The Lord Jesus Christ is our Saviour. He is the God-man who can and does take away our sin and misery, and gives us righteousness and life. Therefore we have great hope, both in life and in death, for body and soul. At this point the Catechism stops to ask an important question (q&a 19): From where do you know this? If you are going to put all your hope in the idea of a Saviour like Jesus, and you claim all these wonderful things about him, what evidence do you have?
The Catechism had asked something similar in q&a 3: From where do you know your sin and misery? The answer to that question was: from the law of God. Now we ask: From where do you know your mediator and deliverer? And the answer is: the holy gospel.
The words “law” and “gospel” go together. They are two aspects of God’s revelation to us. Often they are presented as opposites. Some people think that the Old Testament is full of “law” but the New Testament is full of “gospel”. But we must be careful not to separate them too much. “Law” and “gospel” are two sides of the one message that God has given us. You could say that the law reveals God’s justice, which shows us that we need a Saviour; and the gospel reveals God’s mercy, which shows us that we have a Saviour.
Back to q&a 19. How do we know that Jesus is the Saviour? God himself has told us so. At many times, and in many different ways, he announced the good news that there is salvation for sinners. The word “gospel” literally means “good news”. In this lesson we will think about the way the gospel has been announced, and is still announced today.
The holy gospel.
1. Before the coming of Christ
2. In the coming of Christ
3. After the coming of Christ
Before the coming of Christ
God himself first revealed the gospel in Paradise. As soon as Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, God came to speak with them personally. They wanted to hide. They were, rightly, afraid of the Judge whose commandment they had disobeyed. But when the Judge spoke his verdict, he began by cursing the enemy. God said to the serpent, who was really the devil:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you will strike his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
The devil had successfully tricked Eve into eating from the forbidden tree, but God made clear that it doesn’t end there. He proclaimed that the war between the devil and mankind would continue until the devil would be completely defeated; his head would be bruised and crushed. Adam and Eve knew from the start that God would ultimately take care of the terrible sin and misery which they had brought upon themselves.
This announcement in Paradise is called the mother promise, because it is the basis of all other promises of salvation that God made afterward. When Jesus came into the world as our Saviour, he came to crush the head of the serpent, as it were. He became the great Champion in the ongoing fight against the evil one.
The mother promise is the first proclamation of the gospel. Next, says the catechism, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs. The patriarchs are especially Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord told them much more about himself and entered into a special relationship with them. The good news they received was that God would make them into a large nation that would bring blessing to the world. They passed this message of hope on to their children and grandchildren.
Especially important here is the gospel announcement Jacob made at the end of his life. When he spoke a blessing over his son Judah, he said:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until Shiloh comes;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Gen. 49:10)
This is a mysterious saying, and there has been much discussion about the meaning and proper translation of “Shiloh”. But through these words of Jacob, God announced that the Saviour would come from the family of Judah.
After these patriarchs, the Lord revealed himself as the Saviour when he rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The miracles he did spoke volumes: they showed his care for his people, and his marvellous power to save. But as always, God’s actions were accompanied by words. Moses was the first great prophet, who told the Israelites what they needed to know about their God, about the land where they were going, and about their identity as a holy nation for the Lord. Like all prophets after him, Moses clearly spoke on behalf of the Lord; in God’s name he presented the holy law, and in God’s name he proclaimed the holy gospel of a God who saves and blesses.
Even in the Law of Moses (which is really God’s law as he taught it to Moses), we find a gospel message. The catechism says that God had the gospel foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. It is talking about the animal sacrifices the Israelites were commanded to bring. The blood of the sacrifices was a sign of atonement for sin. There were also many rituals of washing, rules about food, and so on. They all served to show how holy God is, and how necessary it is that our unholiness is washed away; but they also showed the gospel reality that sins can be washed away, and that sinners can live in peace with the holy God.
The letter to the Hebrews says that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1). The worship ceremonies, says Paul, “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). This is where the catechism gets that word from: foreshadowed. The Old Testament rituals of sacrifice and washing and special holidays were like the shadow of a person: it looks like that person, and announces the presence of that person, but the shadow is not the person himself. In the same way, we see the “shape” of our Saviour Jesus Christ in the Law of Moses. When the Israelites observed and participated in sacrifices and other ceremonies, they saw the gospel in the form of pictures.
So it continued for centuries. The worship activities in the temple and the preaching of the prophets told the good news: There is a way to peace with God, even for sinful people. But at the same time it was clear that something big had to happen. Our fellow believers in the Old Testament were always looking ahead. They had the promises and the pictures and the prophecies; and with bated breath they waited for the fulfillment of it all.
In the coming of Christ
The Bible book of Hebrews starts with the famous line:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways,
God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Heb. 1:1)
It was wonderful that so many prophets had brought God’s messages to his people, but something more wonderful happened. We live in a time when God’s message has taken a special shape. “He has spoken to us by his Son.”
That Son is, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible calls him the “Word” (John 1:1). That most important Word of God has taken flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. Whatever God has to say to us, we can find in him.
You might say that Jesus himself is the gospel. He is the messenger of God’s good news, but that good news is also all about him. The catechism says that God had it [the gospel] fulfilled through his only Son. Not only did Jesus make the old promises come true, but he also gave a clearer and fuller meaning to everything God had said before. Jesus said this himself: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
In the Bible, the book of Mark introduces Jesus to us first and foremost as gospel preacher. “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15) But Jesus was not just another prophet. Like no one else, he showed the gospel in who he was, what he did, and what he said.
Jesus shows the gospel in who he is, because he is God himself come to earth. The very fact that God sent his only Son to the earth proves how great his love is. The fact that “the Word became flesh”, that is, that God himself took on himself our human existence, means that peace and unity between God and us is now a real possibility.
Jesus shows the gospel in what he did. When he healed people and cast out demons, he showed very practically that there was hope for lost people. When he broke bread and handed it out, he proved that he had come to care for us. When he died on the cross in such a remarkable way, he showed that he is the real sacrifice for sin. But especially when he rose from the grave, it was clear proof that there is a new possibility of life for people who deserve death.
Jesus also shows the gospel in what he said. Later, the catechism will point out that Jesus is our “chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption” (LD 12 q&a 31). Jesus told stories of forgiveness and love, stories of reward and punishment, stories of royal weddings and wonderful banquets. Jesus spoke words of blessing over those who longed for salvation. His teaching was so refreshing that his disciples said: “Where else would we go? You alone have words of eternal life!” (John 6:68)
Jesus is the gospel and the ultimate Word of God. God himself declared this from heaven. When Jesus was on a mountain with James, Peter, and John, light shone around Jesus and a voice from heaven declared: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Mat. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35) This is why we take Jesus so seriously. We obey him when he says: “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” We take him seriously when he says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:7) We believe him when he says that “the Scriptures bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)
This is why all gospel preaching ultimately comes down to showing Jesus Christ.
After the coming of Christ
Jesus Christ has come to the earth. He has also returned to heaven. We live in a time where the gospel is still needed, but Jesus is no longer here to proclaim it. Not directly, in any way.
But Jesus gave the gospel to his church. Paul writes: “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” (1 Thes. 2:4)
We have the whole gospel. The New Testament shows how Jesus fulfills all that the earlier prophets had said. It explains what he did and why. That message is now complete. It must be passed on, proclaimed, and studied, but it cannot change. We say that the canon of Scripture is closed. This means that the message in the Bible is complete, and we will never add anything to it.
The whole church, said Paul, is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The apostles had learned directly from the Lord who Jesus was. What they knew and communicated is the final truth about our salvation. We sometimes say that we are the apostolic church, because we stick to the gospel as it was known to the apostles of Jesus.
Our task, then, is to hold on to that gospel. “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude :3) There is no other gospel than the one we received from Jesus and his disciples. We have the good news about Jesus, and that is the news we keep repeating to ourselves and to others.
The holy gospel is God’s message for a world in need of a Saviour. From the very beginning, God proclaimed that this Saviour would come. This message sounded in Paradise, in the law, in the sacrifices, in the words of the prophets. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son, Jesus Christ. We now have the gospel in its final form. It clearly shows us Jesus. It shows that Jesus is the only Saviour, and the best Saviour we could ever hope for.
If we trust the word of God, as it was proclaimed in the gospel and written down for us in the Bible, it is clear what we should do. Repent and believe. Let go of sin and go to Jesus, to be saved by him. The gospel tells us that there is a way, and it points us to Jesus as the only way. All we have to do is go to him in true faith—and what exactly that means, we will discuss in the next lesson.
- What do the law and the gospel have in common? How are they different?
- What is the mother promise? Explain its name.
- What do we mean by foreshadowing, when we talk about the sacrifices and ceremonies of the law?
- Explain briefly how Jesus showed the gospel (a) in who he is, (b) what he did, and (c) what he said.
- In what way are we the apostolic church?
- What goes wrong if you think of the law and the gospel too much as opposites?
- When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we look back on the broken body and poured-out blood of our Lord Jesus on the cross. But the Supper also foreshadows something. What is that?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||John 5:30-47. In what ways does Jesus claim that the Old Testament is Christian gospel?|
|Tuesday||Acts 8:26-40. How does this passage characterize Philip’s message based on Isaiah 53? (v. 35)|
|Wednesday||1 Peter 1:3-12. How does Peter describe the situation of the Old Testament prophets? (v. 10-12)|
|Thursday||Isaiah 40:1-11. What is the work of a herald? What is the nature of his “good news” (v. 9)? What kind of action is expected of the people who hear it?|
|Friday||Isaiah 55:6-13. The gospel message is not “passive” text but “active” power. What is the purpose that it will accomplish? (v. 6-7; 12-13).|
|Saturday||Romans 1:8-17. What power does the gospel have? What obligation do we have with respect to the gospel?|