According to Mark's Gospel, Jesus begins his public work with a proclamation. After his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus "came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near: repent, and believe the gospel'" (Mar k 1:14-15, my translation). Matthew and Luke present basically the same message.
Let's look closely at what Mark's narrator and Jesus say here. The Gospel describes Jesus' message as the gospel. Jesus challenges people to "repent, and believe the gospel." In between, Jesus proclaims "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near." That core announcement -- "It's time, and God is breaking into the world" -- that is the core of Jesus' own gospel.
I teach at a theological seminary, where we prepare religious leaders for service in the church and the world. Often I'll ask students, "What is your gospel?" That is, what is the core message that directs your ministry? That may sound like an innocent question, yet most seminarians find it intimidating. How does one boil down one's faith to a straightforward proclamation?
By contrast, many people seem perfectly comfortable in reducing faith to a formula. Google search "top Christian bumper stickers," and you'll have the chance to browse nearly nine million results. Stickergiant.com has its own "Christian Zone," but I have to admit that I've never seen the stickers that represent the "most popular."
What's Jesus Got to Do with It?
From my own youth, I'm more familiar with Campus Crusade's "Four Spiritual Laws." This popular evangelistic tract proclaims that (1) God loves you and has a plan for your life, (2) due to sin, people are separated from God and cannot experience God's plan, (3) God provides for sin through Jesus Christ, and (4) people must individually receive Christ as Lord in order to experience God's love and plan for their lives.
If the "Four Spiritual Laws," and presentations like it summarizes the gospel, something very important is missing. Indeed, that very important something often goes missing in Christian proclamation. Many Christians proclaim the Gospel as if Jesus' life and teachings mean absolutely nothing.
I hate to pick on one group, but let's look at those "Four Spiritual Laws" again. The third spiritual law has to do with Jesus, and here's what it says about him: "He died in our place"; "He rose from the dead"; "He is the only way to God." From reading the Four Spiritual Laws, we'd never know that Jesus traveled from place to place, gathered disciples, liberated people from sickness, disability, and demon possession, built a movement, and confronted injustice. If we emphasize Jesus' death, cut out from the whole tapestry of his life, we reduce his crucifixion to perverse ritual rather than a direct consequence of his confrontation with the powers of his day.
What about the Gospel?
The idea that Jesus' death offers reconciliation with God does constitute a basic part of Christian proclamation. When many churches celebrate the Lord's Supper, the congregation calls out "the mystery of our faith": "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." But is it fair to reduce the gospel to the proclamation of Jesus' death and resurrection?
First, a word about "gospel." The Greek word evangelion means more than a religious message or even "good news," as many translate it. Gospel amounts to good news in the form of a public announcement or a proclamation. When Rome accomplished something great, it sent its heralds into the cities to proclaim the "good news." Christians took this word, gospel, as shorthand for their proclamation about Jesus. Indeed, Christians came to call their biographies of Jesus "gospels" because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John proclaim the good news of God's action in Christ.
Jesus' own gospel amounted to a direct proclamation: God's kingdom has broken into human affairs. The kingdom of God is not about going to heaven when we die; it involves God's reign working its way into the here and now. We see this reflected in a key section of Jesus' model prayer: "Your kingdom come: your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). God's kingdom is active when God's will takes effect.
Jesus lived out that proclamation through his ministry. His work of teaching, healing, and exorcism all demonstrated God's kingdom at work. The communities he built and the challenges he pressed against injustice also embody the kingdom's transformative power.
Indeed, Jesus' death and resurrection now stand within this gospel. Jesus met his death as a result of his kingdom work, and his resurrection confirms God's full investment in Jesus and his ministry. But Jesus' death and resurrection do not represent the gospel all by themselves. They mark the culmination of Jesus' career, but just the "first fruits" of what God has set loose (Romans 8:23).
Today Jesus' followers stand two millennia removed from Jesus' direct gospel proclamation. But our own gospel need not veer far from the one Mark summarizes at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
Christians believe that in Jesus Christ God's kingdom has drawn near -- and it does draw near. That is the gospel. God's work, revealed in Jesus, continues through those who follow him. Where community is built and healing occurs, the gospel breaks out. Where mercy is offered and justice breaks through, God's kingdom is on the loose. Where people encounter the blessing of God and reconciliation with one another, gospel happens.
"The time is here. God's kingdom is afoot. Get ready, and believe this gospel."