What is the gospel message in the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? How can you know which points of the gospel need to be shared with others? This article briefly examines these questions. It shows you why the Gospel accounts were written, what gospel message the Gospels contain, and how you can know what truths of the gospel to share with others.
This study is an excerpt from my Gospel Dictionary online course. This course considers 52 key words of the Gospel and thousands of biblical texts. The course contains over 100 hours Bible teaching. You can take the course by joining my online discipleship group.
The Gospel in the Gospels
There is no better place to define the gospel than the four Gospel accounts about Jesus as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When beginning to study these Gospel accounts, it is critical to remember that at the time the New Testament was written, everybody would have recognized and understood the genre of literature known as “gospel” (or euangelion).
In Greek and Roman culture, the imperial cult produced a new “gospel” every time a new emperor gained the throne. When new emperors were inaugurated, one of the first things he would do is spread Caesar Gospels about himself across the entire empire.
In the context into which Paul was speaking, “gospel” would mean the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor. Though no doubt petty kingdoms might use the word for themselves, in Paul’s world the main “gospel” was the news of, or the celebration of, Caesar.
Caesar demanded worship as well as “secular” obedience; not just taxes, but sacrifices. He was well on the way to becoming the supreme divinity in the Greco-Roman world, maintaining his vast empire not simply by force, though there was of course plenty of that, but by the development of a flourishing religion that seemed to be trumping most others either by absorption or by greater attraction. Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world. He was therefore to be hailed as Lord, and trusted as Savior (see this article by NT Wright).
These Caesar Gospels would include stories of the miraculous birth of Caesar, how he was visited by foreign dignitaries, and how the sun, moon, and stars helped announce his arrival. These stories might contain some of the amazing things he said and did as a child, and might also include some of his victories at war. The stories would also be filled with promises of peace and prosperity for all during this emperor’s reign. As such, the Caesar Gospels were propaganda tools to convince the citizens of the empire to swear fealty to the new Caesar (with the statement “Caesar is Lord!”), and worship him as the newest member of the divine pantheon.
[In the imperial cult], the ruler is divine by nature. His power extends to men, to animals, to the earth, and to the sea. Nature belongs to him; wind and waves are subject to him. He works miracles and heals men. He is the savior of the world who also redeems men from their difficulties. … He has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods. Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men.
… Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross, confront one another (Friedrich, in Kittel, ed., II:224-25).
So the Gospels of Jesus Christ, while historically accurate, are more than just records of His birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection. They are subversive political documents for the fledgling Christian community, showing them that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not, so they should follow and worship Jesus alone. The Gospels contain the good stories about Jesus which encourage and inspire His followers to live for Him and obey His instructions.
The Gospels of Jesus, therefore, are stories about Jesus for the benefit of believers. These are not books for “evangelism” but books for “discipleship.” While unbelievers can benefit greatly from reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus, they are primarily intended for believing audiences.
The Gospel in John
The Gospel of John is somewhat of an exception.
Though his account of the life of Jesus is referred to as a “gospel,” John never once uses the word in his account, and his narrative of the life of Christ is missing most of the typical “gospel” elements that would be found in a typical Caesar Gospel, which are included in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Furthermore, based on the content, message, and theme of John’s account, he seems intent on showing what a person must believe to receive eternal life (John 20:30-31). Believing in Jesus for eternal life is one of the prominent messages throughout the book.
So if there is one book of the Bible which is geared more toward unbelievers, it would be the Gospel of John.
Having said this, however, I believe that even John’s Gospel is intended primarily for believers. There is enough instruction in the book about discipleship and what it means to follow Jesus, that this book also, along with the other three Gospels, can safely be categorized as a book for the discipleship of believers.
Luke 1:19 and the Gospel
When we look at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see some surprising elements that are explicitly mentioned as part of the gospel.
For example, in Luke 1:19, the angel Gabriel declares the “gospel” to Zechariah. Most translations say that the angel is declaring glad tidings, or declaring good news, but the Greek word is euangelizō; the angel declares the gospel. The content of the angel’s gospel message is that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will be the mother of John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
When you are telling people how to receive eternal life, is this a fact which you have ever thought to share? Probably not.
I have never heard any evangelist or preacher talk about the birth of John in their gospel presentations. But according to Luke and Gabriel, it is gospel truth that Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age and he would be the forerunner for the promised Messiah. It is probably safe to say that this is one of those “fringe” truths of the gospel which are part of the biblical gospel, but which rarely gets shared with unbelievers and which may not do a whole lot for believers who are trying to become better followers of Jesus Christ. However, we cannot deny that the birth of John is part of the gospel, for Scripture says it is.
Besides, once we begin to think about it, there are many helpful and wonderful truths that can be drawn from Gabriel’s gospel message to Zachariah. I myself have taught some of these in the past when I preached through Luke. Few people, however, would ever list the prophecy about the birth of John as part of the gospel essentials. But just because few would list it, this does not mean it is not part of the gospel. It is. There are several other examples in the Gospels of this sort of gospel truth—truths which the Gospel writers include as elements of the gospel, but which are rarely, if ever, included in any list of essential gospel truths or “evangelistic” message.
But such minor “fringe” truths are not the primary gospel truths in the Gospels. Of course, most of what modern evangelicals think of as the major “central” truths of the gospel are not included in the synoptic Gospels either. Truths about justification and believing in Jesus for eternal life are, for the most part, simply ignored.
Instead, the primary gospels truths in Matthew, Mark, and Luke center on Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. The central gospel truth in the Gospels is that God’s kingdom has arrived on earth in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel in Matthew 4:23
Matthew 4:23 is one example. In this passage Matthew records that Jesus “went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” Using the six questions above to help determine what the gospel message was, who it was spoken to, and what the expected result was, it can be quickly discovered that Jesus was preaching to the Jews in the region of the Galilee, and He was telling them that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 4:17).
These Jews would not have understood Jesus to be saying that if they believed in Him, they could go to heaven when they died. Such a thought never would have entered their minds. Instead, they would have understood Jesus to be saying that the Old Testament promises to Israel were coming true. To them, this meant that the Messiah would rise to power and would lead the nation of Israel to throw off Roman occupation so that Israel could become the leading nation of the world.
For Jews living under Roman occupation, this was good news! It was exactly what they were praying and longing for. The condition for the reception of this promise was the national repentance of Israel (Matthew 4:17). Jesus said that to receive the kingdom, the Jewish people had to repent of the way they had perverted and destroyed the law of God, and return to a right relationship with Him in true obedience to the law.
As an indication of their repentance, they had to be baptized, symbolizing their death to the ways of Judaism and accepting the new way of life as prescribed by Jesus.
Yet when many of the Jewish people tried to crown Jesus as king to launch the rebellion against Rome which they knew must come, Jesus rebuffed them.
When they tried to crown Him king, He refused (John 6:15).
When Jesus predicts His suffering and death, they try to talk some sense into Jesus (Matthew 16:21-22).
When they believed that Jesus was about to begin His campaign for the kingdom, they wanted to know who would sit on His right hand and who on His left (Mark 10:37).
So apparently, the gospel message that Jesus preached about the kingdom of God was not exactly the same as the gospel message that the Jewish people heard. The gospel they wanted and the gospel Jesus preached used similar terms and ideas, but Jesus defined these words completely different than how the multitudes defined them.
Time and time again, Jesus is expected to take a stand against the Romans and begin the Jewish revolution which would result in their national independence and restoration as the leading nation of the world. Yet Jesus consistently turned away from such actions and denied that this was why He came.
Even near the end of His ministry, when challenged by Pilate about whether or not He was a threat to Rome, Jesus stated that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). By this, Jesus does not mean that His kingdom was not for this world, for it was. What Jesus meant is that His kingdom would not look or function like an earthly kingdom. The kingdom of God is for this world, but it would not advance the same way as the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God was not built upon power structures and violence and military might, but on love, service, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.
When we understand the kingdom of God in this way, we see that, despite the opinions of some, Jesus was not unsuccessful in launching His kingdom.
To the contrary, through His life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God in this earth and it has been spreading around the earth ever since. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that He was setting up a kingdom, and that this kingdom would be over the entire earth, and it would result in peace and justice for all. But it would not be a kingdom that would rise to power like the other kingdoms of the world. It would be given to the weak, the poor, the outcast, the despised, and the rejected, and would be built upon the principles of humility, grace, mercy, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, service, and love.
This sort of message was too much for the average Jew. Though they wanted the Messiah, they did not want this kind of a Messiah, and so they rejected the instructions of Jesus, and instead of receiving the kingdom He offered, killed Jesus upon the cross. But three days later He rose from the dead as further evidence that His gospel message about the arrival of the kingdom was indeed true.
The resurrection of Jesus vindicated the message of Jesus, proving once and for all that His way of running the world was God’s way. When the Gospels contains gospel truths about the birth, life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:15; Luke 1:19; 2:10; 3:18), such truths are not presented as requirements to believe in order to receive eternal life, but are instead presented as gospel truths to vindicate and validate the person, identity, and message of Jesus Christ.
And while it is only hinted at in the Gospels, one of the accomplishments of the life and ministry of Jesus was that the offer of the kingdom of God was made available not just to Jewish people, but to all people of the earth. This becomes much more obvious in the book of Acts and in the letters of Paul and the Apostles.
What is the Gospel Message in the Gospels?
So note something important about the ways the gospel is presented in the Gospels. In the Gospels, the word “gospel” is rarely (if ever) used in connection with how to receive eternal life and go to heaven when you die. This is not the point of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, nor is it part of the gospel message which they are presenting. They have different goals and audiences in mind, and so when they write about the gospel, they include the truths and elements from the gospel which help make their point.
The “gospel” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke emphasizes kingdom truths about how God’s people are to live on earth as a reflection of God’s rule and reign (e.g., Matt 9:35; 11:5; 24:14; 26:13; Mark 1:14-15; 13:10; Luke 4:18; 4:43; 7:22; 8:1; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1). That this offer will be opened to Gentiles as well as Jews is hinted at in various places, especially in Mark and Luke, where Jesus and the Apostles minister to mixed multitudes (cf. Mark 14:9).
Frequently, in these gospel offers, commitment, discipleship, and cost are required of those who will respond. But in these instances, it is not everlasting life that is offered, but blessing, reward, and inheritance in the kingdom (cf. Mark 8:35; 10:29). Discipleship, obedience, and life transformation are never the conditions for receiving eternal life, but are instead presented as conditions for experiencing the rule and reign of God in one’s life.
Even when the Gospels contain calls to “believe the gospel,” (cf. Mark 1:15; 16:15-16), these are not invitations to receive eternal life, but are once again invitations to enter into and experience the rule and reign of God in one’s life while avoiding the opposite (described as “wrath”). Wrath, by the way, is not hell or eternal separation from God, but is instead the temporal disastrous and destructive consequences of ignoring God’s instructions and living instead according to your own will and selfish desire. In this sense, living in the rule and reign of God (the kingdom of God) is the polar opposite of experiencing wrath.
So what is the gospel in the Gospels?
While it does contain some truths which were primarily significant for people living at that time (such as Elizabeth’s pregnancy), the vast majority of the uses of the word “gospel” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to truths about the birth, life, teaching, miracles, parables, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how all these events and ideas help His followers (which include us) to live within the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
The gospel in the Gospels focuses on discipleship truths about how to follow Jesus so that His rule and reign expands in our lives and upon the earth.
Understanding the Gospel requires us to properly understand the key words and terms of the Gospel. Take my course, "The Gospel Dictionary" to learn about the 52 key words of the Gospel, and hundreds of Bible passages that use these words.
This course costs $297, but when you join the Discipleship group, you can to take the entire course for free.
Grahame Smith says
Very well done Jeremy. No wonder believers (including me) have been confused at times about about the message of the Gospels . Shifting the mind set (often taught) of proclaiming Christ to people who don’t believe, to it being a road map for believers to follow Christ through His kingdom in this life, can have the effect or outcome of becoming kingdom minded. This then leads us hopefully to sharing Christ and His grace with others as we take his love in to their of difficulties and personal hells. That’s my take away message from reading your post.