The word “Gospel” means “good news.” The good news is given through a message. In the New Testament, there are two different messages that are called “the gospel.” One is given by Jesus and one is given by Paul, a man who called himself an “apostle” (messenger) but was not among the original followers of Jesus.
According to the book of Mark in the New Testament, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).
To understand what Jesus was talking about, we must put his statement into historical context.
Jesus was a Jew. According to their traditions, the Jews believed that God had promised their ancestor, Abram (later called Abraham) that his descendants would become a great nation by which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
According to the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, “The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly. (Genesis 17:1-2) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Caanan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God’.” (Genesis 17:7-8) As a sign of this covenant, it was agreed that all male decendants of Abram (Abraham) would be circumcised.
Some of the descendants of Abraham, through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (whose name was changed to “Israel”), migrated to Egypt where their numbers multiplied. Israel’s twelve sons were heads of families which became known as the “twelve tribes of Israel,” or Israelites. The Israelites (also called Hebrews) left Egypt, under the leadership of Moses, and eventually migrated to the land ruled by the Caananites about 1,200 years before Jesus.
The twelve tribes of Israelites were eventually organized into a kingdom ruled by a succession of kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. About 922 BCE (Before Christian Era) , the kingdom divided into two kingdoms, known as Judah (two southern tribes) and Israel (ten northern tribes). Two hundred years later, in 722 BCE, Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. In 587 BCE, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Many of the Hebrew people were dispersed to other countries. The leading families of Judah were taken into exile in Babylonia.
When Persia conquered Babylonia, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the people of Judah to return to their homeland, in 538 BCE, and they began rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to be ruled by Persia until being conquered by Alexander the Great of Greece in 332 BCE. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire was divided among his four generals — two of whom were Ptolemy who ruled from Egypt and Seleucus who ruled from Syria. At first, the Jews were ruled by the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt but in 198 BCE the Seleucid rulers from Syria took over control of the Jews.
The Jews hoped that someday a messiah (an anointed one) would be sent by God to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel in fulfillment of their expectation that the descendants of Abraham would become a great nation by which “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”
The Jews revolted against their Syrian ruler and gained their independence in 164 BCE. After 101 years, the Jews lost their freedom again when the Romans took control of the Jews in 63 BCE. Once again, the Jews began longing for their independence as a nation. Some Jews found hope in the book of Daniel which was written by an unknown Jewish writer just before the Jews obtained their freedom from Syria. The book encouraged the Jews to expect their freedom at that time. The book describes a series of dreams which the Hebrew prophet Daniel allegedly had when the Jews were ruled by Babylon and were longing for their freedom then.
In one of his dreams, the prophet Daniel saw “one like a son of man” who was given an everlasting kingdom by the “Ancient of Days” (God). The term “son of man” means “human being.” This “son of man” symbolized the kingdom of Israel which was predicted to come. In the time of Jesus, the term “son of man” was used sometimes to refer to a leader (messiah) who would come to re-establish the kingdom of Israel.
Based on their own interpretation of the book of Daniel, some Jews believed that the “messiah” was due in Jesus’ time. You can imagine the excitement when a man called John the Baptizer (or Baptist) appeared in the wilderness near the Jordan river preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Of course, those who heard John the Baptist interpreted his message to mean that the time for the liberation and restoration of the kingdom of Israel was near.
John the Baptist called for the people to “repent” of their sins in preparation for the coming of the “kingdom” from God. Those who repented were baptized (immersed) by John in the Jordan river, symbolizing that their repentance had cleansed them from their guilt.
Jesus was among the Jews who were baptized by John the Baptist. John the Baptist was arrested and later executed by Antipas, a puppet ruler appointed by the Roman emperor. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Gallilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ ” (Mark 1:14-15) Jesus was joined by others including some former followers of John the Baptist.
Originally, Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” was a nationalistic one. When he sent his twelve disciples out to preach the coming of the kingdom, Jesus told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:5-7). And Jesus told the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
When Jesus began preaching, his concept of the “kingdom of God” was similar to the view held by other Jews who were hoping that the re-establishment of the kingdom of Israel would enable the Jews to fulfill their national mission of being a blessing to all of the families of the earth. These Jews believed that the “son of man” (messiah) would come suddenly “with his angels” to establish the rule of God on earth. It would be a dramatic event.
But then, Jesus began talking about the coming of the “kingdom of God” in other terms. He said that the “kingdom of God” was something that could be discovered and could grow gradually. Jesus used about two-thirds of his parables to describe his new concept of the “kingdom of God” on earth. It is doubtful that his disciples ever understood what Jesus was talking about. They had joined Jesus in a revolutionary movement to re-establish the kingdom of Israel. And then Jesus began teaching “love for enemies” and used a “Samaritan” (a person of mixed race and unorthodox religion) as an example of a good neighbor. It is no that wonder that Judas reported Jesus to the religious authorities. Jesus had become a “heretic” with his unorthodox beliefs.
Neither did the Roman authorities understand Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God.” They saw his call for the coming of a new “kingdom” on earth as a revolutionary movement so they crucified him, the usual Roman punishment for political revoluntaries.
The only “gospel” that Jesus preached was “The kingdom of God is at hand.” To understand what he meant by this, we must turn to the parables of Jesus. (See my essay on “The Kingdom of God.”)
Soon after the time of Jesus, a man named Paul began preaching his own “gospel.” Paul was a Jew with some theological training. Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in some kind of mystical “vision” that convinced Paul that Jesus was the Jewish “messiah.” But there was nothing in traditional Jewish beliefs about the “messiah” that could explain why Jesus was crucified. So Paul drew upon his religious training to present his theory that Jesus’ crucifixion was like the sacrifice of a “ram without blemish” as a guilt offering to atone for sins (as described in the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible).
Paul claimed that Jesus was “without sin” of his own because he was the divine Son of God who had come to earth in human form to sacrifice his life to pay the death penalty which humankind had incurred because of sin. Then Paul claimed that God rewarded Jesus by raising him from the dead and making him ruler (Lord) over all humankind. According to Paul’s “gospel,” whoever accepts Jesus as “Lord” and believes that God raised Jesus from the dead will be “saved” from death (of the soul). (The details of Paul’s theology are presented in my essay on “The Theology of Paul”.)
Paul began preaching his “gospel” in missionary journeys to many countries while the leaders among the original disciples of Jesus remained in Jerusalem, waiting for Jesus to reappear to “establish the kingdom of Israel.” After the Jews revolted against Rome in 66 CE (Christian Era), the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 CE. By that time, Paul and nearly all of the original disciples of Jesus were dead. The “gospel” that Paul preached had taken root in “churches” far away from Jerusalem. These congregations consisted mostly of non-Jews who were attracted to the offer of “eternal life” and had no interest in the re-establishment of the “kingdom of Israel.”
By 70 CE, Jesus had not reappeared and the world had not come to an end, as some of his original followers expected, so unknown writers began collecting whatever had been written or could be remembered about Jesus’ life and teachings. The teachings of Paul were available through letters that he wrote to congregations he had established or visited. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John present their versions of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ “gospel” of the “kingdom of God” is found in parables presented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The book of John was written later (probably about 100 CE) by an unknown writer who evidently had “insider” information from an associate of Jesus but the book reflects the influence of the Greek philosophy (as seen in “logos” theory which came from the Greek philosoper Heraclitus about 500 years before Jesus).
The “gospel” of Jesus, as presented by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the “gospel” of Paul as presented in his letters can be found in the book called the New Testament. The “gospel” of Paul, as modified over four centuries by many church “councils,” became the trinitarian theology which is dominant in “Christian” churches today.
The ancient thought forms (blood sacrifice, etc.) in which Paul cast his theological concepts are not meaningful to many people today. Many have disregarded “Christianity” and “Jesus” because of the grotesque images and concepts that Paul’s “gospel” presents. I am hopeful that some will be willing to take a look at the “gospel” of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” as explained by Jesus in his parables.