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Understanding the Gospels: Part 3

Introduction

I am seeking to write a series of blog posts that illuminate the context of the gospel narratives. The more we understand the cultural, historical, religious, social, and political setting of the gospels, the more we will be able to interpret and apply the gospel message accurately. If you missed the earlier posts, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This post focuses on the Jewish background and understanding of the Messiah and His Kingdom. We will also briefly explore the implications of “good news” language. I want to say up front that these posts are summaries of these concepts. Theses posts are not exhaustive. Each of the topics I have covered here have been explored by others. There have been thousands and thousands of pages written on the gospels, the Jewish context, and themes like the Messiah, the Kingdom, and Good News. Consequently, there is a diversity of views. My hope and aim is to provide a quick resource for better understanding Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Good News, the Messiah, and a Kingdom

Each of the “Gospels” contain the “good news” of what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ. However, Mark’s gospel most explicitly identifies itself as a “gospel.” The Gospel of Mark opens with the words, “The beginning of the gospel (εὐαγγελίου, euaggelion) of Jesus Christ (Χριστοῦ, Christos), the Son of God.” (v. 1). The opening line of Mark’s gospel is loaded with meaning and implications. The Greek word translated as “gospel” could also be translated as “good news.” In the Roman world, “Good News” was announced when a Caesar was born or Roman victory won. “The Roman emperor is referred to as ‘Savior’ and ‘Lord,’ one who has ushered in peace, the pax Romana.[1] The “good news” of Jesus the Christ (Messiah), stands in contrast to the Roman powers that be which represent much of the world’s way of exerting power and authority. This statement about Jesus contrasts the presumption of Caesar Augustus who claims to be a god by asserting that Jesus is the one true God. Jesus is Savior and Lord, not Caesar.

We must not miss the cultural implications embedded within the gospel declaration. The gospel of Jesus Christ not only contrasts the way of Caesar, it is opposed to it. The gospel has the audacity to say that Jesus is King, even when, by all appearances, it seems another power reigns. The gospel of Jesus contrasts the way of violence, political power, and affluence. One only needs to read Matthew 5-7 to discover that Jesus teaches a way that is quite foreign to the natural human inclinations. “Love your enemy and pray for those who hurt you” (5:44), “give to one who begs from you” (5:41), and “forgive others… or forgiveness will allude you” (6:14-15, paraphrase). The gospel is not a set of beliefs that we are to cognitively affirm. The gospel is a truth claim about another reality—another way.

In addition to the political implications of “good news” sort of language, the announcement of “Good News” and the direct reference to Isaiah in Mark’s gospel would have brought to mind for the Jewish audience Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

The opening of Mark connects the “good news” about Jesus the Christ to the redemptive hope proclaimed in the OT.

The term “Christ” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ “mashiyach” or “Messiah.” “Messiah” refers to one who has been anointed and consecrated to serve a special purpose. Kings, priests, prophets, and even the patriarchs are referred to as the anointed of God – in one instance even a foreign king is referred to as God’s anointed (Isaiah 45:1).

The concept of a Messianic hope is rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham. The idea of God establishing a people for Himself who were born of the line Abraham is the foundation for the Messianic hope. N. T. Wright explains,

“Shimmering like a mirage in the deserts through which Abraham wandered was the vision of a new world, a rescued world, a world blessed by the creator once more, a world of justice, where God and his people would live in harmony, where human relationships would flourish, where beauty would triumph over ugliness. It would be a world in which the voices that echo in all human consciousness would blend together and be heard as the voice of the living God.”[2]

Messianic hope is also tied to God’s promise to David that He would establish David’s throne forever: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). During the period of the Exile, the concept of the Messiah evolved. Many of the OT prophets began to paint a picture of a Davidic King who would restore Israel. Specifically, Isaiah’s grand vision of the Messiah in Isaiah 9 painted a picture of a King from the line of David who would establish God’s Kingdom in righteousness and justice.

Some envisioned the Messiah coming like a warrior, fighting on Israel’s behalf. The Messiah was supposed to come and establish the Kingdom of God. The establishment of God’s Kingdom meant that God would put the world to rights. Evil doers would be brought to justice, and peace would reign on earth again. The idea of the Messiah became somewhat nationalistic over time. The Messiah would come and destroy Israel’s enemies and establish an earthly Kingdom in which Israel would be the primary benefactor. This is, in larger part, why Jesus was unrecognized as the Messiah by some. It is also why at the last supper Peter exclaims that he would die with Jesus (Matt. 26:35, Mark 14:31, Lk.22:33, Jn. 13:37). Peter thought they were about to go to war and the idea of dying heroically by Jesus’ side was something Peter was indeed ready to do. When Jesus didn’t follow through in the way Peter thought he would, Peter’s boldness dissolved.

I believe that today, we too often misunderstand the mission and person of Jesus Christ. We have reduced the gospel to a few beliefs about individual rescue from hell. Certainly the good news of Jesus is, in part, that we can be reconciled to God in a right relationship that gives birth to eternal life. However, the gospel also has implications for how we live right now. If you read the gospels you will not find a “sinner’s prayer” and you will find very little talk about the gospel as we typically define it. You will find Jesus talking a lot about the Kingdom of God. You will find that Jesus says a lot of upside down sort of things about how this Kingdom works. “The last will be first” (Matt. 20:16), “the Kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and unholy people like “tax collectors and prostitutes” get the kingdom before the religious (Matt. 21:31).

Jesus also spent an inordinate amount of time around the marginalized of society. The “good news,” even in the OT, was about freedom, liberation, and rescue. Not just from the moral effects of sin or the eternal consequences of sin. The salvific hope of the gospel is about freedom from the dominion of darkness. The gospel is about the upending of the kingdom of darkness. There is hope for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the sick, the weary, the prodigal, the “unclean,” and the outcast. This why arguments about whether being faithful to the gospel means that we need to preach to “save souls” or that we need to pour ourselves in to “social justice” issues are unproductive. Missiologist David Bosch states it well:

Those who know that God will one day wipe away all tears will not accept with resignation the tears of those who suffer and are oppressed now. Anyone who knows that one day there will be no more disease can and must actively anticipate the conquest of disease in individual and society now. And anyone who believes that the enemy of God and humans will be vanquished will already oppose him now in his machinations in family and society. For all of this has to do with salvation.[3]

The gospel is proclaimed in word and deed. It is both announced and demonstrated.

The radical claim of the gospels is that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God who inaugurated the Kingdom of God. What then is the nature of the “gospel”? The “gospel” is that “Our God reigns!” Jesus opens his ministry announcing, “’The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (v. 15). The good news is that God’s future kingdom is being inaugurated in and through the person of Jesus Christ!

Jesus did not come to establish an earthly Kingdom. Rather, the Kingdom of God is both a place and something more, something transcendent. Jesus came to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:6-7).

Conclusion

Jesus often declared that “The time has come…” (Mark 1:15). The implications of the phrase, “The time has come,” is that this declaration is an announcement about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. The OT prophecies about Israel’s future redemption and salvation have come to pass. “Against the background of the OT expectations of the coming rule of God, the NT declares that Jesus of Nazareth is the bringer of the kingdom…While Jewish expectations focused on political solutions to the problem of foreign dominations, Jesus was the kingdom in person.”[4] This declaration is followed by the invitation to “Repent and believe.” Repentance has to do with turning away from something for the purpose of turning towards something else.

The invitation of the gospel is to believe in the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ. Believing Jesus is king demands that we submit to his rule and reign in our lives which requires that we “turn” from our selfishness and sin. It also means that we are participants in God’s redemptive message. A gospel message that simply invites a person to believe a set of doctrines for eternal glory in heaven, but does not also invite the person to reorient their entire life according to the way of the Kingdom, in my honest and sincere opinion, misses the good news. Likewise, a gospel message that allows people to sit idly by waiting for God’s great evacuation misses the point of the mission. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus clearly connects the gospel to social justice issues:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,     and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

In a similar manner, when John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus asking whether he is really the Messiah, Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

The church can be a credible sacrament of salvation for the world only when it displays to humanity a glimmer of God’s imminent reign—a kingdom of reconciliation, peace, and new life. In the here and now, that reign comes wherever Christ overcomes the power of evil. This happens (or should happen!) most visibly in the church.[5]

Questions

  1. How does the cultural background of “good news” language illuminate your understanding of the gospel message? How do you think Roman citizens would have responded to a message that declares Jesus is Lord and not Caesar?

  2. In what ways does Jesus’ Good News of the Kingdom contrast or support your understanding of the “Good News”?

  3. In a world with hot button issues like immigration, refugees, and racial reconciliation, and in a world where things like sex trafficking, global poverty, and war run rampant—how does the Gospel message confront the powers of darkness? How does the gospel of Jesus invite us to approach these issues?

[1] Bartholomew, C. G. & Goheen, M. W. (2004. The Drama of Scripture. Baker Academic. (p. 139)

[2] Wright, N. T. (2010) Simply Christian. Harper One.

[3]Bosch, D. (1998). Transforming Mission. Orbis Books. (pg. 400)

[4] Alexander, T. D., & Rosner, B. S. (2000). New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Inter-Varsity (pg. 619).

[5] Bosch, D. (1998). Transforming Mission. Orbis Books. (pg. 377)

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