Years ago I remember hearing a wise elder say to me that if my sermon could be accepted in a Jewish synagogue then it is not a distinctively Christian sermon. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. What makes Christian sermons distinctively Christian? What damage could be done in the life of the Christian church if our sermons lose their distinctively Christian character? To answer that, of course, one would need to understand and appreciate what makes a gospel message distinctively “gospel”.
To be sure, the word “gospel” is used differently in the Scriptures. Robert Godfrey provides a helpful observation:
Sometimes the word gospel refers broadly to all aspects of the salvation and new life that Jesus gives His people, and sometimes it is used narrowly to refer to what Jesus does for us outside of us. In other words, sometimes the term gospel refers broadly to Jesus’ work of justification and sanctification for and in His people, and sometimes it refers narrowly to Jesus’ work of justification.
Godfrey also makes the case that sometimes the word “gospel” refers more broadly to all the New Testament fulfillment of what was promised in the Old Testament. It is in this sense that Mark uses “gospel” when he says in chapter 1, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark is explaining the gospel as the person and work of Christ in fulfillment on behalf of his people.
This is crucial for understanding the overall theological intent and purpose of the gospel of Mark.
The presentation of the gospel of the “Son of God” is pressed with urgency upon people to repent and believe this gospel. Mark uses the word “immediately” an astonishingly forty-two times throughout the book. This is not intended to impress upon us the need merely for ethical change, but to receive by faith, all that the Son of God has come to fulfill for us in our place. It’s a gospel of Jesus’ whole work for us. That, according to Mark, demands immediate response.
It should be no surprise then that the first scene of his public ministry in Mark’s gospel gives us a powerful display of this urgency to believe the gospel. Jesus begins his public ministry on the Sabbath. Worship services on the Sabbath were similar to Reformed worship services today. They would begin their services with blessings, prayers of response, a reading a from the Pentateuch and the Prophets, and they would have a sermon exposition. The service was concluded with a benediction.
What is of interest is the practice of the synagogue known as the “freedom of the synagogue” under which other rabbis were allowed to, upon being recognized, stand up and deliver the sermon. Jesus’ ministry begins in the synagogue. Mark records that Jesus’ teaching was entirely different. Mark says that he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
The people were astonished over his authority and message, blown out of their minds. They had never heard anything like it. In contrast, the scribes were masters in ethics and dissecting the law. The people were accustomed to getting a lot of law instruction every Sabbath.
But think of the tragic picture that is presented here. For years these people had been coming up to the synagogue to worship, they got in their synagogue clothes, they heard a call to praise, they heard Bible readings, the scribes got up and preached, and everyone went back home. Nothing happened in the hearts of the people and the kingdom of darkness was perfectly content with that ministry. What were the people getting?
Mark wants us to ask this question when he says plainly that Jesus teaching was “not as the scribes.” The scribes were the primary teachers in Israel. RC Sproul once said that the scribes were like PHD’s in theology. Their opinions were received with great appreciation by those who heard them.
The Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings, display their endless ramblings and disputes over everything that was unimportant to the life of the people. They were so disconnected from the people, wasting all of their time on teaching trivialities, the minutiae, none of which was beneficial to the spiritual life of the people. Their sermons were nothing more than academic exercises, and endlessly quoting of all of the other scribes.
Their focus, of course, was ethics. It’s tragic what it became. Full of self-righteous pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone else except themselves. The Pharisees would go so far as to condemn Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This ministry was “practically” killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the minutest points of the law, and their whole shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy handed yoke of manipulation. All their priorities were out of whack. They were grumpy. There was no joy, no confidence, no hope, no freedom, only sorrow and guilt, and whole bunch of fighting and division—tragic consequences of a ministry that kills instead of giving life (2 Cor. 3).
But what was so different about Jesus preaching?
Mark answers this question by zeroing in on the response of a demon who had been hanging around the temple. Jesus preaching had thrown the kingdom of darkness into absolute panic. The demon looks at the response of the people and in absolute panic he enters man, and using his vocal chords, cries out, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Demons and false teachers aren’t noisy, they never yell out: “here I am.” It was the authoritative nature of Jesus’ preaching of the gospel of the kingdom that made him screech out in immediate response recognizing that “the time was at hand”—thus his fear that the day of doom had come.
What created such a response? Was Jesus just a teacher of ethics and the law par excellence? We can answer this by comparing this with Luke’s record of a similar synagogue event.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.
What kind of words came from his lips? Grace! (χάριτος) This was the heart of his message. Mark tells us in chapter 1 that this was the primary reason he came forth, to preach “this” gospel message of his work of fulfilling all righteousness on behalf of his people.
The reason there was so much opposition to Jesus ministry is because his gospel got to the heart of matters. He wasn’t giving a muddled dry expositions, his goal wasn’t the dissemination of information, or simply to create controversies about how to correct human behavior. Jesus had one great goal: the salvation of people. Christ desired to bring the truth of the gospel powerfully to bear on the conscience so that when they heard him preach they understood it was a matter of life and death. The felt the urgency to turn and live “today” because “tonight their souls may be required of them.” “Immediately” Mark tells us, we should believe. That’s the punch of the “gospel” in the gospel of Mark.
Calvin once said,
Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace.
We should never forget that the principle object God intends in the gospel, no matter how “gospel” is particularly nuanced, it is to receive men into his favor by not imputing their sins. That is the priority. What if our people’s souls were to be required of them this night and what if, as Jeremiah said, “the harvest is past, the summer is ended and we’re still not saved?” What a tragedy if our Reformed ministries are leaving the impression upon our dying people that they are not doing enough good works to enter the kingdom of God. A gospel of the synagogue is no gospel at all but a different gospel that says we are made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:2).
—Chris Gordon, Escondido
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in 2015.