Let us see how Paul describes the gospel. We’ll proceed book by book, just skimming the surface, looking primarily at verses that use the Greek word for gospel or for preaching.
1. Paul begins his letter to the Romans by saying that he was commissioned to preach the gospel (Romans 1:1). Was this gospel predicted in the Old Testament? Verse 2. What does Paul say the gospel is about? Verse 3. What other points are part of the message? Verse 4.
2. What does the gospel message accomplish for people who believe? Verse 16. What does the gospel reveal? Verse 17. What else does the gospel include? Romans 2:16.
3. We saw above that the gospel brings salvation to everyone who believes. How else does Paul describe those who will be saved? Romans 10:13. Is it necessary to believe in a person? Verse 14. Would the message therefore have to include information about this person? Verses 15-17.
4. Near the end of his letter, Paul again mentions that he has a commission to preach the gospel (Romans 15:15-16). What was the focus of his message? Verse 18. As a pioneer, he wanted to preach where the gospel was not previously known. How did he describe this in verses 20-21? How did Paul describe his proclamation? Romans 16:25.
5. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he also described the gospel. Who gave him his commission? 1 Corinthians 1:17. How did he describe the message he preached? Verse 18. The message of the cross is the power of God for salvation. What did Paul preach about? Verse 23. Did he preach anything else? 1 Corinthians 2:2.
6. Paul defines his gospel in chapter 15. Is this the message he preached and the Corinthians had believed? Verse 1. Was it effective for their salvation? Verse 2. What was the message that he had given them? Verses 3-5. Was this a minor part of the message, or was it the most important part? Same verses. Was it predicted in the Old Testament? Verses 3-4. What or who is the central theme? Was the resurrection part of the message? Verse 12. Whose resurrection is he talking about?
7. Paul talks about the gospel message again in the next letter. What did he preach about? 2 Corinthians 1:19. How does he describe the gospel? 2 Corinthians 4:4. Again, what did he say that he preached about? Verse 5. In chapter 11, he again uses the word gospel and in the same verse tells us the center of his preaching. What did he preach? 2 Corinthians 11:4.
8. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul points out that he has a commission to preach. What is it that he should preach? Galatians 1:16. How does he describe his message in his letter to the church at Ephesus? Ephesians 3:8.
9. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul has a more personal note. He is in prison, but he looks at the bright side. Even though other preachers seem to be taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment, he is not troubled. His stay in prison has helped advance the gospel, he says (Philippians 1:12). What is the message communicated to the palace guard and others? Verse 13. What were the “competitor” preachers preaching about? Verses 15, 17. Were all of these competitors bad, or were some good? Verses 15-16. But what was the most important thing for Paul? Verse 18. Did Paul like what his competitors were preaching? Verse 18.
10. Paul gives another brief definition of the gospel in his letter to the Colossians. He says that believers are reconciled to God if they continue in their faith. He then says, “This is the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:23). But what is “this”? Where in the context does Paul define the gospel? Are verses 24-25 a description of Paul’s message, or are verses 21-22 the gospel he is describing?
11. Paul told Timothy about the gospel, too. How did he describe what was being preached? 1 Timothy 3:16. “Join with me in suffering for the gospel,” he wrote (2 Timothy 1:8). What had he just encouraged Timothy to preach about? Verse 8, first part. Do verses 9-11 further describe what Paul’s gospel is about? What concise definition of the gospel does he give in 2 Timothy 2:8?
Comment: A more thorough study would lead to the same conclusion: The gospel that Paul preached was about Jesus Christ, specifically his death and resurrection, and the good news that we can be saved through what he has done. Whether we look at the sermons of Paul, or in his letters, we see a consistent focus on Jesus Christ.
The disciples originally did not understand everything Jesus taught, especially about his death and resurrection. Although he told them, they did not accept or understand this part of the message. His crucifixion was a tremendous shock to them. His resurrection was also a tremendous surprise.
Since Jesus was not able to teach his disciples about the fact of his death and resurrection, he could not teach them about the significance of these events, either. But after Jesus rose, and after the Holy Spirit came, the disciples understood. They saw that Jesus’ death and resurrection were necessary for people to have the salvation that Jesus had taught about. His death and resurrection were the key to the kingdom of God.
Jesus preached about salvation, repentance and faith. He taught that he was the key to eternal life, and he taught about his own death and resurrection. In all these things Paul preached the same thing as Jesus did.
After his resurrection, Jesus reminded his disciples what he had taught them about himself: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’… This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:44, 46).
Jesus commissioned the apostles to preach this message about salvation through him: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (verses 47-48).
George Ladd summarizes by saying that the message of Paul
is essentially the same as that of Jesus: that in the person and mission of Jesus, God has visited human beings to bring them the messianic salvation. But there is one great difference. Paul stands on the other side of the cross and resurrection and is able to see…that what was being accomplished in Jesus’ life was incomplete part from the cross and empty tomb. While the blessings of the Kingdom of God were present in Jesus’ words and deeds, the greatest blessing of God’s Kingdom was the conquest of death and the gift of life; and this was accomplished only by Jesus’ death and resurrection. (G.E. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 1993, page 453)
The apostles also saw that, to bring this good news to the world, they did not have to use the word kingdom. That word was only one of several legitimate pictures of the good news of what God is doing. The apostles were free to use other descriptions of the salvation that Jesus makes possible through his death and resurrection.
Paul occasionally used the term “kingdom of God,” but it was not his most common term for describing the gospel. He was not preaching about a future geographic territory. He was talking about an eternal kingdom that we may enter in this age (Colossians 1:13). He was talking about a King who is already ruling—a Lord who is alive and may be accepted as Lord even in this age. We do not have to wait for Jesus to return before we experience blessings in the gospel.
If we assume that God’s kingdom is like human kingdoms, with a geographical base, as many first century Jews did, then we will find it difficult to understand some of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom. The kingdom Jesus described doesn’t fit well into a message about a territory-based kingdom, and neither does the preaching of the early church and of the apostle Paul.
If we assume that the kingdom is exclusively future, we will also find it hard to understand some of the things Jesus and Paul said. But when we understand the kingdom of God to be God’s rule, not dependent on territory, then we can see how the kingdom can exist in this age as well as in the future. People who accept Jesus as Lord accept his rule over their lives, and they thereby enter his kingdom. They come willingly under his rule now, and they await the gift of immortality at the resurrection. This is what Jesus talked about—and Paul is talking about the same thing, but with more details.
In terms of God’s kingdom and salvation, the most significant event of all time happened between Jesus and Paul. That event was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That event brought the old covenant to an end. It marked a dramatic change in the way God deals with his people.
That event marked a dramatic shift in the understanding of the apostles and of the message God inspired them to preach. That event was the key to the kingdom, the key to salvation, and it has become key to the message we preach: salvation has been made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For further reading
- Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Eerdmans, 1970; Harold Shaw, 1995.
- Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Theology. InterVarsity, 1981. “The Mission of Christ,” pages 408-509.
- Ladd, George Eldon. “Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter Elwell (Baker, 1984). Ladd also wrote Gospel of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1959), and there are several relevant chapters in his Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993).
- Poe, Harry. The Gospel and Its Meaning: A Theology for Evangelism and Church Growth. Zondervan, 1996.
- Stein, Robert H. “Kingdom of God,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter Elwell (Baker, 1996). Stein also wrote The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (Westminster/John Knox, 1995).
Author: Michael Morrison