(This article was recently posted on my blog. I invite you to head over there if you find it interesting.)
Think about "the Gospel" for a moment. Whatever that means to you.
Now, remove anything related to Christ's death and resurrection. [Note, this is a thought experiment, I'm not actually advocating that we remove such things from the gospel. Just work with me a bit...]
Now, remove anything related to Jesus being the Messiah.
What do you have left?
I think for most Christians the answer is "not much."
I'd like to challenge those Christians and everyone else to ponder a bit the gospel message of Jesus and His apostles before He was crucified. (After He was raised, of course, things were very different.)
The Bible indicates a wide variety of instances where Jesus and others spread "the Gospel" prior to His death. This includes John the Baptist preaching "the Gospel" before Jesus' public ministry. It includes Jesus preaching the Gospel throughout Hi ministry on Earth. The disciples are sent out partway through Jesus' third year of ministry to preach the gospel to the surrounding areas.
What were these people preaching...and why is it called "The Gospel"?
At this point you might be looking at me like I have a third eye or a "I love Twisted Sister" tattoo on my forehead. But I'm serious...what do you think Jesus and His disciples preached as "The Gospel" during that time?
The reason why this is an interesting question is that no one knew Jesus was going to die. Of course Jesus knew He was going to die, but the disciples didn't. Luke 24:26-27 and John 20:9 makes very clear that none of His disciples had realized that He was going to die, so what kind of Gospel were they preaching if no one had figured this out?
Note, I'm not saying Jesus never alluded to His coming death. It's sad I have to write this disclaimer, but you would not believe how many people read the last two paragraphs and immediately attack me for saying that Jesus never said He was going to die. I'm not saying Jesus never alluded to this event, I'm saying that it could not have played a role in the Gospel He and His disciples taught because no one understood His teaching.
We are told of many people who "believed" the message Jesus gave, and the apostles took that message to everyone else...which means whatever that message was, it couldn't have anything to do with Jesus' death. It would be hard for disciples to take a message to everyone that they themselves did not know!
Furthermore, whatever this message, this "Gospel" was, it couldn't have anything to do with Jesus being the Messiah either. It was not until rather late that even His own disciples identified Him as the Messiah, and that was not due to Jesus' instruction but by divine intervention [as Matthew 16:17 makes clear.] After Jesus verifies this, He tells them not to tell anyone!!
And that brings up another great question. It's easy to see why the gospel the modern Christian church preaches counts as "good news." But that message more or less disappears once you remove any reference to Jesus' death...that means that not only do we have to wonder what the message Jesus and His disciples taught was, but we have to wonder why it was good news (which as most know, is what "gospel" means)!
To add to the bizarre state of things, we see that even the message Jesus tells His apostles to take to "all nations" is not at all like the gospel Christians teach today. If you read Matthew 28:18-20 carefully, you'll note that Jesus is not saying "Go tell everyone about me in order to save them from Hell."
Instead Jesus says "Go teach them to obey the commands I have already given you, because I have been made Lord over Heaven and Earth."
It is worth pointing out here that these apostles that were told to make disciples of all nations only went to the Jews. No one preached to the Gentiles until nearly ten years after Jesus' resurrection. Anyone who believes the original Gospel was about "saving souls" is instantly making villains out of Peter, John, and the other apostles. Do we really think these holy men of God desired to abandon all Gentiles to Hell? That is the logical deduction one is led to if we believe the early Gospel was about "saving souls from Hell."
But that isn't what the early Gospel was about. In fact, the word "Hell" doesn't even appear in all of Acts. Not one time. Acts is the most abundant repository of early teachings to new believers by the original apostles, and the word Hell never even comes up in the nearly 20 passages describing their teachings in Acts.
So, regardless of what we teach as the Gospel today, we owe it to all Christians and anyone else to point out the original apostles never thought they were "saving souls" in the way the Gospel is described today. While we're at it, it might prove worthwhile to consider what the Gospel Jesus and His apostles preached really comprised.