What is the gospel? In this article the author shows that the four Gospels should be understood in the context of the gospel. The work of Jesus Christ is looked at in relation to the work of John the Baptist, and it is shown how Jesus comes as the bearer of good news.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2011. 3 pages.

It All Hangs Together: Commentaries and Preaching

Commentaries are good and useful if they assist in understanding the text of Scripture. However, if they hinder our view of the text, they simply stand in the way.

What really is the text? Is it a collection of sentences that need linguistic illumination to translate them, and to make them understandable? Is it a succession of passages that need historical elucidation to help us understand their situational context? Is it a document, for which one aims to convey the author’s intention, his scope, as clearly as possible? The truth is that texts are all of these at the same time. Some commentaries of the Bible specialize in philology (understanding of language), some in historic-literary context, some in representing the redactional intentions of the text.

This one-sidedness can be an advantage, in that it allows for fine-grained examination of the text; at the same time it has the disadvantage that it fails to throw sufficient light on the text as a whole, and that it does not provide for critical feedback from other dimensions of the text. In recent decades, there has been renewed recognition of the fact that a text – be it a letter, a book, a psalm – is a unity of expression, and hence a unity of understanding. Commentaries should help the reader gain a view of the text as a whole. They may not crumble it into fragments.

What, then, is the text as a whole? Whenever we read a passage of Scripture, or even a whole book, we are faced with the coherence of revelation. Anyone who does not wish to take God or divine revelation into account, swims against the current of all the books of the Bible. In Scripture, there is the overarching context of God as Creator and Redeemer: His work, His voice, His presence have forged a wide variety of words and events into a coherent whole. Not one word of Scripture stands on its own, separate from all the others (2 Peter 1:20). This has consequences for commentary. Calvin understood this only too well: His Institutes are actually an introduction to his Commentaries on all the books of the Bible.

To explore this coherence, we examine the exegesis of the various gospels as they relate to the Gospel. What is the connection between the parts and the whole? To what extent do commentaries help us to see this coherence, or do they just get in the way?

The Gospels and the Gospel🔗

We get a good picture of how the Good News was proclaimed as one coherent whole when we read how Peter comes to Cornelius. Peter says – just as Mark does (Ch. 1:14, 13:10) – that God, through Christ, has been sending the good news of peace through Jesus Christ to Israel (Acts 10:36). Then, when Peter summarizes this good news, we actually hear the whole book of Mark in one short outline:

You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Acts 10:37-43

This is the Gospel that preachers must proclaim. That is what they are trained for; that is what all of theology, if it understands its task, must serve.

But how do we proclaim this one Gospel, when we have four separate gospels as our textbooks, and when we snip each of them into little pieces, to read and to preach from? Whenever we read passages from the first four books of the New Testament, they are first of all parts of the one Gospel, and not primarily pieces of any particular book. It follows, then, that we may not deal with each passage in isolation; rather, we ought always to have the whole Gospel in view when we talk about any of its parts.

To accomplish that, it is good always to realize the greater framework in which each of the separate stories and miraculous signs is placed. In a manner of speaking, we must lift them out of the box of the book, and place them in the wide open space of the joyful Story, of which they are part, and to which they bear witness. To do this, three overarching realities are very important. The first is that everything began with John the Baptist; the second, that everything was foretold by the prophets; the third, that the Son has received all things from the Father.

Every miracle of Jesus and every word of His that we preach must always be placed within this wide horizon. For then the preacher proclaims the Gospel from the gospels, and there will be no tension between our focus on one part and our attention for the whole to which it belongs.

I would like to elaborate on these three perspectives.

Jesus after John🔗

To most Western Christians, John is not much more than the advance warning signal. A blast from a trumpet, which is simply forgotten, once the King Himself arrives. True, it was always John’s intention that Jesus should become greater and he himself less. And that is what happened as the Gospel spread: John stepped back from the stage.

However, we would be wrong to forget that all of Jesus’ life on earth stood in the light of John the Baptist. Just as a football match is played in a stadium, lit up by giant floodlights, so all of Jesus’ work stood in the light of John the Baptist. We should not turn off that light too quickly. I list a few things that we tend to overlook: At the end of Jesus’ life on earth, John was still held in greater regard among the people than Jesus Himself: while the leaders of the people did not dare to attack John, they had no such scruples about Jesus (Matthew 21:23-27). Beyond Palestine, Jesus had no noticeable influence until the apostles appeared; John, however, did have international stature (Apollos of Alexandria, Acts 18:24-25; John’s disciples in Ephesus, Acts 19:1-5). Jesus allows John to baptize Him; He calls John the greatest prophet who ever lived (Matthew 11:11-13; 17:10-13; Luke 16:16), and He often makes reference to John’s witness (Matthew 21:32; John 5:33).

As we know, this John the Baptist was the prophet who set in motion a whole movement of penitence, in expectation of the coming Redeemer. And while it was not at all unusual for prophets to be ‘criers in the wilderness’, John was a ‘baptizer in the wilderness’, and all the people came to him.

People, then, looked at Jesus through the eyes of John. And the converse was also true: Jesus looked at the people through the work of John. The preaching of John had brought about great changes in the year leading up to Jesus’ ministry. And the echoes of those changes could be heard as He moved around in Israel. I mention two examples:

  1. Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is sometimes separated from John’s prior ministry. It is then seen as a benevolent message of peace and exaltation. In reality, however, Jesus’ preaching stood against the background of John’s baptism of repentance. The people have been confronted with their sins. They were deeply impressed by the impending fire of judgment, and by the axe that lay at the root of the tree. This is the situation in which Jesus comes with Good News for those who are oppressed, those who are mourning, those whose hearts are afflicted. He brings good news of forgiveness, of entry into the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus, Israel is given another chance.

    Whenever preachers proclaim the Kingdom of God, they must start at the beginning; they may not forget John’s preparatory message. The Gospel of the Kingdom is for those who confess their sins, for those who come to be baptized, full of hope, in the Jordan of repentance. The message of the Kingdom of heaven is not to be received apart from a baptism of repentance and a prayer for mercy.
  2. The second example is that of the prostitutes and tax collectors who stream to Jesus. Often, God is portrayed as the One who has a special preference for the outcasts. God makes a point of going to the margins of society; hence, we too should go to places where decent people would rather not be.

This, however, is a great misconception. Of course, the Good News is for all people, without distinction. But nowhere do we read that Jesus goes to preach in the brothels or the casinos. He preaches in synagogues, and at His own appointed place, on the mountain. Prostitutes and tax collectors come to Him, not the other way around. And why do they come? Because they have heard the message of John the Baptist, and have taken it to heart.

Jesus Himself said:

I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.Matthew 21:31-32

The stream of tax collectors and sinners that comes to Jesus really does have something to tell us. Not about Jesus’ preference, but about the sinful negligence of so many pious brothers!

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