Christianity is reckoned by most people, I imagine, to be at core a religion of salvation. The defining event is the cross, understood as an act of atonement or redemption, the means by which people are saved. If you are not a Christian you are “lost” or “perishing”. If you become a Christian, you don’t simply convert or join: you admit that you cannot save yourself, that you need a Saviour, therefore you repent of your sins and are saved. You then become part of a community of saved individuals, the church, and are expected to do what other saved people do, until eventually you die and go to heaven.
This has certainly been the overriding paradigm for the modern conservative and evangelical church, and we all naturally assume that it’s biblical. At the heart of the New Testament must be the simple and consistent gospel proclamation: you are a sinner, but the good news is that Jesus died for your sins; so believe in him and be saved from lostness before death and annihilation or worse after death.
If we resist the pressure to impose this basic evangelical theology on the Gospels, however, and ask instead about the historical meaning of the “salvation” that Jesus proclaimed, we will arrive at a rather different understanding of the term.
What I have done here is simply list, first, the places where the words “save”, “salvation” and “Saviour” are found in the Synoptic Gospels. It does not give us the complete picture (forgiveness of sins is only touched on, for example), but it will illustrate clearly enough the basic narrative shape of the concept. Then I have listed passages that indicate what people are saved from in the Synoptic Gospels. There is bad news as well as good news. Finally, I have drawn some conclusions about what it means to be saved today.
Apart from a brief mention at the end, I have excluded John’s parallel, theologically more complex, multilayered version of the story of Jesus.
Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels
- Joseph is told that Jesus will save his people Israel from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
- Mary calls God “Saviour” because he is about to overthrow the powerful and wealthy in Israel and raise up the poor and wretched (Lk. 1:46-55). Zechariah expects Israel to be saved from its enemies in order to serve the living God without fear (Lk. 1:71). John the Baptist will “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). The salvation of Israel will be a light to the nations (Lk. 2:29-32).
- The coming salvation of Israel will be comparable to the return of the Jews from exile (Lk. 3:5-6).
- The disciples are saved from drowning on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:23). Peter is saved from drowning by Jesus when he tries to walk on the water (Matt. 14:30).
- In a number of passages the verb sōzō appears only to mean “heal, make well”. The woman with the flow of blood is saved when Jesus heals her (Matt. 9:21-22; Mk. 5:28, 34; Lk. 8:48). He saves Jairus’ daughter and she lives (Mk. 5:23; Lk. 8:50). Many sick people are saved as Jesus travels around the region of Gennesaret (Mk. 6:53-56). The Gerasene demoniac is saved when a “legion” of demons are driven out of him (Mk. 5:9; Lk. 8:30, 36). A blind man is saved by his faith and recovers his sight (Mk. 10:52; Lk. 18:42). Jesus tells the leper who came back to give thanks that he has been saved by his faith (Lk. 17:19).
- A “woman of the city, who was a sinner” is forgiven and saved by her faith, having expressed her great love for him by kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment (Lk. 7:50).
- The seed that falls along the path is taken away by the devil, so that people “may not believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12). The seed is the word of God concerning Israel (cf. Is. 55:10-11; Amos 9:13-15).
- The disciples will be saved by enduring through to the end of the persecution that will attend their kingdom-preaching mission to Israel (Matt. 10:22); by their endurance they will gain their lives when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies (Lk. 21:20). Jesus assures them that they “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. He says elsewhere that some of them will still be alive when the Son of Man comes (Matt. 16:28). Likewise, those who endure to the end, when “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations”, will be saved (Matt. 24:14; Mk. 13:13).
- Some of the disciples will be saved because the “great tribulation” associated with the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem will be cut short (Matt. 24:22; Mk. 13:20).
- The disciple who wishes to save his life must be prepared to lose his life for Jesus’ sake (Matt. 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24).
- People are saved—including, at a stretch, wealthy people—by leaving behind houses, possessions and family and following Jesus as he proclaims the kingdom of God to Israel (Matt. 19:23-30; Mk. 10:23-31; Lk. 18:24-30).
- When Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and restore fourfold what he has defrauded, he is saved and becomes a true “son of Abraham”, he is restored to Israel (Lk. 19:8-10).
- Only those Jews who “enter through the narrow door” leading to life will be saved (Lk. 13:23-24).
- Jesus saved others from sickness and death, but he would not save himself (Matt. 27:39-42; Mk. 15:29-31; Lk. 23:35-39).
What people are saved from in the Synoptic Gospels
- There is a narrow and difficult road leading to life, but most Jews are on a broad road leading to destruction (Matt. 7:13).
- Unrighteous Israel faces the judgment of Gehenna (wrongly translated “hell” in many English Bibles), which was the fate formerly suffered by Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian invasion (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8) and which would be repeated, as Josephus relates (Jos. War 5.12.3), at the time of the Roman siege of the city in AD 68-70.
- Israel has built its house on sand; it will be swept away when the flood and storm of God’s judgment on his people come (Matt. 7:26-27).
- The lost in the Synoptic Gospels are the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).
- Unrighteous Israel will be destroyed body and soul in Gehenna—there will be no prospect of resurrection (Matt. 10:28).
- The wicked tenants in the vineyard of Israel and the guests who spurned the king will suffer military destruction; Jerusalem will be burned (Matt. 21:41; 22:7; Lk. 20:16).
- The blood of the prophets “will be required of this generation” of Jews (Lk. 11:51).
- Jesus came not to bring peace but to cast fire on the land, to bring a sword, to divide households (Matt. 10:34-36; Lk. 12:49-53).
- If the Jews do not repent, they will perish in the same way that the Galileans killed by Pilate or those killed by the fall of the tower of Siloam perished (Lk. 13:2-5). Jesus is not speaking about spiritual death; he has in mind the physical destruction of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants by the Romans.
- The coming judgment on Israel will be like the flood or the destruction of Sodom (Lk. 17:26-30).
- Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed by an invading army, its inhabitants will fall by the sword and be led captive among the nations (Matt. 24:1-28; Mk. 13:1-23; Lk. 21:5-24).
The narrative-historical frame
So to summarise the narrative-historical frame for salvation in the Synoptic Gospels:
- The basic story is about the salvation of Israel, not the salvation of individual humans, and is conceived in social-political terms. What is at stake is the survival and continued witness of the family of Abraham.
- When people are sick or in physical danger they are saved by their faith in or appeal to Jesus. This is not just a demonstration of the power of personal faith in Jesus. It is a sign of the coming salvation or healing of Israel in fulfilment of Isaiah 61:1 or Hosea 6:1-2. The associated forgiveness of sins is a sign of the forgiveness of Israel (cf. Is. 40:2; Jer. 31:34).
- People are saved by abandoning their wealth and family and literally following Jesus. This involves radical faith in Jesus, clearly, but it is meaningless if it is not acted out in the dramatic context of the mounting eschatological crisis.
- In the context of their mission to Israel, the disciples will be saved on the basis of how they face persecution: if they are willing to lose their lives, if they remain steadfast and endure through to the end of the period of suffering, they will be saved. This is unequivocally a salvation by works: if they do not do what Jesus has called them to do, they will not be saved.
- Everything has to do with events that would take place within the next 40 years, culminating in the catastrophe of the war against Rome.
It is clear from this quick little survey that there is no modern-evangelical “gospel” of personal salvation for all humanity embedded in the Gospels. It’s simply not there. The Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the salvation of Israel, bounded by the horizon of an impending war against Rome, which Jesus regarded as God’s final judgment on the wicked tenants that had for so long refused to give him the fruit to which he was entitled.
The historical shape of John’s account is obscured by a layer of theological sediment, but it can be discerned if we look closely:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (Jn. 11:49–53)
So what should we do about it?
Two things, I suggest.
First, we should let the New Testament documents speak for themselves in their own historical context. There is nothing to be gained by putting our words into their mouths.
Secondly, we should proclaim good news today as part of the outworking of the New Testament narrative. So, at least with respect to the story in the Synoptic Gospels, salvation today means becoming part of a people that was saved from destruction two thousand years ago by the Messianic-prophetic ministry of Jesus to Israel. Becoming part of the people of the living God has all sorts of wonderful personal benefits for evangelists to promote. But it also carries the overt historical responsibility of serving the living God, of bearing credible witness in our aggressively secular context, during our own period of “eschatological” crisis.