The Unique Message of the Gospels

Mark begins his Gospel in 1:1 by speaking about “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This seems to be his title for his book, and it is clear he expected his reader to understand what he meant. After all, until the Gospels were written, the apostles had verbally proclaimed the “gospel” of Jesus in Christian assemblies, and when they couldn’t be personally present, their “memoires” about Jesus were read in the worship gatherings. Those who listened expected to hear about what Jesus had done but knew that the response they had should go beyond simply reflecting upon his life, emulating it, and honoring him, as one would after hearing a biography read. To those who were critical of Christianity in the mid-second century, Justin Martyr explains the liturgical place of the apostolic witness:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoires of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.1

Memoires for Our Understanding

The memoires, then, which came before our gospels, were based on the verbal tradition of the apostles, and were read alongside the Old Testament passages that were used to proclaim Christ at that time, just as Jesus used the witness of the Old Testament to open the minds of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). Certainly, the early memoires, and then the four written Gospels were interested in history, as were the Law and the Prophets, for God has acted in time and space. However, they are not “histories” in the contemporary sense, for they do not strive for disinterested “reportage.” Instead, they present Jesus as unique— as the culmination of what God had done in Israel and the world and as the beginning of God’s new creation. Even more significantly, they do not simply list Jesus’ activities, but deliberately move to a climax, which is his passion, resurrection, and ascension. Consider how Jesus explained to the two on the road to Emmaus, and then to the apostles as a whole, that the Law, Prophets, and Writings proclaimed his climactic sacrifice:

These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me. And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then he said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45–47)

Like Jesus’ self-proclamation here, and the subsequent oral apostolic witness (collected in the early memoires), the gospel accounts have a particular shape and purpose. In Mark, more than 50% of the material is the passion narrative! When St. Paul sums up the “gospel” for the Christians in Rome, he does not emphasize the life and teachings of Jesus (which no doubt the Romans knew) but the Gospel concerning God’s Son, the Messiah, crucified and risen, who is Lord! (Rom 1:3–4). For the earliest Christians, then, the good news was a proclamation of the Messiah who died and who rose again, and who is the divine Lord. They were the first to rejoice, as we do, that “God is the Lord (indeed, the Lord Jesus is God) and has revealed himself to us!” The gospel writers, each in their own way, show how Jesus fulfils God’s purposes for Israel, and the whole world, and how he begins a new chapter in God’s ongoing drama with his people. History and theology are brought together, tracing the grand story of his incarnate life among us, with the aim of transforming those of us who hear all these stories. As Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos puts it, “At the transformative level, one has the possibility of being grasped and changed by the power of Christ’s love itself as one fervently embraces the Lord and his words of love in faithful obedience and practice.”2


  1. Justin, First Apology, chapter 67 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. Philip Schaff, (T&T Clark: Edinborough), available at (opens in a new tab)

  2. Fr. Theodore. G. Stylianopoulos, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 1999), 214.