Clearing the confusion surrounding the
Really Is The Gospel?
understanding christ's mission
and our message
The Gospel has been described and defined
in many different ways,
but the key to its message is found in understanding the purpose
of each of the
four gospels themselves.
NO UNDERSTANDING OF CHRIST'S MISSION can be complete without an understanding of the message that He preached, and that message is termed the Gospel. It was central to Christ's Message to man while on earth, and is central, therefore, to our faith as His followers. But, surprisingly, there is much disagreement today as to what that message really was. As a result, conflicting "Gospels" can be found in much of our modern Christian literature. What really is the Gospel? Does anyone know?
After reviewing a dozen or so leading Christian reference sources, this writer was struck with the absurd contradictions in modern views concerning Christ's Message to man. One Bible encyclopedia asserts that the Gospel has "a stress upon justification," or right standing before God.(1) Yet another reference "does not regard the doctrine of justification as the content of the Gospel, but as its theological consequence."(2) One source insists that the gospel "carries the specialized sense of the good tidings of the Kingdom of God,"(3) while others, equally scholars, assert that "the essential core is not the dawn of the Messianic Age" at all.(4) A number of sources approach the problem by listing 5 or 6 elements constituting Christ's gospel, yet none of their lists match or agree. To understand the source of their confusion, let's begin with some background.
The English word, gospel, itself comes from the early Anglo-Saxon phrase, "god-spell," meaning a story about God. But the word as Christ used it came instead from the Greek word, evangelion, meaning "proclaiming good news." That Christ had a specific idea of what that good news was, is self-evident. Yet there is apparently no one place in the New Testament where we are given a precise definition. Some Christians consider the Apostle Paul's explanation to be found in either the first chapter of Romans or the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians. But Christ's death for our sins is never mentioned in the first of Romans, nor the incarnation in the Corinthians passage. It is more probable to look for the answer as to what Christ taught, therefore, in the Gospels themselves which record His life and teachings.
THE EARLY CHURCH GOSPEL
Why have we been given four Gospels? This question has been on minds and hearts for centuries. The early church explanation was that each of the four presented a different emphasis of Christ's life and teaching. Stated differently, each of the four evangelists looked at Christ's Words and events of His Life from a different key doctrinal perspective. One historian tells us that the early church explained the Gospel, "first by Matthew, announcing the Redeemer as the promised King of the Kingdom of God; second by Mark, declaring him 'a servant and prophet mighty in deed and work' (Luke 24:19); third by Luke, of whom it might be said that he represented Christ in the special character of the Savior of sinners (Luke 7:36-50); fourth by John, in whom deity and humanity became One."(5)
The apostolic-era church used the symbol of a lion for the Gospel of Matthew, to Mark that of the ox, to Luke that of man, and to John that of the eagle. Therefore, the Gospel reveals our Savior first as a King or Ruler, then as Suffering Servant, next He is presented in His Humanity as our Kinsman Redeemer, and finally as a Heavenly Deity. These four evangelists, with their four separate records and symbols, combine to form a complete understanding of Christ's mission: He was King, Servant, 100% Man, and 100% God.
THE FOUR LIVING CREATURES
This understanding of the early church was not without a basis in the scriptures. In Revelation 4:6-8 the four Living Creatures appear "round about the throne" as the exact same symbols in the exact same order: lion, ox, man, and eagle. Bible scholars believe that they symbolize Cherubim, Angels, or Holy Beings. There were Cherubim upon the holy Ark of the Covenant, attached to the Mercy-Seat in the Tabernacle. In a striking connection with this, the New Testament tells us that Jesus is "the propitiation for our sins." (1Jn. 2:2; 4:10) That word, 'propitiation,' is a translation of the Hebrew word for the "Mercy Seat" of the tabernacle, so it is Christ (our propitiation or angel of the mercy seat) Who is being depicted by the Cherubim, including the four Living Creatures of Revelation.
In the Old Testament the same symbolism appears in Ezekiel 1:5-14. The story has been told that famed evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson was preaching from this Ezekiel passage in Los Angeles in the 1930's, and under inspiration coined the term, "the Four-square Gospel," when referring to these four Living Creatures. Although she did not tie her symbols to each of the four Gospels as did the early church, the term stuck, and the "Four-square Gospel Church" was born.
These figures appear again in the standards of the four lead 'quadrant tribes' of Israel: Judah the lion, Ephraim the ox, Reuben the man, and Dan the eagle. "The banners carried by the four leading tribes... bore as emblems 'the likeness of the four living creatures,' seen by Ezekiel."(6) In combining these four symbols, we have a representation of Christ and His Message, the Gospel, in Old Testament typology. (Gen. 49, Num. 2, Deut. 33)
Let's briefly look at the four evangelists in the New Testament and see how they each emphasize a different aspect of the complete, four-fold Gospel.
MATTHEW: Symbol = LION, "the King"
The early church recognized that the theme of the Evangelist Matthew was Christ as the King of a kingdom. In fact, only twice does Matthew mention the Gospel without reference to a kingdom; in total, 56 times the Divine Kingdom, or Messianic Rule, is referred to! In Matthew 13:19 the Gospel message is "the Word of the Kingdom;" in 24:14 it is "the Gospel of the Kingdom." In Matthew 6:9, Christ gave us the Lord's Prayer, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth..." It is clear that the central theme of this Gospel is announcing the good news of Christ's divine kingdom on earth. Note that there is no thought of our spending eternity floating aimlessly, either in heaven or in outer space, as is so often erroneously taught today! The Gospel's message concerning the "eternal state" is summed up by the Apostle John in Revelation 5:10: "WE SHALL REIGN ON THE EARTH."
MARK: Symbol=OX, "Suffering for our
As the ox is a beast of burden, so the focus of Mark is upon Christ as the Suffering Servant Who died for us. For example, of the eight times the evangelist refers to Old Testament prophecy, six of them concern Jesus' suffering and death. (Matthew, in contrast, never once quotes the Old Testament in reference to Christ's death.) One writer commented, "The point of the sufferings of the Servant of the Lord is that He bore them for our sakes. There is nothing comparable."(7) Thus the theme of Mark's Gospel is JUSTIFICATION; that Jesus' perfect righteousness was reckoned, or imputed, to us, and our sins are forgiven through faith in Him. This is the essence of GRACE: that our salvation, or right standing before God, cannot be earned by our own imperfect works, but only by Jesus' perfect blood shed on our behalf.
LUKE: Symbol = MAN, "the Son of Man"
The title, "Son of Man," is a frequent theme in Luke's gospel, and was used a total of 79 times by Jesus in reference to Himself. Luke is also the most complex Gospel, with many parallel themes. However, his main focus was directed toward those outside the Jewish religion, and especially their concerns about God's law. Thirteen parables with an ethical and moral emphasis are unique to Luke, and an additional six are shared with Matthew. In them, as well as throughout Luke, "the ethical thrust of Luke's Gospel emerges...and the amount of attention devoted to ethical exhortation...a call to an ethical way of life."(8) The Messianic titles found in Luke of "Son of Man" and "Son of David" emphasize that Christ was 100% human, as we are. But He was also "Son of The Highest" (a title unique to Luke), living a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God's laws, and setting an ethical example for us. This speaks to us of SANCTIFICATION, or holiness and right living according to the moral and ethical laws of God. Whereas, most modern Christians believe that the Old Testament laws of God are abolished, Christ Himself told us in Luke 16:17, "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." (cp., Luke 10:26-28; Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31) Our obligation to live lives of obedience and morality in imitation of Christ is not abolished, for faith and holiness are both commanded to us by a Holy God. We are not saved by the law, but we obey the moral precepts of God because, as His People, we seek to emulate His Life and Teachings.
JOHN: Symbol = EAGLE, "the Son of God"
The emphasis of John the evangelist is upon Jesus' heavenly origin and deity, with more on the heavenly meaning of Christ's Words and Works, and more references to Jesus as "Son of God." And 52 times (more than all other gospels combined) John quotes Jesus as appropriating God's Old Testament description of Himself as the Great "I Am." Jesus was indeed "God with us" (Matt. 1:23), for we are told in the Old Testament that God would come Himself and save His People. (Isa. 43:11, 25) This is why Jesus could do healing, and all manner of miracles, including raising the dead: As God Revealed in the Flesh, He had the power to save! The Nicene Creed is correct: Jesus is "Very God of Very God... being of One Substance with the Father..." The pre-existence, incarnation, and resurrection of Jesus Christ shine through forcefully in John's Gospel.
IMPORTANCE OF THE GOSPEL
Sadly, the main themes of the Gospel are much neglected in our churches today. Often, there is some emphasis on justification, but little or none on Christ's earthly kingdom or God's moral law. In short, we see at best a truncated and watered-down Gospel, robbed of its depth and relevance to our lives. Still others limit themselves only to the "post-Gospel message" of Pentecostal tongues, which began on the day of Pentecost after Christ's ascension. Unfortunately, while tongues may have some value, it is not the Gospel. Often when this dominates, the Gospel itself may not be taught at all. Let us all be careful in our teaching that we do not neglect the Gospel!
The famed Reformation leader, Martin Luther stated, "Wherever you see there is no Gospel...neither is there a Church; and you must not doubt it, even if they baptize and partake of the Holy Communion."(9) Luther said it: 'No Gospel = No Church,' even if they go through the motions of church worship! The Gospel is our central, distinctive message as Christians; shall we be about our Father's business?? "And this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come." (Matthew 24:14) Christ said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God..." (Matthew 6:33) Christian reader, are you doing that in your own life and witness?
We have found that the real Gospel of Christ, as presented to us in both theme and symbolism throughout the Scriptures, is four-fold:
1. THE GOOD NEWS OF CHRIST'S KINGDOM - AND OUR REIGN
- ON EARTH AS HIS PEOPLE,
2. THE SALVATION DOCTRINES OF GRACE, RECONCILIATION, AND JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH,
3. SANCTIFICATION OR HOLINESS THROUGH GOD'S MORAL AND ETHICAL TEACHINGS, AND...
4. RECOGNITION OF CHRIST AS VERY GOD AND SAVIOR.
The proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the center-piece of our life and worship as a Christians!
1 Zondervan, Pictorial
Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. II, p. 782
2 Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, p. 731
3 Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament, p. 268
4 R.H. Mounce, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 474
5 Popular & Critical Bible Encyclopedia, vol. II, p. 728
6 Alfred Edersheim, Bible History- Old Testament, p. 233
7 E. Lohmeyer, Gospel of Mark, page 5
8 Green, Dictionary of Jesus & the Gospels, pp. 504-507
9 Martin Luther, Ad librum...Ambrosis Catharini, W.A. 7, 721, 4.