6)
The Gospels are called the gospel because they are the Gospel.
The early church understood the gospel to be the narrative of Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial and resurrection. This can be supported from a few hundred quotations from the early church and indeed this view has continued in the church and has borne amazing fruit for more than 2000 years to this day.
- The gospel names Jesus as the Christ. The Christ is the promised King who would fulfill God’s promises and prophecies about the coming kingdom of God.
- The gospel includes a sequence of events in Christ’s life. His death, burial, resurrection, appearances/witness and second coming (‘Christ’, Sequence of events). To share the gospel like the apostles do one must relate these elements in story form.
- The gospel is connected to the Old Testament (‘according to the scriptures’). This includes the story of creation and Israel, the promises relating to Salvation, the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the Gentiles, the prophecies predicting the coming of God in the person of the Christ who would suffer, die and rise again and the reign of his eternal kingdom.
I’m not saying anything new about the gospel.
Rather I am showing from the bible and the early church what Christians have always believed the gospel is.
Etymology of ‘good news’
In Koine Greek the noun εὐαγγέλιον transliterated as euangélion is derived from εὖ eû “good” + ἄγγελος ángelos “messenger”.
The term ‘good news’ now adopted in English translations comes from Old English.
In Old English, euangélion was translated as gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”) from c.e. 500 onwards. The Old English term was retained as gospel in Middle English Bible translations and hence remains in use also in Modern English.
Thus the mainstream church of the time (c.e. 500 onwards) commonly adopted this expression without meaning anything other than the narrative of the saviour. Of course the narrative is ‘good’ in many ways. But our understanding of what is ‘good’ shouldn’t change the meaning of gospel from the story of Jesus to another gospel.
Unfortunately today, there are many gospel’s and many are confused about what it is.
I’ve read a number of arguments for and against what I have presented as the gospel above. What I say about the common misunderstandings below is specifically directed to address criticisms of what I’ve argued. I have to write this to defend what I believe is the gospel.
I think in some Christian circles salvation is given priority over Jesus. I think this puts emphasis in the wrong place.
I seek to reverse this order of priority. Talking about Jesus is more important that talking about personal salvation. The gospel is about God’s Son (Rom 1.3).
I’m not denying the importance of salvation. Rather I’m putting salvation in what I believe is its right place and I’m increasing the range of applications of the gospel.
In short I think the gospel is primarily about Jesus, his words and deeds. I believe the telling of His story can be done (and was done by the apostles and the early church) in such a way that it saves, disciples, corrects, warns, educates and gives hope to its listeners.
With this in mind I’ll list a few misunderstandings I believe can be made about the relationship between the gospel as the story of Jesus and personal salvation.
Misunderstanding 1 – Making salvation more important than Jesus. The Gospel saves and this is a wonderful fact! However I wonder if some get so obsessed with the salvation of sinners they ignore the fact the gospel is the story of Jesus (cf. Mk 1.1). Jesus is marginalised and the message becomes story less.
Quite often the gospel is reduced to a series of pithy and abstract propositions. The gospel is more than propositions. The gospel consists of sentences. Its a narrative. Yes there are true statements. But in the gospel (the story of Jesus) I see some asking questions, even making dumb statements that need to be corrected.
Stressing matters of importance does not give a license to distort biblical truth. The gospel is what the scripture says it is no matter how important salvation is.
Even the smallest gospel messages in the New Testament contain at least five different events in his life (e.g. 1 Cor 15; Acts 10). Scripture does not define a message about Jesus as the gospel with less than this number of events. The more Jesus is taken out of the gospel message the less it is the apostolic gospel. There is simply no basis for calling a message ‘the gospel’ if Jesus, his words and deeds are not given primary attention throughout the whole message.
Why is it we rarely ‘gospel’ people with any of the four gospels? Why is so much gospel preaching focused on people and their need? Could this be one of the reasons why so much evangelistic preaching today is so powerless to change lives? Because it is not God’s gospel!? (p18, Chapman, J., Know and Tell the Gospel)
Also how else are people to believe in him if they don’t know who he is? The gospel reveals Jesus to the audience and gives them a chance to make up their opinion about him. To get to know him as their Lord and Saviour.
Misunderstanding 2 – Ignoring important distinctions. Some might say I’m too sharply distinguishing the story of Jesus from salvation and that they cannot be separated. In response to this objection I take the same point further. There are aspects which cannot be separated from the Story. Yes, salvation is one of them.
But I believe there are a lot more things than salvation that cannot be separated from the story. When I examine the sermons in Acts or the letters of Paul or even the preaching of Jesus, I see the Story of Jesus deeply intertwined with lots of concepts.
For example; I see the story of Jesus includes the early ministry of John the baptist (e.g. Mk 1.2-8; Acts 10.37). I see the gospel proving that Jesus is the promised Davidic messiah (e.g. 2 Tim 2.8; Lk 1.26-33). I see the gospel combined with teachings about the coming resurrection (e.g. 1 Cor 15.12f; Lk 20.27-40). In the gospel I see Jesus demonstrating his authority over creation, to heal, to cast out demons to command. There’s lots more than this! The story cannot be separated from a great many things.
On the other hand I recognise making distinctions can be important in some situations. Why is making a distinction between the story and all the elements inseparably connected to it important? I believe its important because it ensures Jesus and his story get proclaimed in each and every gospel sermon and it gives the flexibility to preach all the other aspects in addition to salvation combined with the story as need requires.
Misunderstanding 3 – Ignoring other functions of the gospel. Quite often it is assumed the gospel can only do one thing. To turn people to God and therefore bring about salvation.
The apostles certainly use the gospel to turn people to God (repent) and bring about salvation in Acts. Undeniable. Wonderful. In addition to this I’ve seen in the Gospel itself and in the epistles, Jesus and the apostles apply the gospel in other ways. They do more with the gospel, than just use it to bring about repentance and faith.
In 1 Cor 15 Paul uses the gospel to teach about the resurrection. In Mt 26.6-13 Jesus makes the point the gospel can be used to remember the actions of a devoted woman. In 2 Tim 2.8 Paul uses the gospel to comfort Timothy in the midst of suffering.
Over and over again in the early church writings I saw them continuously going back to Jesus and his story to teach, discipline, give hope and do much more. Their quotations would generally begin with, ‘in the gospel…’ and then they would speak about something Jesus said or did. Their understanding of the gospel is much more Jesus focussed than what I see in evangelical circles today.
The whole story of Jesus has many texts which can be applied to disciple believers in the faith. One weakness identified by Scot McKnight about the so called ‘soterian’ gospel is its failure to go beyond evangelism be used to disciple its audience.
Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples. Those two words – decision and disciples – are behind this entire book. Evangelism to focuses on decisions short circuits and – yes, the word is appropriate – aborts the design of the gospel, which evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles. (p17, McKnight, S., The King Jesus Gospel: Tho Original Good News Revisited, Review)
Don’t get me wrong. The gospel should refer to aspects salvation when being applied to bring about sinners conversion. However defining the gospel in terms of salvation will always narrow and limit its range of applications.
Misunderstanding 4 – Assuming the gospel always calls people to repent. Assuming every gospel message must finish with a call to get its listeners to repent simply does not consider the varied uses of the gospel in the New Testament.
In Acts 10 for example Peter commends the Gentiles before sharing the gospel with them. His message does not end with an exhortation to repent because he has said God recognises they fear him and do what is right (Acts 10.35). The outline of the gospel in 1 Cor 15 does not end with a call to repent. Both these instances are authentic examples of the gospel and neither of them end with a call to repent.
Don’t get me wrong. When we see people sin we should always exhort them to repent and stop. To often this is neglected as well. People’s sin is not always clearly identified. They don’t know what they are doing wrong so they cannot stop even if they wanted to. In the scriptures when people are exhorted to repent they have a clear understanding of what their sin is and what they need to turn away from.
Closer look at Acts 13.15-41
Lets see how Paul preaches the gospel in a Jewish synagogue. Remember my key.
- Story of the Old Testament / According to OT scripture / Prophecies & Promises fulfilled
- Story of Jesus / the gospel (1 Cor 15.3-5)
- Reference to aspects of salvation
15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.
17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’
23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ 26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.
27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.
28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed.
29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.
30 But God raised him from the dead,
31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.
32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“ ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“ ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’
35 Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“ ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’
36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
41 “ ‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’ ” (Ac 13:14–41)
In short Paul’s gospel sermon is structured like this.
- Story of Israel (Acts 13.17-22), connecting to the
- Story of Jesus / the gospel (Acts 13.24-33; cf. 1 Cor 15.3-5), which brings about various
- Aspects of Salvation (Acts 13.38-39)
This is the general pattern of how I will approach most texts in the Old Testament.
- Passage with comments
- Tie it into the Story of Israel,
- Tie it into the Story of Jesus (the Gospel),
- Apply the message to my readers (Salvation, Discipleship, Encouragement, Proclamation, etc).
Because that’s how I see the apostles preach the gospel.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2014. All Rights Reserved.