Years ago I remember hearing an elder say 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. What is of interest is the practice of the synagogue known as the “freedom of the synagogue” under which other rabbai’s 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. But what was so different about Jesus preaching?
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. The Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings, display the scribe’s 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).
Think of the following scenario: 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?
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.
Jesus’ gospel was a gospel of the forgiveness of sin, a conveyance out of the from the realm of darkness into his kingdom of light, an achievement of reconciling sinners to God through his life, death, and resurrection. The people felt the urgency from his preaching to turn and live “today”. He has the power to save us from all our sins, this was the reason he was given the name ‘Jesus’ (Matt. 1:21).”
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). The difference between a synagogue and a Christian church should be as evident as light is from darkness.
-Christopher J Gordon, Escondido, CA