Thus far in our review of Scot McKnight’s new book we have noted his interest in identifying the true, intended meaning of “the gospel.” He has argued that the term has mistakenly become identified with a (personal) Plan of Salvation, rather than being the story which makes salvation possible. That story is the story of Jesus, who himself is the culmination of the the story of Israel. Rather than being about how one is saved, it is the saving story itself. When these are confused, as occurred in the aftermath of the Reformation, the focus of Protestant (especially evangelical) preaching moves from Jesus to our response to Jesus. This in turn keeps us from seeing what was at the heart of the message Jesus himself declared, and turns us toward a course of “sin management” (a term borrowed from Dallas Willard) rather than the fostering of a true gospel culture.
Today I want to consider Chapters 6-8, in which McKnight lays out the case that both Jesus and his disciples preached the same gospel that Paul and the early church after him preached, the same being captured in the creeds and confessions of the early church. To many faithful believers this may appear to be a “no-brainer” of sorts; the idea that Paul invented Christianity by distorting the supposedly simple meaasge of Jesus, or some such notion, is far more prevalent in the academy than in the pew. But what is at stake here is also a reconsideration of the subtle ways in which ideas just as foreign to the overall tenor of scripture find their way into the common understanding of what our faith is really about. That is, if the words, the miracles, the parables of Jesus are cut off from their larger gospel context they will be put into service of other agendas, such as creating a salvation culture.
Chapter 6 begins by asking whether Jesus preached the gospel; but it must be reiterated that asking this question is not the same as asking whether Jesus preached justification. That question, or the counterpart that asks whether Paul preached the kingdom of God, assumes a difference that is swallowed up by the bigger concept of the real gospel–the story of Jesus, and Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel. After encouraging us to see the four New Testament gospel accounts as just that–four accounts of the one gospel–McKnight points to the shape of this gospel in all four canonical tellings. They are heavily weighted toward the final week in the life of Jesus, with opening narrative which, especially in the case of Mark, orient us quickly toward that decisive week. We should not miss the many direct and indirect ways in which the movement takes place in a way which unmistakably ties Jesus and his mission to the hopes and aspirations of Israel, seen especially in the songs in Luke’s narration of the birth of Jesus (and John). Pointing again to the coherence with 1 Cor. 15, McKnight summarizes the gospel story by saying that:
1. The gospels are about Jesus.
2. They are about Jesus completing the story of Israel.
3. They are about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and future coming.
4. They reveal that this Jesus saves his people from their sin.
Chapter 7 seeks to answer the question of whether this gospel was the evangelists’ own construction or whether it is the message Jesus himself spoke. Included in the discussion is the question of Jesus’ own self-awareness of his messaianic identity, answered by comparison with what John knew about both his own and Jesus’ identity. His overall aim is to convince us that Jesus indeed preached himself as the “completion of Israel’s story in such a way that he was the saving story himself.” This being so, “the entire focus (shifts) from the benefits of salvation to the Person who himself is the good news.” And the saving he does is unavoidably in the context of a kingdom, a poiont the author establishes in a variety of intertwining sets of evidence. This evidence includes the aforementioned songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon linked with Psalm 72, the prominence of the feasts of Israel as the backdrop for Jesus’ words and actions, and the number of the apostles. It is the long-awaited kingdom that is arriving in Jesus, one which overturns oppressive ways of doing human community. McKnight’s conclusion is that Jesus 1) went to the Bible to define who he was and what his mission was; 2) believed he was completing scriptural passages; 3) predicted and embraced his death and resurrection; 4) therefore preached the gospel because he preached himself; and 5) preached the gospel because he saw himself completing Israel’s story.
Chapter 8, upon which I will make little comment, completes the loop by demonstrating that the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts follows precisely the same pattern as Paul layed out in 1 Cor. 15, and that the pattern itself is nothing other than a summary of the Jesus story. All of the preaching to which we have witness is a declaration of the mighty acts of God in Jesus, to which response is made. Again, the message itself is the good news–not what happens in and to those who do respond, importanat as that is.
I follow McKnight quite easily, and would have a hard time quibbling with the manner in which he lays out the case. It is compelling. This begs the question: if this is the content Paul’s preaching, of Jesus’ own preaching, and of the apostolic witness itself, from which great results ensued, what is being preached in its place? Do we continue to preach this gospel? What have we added or subtracted? One open question as I anticipate the remainder of The King Jesus Gospel is of the place of the Holy Spirit in this proclamation. Another is how a culture of this gospel is created. Perhaps theses are related concerns. We’ll see in what follows.