A while back Daniel asked me what I thought of a Gospel Coalition video called “Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?” The question which John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson address is basically this: Is Paul’s gospel of justification by faith on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death for the sins of the world to be found in the Gospels? They appear to be reacting against theological developments which have driven a wedge between the Reformed emphasis on personal salvation, supposedly as Paul understood it, and the “emerging” idea—though it’s not stated as such—that Jesus preached kingdom and that kingdom means social transformation.
In my view this is a classic example of reading backwards rather than forwards. The question may have some polemical point to it, but it immediately gets us moving in the wrong direction. It’s what happens when our worldview has been determined by theologians. A narrative-historical approach would instinctively ask the opposite question: “Did Paul preach Jesus’ gospel?”
In a stimulating talk that is partly a response to the Gospel Coalition argument, Scot McKnight quotes a line from Nietzsche: “the text has disappeared under the interpretation”. McKnight thinks that this is what has happened to the word “gospel”: the text has disappeared under the interpretation. Reading backwards is a way of keeping the text buried under layers of interpretive tradition.
So we start out in the wrong direction and we continue in the wrong direction. Piper explains his hermeneutic: he wants to read the Gospels in the shadow of the cross. When Jesus lifts up the cup and says, “This is the new covenant in my blood”, he means, “I purchase all the benefits of the new covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, by dying. And that’s the gospel.” Everything else is merely preamble. Piper is quite open about what he is doing, shamelessly so: “I read the Gospels backwards.” But why? The Gospels weren’t written backwards. History doesn’t move backwards.
Basically, what Piper, Keller and Carson are doing is reading Paul in the light of the Reformers, the crucifixion of Jesus in the light of their Reformed reading of Paul, and the prior content of the Gospels in the light of this Reformed-Pauline reading of the crucifixion.
I would argue the reverse. We should understand the crucifixion in the light of what has gone before—not only Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and everything that went along with it, but also the story about Israel which Jesus presupposes. Then we should ask how this narrative is taken up by Paul and proclaimed in the Gentile world. Then we should ask whether there’s much point left to the Reformed reading.
The gospel of Jesus
Let’s consider first, then, how the story unfolds in Luke, which is the text that Piper, Keller and Carson focus their attention on.
The angel proclaims good news (euangelizomai) to the shepherds that “a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” has been born in the city of David (Lk. 2:10). In the context of the early chapters of Luke it is evident that what is at issue is not the salvation of the individual but the salvation of Israel from the hands of their enemies (Lk. 1:71, 74). This salvation includes the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 1:77), but the connection is not made here with Jesus’ death. It will have an impact on the Gentiles only in that they will see that God has saved his people Israel (2:32; 3:6).
The “good news” which John preached (euēngelizeto) was that the coming messiah would judge Israel, gathering for himself a righteous people, and destroying the unrighteous (Lk. 3:16-18). Jesus believed that he had been anointed by the Spirit of God to proclaim the same good news (euangelisasthai) that Isaiah had described, which was that Israel would be set free from captivity and restored, and that YHWH would punish his enemies (Lk. 4:18; cf. 7:22). It is the good news of the coming kingdom of God (Lk. 8:1; 16:16).
Luke’s account of the last supper, which is where Piper begins, is oriented towards the fulfilment of a narrative in which the Son of Man must suffer before the kingdom of God comes. The suffering is for the sake of the disciples (“my body, which is given for you”), and Jesus understands his blood to be the means by which a new covenant with Israel is ratified. Matthew adds to this the thought that Jesus’ blood is “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28), but this is still the forgiveness of Israel’s sins as part of the story of the coming kingdom of God, understood as impending judgement and restoration.
Finally, in dispute at the trial, which is as much part of the climactic event as the crucifixion, is not whether Jesus will save Israel from its sins but whether he is Israel’s king. The high priest asks him if he is the Christ. Jesus replies that “from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God”. He combines two Old Testament narratives: suffering Israel, represented by the Son of Man, will be vindicated and given kingdom and dominion over the nations (Dan. 7:13-27); and Israel’s king will be given authority to judge and rule at the right hand of YHWH (cf. Ps. 110:1). He is executed in the end as one who thought himself to be king of the Jews.
So it appears that the “gospel” in the Gospels—the gospel of Jesus—is simply the public and prophetic announcement to Israel that, in keeping with the promise made to Abraham (cf. Lk. 1:72), YHWH was about to act in history to judge, deliver and restore his people. The claim is then made, secondarily, that this eschatological transformation would come about through the suffering of the Son of Man, who would “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45), who would be vindicated, and who would be seated at the right hand of God and given authority to rule in the midst of his enemies. But that is not the gospel. That is not what is announced.
Let me suggest an analogy. The angel tells Mary that she will bear a son, who will be given the throne of his father David and will “reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). That is an announcement to Mary of good news, and significantly, it has to do with kingdom.
Mary then asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”, and the angel has to explain that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, etc.—presumably, that she will conceive miraculously. That part of the story is important—indeed, essential. But it is not itself the good news. The good news is that her son will be given the throne of his father David, which will have massive implications for Israel, as Mary will later acknowledge (Lk. 1:46-55).
What Paul does with the gospel of Jesus
What Paul will later do with Jesus’ gospel has been hinted at already. Simeon prophesies that the historical salvation of Israel will be a “light of revelation to the Gentiles”—that is, it will open the eyes of the Gentiles to the power of Israel’s God to intervene in history and save his people from their enemies (Lk. 2:29-32). Similarly, Luke quotes Isaiah in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6; cf. Is. 40:3 LXX).
We see how this works most clearly in Romans 15:8-21. Christ “became a servant to the circumcised” for the sake of the truthfulness of God—on the one hand, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs; on the other, so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy towards his people, Israel. The Gentiles will come to hope in Christ, and eventually he will rule over them. Paul’s role as a minister “of the gospel of Christ” is to ensure that the response of the Gentiles to what God has done for his people through his servant Jesus is acceptable.
The difference between Jesus and Paul, therefore, is not that Jesus preached the kingdom and Paul preached the justification of the individual by faith. It is that Jesus preached the restoration of Israel to Israel whereas Paul preached the restoration of Israel to the nations. Specifically, Paul found in the resurrection of Jesus reason to believe that YHWH would judge not only his own people but also the pagan world.
This, I think, is Paul’s “gospel”—an announcement both to diaspora Judaism and to the nations concerning Jesus, who “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Part of the argument, certainly, is that Jesus died for the sins of his people “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-3); and in his disputes with the Jews Paul insisted that at this time of eschatological crisis God’s people would be justified only by “his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24–25). But these details cannot be separated from the story about Israel. They are not to be viewed through the narrow, isolating keyhole of the Reformed obsession with justification by faith.
I agree with the Gospel Coalition triumvirate that there is no contradiction between Jesus’ gospel and Paul’s gospel, and I agree that the use of Jesus’ teaching to prioritize a social transformation agenda is misguided. But it seems to me that by beginning with the reductionist modern-Reformed premise that “gospel” is all about the justification of the individual and working backwards from there they have seriously misconstrued—or at least, misrepresented—the New Testament narrative. If we start, as the New Testament does, from the large premise of the political-religious crisis facing Israel and work forwards, we will gain a much clearer understanding not only of the relationship between Jesus and Paul but also of the nature of the individual’s engagement with the narrative.