In various classes I have taught (in Theology and Bible) I have tried to communicate—in different ways—a thoroughly biblical understanding of a basic question: “What is the gospel?” It is a good question, and may take a tad more thought than one initially realizes. If I were to ask such a question in a Sunday School class or Bible study, I might get a variety of answers: “Christ has died for us”; “Jesus is the way to heaven”; “The only way to get to the Father is through the Son”; and more. And those are all true answers. But they may not quite grapple with all that the Bible seems to mean when it speaks of the “gospel.”
Is there a way to think about the gospel in relationship to loving our neighbors? Or is the “gospel” simply a “vertical” reality while loving our neighbor is a “horizontal” issue—and never the twain shall meet? I hope to show that what God does in the gospel has direct ramifications and implications for how we love our neighbors. We get a glimpse of how the “vertical” and “horizontal” are rightly linked in texts like John 13:34–35 where Jesus gives a “new command” that Jesus’ followers are to love each other: “just as I have loved you, you are also are to love another.”
One should be careful about criticizing such answers, for at least one very good reason: the Bible itself at times seems quite happy to speak in a kind of short-hand way about the gospel. A few examples:
- 1 Corinthians 15:1–11: Here Paul summarizes the gospel in four key truths: (1) the death of Christ (according to the Scriptures); (2) the burial of Christ; (3) the resurrection of Christ (according to the Scriptures); and (4) the many appearances of Christ.
- Acts 2:22–24: Here Peter can say that (1) God delivered Jesus up “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” that Peter’s listeners “crucified and killed” Jesus, and that “God raised him up.” In short, the gospel seems to be summarized in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ, which was a part of God’s plan.
- Mark 1:14–15: Mark records: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” Here we see an emphasis on a certain understanding of “fulfilled” time, the Kingdom of God, and the necessity of repentance and belief in the gospel.
If we go back to the Old Testament, we might consider passages from Isaiah:
- Isaiah 52:1–10: Here the Lord appears to be speaking of some future situation in the life of the people of God. Although they will be taken into captivity, there is a blessed future beyond their Babylonian captivity. God will vindicate his name (v. 6): “my people shall know my name,” and “in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.” There is one coming who will bring “good news,” “good news of happiness” (v. 7). This bringer of good news “publishes salvation,” and says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” And indeed “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (v. 10).
What would we say if someone said to us: “How in the world might I hold 1 Corinthians 15:1–11, Acts 2:22–24, Mark 1:14–15, and Isaiah 52:1–10 together?” At first glance we might struggle a bit. And it probably shows that the question “What is the Gospel?” may take some real thought if we are to answer it correctly.
But I want to pick up on a key theme or two in this article. We see in Mark 1:14–15 that somehow wrapped up with the gospel is the theme of kingdom, and the necessity of repenting and believing. Thus, we see that in sharing the gospel there is inherent to gospel communication an explicit call to respond to the gospel: one must believe and repent.
In Isaiah 52:7, we see that the “good news” that the messenger brings includes the announcement, “Your God reigns” (and in the immediate context, this phrase is seemingly coupled in Isaiah 52:7 with the messenger publishing “salvation”). But what exactly is the “good news”? What is “gospel” about the fact that “God reigns”? Let us say that I am talking to my non-Christian friend, and I am trying to share Christ with him. Might I simply say to my friend, based on Isaiah 52:7, “God reigns”? Perhaps. But we all know intuitively that I would want to communicate this biblical truth in relationship to a broad constellation of biblical truths, and that the whole matrix of biblical truths need to be understood as—in B.B. Warfield’s older term—a “concatenated whole.” That is, I would be working out of a biblical-theological-systematic framework which attempts to relate a myriad of biblical truths together.
When we bring Isaiah 52:7 (“Your God reigns”) into a particular evangelistic encounter, perhaps the following is going on: A part of the gospel message is that God is the creator and ruler of the universe. He is—ultimately—a King. And what is happening in the world is that God is establishing and growing his kingdom throughout history. Indeed, like Isaiah 52:7 says, “Your God reigns.” But is that phrase really “good” news? Well, it depends on one’s relationship to the king! If one is a faithful servant to the king, then one serves this king joyously and diligently (or at least tries to do so). This person anticipates both the king’s return and reign as “good news,” and lives and prepares accordingly.
But what if one is an enemy of the king? What if one despises the king, or is apathetic to his reign? In that case the ultimate triumphal reign of the king may not appear to be all that “good” of news at all. Indeed, if one is an enemy of the king, this may seem to be completely bad news. For if this king truly reigns (Isaiah 52:7), and if this king’s kingdom is “at hand” (Mark 1:14–15), does it not seem likely that this king will judge those who are not his followers? If one is a rebel to the king, and this king will reign and advance his kingdom, what is “good” about this news at all? And what if an enemy of the king hears of passages like Philippians 2:11, and learns that every tongue will ultimately confess “Jesus Christ is Lord”? Will he not reason that this king is going to add insult to injury by making all persons recognize his lordship?
And perhaps we can now make better sense of Mark 1:14–15 as well. Again, in that passage Jesus proclaims, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” paired with “repent and believe the gospel.” God does in fact reign; indeed, God’s kingdom is at hand. But why does Jesus follow this with a call to “repent” and “believe”? Jesus, like Paul, recognizes and teaches that the non-Christian is hostile to the things of God. Indeed, Paul can say that the non-Christian is an “enemy” of God (Rom. 5:10).
What the Scripture seems to teach then is that it is appropriate for passages to speak of the good news with such language as “Your God reigns.” But that is, in a sense, “bad” news for all the enemies of God. But herein lies the wonder: there is a kind of good news within the “bad” news. The good news within the “bad” news is that God has provided a way to make His enemies into His friends. And here we might see why Paul—differently from Mark 1:14–15 and Isaiah 52:7—can summarize the gospel with four “thats”: the (1) death, (2) burial, (3) resurrection, and (4) appearances of Christ. For in this four-fold reality God has done what is necessary to turn enemies into friends. That is, in the public death, burial, and resurrection, the king himself has provided a way for his enemies to become his friends. Indeed, in an amazing act of self-giving love, the king has taken all of the rebelliousness and wickedness of his enemies—which the king considers “sin”—and has borne the penalty for this rebellion and wickedness. The resurrected king’s former enemies find themselves as guests at his table, both shocked by the honor he gives them and ashamed of their former hatred.
In short, it is not only that the king reigns, though he does. It is also the case that this king will brook no enemies in the camp. But rather than destroy his enemies, the king has provided a way for some of his enemies to become friends—even though turning enemies into friends cost the king the life of his only son.
Perhaps all of this helps us to understand why Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians can speak of the “kingdom of God,” the “vengeance” of the Lord Jesus when he returns, and the importance of “obeying” the “gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 2:5–8). God as King brings His kingdom, which entails an advance of his kingdom. God has provided a way for enemies to become friends (the atoning death and resurrection of his son, the benefits of which can be appropriated by faith). The vengeance which the Lord Jesus brings is completely justified, as God has revealed Himself efficaciously to all persons (Rom. 1:18–31). God’s efficacious revelation of Himself ought to lead people to honor God as God (Rom. 1:21), and those who don’t are truly “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
But when enemies of the king becomes friends of the king, something fascinating happens. These former enemies of the king—who are often enemies of each other—have become a family, a vast network of “brothers and sisters” (Mark 3:35). Indeed, these former enemies can even be called “one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). The unity of Christians is so profound that Paul can even write that the Christians are indeed “one new man” (Eph. 2:15). We are indeed “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
Having been reconciled to God, we are now reconciled to each other—as family, as brothers and sisters, as members of the same body. All Christians are, collectively, the “bride” of Christ (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). It is important to grasp that these various biblical word-pictures—“brothers and sisters,” “one body,” “one new man,” “fellow citizens,” “household of God,” “bride,” etc., are not “just” metaphors (I suspect we should quite putting the word ‘just’ in front of the word ‘metaphor’ when trying to understand biblical language). They are describing true reality as communicated to us via revelation. We really are “brothers and sisters,” “one body,” etc.
Enemies of God have become friends of God. And friends of God are really friends of each other—even brothers and sisters (and no longer enemies). And as we look around the table of our king, we marvel with wonder that we are united with Christ and each other precisely because “our God reigns”! This is good news indeed.