Bad way to get good news?

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

What was the gospel that Jesus preached?

As far back as Irenaeus, Christians have suggested that the best way to interpret scripture is by finding other passages or verses that fill in the blanks or clarify the confusing bits.

By such a method, we might wonder what the “good news” is that Jesus preached and go looking through the New Testament for more elaborate explanations of the gospel. Doing so would likely bring us to 1 Corinthians 15, which Paul helpfully labels as the good news.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor 15:3-8)

By the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we might conclude that what Jesus meant by “the gospel” in Mark 1 was some version of what Paul described as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a story, but it is a story most centrally about Jesus dying for our sins and being raised to life.

Such a definition of the good news seems to inform what John Wesley does in a sermon such as “The Way to the Kingdom.” When he comes to describe the gospel, he casts in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Believe this and the kingdom is yours, Wesley preached. In preaching this, Wesley understood the gospel through the lens of Pietism. In the same sermon, he tells us that the “kingdom” is an inner experience of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Here again he uses scripture to explain scripture. He finds the definition of the word “kingdom” — as Jesus used it — in the words of Paul, in this case from Romans 14.

In our day, this kind of preaching would get low marks in a New Testament class. The professor would point out, no doubt, that Jesus’ audience in Mark 1 could not have possibly understood the call to believe the good news as a call to believe that Jesus — who was very much not yet crucified — was going to die for their sins.

These kinds of observations lead people ask whether Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. Those who say they did not preach the same gospel — or at least that the word “gospel” in Mark 1:15 does not mean that Jesus died for our sins — tend to argue that the good news means to Jesus the declaration that kingdom is now present in Jesus himself. (See N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight for more on this.)

And so, I wonder if that means we should discard Wesley’s sermon on Mark 1:15 as a case of bad exegesis. Or is there some way that the “gospel” of Mark 1:15 is both what it meant to Jesus and the first readers of Mark and what it means to us as we read in light of what Paul and Peter and others have taught us.

Can we do bad historical-critical exegesis and yet still do good biblical theology?


3 thoughts on “Bad way to get good news?

  1. Words have different meaning and nuance depending on context. If Mark tells us that Jesus was announcing the “good news” during His earthly ministry then we can’t rightly expect those that heard Him at that time to have connected the dots and accepted His death/resurrection. Even Peter and the other disciples did not understand this (as we see during the Passion Predictions).

    It also helps to understand that a first century hearer would understand “good news” as a major victory or a new ruler. This idea is certainly what Jesus meant: The new and true Ruler of Creation and God’s Kingdom has come.

    That does not mean that “Paul’s gospel” in 1 Cor 15 is not a fuller understanding of the “good news” that was being announced by Jesus with the benefit of hindsight and the transpiring of events. The true King has come and achieved a major victory. However, the Kingdom is delayed until Jesus’ return, entrance into the Kingdom is made possible through the death and resurrection of Christ, you are invited to become a citizen of this kingdom but the entrance is narrow and based on faith.

  2. If we take seriously Wesley’s own words– that the gospel is “the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men”– and do not substitute this totality for what he later called “the substance”, I see no contradiction at all. Certainly a significant part of “the whole revelation… and … the whole account of what our Lord did” includes the declaration that the kingdom of God had drawn near– a declaration with signs following. It also includes the key declaration and sign of the death and resurrection of Jesus pointing to the hope of resurrection and new creation of which we see glimpses in his transfiguration and ascension.

    So I’d say if we’re taking Wesley’s own words seriously, and then speak ONLY of the “pietist” or “inner kingdom” version, we’re not being faithful to what Wesley himself described as the gospel. God’s salvation, the substance, embraces ALL of this, not just the individual experience of personal assurance and being made holy in this life.

  3. Vanhoozer suggests (rightly I think) that Jesus himself is “shorthand” for the gospel he preached, he himself the Good News in the fullness of God’s self-revelation. This assumes that Jesus was indeed self-aware of who he was and that what he was doing was indeed the gospel of God. Reading Mark apace and as a whole stitches the dots together. We see in the crowds response to Jesus himself the incipient kingdom of God.

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