If someone were to ask you “What is the gospel?” How would you respond? Would your response be couched in theological jargon or might it be a straight forward, “Repent and believe that Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for man’s sin.” Or something different?
Without getting confused by too much theological tap dancing, there are two verses in the Gospel of Mark that seem both straight forward and at the same time lacking in specificity. They are in chapter 1 and verses 14 & 15. Mark seems to be laying the ground work for the start of the ministry of Christ. It appears that said ministry did not commence until John the Baptist’s ministry was concluded. Why that is I’m not certain and Mark does not explain. Nevertheless with the brevity that only Mark can get away with he simply says:
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 the gospel.”
As I read this for the umpteenth time, I found myself asking what exactly was it that Jesus was proclaiming? Yes, the text says “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel.” But that begs the question of what is the gospel? For many of us, we see that term and think of Paul’s statement in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…” However Mark gives no indication that this is what he means by “gospel.” Or, for that matter, what Jesus means by using the “good news” word.
If we consider several facts, it might appear that Mark could have added some details to this announcement of Christ’s ministry. The facts are: 1) The gospel account is written several years after the death and resurrection of Christ; 2) John Mark was both a contemporary of Paul and Peter; and 3) Mark had ample opportunity to hear Paul and Peter’s preaching/teaching when it came to the gospel. Nevertheless, he chooses to say apparently what Jesus said, when it came to the Kingdom of God, “repent and believe the gospel!” Not “believe in who I am and that I will die and be raised so that you can be saved.” He does not even add the idea of confession simply “repent and believe.”
It is true, we can gather verses from a variety of sources that would appear to flesh this idea of the gospel out a bit more. But I’m not certain we should do that. If those who heard Peter’s preaching and teaching said to John Mark, “we would like for you to compile this in a book so we might have it and read it again,” then we might assume they knew the full ramifications of the term “gospel.” Then again, maybe there was not an expansion of the good news other than repent and believe.
When it comes to “gospel” we use the term rather loosely. It can apply to the gospels such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A reflection of the canon and how it characterizes certain writings. It can be the “gospel of Jesus Christ” similar to how Mark begins his writing – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God (Mark 1:1).” Thus referring to the over-all “good news” or “good message” that Christ brings. Or it can refer to the message of salvation as reduced in its simplist form such as the Four Spiritual Laws, the “Roman Road” and other various cryptic expressions of what it means to “repent and believe.” In other words, the “gospel” is not always the gospel unless it is defined accordingly.
Interestingly enough, Mark uses the term gospel (euggelion) eight times in his work. Matthew uses it four times and oddly enough Luke and John do not use the term at all. Luke does use a variation, euggelizo, which can mean to preach the good news, but John does not even do that. Is there significance to that? Perhaps.
The first part of Mark’s writing does not deal with the issues of lineage or birth events, it begins rather plainly with the ministry of John the Baptist. John’s ministry was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4).” Once that ministry ended and Jesus commenced his ministry apparently it was on the same premise, “repent and believe.” No strings attached, no qualifications other than repentance and believing and no insinuation that his death or resurrection were necessary to the process.
We throw the term “gospel” around a good deal. Couching it in general terms as the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ seems reasonable. Looking at what Jesus taught; the beatitudes, his healing ministry, his raising the dead, his giving sanity to the not-so-sane, his forgiveness of sin and his message through parables, it becomes a bit more complicated than we might otherwise have thought. Still, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” seems to be rather sufficient for defining the term.