We come—at long last!—to the final installment of our exploration into the gospel as understood and portrayed in the New Testament. Thus far we have focused, as discussions of this topic tend to do, on the Apostle Paul, whose theology of the cross and teaching on justification have provided the foundation for the dominant “soterian”[i] understanding of the gospel in evangelical Protestantism. Simply put, “soterians” define the gospel in terms of the “salvation” of the individual sinner—in particular, what God has provided/accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ and how the benefits of his death and resurrection are appropriated/applied by/to guilty sinners through faith alone.[ii] This indeed is the tradition in which I was raised and educated, all the way through my seminary training. As I have confessed, I was raised to understand the gospel as the combined message of the twin doctrines of penal, substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.
What we have discovered is that the soterian approach is not so much wrong as it is inadequate. Yes, the gospel does include the message that Christ “died for our sins” as a penal, expiatory, even propitiatory sacrifice. The gospel is indeed God’s powerful instrument leading to salvation as the Spirit creates the faith in listeners through which (alone) they are “justified.” It is here, however, that the threads start to unravel.
First of all, though both 1 Corinthians and Romans define the gospel in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection, theologically interpreted as God’s saving event, the gospel itself is not the message defining how one “gets saved.” Failure to make this elementary distinction may seem a minor matter of definition. It is not. Not only has this failure resulted in a skewed misreading of numerous New Testament texts at the level of historical-critical exegesis,[iii] it manifests a second, more serious problem.
Secondly, the “soterian” approach misconstrues the context in which the “gospel” must be understood. By focusing exclusively on the gospel as the solution to the problem of human sin, individualistically conceived, it downplays or ignores its true locus in the historia salutis (the “history of salvation”). Paul, quoting the earliest tradition, claims that both Christ’s (i.e., the Jewish Messiah’s) death “for our sins” and resurrection the third day occurred “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5). Likewise, in Romans the apostle claims that the gospel reveals the “righteousness of God” promised in Isaiah (Rom 1:17), thereby validating his claim that its message of the Messianic career and resurrection of “Jesus Christ our Lord” was “preannounced” in the “holy scriptures” (Rom 1:2-4). Indeed, Paul’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ as the eschatological manifestation of God’s saving covenant faithfulness (cf. Isa 51:4-5; Ps 98:2-3) inexorably leads us to the conclusion that he understood the “gospel” he preached to be the fulfillment of the “gospel” announced in Isaiah 40-66 to Israel in exile (e.g., Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 60:6; 61:2). The gospel, on this understanding, is the proclamation that God had, in the Christ event, been faithful to his covenant promises to Israel—and for Paul that meant, in accordance with the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant, that all the nations would prove to be the beneficiaries of this “salvation” along with the Jews (Gen 12:3; Ps 98:2-3; Isa 42:6; 52:10; cf. Rom 1:5-6; 2:25-29; 3:22, 29-30). The “gospel,” in other words, is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God through the historical events of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Coming to this realization was revolutionary to me, and immediately answered a question I, as a former “soterian,” had tried unsuccessfully to suppress: How is it that the four canonical stories of Jesus’ life can be called “Gospels”? This was especially true of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, commonly referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels because of the “common view” they present of Jesus’ life in contrast to the more transparently theological Gospel of John.
This was a matter of no small consequence to me. The Synoptic Gospels contain apparently underdeveloped soteriological interpretations of Jesus’ death. Apart from the “ransom logion” (Mark 10:45 et par.) and Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-25 et par.), little is said. And, as far as justification by faith is concerned, while “faith” is often mentioned, the predominant note is struck by the apparent counterevidence of passages like that of the “rich young ruler” and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Compounding my difficulties was the dispensationalism on which I cut my theological teeth, which relegated much of the content of the gospels to the supposedly (humanly speaking) failed attempt to “offer the kingdom” to the Jews. It is factors such as these which marginalized these foundational texts for me (and for much of the fundamentalism of my youth) in comparison to John and (especially) Paul.
Yet it was an undeniable fact that, at least from the middle of the 2nd century, these four books were referred to as “Gospels” in the plural,[iv] thereby designating these biographical[v] “reminiscences of the apostles” (apomnēmoneumata tōn apostolōn)[vi] as a distinct genre or classification of literature characterized by their proclamation of the Christian “good news.” What caused this development, and what significance does this have for understanding how the “gospel” should be understood?
The place to look is the Gospel of Mark, almost certainly the earliest written “Gospel” and the literary fountainhead of the Synoptic tradition. Mark begins his Gospel with what, to us, is a peculiar, predicate-less introduction: “The beginning of the gospel (archē tou euangeliou) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[vii] Despite the claim of some, on the analogy of Luke-Acts, that the “beginning” refers to the content of the entire Gospel,[viii] we must rather almost certainly limit the term to the book’s Prologue,[ix] whether understood as including verse 1-8,[x] verses 1-13,[xi] or verses 1-15.[xii] For our present purposes, a definitive answer need not be given. But the significant point remains: Mark designates the content or subject matter of his literary work as the “gospel” or “good news” about Christ. The “good news,” in other words, refers to the whole story or narrative of Jesus as God’s saving event.[xiii] And this applies, not just to his death and resurrection, but to the whole event beginning with the preparatory ministry of John. Moreover, the narrated events of John’s and, by implication, Jesus’ ministries occurred in accordance with (kathōs) the prophecy of Isaiah who announced the “good news” of eschatological covenant fulfillment and end of exile. As with Paul, this—not the personal narrative of sin and salvation— is the context in accordance with which the “gospel” must be understood.
This fact becomes abundantly clear when one turns to verses 14-15, where Mark simultaneously rounds off his prologue and introduces his account of Jesus’ early Galilean ministry (1:14-3:6).[xiv] Mark’s text reads as follows:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Especially noteworthy is the inclusio between verses 1 and 14-15. The “gospel of God”[xv] that Jesus proclaimed is in some sense related to the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” which defines the content of Mark’s literary work. What this “gospel” entails is spelled out in verse 15 in two mutually interpreting clauses:
· “The time is fulfilled” (peplērōtai ho kairos)
· “The kingdom of God has drawn near”
The Markan Jesus here paints a picture of a period of time, sovereignly fixed by God, which had run its course and reached its completion.[xvi] The precise period envisaged is indicated by the following, explanatory clause, “the kingdom … has drawn near.” Therefore, what had drawn to a close was the measure of time assigned by God for the fulfillment of his promise of the kingdom. The completion of this time implies that the period of anticipation was over and, consequently, that the time to which the Old Testament had pointed, the eschaton, was “near.”
The juxtaposition of the notions of “fulfillment” and “nearness” is intriguing. At the very least, the perfect tense verb ēngiken (“has drawn near”) denotes the nearness of imminent arrival. On such an understanding, Jesus would be announcing that his hearers had reached the threshold of the promised kingdom. However, the previous mention of “fulfillment” more likely points to the nearness of an arrival that had already taken place. Indeed, if the time before the kingdom had reached its completion, the time of the kingdom had, for all intents and purposes, begun. Though Jesus’ audience was not aware of it, Mark’s readers already know that this Jesus is the promised “Messiah” and “Son of God.” The promised king was in their midst. Consequently, they were on the cusp of the inauguration of the kingdom of God.[xvii] This indeed was “good news” to a people still in the de facto grip of exile even while living in their homeland. The only proper response to this gripping message was, as Jesus demanded, to “believe” in this gospel and, as Deuteronomy demanded of the exiled nation, to “repent” and turn back to God.
Years ago Rudolf Bultmann famously noted the phenomenon found in a comparison of Mark 1:1 and 1:14-15, to wit, that “the proclaimer became the proclaimed.”[xviii] All depends, of course, on how this eventuality arose. Bultmann himself, of course, was uninterested in the so-called “historical Jesus,” finding significance in a “Christ of faith” stripped of Jewish particularity and demythologized so as to discern the existential significance of the Hellenistic and/or Gnostic myths he believed lay behind New Testament Christology. What was significant for Bultmann was the bare fact that Jesus proclaimed the radical demand of God.
How different is Mark’s presentation! For the oldest Evangelist, Jesus the proclaimer became the proclaimed one because, through his Messianic ministry, death, and resurrection, he brought about the inauguration of the very kingdom of God promised in the Old Testament and for which so many Jews of his day were hoping and willing to die. Not only did Jesus embody this kingdom in his teaching and healing, but he came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This famous saying, in which Jesus, as usual, refers to himself as the “Son of Man”—alluding to the Danielic human figure who represents the people and is granted kingly dominion—transparently defines his Messianic mission in terms of the enigmatic suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12.[xix] Isaiah 40-55 (or 40-66), as I have argued, provides the foundation both of the New Testament concept of “gospel” and of Paul’s understanding of the “righteousness of God.” And it is precisely through the suffering of the servant of YHWH as a guilt offering that the promises of Israel’s eschatological salvation were to be accomplished.
Much more could be said, of course. But, I believe, enough has been said to demonstrate that Mark’s understanding of the gospel is of a piece with that articulated by Paul. The gospel is ultimately the message that the promised kingdom of God had come via the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. This is good news indeed for all sinners who stand guilty before God by virtue of their sin. But one has not grasped the entirety of the gospel if one leaves it at the level of the “salvation” of the individual. For the gospel is all about God’s faithfulness to his plan for the world. His ultimate goal, as we read in Isaiah, is to create new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22). The resurrection of King Jesus—the very dawn of that new creation— was the decisive step in the inauguration of the promised kingdom. But not all is as it will be. In the meantime, as Tom Wright is fond of saying, the duty of those who are now beneficiaries of Christ’s death and resurrection must work for that kingdom, implementing, as it were, the victory he achieved. And this will involve, as Mark so skillfully teaches, the adoption of the very cross-shaped pattern of life and service undertaken by the Lord himself (cf., e.g., Mark 10:35-45). The benefits offered by the gospel are free, but accepting them comes with a cost: one’s very life.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:34-36)
May we who hear the gospel message both see its glory and count its cost. Soli Deo Gloria!
[i] The terminology is that of Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). McKnight’s study has provided the impetus for my various explorations of this topic. The term “soterians” is derived from the Greek swthrίa, “salvation.”
[ii] I have used the dual terminology of provision/accomplishment and appropriation/application so as to encompass Arminians and Calvinists alike, both of whom have predominantly defined the gospel in soterian terms.
[iii] This is where the controversy over the not-so-new “New Perspective on Paul” fits the discussion. Rightly understood, the “New Perspective,” especially in the versions of Jimmy Dunn and Tom Wright, provides a corrective or nuancing to certain traditional Protestant emphases without overthrowing Luther’s fundamental soteriological insights. I am thinking especially of Galatians here, which—at least from the time of Luther and Calvin—has been interpreted by Protestants as if it were written directly to address the problems of late Medieval Catholicism; i.e., it has often been assumed that the “false gospel” of the Galatian “agitators” was a message of “works salvation,” as if their demand for Gentile Christian circumcision was a call for human “achievement” that could putatively “merit” their salvation. I deal with this exhaustively in my “‘No One Is Justified by Works of the Law’ (Gal 2:16a): The Nature and Rationale of Paul’s Polemic against Works of the Law in the Epistle to the Galatians” (Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1996).
[iv] The earliest witness of such terminology is Justin Martyr who, in his First Apology, describes them as being “called Gospels” (ἃtina kaleῖtai eὐaggelίa) (1 Apol. 66.3). By describing them in that way he thereby indicates that this designation was common practice at the time and thus shows that he was not an innovator in using such terminology. Earlier, the heretic Marcion (ca. 144CE) produced a truncated version of the Gospel of Luke which he designated “the Gospel” (tὸ eὐaggέlion).
[v] Recent investigations have tended to confirm the view that the Gospels fit broadly within the genre of Greco-Roman biography (Greek bios/Roman vita). Cf. David E. Aune, The New Testament and its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 17-76; and especially Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004); Claire K. Rothschild, Luke-Acts and the Rhetoric of History (WUNT 2/175; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004). Of course, care must be taken to assure that such genres as “biography” and “history” are not understood anachronistically in terms of 21st century historiography, let alone the modernist, positivist understanding still regnant in some circles.
[vi] Justin Martyr refers to them in this way 15 times. E.g., 1 Apol. 66.3; 67.3. Cf. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), who argues persuasively that this is how the Evangelists intended their works to be understood.
[vii] The title “son of God” (uἱoῦ qeoῦ) is omitted by א, q, and Origen, among other ancient witnesses, and thus is considered inauthentic by, inter alia, Bart Ehrman, “The Text of Mark in the Hands of the Orthodox,” Lutheran Quarterly 5 (1991) 143-56 (149-52); and Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1999) 141. It is granted that fatigue may seem to be an unlikely cause of unintentional scribal omission this early in a manuscript. Nevertheless, not only external attestation (א1, (A), B. D L, W) but internal evidence as well strongly supports its inclusion: Mark uses the title to introduce Jesus in 1:11 and has the Roman centurion confess that Jesus was the “Son of God” in the Gospel’s climactic scene in 15:39. Despite the early location in the book, the series of six genitives ending in Οϒ, the last four of which would have been abbreviated as nomina sacra to ΙϒΧϒϒϒΘϒ, make the situation ripe for homoioteleuton (in this case, unintentional omission due to the same or similar endings of words). Cf. C. H. Turner, “Marcan Usage: Notes, Critical and Exegetical, on the Second Gospel,” JTS 26 (1925) 145-56 (150), followed by most subsequent commentators.
[viii] E.g., Willi Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel (trans. J. Boyce et al.; New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1969 ) 125; R. Pesch, Das Markusevangelium (HTKNT 2/1-2; Freiburg: Herder, 1977) 1:74-75; J. Gnilka, Das Evangelium nach Markus (EKK 2/1-2; Zürich: Benzinger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Verlag, 1979) 1:42; Marcus, Mark 1-8, 145 (Mark 1:1 has a double reference both to Mark’s prologue and the book as a whole).
[ix] Key here is the conjunction kaqὼς (“just as”), which introduces the following conflated citation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. As Bob Gundry has definitively argued, “kaqὼς-clauses always depend on the preceding, as they usually do in other, associated literature, particularly when followed as here by gέgraptai, ‘it is written’ …” (Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993] 30). The “beginning” of the gospel must therefore be limited to the introductory events narrated in the following verses. Mark’s theological point in introducing the scriptural quotation is that the “beginning of the gospel,” which includes at least the narrative of John’s ministry as forerunner, corresponds to what God had promised his people in the distant past through the prophets. What follows is then the transcript of fulfilled prophetic expectations.
[x] Gundry, Mark, 31.
[xi] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to St. Mark (CGTC; Cambridge: CUP, 1959) 34; Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 158 n.81; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (BNTC; London: A & C Black, 1991) 33.
[xii] Leander Keck, “The Introduction to Mark’s Gospel,” NTS 12 (1966) 352-70 (359-62); Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1:1-8:26 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1989) 9-10; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002) 51.
[xiii] Cf. Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (trans. John Bowden; Harrisburg, Pa.: TPI, 2000) 91-2: Mark is a “‘kerygmatic biography’ of Jesus Christ, which in its narrative proclaims God’s eschatological act of redemption and calls to faith.”
[xiv] For the transitional function of these two verses, cf. Norman Perrin and D. C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction, Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (2nd ed.; New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1982) 239-40; followed by Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (WUNT 2/88; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) 93-95.
[xv] Whether the genitive toῦ qeoῦ should be understood as an objective genitive (“good news” about God) or a genitive of source (‘good news” coming from God) is ultimately irrelevant in that both notions imply the other.
[xvi] The verb peplήrwtai is an intensive perfect.
[xvii] Hence the propriety of Matthew’s consistent redaction of Mark’s “gospel” to “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14).
[xviii] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (2 vols.; trans. Kendrick Grobel; New York: Scribner’s, 1951-55) 1:33.
[xix] This is argued most persuasively by Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus, 270-87.