the gospel of or the gospel about?
I have been struggling lately to connect the two gospel messages I find in the bible- the gospel of Jesus and the gospel about Jesus. The gospel of Jesus can mostly be found in the gospels, and the gospel about Jesus can be found in the letters of the NT (especially Paul’s). How are the two connected? Are they saying the same thing? Is one an evolved version of the other?
I just heard a sermon Sunday at the church I was visiting and it focused on what I would call the gospel “about” Jesus. The sermon was mainly focused on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 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…
Hmm, well it would appear that evangelical Christianity would have gotten this right-on. From this passage it seems clear that the gospel is just about Christ dying for our sins (each individual’s), right? This passage makes me extremely uncomfortable, because a gospel that is reduced to Christ “dying for your sins” so “you can be saved and go to heaven when you die” seems to lack so much and can lead to dangerous conclusions about our life here on earth. After hearing the sermon on this passage, I ended up reading through all of Paul’s letters in the NT to see if he was consistent in what he said the bible was. He was… and I got even more uncomfortable.
I personally, in my postmodern “emerging” way, prefer the gospel “of” Jesus. This can be found in Mark 1:14-15:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good new of God. “the time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”
Now this I love- this I get excited about- this I want to share. The idea that Christ came to earth, became a man, and brought the start of the kingdom of God- now this is good stuff. I get really excited for the kingdom of God, that Christ will one day return and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and that all of creation (including individual souls, but not limited just to them) will be redeemed. Wow.
I have been reading N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” lately, and he has given me an idea that may reconcile the “two” gospels I see in the NT: the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. In traditional evangelical Christianity it seems like a lot of emphasis is put on Jesus “dying for your sins” but there doesn’t seem to have much to do with his resurrection and your salvation, other than that you should believe Jesus rose because it shows you believe Jesus was God and all-powerful. The connection between His resurrection and your salvation seems murky. But in 1 Corinthians 15, just after the verses I gave above, Paul goes into the topics of the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the body for the rest of the chapter. His emphasis here is clearly on Jesus’s resurrection, rather than his death.
N.T. Wright lays out the idea that Jesus’s resurrection was the future breaking into the present. In the future all of creation will be redeemed, heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be resurrected to once again have some sort of material bodies. In Jesus’s resurrection, we get a glimpse of what is to come- that redemption and renewal of all things. Jesus’s resurrection points as a sign to the future and assures us it is coming. He says in “Surprised by Hope”:
Salvation, then, is not “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth.” But as soon as we put it like this we realize that the New Testament is full of hints, indications, and downright assertations that this salvation isn’t just something we have to wait for in the long-distance future. We can enjoy it here and now… genuinely anticipating in the present what is to come in the future.
The entire book is full of this theme, that the resurrection was a sign of the coming kingdom of God- of the new heaven and new earth.
So perhaps the gospel “of” Jesus (the coming of the kingdom of God) and the gospel “about” Jesus (Jesus dying for our sins and then rising again) aren’t that different if you stop over-emphasizing Christ’s death and put some more emphasis back on his resurrection. The resurrection wasn’t just some cool trick Jesus did, some show of his divinity or power, or even some needed fulfillment of Scripture, but it was instead a signpost and assurance of the coming kingdom of God. When I hear Paul’s gospel, the gospel about Jesus, I think “Jesus died for your sins, so say these words, and get into heaven when you die”. But perhaps when Paul was preaching the early Christians heard, “Jesus is the messiah, he died for our sins, and in his resurrection we have great hope for the future that he was preaching about- where all things will be renewed, where God shall reign, where there will be no injustice, and where we will return to reign with God.”
I encourage you to read Surprised by Hope and let me know if the resurrection seems to be the key to reconciling these two gospels.