If you asked a Christian living in the 100s what the Gospel was, he might just answer by summarizing the Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke, or John. Just as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15 when he summarized the Gospel that he had received by pointing to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ according to Scriptures. These events span the pages of the four Gospels.
This might surprise us since we do not usually think of Jesus’ birth, miracles, calling of the disciples, teachings and so on as being part of the Gospel. Yet the four Gospels are, in fact, the Gospel. And that means that Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles, and his teachings are part of the good news. And the four Gospel accounts themselves, Paul, the early church, and the creeds confirm that the narrative of Jesus is the Gospel.
The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
The traditional titles for the four Gospels are: “The Gospel according to Matthew,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” and so on. In other words, each author narrates the good news about Jesus. While there are four narratives about Jesus, there is one Gospel. And that Gospel, that good news is the whole life of Jesus.
The Gospel according to Mark, in particular, emphasizes this in its opening verse by saying: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, Mark tells readers the topic and scope of his writing namely, the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah who is the Son of God (on this, see Pennington 2012: 6–8).
He begins with the birth of Jesus, narrates his miracles, and then spends time on the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Mark has been described as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. And the other three recountings of the Gospel follow a similar suite.
Paul summarizes the Gospel by pointing to Christ
And this is why Paul’s summary of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 accurately reflects what the four Gospel-writers would later write down. Paul too sees the good news as a passion narrative when he writes:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3–5)
Paul committed to writing the Gospel tradition before the four evangelists penned the four Gospel books. But both he and they underscore the same thing: the good news is who Jesus is and what he did.
The earliest Christians see the four gospel writers as narrating the Gospel
Shortly after the Matthew wrote his Gospel, a document called the didache (1st ce.) appeared amongst the earliest Christians. The didache likely derives its teaching from the Apostles, and it emerged while the apostles and disciples of the Lord still lived. This document from the earliest Christians defines the Gospel according to Matthew as “the Gospel”:
And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” (8.2; italics added)
And reprove one another not in wrath but in peace as you find in the Gospel, and let none speak with any who has done wrong to his neighbour, nor let him hear a word from you until he repents. (15.3; italics added)
Significantly, the didache defines Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in Mathew as the Gospel.
Other early Christians likewise understood the Gospel to be the life and person of Jesus. For example, Irenaeus (AD 140–202) writes:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. … Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrew in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies, 3.1.1; italics added)
Irenaeus knows a singular Gospel (“the Gospel”) that has come down to the church through Matthew who “issues a written Gospel” as well as Mark, Luke, and John who did the same. Each record “a Gospel” and not Gospels.
In economic form, Irenaeus summarizes the Gospel from these four writers: “These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God” (Against Heresies, 3.1.2). The four Gospel writers commited to writing the good news which is about God and Jesus Christ.
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed reaffirms that the Gospel is about Jesus
The apostle’s creed and the early ecumenical creeds shape their confessional around the narrative in the four Gospel accounts. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed begins with the Father who creates through the Son. After which, it discusses Jesus’ virgin birth, his death, resurrection, ascension, second coming, and so on. It ends on the Holy Spirit and the church.
The point being is that is that the creed follows the narrative pattern of the four recountings of the Gospel. The creed functions as a symbol of the Christian faith, and it underscores the reality of the triune God and the Gospel of Christ—namely, his being and works according to Scripture.
While a more accurate definition of the Gospel is a good thing in itself, I think we should consider the following ideas. First, we should generally speak of the Gospel according to Mark and so on instead of just “Mark.” Why? Because the four Gospel writers were each aiming to recount the Gospel. It is not about the authors but about the content concerning which they write: Jesus.
Likewise, we should emphasize the one Gospel that each of four books speak of. If we always say “the four Gospels” and not the one Gospel according to four authors, we could miss the richness of the single message of glad tidings about Jesus our Messiah.
Third, we should be aware that Gospel summaries are just that: summaries. The good news is that Jesus will forgive your sins. Yes! But that is a short summary. The good news is also that the Word through whom the Father created the world was born of a virgin and died for our sins!