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)
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.