Mark Three: A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
Mark Three: A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
by William Klock
Faithful preaching of God’s word is the first mark of a healthy and faithful church. These last two Sundays we’ve begun to explore what that looks like. First, we saw that we must preach the word in such a way that we give it priority and let it be our guide, and that means that we commit ourselves to preaching expositionally. And last Sunday I talked about the importance of allowing the Bible, as we preach it and immerse ourselves in it, to shape and define our understanding of God. The Bible is, after all, his revelation of himself to us. We cannot know him apart from his word. And that leads us to today’s topic: A healthy church will have a Bible-informed understanding of the gospel. Now, no one ever sets out deliberately to preach an unbiblical gospel, but that doesn’t mean such things aren’t preached. Sometimes we unwittingly allow unbiblical cultural ideas, values, and philosophies to colour our gospel. Sometimes, when the Church is beset by controversy over gospel issues, we can over-react to one error by falling into its opposite. Sometimes the errors are small, but sometimes they’re great—to the point of apostasy. The antidote, Brothers and Sistes, is to preach God’s word faithfully and systematically.
So what is the gospel? Our English word “gospel” is from Old English god spel, literally meaning “good news”. The Greek word used by the New Testament writers and the ancient Jewish translators of the Old Testament is euangelion. Originally euangelion was the reward that was given to someone for bringing good news, but by the time the Bible was written it had come to mean the good news itself. The related verb, euangelizo, means to proclaim this good news. This is where we get the English word “evangelical”. We are people of the good news. This is a good place to start. The gospel is good news. For example, think back to the death of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel. David mourned their deaths and the messengers came with the news, he said:
Tell it not in Geth, and proclaim it not in the exits of Ascalon…lest daughters of the uncircumcised exult. (2 Samuel 1:20 NETS)
In the Greek Old Testament, when it says “proclaim”, it’s using this word for proclaiming good news. The Philistines would take the death of Saul as good news. When the messenger brought this news to David, he thought it was good news, too. David’s enemy had been defeated. Now, for personal reasons David didn’t take it that way. To him it was bad news, but he knew that to everyone else it was good news—a victory had been won and that victory meant things were about to change. And, notice, the natural thing to do with good news is to proclaim it. The heralds were ready to do just that until David told them not to.
Or think of Isaiah. Israel had been defeated, but he saw a vision of Jerusalem as the herald of good news. The Lord would come and deliver his people from their exile.
Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)
And Isaiah uses this concept as he envisions the messenger, running across the mountains with this good news:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)
Something was about to happen. The Lord was going to act and he would act in such a way that things would never be the same. God was finally going to take up his throne as King. This is exactly what Jesus had in mind when we read Mark’s account of him saying:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
The Lord was about to act. Specifically, he was about to act as King in such a way that everything was about to change. And Jesus isn’t just saying that people in Judea needed to “believe” in the sense of giving their intellectual assent to some new theological truth. When “good news” happens, it’s a world-changing event. To “believe” means to change one’s life in order to take part in what’s about to happen and be part of its benefits. In Jesus, God was becoming king—as he had promised so long before. To refuse to believe, to refuse to recognise this change and this new reality is, at best, to be left behind and, at worst, well…it wasn’t good. Let’s look at how the Greeks and Romans used this term, “gospel”.
If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Mankiewicz’ 1963 Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, you know something about the aftermath of the Roman civil war. On the death of Julius Caesar the Empire was plunged into conflict. On one side was Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and on the other his friend, Mark Antony. Octavian defeated Antony in a great naval battle at Actium. Antony fled to Egypt, where he eventually committed suicide with Cleopatra. Octavian was enthroned as Caesar Augustus and euangelion—the good news—was proclaimed throughout the empire. Augustus had defeated the enemies of Rome. He had brought peace at last and, with it, prosperity. He even started using the title “son of God”. He was the saviour of the empire.
Now, what did this good news mean to the people of the empire? Imagine if you’d been a local official or ruler and you’d been a firm supporter of Mark Antony during the war. The good news about Caesar Augustus meant that everything had changed and you had to make a choice. There was no continuing on supporting the losing side. That was treason and it would lead to only one thing: execution. This was the choice King Herod faced when this good news reached him. He’d backed Antony. He was no dummy. Hearing the news, he went straight to the new Caesar and pledged his loyalty. The world had changed and he committed himself to the side where he got to live—and keep his throne.
So, now, think about “good news”. It means that something has happened—or is happening or is about to happen—something that changes everything. Nothing will ever be the same again and, in light of it, everyone has got to make a choice. There’s no fence sitting. And there are consequences if you make the wrong choice. If Herod, for example, had continued to back Antony’s forces it would have meant the end of Herod. In Jesus, Israel’s God has become King and he calls for our allegiance—to him, to his kingdom, to everything it stands for. Sin and death are defeated and everything about the world that was shaped by them is being undone by Jesus and his act of new creation. The gospel calls us to make a choice, to announce our allegiance. Do we continue to give our allegiance to—as we say in our baptism—the world, the flesh, and the devil, or to Jesus, his new creation, and the Holy Spirit?
And this points to something else important about the gospel. Good news isn’t quietly whispered. It’s always proclaimed. It’s announced with great fanfare. The announcement that Jesus is Lord, that in him the God of Israel has come as King, that’s not some private truth to keep to ourselves or to whisper to our friends. But that’s not far off from how many people treat it. Something changed in the first half of the Twentieth Century and we started talking about “sharing” the gospel. Christians had never used that kind of language before. But it goes along with a shift that slowly took place over the last two hundred years or so. Instead of seeing the gospel as good news, we started treating it instead like good advice. We’ve made this shift subtly in how we do evangelism. We often present the gospel—the good news about Jesus—as if it’s just another offering on the religious or philosophical smorgasbord and suggest that people give Jesus a try. Maybe they’ll like him and believe—or maybe they won’t, which would be sad, but…whatever. But, Brothers and Sisters, the gospel is not good advice. It’s not like a stock tip or a life hack or a new recipe. It’s good news. It’s not just a message that will change your life. It’s a message that will change your life, because it’s a message that in Jesus the whole world has changed.
Consider Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2. He starts out:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. (Acts 2:14)
I think we pass over this introduction too quickly in order to get to the meat of his sermon, but notice how he proclaims this good news like the royal herald that he is. This isn’t a good piece of advice. It's not a pro tip. It’s not something that might be worth giving a shot. It's good news. It demands action. And Peter goes on, reminding the people of the promises the Lord had made to Israel—promises to set things to rights by sending his King. He tells them:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
“You killed him,” Peter says, “but God raised him up.” What does that mean? Peter, again, looks back to the promises God had made to Israel—particularly through David. For Peter, Jesus’ death was vitally important, but the crucifixion of Jesus wasn’t the thing that changed the world. Ultimately, it was his resurrection from the dead that did that. In his resurrection, Peter says, God has loosed the pangs of death. By his resurrection, he says, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God and given to his people the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has fulfilled all the Lord’s promises. But Peter ends with the most powerful note of all in verse 36:
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and [Messiah], this Jesus whom you crucified.”
By raising Jesus from the dead, God has declared him to be Lord and Messiah—to be not just any king, but to be the King—the one who will set all to rights—not just his people, but eventually the whole of this broken creation.
The crowd, Luke says, were cut to the heart and asked Peter what they should do. In other words, they knew this good news meant that the world has changed and they wanted to know what they had to do to in response. And Peter says to them in verses 38-39:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Luke says about three thousand were baptised that day. But what did Peter mean by “repent and be baptised”? To repent is to turn around. The good news is the announcement that in Jesus the world has changed, there’s a new King, and God’s kingdom is breaking in. The good news calls us to turn aside and to leave behind the old regime, the old order—our rebellion, our sin, our idolatry—and to take hold of the new King and his kingdom in faith. In Jesus, God has become king. Peter’s sermon is incredibly important, because in it he reminds us of what the Lord had promised to Israel, and then he explains that it has all been fulfilled or is in the process of being fulfilled by Jesus—and those promises point to what the good news is all about. The promises remind us that what Jesus has done is far bigger and all-encompassing than what we often think. It’s about all of creation being set right and made new. It’s about Jesus binding the devil and triumphing over the powers and principalities that have corrupted this world. It’s about the old gods being cast down and the true God being raised up. It’s about humanity being made right with God to finally live in his presence and to take up our vocation again—the one that Adam and Eve rejected—to be his image-bearers, the priests of his temple, as we steward his creation. It’s about heaven and earth, about God and man finally being reunited.
Jews knew that one day God would set things right and that when he did so he would judge—and destroy—everything and everyone who was opposed to him. They called that day “the day of the Lord”. Throughout his ministry Jesus warned that it was coming—and soon. When he warned about the easy way that leads to destruction and urged people to follow him on the hard and narrow way that leads to life, that’s what he was talking about. He was pointing to the events we read about in our study of Revelation when Jerusalem and the temple were thrown down by the Romans as an act of judgement by God on his unbelieving people—much as he’d done six centuries earlier, although that time it had been the Babylonians. Jesus wasn’t warning about some event thousands of years in the future. He was warning of a judgement that was just around the corner. That judgement certainly foreshadows that last great day of final judgement when every last enemy of God will be wiped from creation. But Jesus—and Peter—were focused on Israel and her near future. Again, Peter’s hearers were cut to the heart, because they realised that this is what Peter was talking about too. They wanted to know how to escape the coming judgement and to be part of God’s new people in the age to come.
If people thought the victory of Octavian over Antony was a world-shaking event—so much so that King Herod went to grovel before the new emperor that he might have a place in it, imagine how much greater, how all-encompassing this good news about Jesus is. If the Lord was going to come with both salvation and judgement to set Israel to rights and to deal with the unrepentant in her midst, one day he will surely do the same for the whole world.
This ought to put our attention on another aspect of the good news. Herod could only speculate about where he stood with Octavian. He could very easily have gone home headless. By his resurrection Jesus has inaugurated God’s new world, and Brothers and Sisters, by his death he has shown his mercy. We need but repent—to turn aside from the old gods, the old ways, the old systems—to believe—to take hold of him in faith and to give him our allegiance, and we can be sure of where we stand before him. The first step we take after repentance is to be baptised. The waters of baptism hold his promise of forgiveness and new life and as we pass through them in faith, he washes us clean and fills us with his Spirit. He makes us his own. As St. Paul writes in Romans:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15)
Jesus’ Father becomes our Father and he loves us as he loves his own son.
But speaking of Paul… How do the Gentiles find a place in this good news. Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. He came in fulfilment of the Lord’s promises to Israel. Even in his death by crucifixion, he died the very death that the unbelieving Jewish rebels would suffer a generation later when God’s judgement fell on Jerusalem. Jesus and the good news are integrally tied to Israel and to Israel’s story. How is it good news for the rest of the world? We see the struggle in Acts. The Spirit all but summoned Peter and John to Samaria. The good news had reached people there and they believed, but—a mystery to the apostles—they did not receive the Spirit. The apostles had to go and lay hands on these new non-Jewish believers. It was a not-so-subtle hint from the Spirit that the good news was for everyone. An angel directed Philip to his meeting with a man from Ethiopia. The Spirit had to convince Peter, against everything he thought he knew was right, to go to the home of Cornelius, a gentile centurion. And what was to be done with these gentile converts? Did they have to become Jews first? Be circumcised, keep the law, and all of that. And then along came Paul. Or, more precisely, along came the risen Messiah to meet Paul on the road to Damascus.
Maybe more than anyone else, Paul realised just how much the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” The resurrection of Jesus was just like that for Paul. And Paul realised that if the Lord’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus, in his resurrection, and in the outpouring of the Spirit to create this new people of God called the Church, then all of this was for the gentiles too. Israel had always been called to be a light to the nations and so too must this new Israel. Paul thought back to the Lord’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus—something that shaped Israel’s identity and is there behind so much of Paul’s writing. The Lord delivered his people from their bondage and in doing so, he made his might and his glory known to the nations—especially to Egypt. Her king and her gods were exposed for the powerless frauds they were. And yet there was no mass conversion of the Egyptians in the wake of the Exodus. The whole thing was an embarrassment that they expunged from their records so that they could continue in the idolatry.
But Paul recognized that in Jesus and in this new exodus, there was a new element that had been missing in the old and that was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Paul knew that this good news about a crucified Messiah was, as he writes to the Corinthians “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). A crucified Messiah was blasphemy to the Jews. And it was just stupid nonsense to the gentiles. Paul knew this first hand. The Jews stoned him for the things he said and the Gentiles threw him in jail. “But,” he goes on in that same verse, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the Messiah—the power of God and the wisdom of God.” That was the key—those who are called, those in whom the Spirit of God is at work.
How does the Spirit work? It seems like it’s different for everyone. For Paul it was the realization that Jesus really had risen from the dead and that that truth changed everything he’d ever known. He had to go off by himself for a few years to work it all through, but work it through he did. For others it was simply the realization that in Jesus the God of Israel was truly at work. This time the Gentiles saw the God of Israel in this mighty act of redemption that proved his faithfulness to his promises and instead of forgetting about it like the Egyptians had so long ago, they recognized the living God and they threw all their idols away. For others it was the fact that in Jesus, God drew near. By his Spirit they somehow knew him and experienced him—something that never happened with the pagan gods. Paul recognized that this good news was for everyone. As he wrote to the Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Jesus the Messiah. (Galatians 3:28)
This time the gentiles saw the mighty and saving deeds of the God of Israel and they believed—because of the Spirit—and they were welcomed into this new people of God to share in the forgiveness and the new life and the future hope that Jesus had given them.
But, in closing, what’s the significance? Where does the good news take us? What are we supposed to do with it? If we understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus give us a place in the renewed people of God and that Jesus is setting everything to rights, that itself should point us in the right direction. The problem is that in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, liberal Protestants largely turned the gospel into a message of good works—and then, gradually, those good works became more and more like the values of secular culture and Leftist politics and Jesus became nothing more than an example. In response, fundamentalists and evangelicals rightly re-emphasised the personal and spiritual nature of redemption and the forgiveness of sins, but often over-reacted when it came to the good works. We’ve made the gospel a message very narrowly of forgiveness of sin and restored fellowship with God. Salvation should result in a changed life and good works, but we’ve stressed—wrongly—that those good works are the fruit of the gospel, but not the gospel itself. So on one side the gospel is proclaimed as a message of public welfare and on the other as a personal or private spirituality. Then, throw into that mix the misconception that the end goal of all of this is someday to leave this world behind so that we can live a kind of disembodied spiritual existence in heaven, and we make a right mess of the gospel.
Brothers and Sisters, this is why we’ve got to preach the scriptures—so that we remember the big story. This is what Peter did on Pentecost. And when we do that we find that this faithful God we spoke about last Sunday has been working all along not to give us a plan to escape this fallen Creation, but rather a means to set this fallen creation to rights and us along with it. We’re creation’s stewards—or at least that’s what we were created to be—but we rebelled and made a mess of everything. And so the Lord has called a people through whom he will work, and he’s sent his Messiah to set us to rights, to fill us with his Spirit, and to get us back on task: to make him known, to do justice and mercy in this world, to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and to proclaim his King in the knowledge that the same Spirit who is in us, is also working in the hearts of men and women around the world, men and women just waiting to hear our proclamation of the good news about Jesus. Men and women read to believe, to repent, to be baptised, to join in the life and work of the kingdom—they simply need to hear our proclamation of this good news. It is a stumbling block and it is foolishness to many, but to those who are called, to those in whom the Spirit is at work, it is the power of God—for our salvation and for the salvation of the whole world.
As we’ve seen recently in Revelation, Jesus has prepared the way. He has bound the devil and brought low the principalities and powers that once held this world captive. This is the good news: that Jesus died for our sins and was raised by God, victorious over sin and death. He is the Messiah—the Lord, the King—and he is making all things new. This new creation, our hope is summed up in those words of the Lord’s prayer: on earth as in heaven. Those words ought to shape us as gospel people. Don’t just pray them. Live them. For the sake of the world, lift the veil and show the world a glimpse of God’s new creation. And while you do it, remember that we are royal heralds of the King, commissioned to proclaim this good news to everyone around us.
Let’s pray: Merciful Father, we thank you this morning that you have made Jesus your King. By his death you give a means of forgiveness and reconciliation and by his resurrection you’ve restored to us the life we had once rejected in our rebellion against you. We thank you for those in whom you have worked by your word and Spirit who proclaimed this good news to us. And we pray that your word and Spirit will now be at work in us to make us the gospel people you desire us to be. Renew our hearts. Turn them ever more towards you. Strengthen our allegiance to Jesus and fill our heats with love for you. Make us a people full of life and of hope, a people of mercy and love and grace, a holy people—an on-earth-as-in-heaven people eager to show the world your kingdom and to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord. Through him we pray. Amen.