[If you have already read the Bible and consider yourself to be reasonably familiar with God’s Word please click here to move to the next section.]
The first four books of the New Testament (also known as the Christian scriptures) are usually referred to as the Gospels or the Christian Gospels. These are accounts by four different writers about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Therefore in order to make an investigation into what the Christian Gospel actually is, your very best place to start (if you haven’t already done so) would be to read the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In fact a reading of the entire New Testament is encouraged, which in turn cannot be completely understood without a reading of the Old Testament also. So in brief, read all of God’s Word the Bible if you can. If you simply read commentaries on the Bible or check out websites which claim to teach the true meaning of the Gospel, then you will find yourself at the whims of reasoning by fellow humans only. Some of that reasoning is very helpful. Some of it is wrong. And much of it is plain confusing. That’s the reality.
So at this point my advice would be to leave this and any other website on the topic and:
Option 1) Read the whole of the Bible (this can easily be done within a year if you read a few pages each and every day).
If option 1 is not practical then:
Option 2) Read all of the New Testament i.e. the Bible books of Matthew through Revelation.
If option 2 is not practical for you then at least:
Option 3) Read all of the Gospel accounts, i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Then return and continue your research.
If you don’t have a Bible of your own then either buy a mainstream translation like the English Standard Version (ESV) or the New International Version (NIV), or simply read it online. Our list of resources includes some websites where you can find that.
Now let’s attempt to answer the question as to what the Christian Gospel actually is.
“The Gospel about Christ” or “The Gospel of Christ”?
This is a fundamental question about the Christian Gospel. Is it the narrative of Jesus Christ in terms of what happened to him, or is it a message that Jesus Christ himself taught to others? Many commentators have become hung up on this point as if it is an either/or situation. But is that really so?
Let’s consider each possibility and what the Bible has to say.
The Gospel About Christ
This is borne out by much of what is written within these books. For example:
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So the Christian Gospel is most certainly good news about Jesus Christ who came and took away the sin of the world (John 1:29)
The Gospel of Christ
At the same time Jesus himself brought a message of good news to mankind, and taught his followers to spread that message.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “… proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
This is far from an isolated scripture. In fact if you were to only read the accounts written by Matthew, Mark and Luke 1 then you would likely come away having a firm impression of the gospel being predominantly the message that Jesus, along with his apostles and disciples preached during his lifetime, i.e. the drawing near of the kingdom of God, also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. 2
However there is a major factor to consider. The apostles and disciples did not fully understand the Good News during Jesus’ own human lifetime. It might initially seem strange that this should be so. But there was good reason for it. When Jesus Christ came onto the scene in the first century, the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would be a conquering king to deliver them from the oppression of the Roman empire. Jesus used perfect discretion in revealing to his followers what they needed to know, when they needed to know it. To immediately reveal the details of his prophesied death before he had even developed a close relationship with his apostles would probably have been more than they could bear at the time (compare John 16:12).
The ministry 3 of Jesus Christ lasted for about three and a half years, following his baptism at around the age of thirty years old (Luke 3:23). We don’t know the exact dates of Jesus’ birth and death, but this period of ministry would have likely fallen somewhere between the years 27 and 36 AD. 4 It is during this period that Jesus selected apostles, attracted disciples, and sent some of these out selectively to preach a message that he gave them (Matt 10:1-11:1; Luke 10:1-16). But what exactly was that message?
Knowledge of the Gospel Was Limited Until After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
In one of the passages cited above, Jesus is recorded as having instructed his followers to spread the word that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). This is consistent with the message that Jesus himself was proclaiming throughout his entire ministry according to Matt 4:17.
Consider an incident recorded in Matthew chapter 16. The dating of this event is likely within the final year before Jesus’ death. The aforementioned accounts of him sending his apostles and disciples out to preach took place well before this. Let’s pick up the narrative in Matthew 16:13.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This significant exchange indicates that Jesus appointed the Apostle Peter with particular authority to further the interests of the Kingdom. Note what follows in verse 21:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
It is therefore clear that the message that the followers were spreading earlier did not include the detailed facts as to how mankind would be saved.
Think about how the apostles must have felt on hearing Jesus start to explain that he would suffer and die. What would your reaction be to such news? We can sympathize with Peter who responded this way:
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
It was necessary for Jesus to rebuke Peter in order to make the strong point that it was indeed God’s will that these things should take place, despite the high cost involved. But notice that Jesus had also said that on the third day he would be raised. Did Peter miss this piece of the puzzle or fail to understand its meaning? It’s certainly possible that he was so overwhelmed by the news that the Lord should die that this was his only focus at that moment. Later on however, he and the rest of Jesus’ apostles would have a different and more complete perspective.
How Could the Death of the Messiah be Good News?
The Bible teaches that Jesus’ voluntary death paid the price for our sins.
[Christ Jesus] gave himself as a ransom for all
1 Tim 2:6a
[Jesus our Lord] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Since it is our sins that condemn us to death, the sacrifice that Jesus made gives us the opportunity to avoid eternal death even though we sin 5.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the incredible Good News, or Gospel, of Jesus Christ. It involves both what he himself taught, and the actions that he took to redeem mankind from sin and death.
The Phrase – The Christian Gospel
It should also be noted that no such thing as “a Christian Gospel” could be identified as such, until the term “Christian” itself was in use. God’s Word tells us that this didn’t happen until the disciples were called “Christian” by divine providence sometime after after Jesus had returned to heaven and the Holy Spirit later came upon them (Acts 11:26)
[This article will be updated with further content soon …]
- Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the “synoptic Gospels” due to the amount of content they have in common as compared to the Gospel of John. ↩
- An more specific explanation of this Kingdom message will be dealt with in a future article. ↩
- By ministry we are referring to the key works of preaching, along with healing and other miracles, performed by Jesus. ↩
- Contrary to any natural assumption that the pivotal year that moved our modern calendar from BC (before Christ) to AD (Anno Domini – the Year of Our Lord) marked Jesus’ birth, historians generally accept that he was born around the year 2 BC. This is based upon the historical record of certain key events that are recorded in the gospel accounts – most notably perhaps the census decreed by Caesar Augustus referenced by the historian Luke (Luke 2:1-3). ↩
- The specifics of how the sacrifice that Jesus made achieves this will be the subject of another article. ↩