John Writes a Different Gospel

In our exploration of the gospel, we’ve been hovering around what the gospel writers themselves believed they were producing. We’ve looked at the introductions of Matthew, Mark and Luke to see the themes they expected to develop throughout the rest of their work. Now we come to John.

Most people realize rather quickly that when we get to the book of John, we are dealing with a different sort of gospel. So similar are Matthew, Mark and Luke that they are called the synoptic gospels. The three share a lot of the same material, so much so that it appears at times they are quoting one another (even if we can’t figure out who is quoting whom).

John, on the other hand, is unique. John writes in a very different way. He uses different imagery. He tells stories the other gospels don’t contain. But in doing so, we must ask, does he believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is wildly different than the gospel the synoptic writers portray?

Again, we’ll look at his introduction and see what we can find.

Of course, the Gospel of John begins by quoting one of the most famous lines from all Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). It’s no accident that he uses the opening phrase from Genesis 1:1, which began the Hebrews’ creation narrative. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

If you’ve been following along closely our journey through the other gospels’ introductions, you already know what John is trying to do. “This is a creation story,” John is telling his audience. The gospel is, somehow, about creation.

We ought to ask, next, about this “Word”. Obviously, as we read on, we realize that John is referring to Jesus, but he doesn’t come out and say, “In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God”. What’s the deal with the “Word”?

Scholars have long recognized a connection between John’s Word (the Greek λóγος) and the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, an extremely important concept, at that.

Wisdom, in the Old Testament tradition, is ubiquitous. You know that huge chunk of your Bible from Job through Song of Solomon (like, half an inch in my tiny print Bible)? It’s called Wisdom Literature. When the Lord promised Solomon anything he wished, you remember what he asked for? Wisdom! It’s vastly important.

"St John the Evangelist" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
St John the Evangelist” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Torah itself came to be regarded by the time of Jesus as God’s Wisdom, gifted specifically to the Israelites. In fact, there are a couple traditions—one from 1 Enoch 42 (a text whose relevant portion was written probably only about a generation before Jesus) and another from Wisdom of Sirach 24 (maybe 200 years before Christ)—which highlight the importance God’s Wisdom, or his Word came to take in the Jews self-understanding.

In the 1 Enoch passage, Wisdom goes out from heaven looking for a place on the earth where she can settle. Finding no place pure enough, she returns to heaven and Iniquity, Wisdom’s opposite, fills the void. We don’t regard that as Scripture, of course, but it shows how certain Jews in Jesus’ day thought of themselves: “This is how bad it’s gotten, God’s Wisdom, which we thought the Lord had given us in Torah, doesn’t even want to live among us. We’re doomed!”

In Wisdom of Sirach, on the other hand, there is a story of Wisdom—God’s Word—again looking for a suitable place to reside on the earth. In this case, interestingly, she finds her place among Israel. Now this is more in line with Old Testament tradition. In fact, Sirach makes the connection with Torah directly. What’s more, Sirach suggests that Wisdom played an active roll in the process of creation.

Again, we don’t regard either of these texts as Scripture, but they do tell us what a lot of Jews were thinking in the first century.

Enter John, who writes this loaded piece:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created. …
The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as
the One and Only Son
from the Father,
full of grace and truth (Jn 1:1-3, 14, HCSB).

Jews living at the time would not have missed the point. John is telling us, “Remember God’s Wisdom, his Word, is indeed vastly important. God’s Wisdom is responsible, in fact, for the entire creation. And yes, God has sent his life-giving Wisdom into the world, but it didn’t find its place in Jacob’s descendants (not exactly) and it didn’t forsake us altogether. No, God’s Wisdom has indeed come to earth. Now let me tell you about him.”

John’s gospel is about God’s life-giving Wisdom showing itself to the world and, as a result, completely transforming the entire creation. It’s a whole new world, John tells us, because of Jesus. A different gospel, indeed, but one that is just as rooted in the long Old Testament story as the synoptic gospels.


Luke’s Gospel: All about Kingdoms

The other day we started asking what the gospel writers actually thought about the gospels they were writing. We saw that Mark was interested in how Jesus’ story brings Israel through its anticipated new exodus. We saw that Matthew, similarly, believed Jesus to be (1) the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, (2) the successor to David with an everlasting kingdom, and (3) the one to bring Israel out of its long exile.

We move now to Luke. What did he suppose the gospel was all about?

Looking at Luke’s introduction, as we did with Matthew and Mark, we notice right away that Luke begins differently. His introduction doesn’t have Mark’s handy little epigraph. Nor does he begin with a lengthy genealogy that stands apart from the rest of the narrative. (Luke does have his own genealogy for Jesus—with its own purposes—but it doesn’t come until chapter 3.) Luke’s introduction is actually a greeting to his intended audience (Lk 1:1-4), and in that greeting he gives no indication concerning themes that will appear throughout the text.

In fact, to find the themes that concern Luke up front, we have to let his storytelling do its work on us. And it’s not even about reading between the lines, as it might have been with Mark and Matthew, because Luke’s emphasis comes to us about as plainly as could be as the opening chapters unfold.

The story opens not with Jesus himself, not even, really, with John the Baptist, as in Mark, but with John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is barren and Zechariah works in the Temple. Big Z gets a visit from the angel Gabriel in the Holy of Holies and is told that they will indeed have a son, whose name will be John. Their son, further, will be the one of whom Malachi spoke, the one who precedes the dramatic Day of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:17; Mal 4:5-6).

"St Luke" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC 2.0
St Luke” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC 2.0

We saw this theme already in Mark and in Matthew both. They all see Jesus’ story as completing the long exile of God’s people. They’re coming home, we might say, and God is on his way, as well.

Then, of course, Jesus’ birth is foretold to Mary, and, just as with Zechariah, Gabriel is not shy about pronouncing her miracle boy’s purpose: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1:32-33, TNIV).

Many have read the first portion of this prophecy and decided Gabriel meant to tell Mary that her son would be God. And then they have ready the second portion and decided that this was an additional kingly portion. But this is not Gabriel’s intention. Rather, Gabriel is saying the same thing several times over in these two verses. All of it, as we saw with Matthew’s citation of David, comes from 2 Samuel 7.

Notice the relevant passage, with emphases to show Luke’s parallels:

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by human beings, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever (2 Sam 7:11b-16).

Gabriel has made the announcement that Jesus will be the son of David, for whom Israel has been waiting a thousand years.

Luke’s story goes on. Mary rushes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth and is so moved by the experience, she bursts into song. Whether Luke saw himself as the predecessor for Rogers and Hammerstein, with the incessant urge to insert musical numbers every so often in the narrative, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that Luke is drawing heavily from Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2.

The sum total of Luke’s opening chapter paints a daring picture, one that no one familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures could miss. The Old Testament story in question begins with the barren Hannah crying out to the Lord for a child. Her child becomes a prophet whose career culminates with the anointing and ascension of David, the truest king from Israel’s history, a man after God’s own heart.

Luke condenses the tale: the childless Elizabeth gives birth to a prophet who will be the forerunner to a new and greater David, whose kingdom will never cease. The rise of a new kingdom—that’s the gospel Luke is telling.

What Kind of Gospel Did Matthew Write?

Yesterday we took a quick look at what Mark was up to in writing his gospel. This we did by examining his introduction and found that he believed the gospel of Jesus Christ to be about the culminating story of Israel, the long-awaited new exodus, when YHWH rejoined his people at last. That’s Mark’s version of the gospel, which then takes 16 chapters to unfold.

But what about the other gospel writers? What was their take on the gospel they were committing to papyrus? Was Mark way off base in making the gospel into the final chapter of a vast epic? Let’s have a quick look, as we did with Mark, at the introductions of the other three gospels. This should tell us something significant about the meaning they saw in Jesus’ story.

We’ll start with Matthew (we’ll get to Luke and John soon enough), winner of the boring-est introduction to any book ever. Most of us hardly realize that Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy. That’s because we open the New Testament, find a list of names that takes up a whole page, and skip right on to the interesting stuff about Jesus’ birth. I mean, that’s where the story really starts. Amiright?

But Matthew, naturally, is smarter than we are. He knows what he’s doing.

His genealogy is broken up into three chunks. The first runs from Abraham to David, the second from David to Israel’s exile into Babylon, then the third from the exile to Jesus. These are not insignificant divisions, not by a long stretch. Matthew has paused, on each occasion, at critical turning points in Israel’s history. (This is likely the primary reason this genealogy skips generations and fits so neatly into the 3×14 mold. It’s a stylized account meant to tell us something more significant than just who exactly were Jesus’ ancestors.)

First, we get Abraham: the father of all Israelites. Abraham is where the story begins. This is where, for all intent and purpose, God begins his work at rescuing the planet he created. That is effectively the promise given when we first meet Abraham in Genesis 12:

The Lord said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:1-3, HCSB).

There, in a nutshell is God’s agenda for Israel. They will be blessed so that through them the whole corrupted world might be rescued. And Matthew is telling his audience up front that the story of Jesus is a critical chapter in that grand narrative.

Secondly, Matthew lands on King David, the high point in Israel’s long history up to the first century. David was the benchmark for Israel in terms of both its political and religious life (as if we could separate those from Israel’s perspective; they are one and the same, really). Not only that, but it had been promised David that he would have a son whose kingdom would never end, because of its intimate connection to YHWH (2 Sam. 7:11b-16).

"Call of St Matthew" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Call of St Matthew” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Matthew is again giving a massive exaggerated wink to his audience: Remember the hopes we received as a people from our great King David’s story; this story about Jesus is that story.

Lastly, Matthew highlights with exile in Babylon. This is probably the one aspect of Israel’s history that most Christians are least familiar with. Israel getting hauled off to faraway Babylon doesn’t make for a simple Sunday school story. What do you do when the supposed heroes of the Bible become so corrupted? (These days, you make a Netflix original out of it, but whatever.)

But the exile is terribly important to Jews, especially those of Jesus’ own day. Although by then many Jews had long since returned to Jerusalem and its environs, they still had a strong sense that the exile was not yet over. In the Bible itself, this is probably most clearly expressed by the prophets Nehemiah and Malachi. Nehemiah has a critical passage in which he cries out to the Lord over the nation’s political situation, still operating under the jurisdiction of the pagan Medo-Persians (Neh. 9:36-37). Malachi speaks of the people still awaiting the return of YHWH to his people, the very passage Mark had used in his introduction (Mal. 3:1-4).

Again, what is Matthew up to with this genealogy? Like the opposite of putting the medicine in the candy, Matthew has masked the treat with boiled spinach. His genealogy carries the delicious meaning in its structure: Jesus’ gospel is about exile coming to its end and a new stage opening in the history of YHWH’s people.

What is Matthew’s gospel? His story of Jesus is the story of saving promise given to Abraham centuries earlier. It is the story of the new and greater son of David ascending his everlasting throne. It is the final end to the incessant exile Israel had suffered under for over 500 years. According to Matthew, Jesus’ life is about all these at once, and much more.

Starting from Scratch on the Gospel: It’s Already Bigger than We Thought

Many today are frustrated by classical Evangelical tellings of the gospel, whether because they don’t like the way it paints God as a wrath-filled deity, or they don’t like the individualistic message, or they’re suspecting Jesus’ work on the cross means a lot more than evangelistic tools have given it credit.

Scrapping some of those classical models, for the moment, what might happen if we began from scratch? How might we begin to describe what Jesus was doing in this death and resurrection, of course, but also in his life? Does that have anything to do with it?

While so many treatments of the gospel draw their influence from Paul’s writings—Romans most of all—I’m going to begin with the gospel accounts themselves.

Let’s begin with what many regard as the first gospel committed to parchment, the book of Mark.

Mark famously opens with a line telling his audience that his entire work is about this good news: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mk 1:1). Already, this ought to tell us something important about the way Mark conceives the gospel: it has something to do with the entirety of Jesus’ life, in addition to his death and resurrection.

This is rarely considered in traditional representations of the gospel. These, once they have thoroughly established how sinful we all are, typically move to Jesus’ death straight away. Faced with such a gospel, you’d have to be excused for wondering whether Jesus had do anything at all before going to the cross.

Back to Mark’s gospel. Immediately following the introductory phrase, he does something else we might not have expected: he turns to the Old Testament.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way. A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight!” (Mk 1:2-3, HCSB)

Isaiah” by Missional Volunteer used under license CC BY-SA 2.0

The gospel of Jesus Christ has something to do, Mark tells us, with ancient prophetic words spoken by Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1), and possibly Moses (Exo 23:20). Those who have looked into such things tell us that Mark is trying to say that the gospel story he is about to tell has something to do with (1) the Exodus (that’s the Exodus 23:20 reference), (2) the prophesied New Exodus (a major theme in Isaiah), and (3) the return of YHWH to his people (Malachi).

Incidentally, this is a major aspect to the recent movement in fresh articulations of the gospel. This was one of Scot McKnight’s bones to pick in The King Jesus Gospel, citing the according-to-the-Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (the lone place where Paul looks like he’s defining the gospel). Further, this was one of four major themes in N.T. Wright’s How God Became King, reminding us that the story of Jesus is the culmination of the story of Israel.

What is Mark trying to tell us in his introduction? Mark’s first three verses tell us (1) that the gospel is first and foremost about Jesus Christ, and all of Jesus’ story, at that; (2) that the gospel has its roots in Israel’s long story; (3) specifically that the gospel is about a long awaited exodus for God’s people; and (4) that the gospel is about the return of YHWH himself to Jerusalem.

All this is a far cry from—and far bigger than—hearing that we’re awful sinners in need of the cross in order to get to heaven. But we’re just getting started.

The Plan of Salvation and Its Shortcomings

As we begin to explore the seismic shift ongoing in the Evangelical world as it wrestles with the meaning of the gospel, let’s focus, first, on the way many came to understand it in recent generations. To do this, we’ll look at two popular models for explaining the gospel to an outsider—two common evangelistic tools—The Chasm and The Roman’s Road.

The Chasm

In the chasm model, we start with the fact that God is holy (that’s good). If we could talk about God having a moral character, which seems strange to do, his being holy would mean we have to say he’s (not even practically) perfect in every way.

But there’s a problem. We are not perfect (that’s bad). The Bible couldn’t be more concise: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Bummer.

Now, according to the chasm model, this means there is an uncrossable gap between sinful us and holy God. What’s worse, all our attempts to cross the chasm—be they good works, or perfect religious observance, or just being super nice to people—don’t even come close to closing the gap (that’s bad).

Thankfully, there’s a solution. Jesus’ death on the cross provides a bridge across the great gulf (that’s good). Again, more bite-sized Scripture: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

And viola! We can now cross over to God’s side of the canyon where eternal life sits (that’s good).

The Roman’s Road

"Roman Road Through Pompeii" by cliff hellis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Roman Road Through Pompeii” by cliff hellis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This tool is a little different in that it strictly uses brief passages of Scripture taken exclusively from the book of Romans. The picture it paints, however, is similar to the chasm model.

We begin at Romans 3:23. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Then we heap it on with Romans 3:10 and Romans 5:12. “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous; not even one'” (3:10). “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (5:12).

Just as we are rending our clothes and tearing out our hair, hope crests the horizon. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Doubling down, Romans 5:8 is also brought in: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

That sounds great. Now what? “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).

Could it be that simple? We are assured: “For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Rom. 10:13).

What’s Wrong with These?

Let me first be very clear at the outset. The principles presented in both of these tools are true. We are sinners. Our good deeds do not earn our salvation. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have procured our rescue. Acceptance of this does lead to eternal life.

The issue, many are finding, is that the portrait these and similar evangelistic tools paint is too small and too far removed from a greater context. And as a result, our fixation on these simplified versions of the gospel have produced Christians with a skewed concept of what it means to be a Christian.

How skewed? Here are just a few consequences of such gospel presentations.

First, a gospel solely about the forgiveness of an individual’s sins—important as that is—consequently devalues all tangible work, aside from evangelism, certainly, and preaching, possibly. That is, when forgiveness becomes the entirety of the gospel, then the announcement of that forgiveness is the only sure vocation that aligns with God’s will. Any other work, good as it may be, becomes nonessential. Of what value is your work as an accountant, following your salvation?

Second, a gospel focused on the salvation of the individual loses its grasp of the gospel’s impact on communities. Many in the Christian family have lamented this development in the West for some time. We are, especially in the United States, an individualistic culture. This is vastly different from the cultures of the Bible, which may not be “collective” cultures like some Asian peoples today, but are certainly communal. How does the gospel address larger units of people, as it seems to do in the New Testament (see, for example, Acts 16:31)?

Third, a gospel centered on eternal destinies loses its interest in the world today and comes dangerously close to abandoning the created world altogether. In fact, certain streams of Christianity have already fallen over this cliff. When all that matters is whether people will end up in heaven or hell, the created order quickly becomes irrelevant. Lost is any recognition of the Creator’s affection for his good creation. Does Jesus’ death and resurrection have anything to say about what becomes of the earth?

Perhaps, the gospel of the New Testament has plenty to say about these things and much more. But we might never know it walking the Roman Road.

A New (Old) Gospel

I don’t know for how long my antennae have been tuned to this frequency, but there’s a rumbling about in the world of Western Christianity. The station is playing gospel all day, every day. Sounds pretty sweet, but there’s dissonance in the tunes, if you listen carefully.

When I was growing up in an Evangelical Baptist church, the gospel could be boiled down to a mathematical proof:

  • We are all terrible sinners;
  • God cannot stand sin;
  • God sent Jesus to take our punishment for sin;
  • Now we are saved and can join God in heaven.

Now, that’s a gross caricature, but it’s essentially what was typically presented in many of the youth events I attended. In fact, when I interned for a youth pastor in college, I was encouraged to memorize a formula like this so that I could quickly walk others through this proof on demand.

I’ve never particularly been a fan of this version of the gospel. I mean, it’s true, as far as it goes. Everyone, when it comes down to it, is corrupted by sin. God is a holy God. I have some issues with the imagery with the whole Jesus-as-God’s-whipping-boy thing—it doesn’t make God look so great—but I can stomach it. And yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is our salvation.  The heaven thing? Well, yes. And, no. (That’s a different post.)

I first became aware that I might not be alone in my frustration when I was given Dallas Willard’s magnum opusThe Divine Conspiracy right after college. His premise is that Jesus’ work is meant to open up to the world the advent of God’s kingdom on the earth. In other words, the gospel cannot simply be about going to heaven when we die, but must have everything to do with the believer’s life now, in this world.

Much later, while in seminary, I was working my way through N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, written just before Willard’s great work, when I caught a glimpse of a similar perspective. There Wright poses the question regarding Evangelicalism’s failure to deal adequately with Jesus’ life, so concerned were we with his death. If we were going to adequately articulate the gospel, we had to incorporate everything Jesus was doing prior to his crucifixion.

Several years later, Scot McKnight issued his displeasure with this oversimplified gospel in The King Jesus Gospel. There he cited an experience he had as a teenager, in which he was sent around the neighborhood with an elder in his church to evangelize people trying to eat their dinners. He wasn’t psyched, even as a teen, about weaseling a fellow into saying The Prayer and calling it a success. To McKnight’s mind, we needed to get back, somehow, to what the New Testament writers had been saying was the gospel, which, he says, is a story, not a proof. Note that 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (the only place where Paul actually says, “This is the gospel…”) is actually a brief narrative.

Shortly afterward, Wright brought out his own articulation of a fuller gospel, doing his best to bring to light the various ways the gospel writers saw Jesus’ work. How God Became King suggested that the church had become filled with inadequate caricatures of the gospel: Jesus came to show us how to get to heaven; Jesus came to teach us how to live rightly; Jesus came to live as a perfect example; Jesus came to be the perfect sacrifice (this is similar to the articulation I had heard so often); Jesus came to show that he was God or to show just who God was.

No doubt each of us reading through that list nods our heads at some and drops our jaws at others. Of course, that’s not the gospel! Or, what do you mean that’s not the gospel?! The point is that each has been taught as if it were the whole thing, when in reality each only points to a portion of the gospel.

(By the way, I wrote a series of reviews of The King Jesus Gospel and How God Became King a few years ago, the sum of which is here. It was good times.)

Now, I just recently joined a little group that’s working its way through Michael Horton’s Gospel-Driven Life, which came out a bit before McKnight’s or Wright’s work. Horton goes the same route that McKnight had—and having written first, I suppose he ought to get the credit, though I’m only reading it now—and insists that we must get back to the story. Yet his insistence is to continue to return to what Wright would have called a caricature, that the gospel is all about how we are saved from our sins.

Again, true enough, but not the whole picture.

Re-enter Wright. His latest work—at least, I think it’s his latest; he probably published another book last night—is Simply Good News, and it’s an attempt to articulate, in plain language a more comprehensive gospel, simply. Therein he again is adamant that the forgiveness of sins, while an essential part of the gospel, is only a fraction of what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish. But if we make it the whole thing, we distort it. Distort the gospel, and you’re left with distorted Christians. It’s high time, he writes, we get a clear picture of God’s work and our place in it.

"Gospel Graffiti II" by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0
Gospel Graffiti II” by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0

Now all this is to say nothing of the myriad churches around the world that have been exploring the implications for the gospel in real time and without the luxury of contemplating it in the ivory tower. Rather, their concerns are pastoral. They’ve got real hurting people in their congregations and they’re reading a New Testament that seems to have a lot more to say about life and about the afterlife.

All that is to say, I want to spend some time the next few weeks exploring a more complete gospel and what that might mean for the Christian for this life and the next. Stay tuned!