In The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited Scot McKnight argues that the gospel being preached in evangelicalism today is a truncated or distorted version of the original. Some think the gospel is justification by faith, while others identify it as the saving work of Christ. However it is characterized, the gospel is understood to be all about personal salvation. While that is surely part of it, the gospel is much more.
McKnight argues that the gospel as preached in the NT consists of four elements:
- The story ofIsrael
- The story of Jesus
- The plan of salvation
- The method of persuasion
We cannot make sense of the method of persuasion apart from the plan of salvation, and we cannot make sense of the plan of salvation apart from the story of Jesus, and we can’t make sense of the story of Jesus apart from the story ofIsrael. All four elements were integral to the preaching of the gospel in the early church.
According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the Gospel concerns four events in the life of Christ (death, burial, resurrection, appearances), and these events are according to the Scriptures (OT). If our gospel presentation bypasses the story ofIsraeland the story of Jesus, then it is not the gospel presentation of the early church. The story of Jesus is the fulfillment of the story ofIsrael, and the plan of salvation is the fulfillment of the story of Jesus. But the story of Jesus is much more than that he died for our sins. It is the story of his teachings, and it is the story of how He is king restoring God’s kingdom (Rom 1:1-5). That is why our four gospels spend so much time developing these themes, and so little time speaking of personal salvation.
Nothing makes it clearer that the gospel of the early church was about much more than personal salvation than a look at their evangelistic messages (Acts 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 7:2-53; 10:34-43/11:4-18; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31). They did not go straight into an appeal to accept Jesus into one’s heart. Indeed, they never asked people to do such a thing. Instead, they told the story ofIsrael, how Jesus completed that story (as messiah, Lord, and king), and how Jesus’ completion of that story results in salvation. Here are just a few samples:
- So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent toIsrael, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning fromGalileeafter the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:34-38 ESV)
- So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent toIsrael, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning fromGalileeafter the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and inJerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43 ESV)
- So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this peopleIsraelchose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in thelandofEgypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in thelandofCanaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son ofKish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought toIsraela Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people ofIsrael. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live inJerusalemand their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee toJerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm… (Acts 13:16-33 ESV)
- Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:18 ESV)
- When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to thekingdomofGodand trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. … When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to thekingdomofGodand trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. (Acts 28:23, 30-31 ESV)
The abundance of quotations from and allusions to the OT in these messages also makes it clear that they saw Jesus as fulfilling the story ofIsrael.
McKnight offers six comparisons between the way the early church “gospeled” and the way we gospel today:
- The goal – We seek to get people to confess their sins and find Jesus as our personal savior, while the early church sought to get people to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
- The content – Our gospel is almost entirely about salvation, whereas the gospel of the early church included the story ofIsraeland the story of Jesus. We speak so much of the love of God, but they spoke of Jesus as coming judge.
- What to fear – We preach a lot about avoiding hell, whereas the early church only spoke of future judgment by Jesus for sin.
- They preached thekingdomofGodand Jesus as king, and we don’t.
- Jesus is ruler over all, includingRome
- The early church preached Jesus and not just salvation through Jesus.
McKnight rounds out his argument with a four page presentation of the Biblical gospel. He traces the kingdom theme from creation through Abraham throughIsraelto Jesus, and shows how this relates to salvation and the future. This alone is worth the price of the book.
Note, for example, what Jesus said to his disciples regarding the woman who poured expensive oil on Jesus’ head: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mk 14:9). This woman’s act had nothing to do with personal salvation, and yet for Jesus, this story would be part of the gospel story. Why? Because the story involved Jesus, and the story of Jesus’ life and teachings is part of the gospel story.