The Gospel of the Synagogue Versus the Gospel of the Son of God

Years ago I remember hearing an old wise elder say to me that if my sermon could be accepted in a Jewish synagogue then it is not a distinctively Christian sermon.  I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. What makes Christian sermons distinctively Christian? What damage could be done in the life of the Christian church if our sermons lose their distinctively Christian character?  To answer that, of course, one would need to understand and appreciate what makes a gospel message distinctively “gospel”. 

To be sure, the word “gospel” is used differently in the Scriptures.  Robert Godfrey provides a helpful observation:
Sometimes the word gospel refers broadly to all aspects of the salvation and new life that Jesus gives His people, and sometimes it is used narrowly to refer to what Jesus does for us outside of us. In other words, sometimes the term gospel refers broadly to Jesus’ work of justification and sanctification for and in His people, and sometimes it refers narrowly to Jesus’ work of justification. 
Godfrey also makes the case that sometimes the word “gospel” refers more broadly to all the New Testament fulfillment of what was promised in the Old Testament.  It is in this sense that Mark uses “gospel” when he says in chapter 1, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark is explaining the gospel as the person and work of Christ in fulfillment on behalf of his people. 

This is crucial for understanding the overall theological intent and purpose of the gospel of Mark.
The presentation of the gospel of the “Son of God” is pressed with urgency upon people to repent and believe this gospel. Mark uses the word “immediately” an astonishingly forty-two times throughout the book. This is not intended to impress upon us the need merely for ethical change, but to receive by faith, all that the Son of God has come to fulfill for us in our place.  It’s a gospel of Jesus’ whole work for us. That, according to Mark, demands immediate response.

It should be no surprise then that the first scene of his public ministry in Mark’s gospel gives us a powerful display of this urgency to believe the gospel. Jesus begins his public ministry on the Sabbath. Worship services on the Sabbath were similar to Reformed worship services today. They would begin their services with blessings, prayers of response, a reading a from the Pentateuch and the Prophets, and they would have a sermon exposition. The service was concluded with a benediction.

What is of interest is the practice of the synagogue known as the “freedom of the synagogue” under which other rabbai’s were allowed to, upon being recognized, stand up and deliver the sermon. Jesus' ministry begins in the synagogue.  Mark records that Jesus' teaching was entirely different. Mark says that he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

The people were astonished over his authority and message, blown out of their minds. They had never heard anything like it. In contrast, the scribes were masters in ethics and dissecting the law. The people were accustomed to getting a lot of law instruction every Sabbath.

But think of the tragic picture that is presented here. For years these people had been coming up to the synagogue to worship, they got in their synagogue clothes, they heard a call to praise, they heard Bible readings, the scribes got up and preached, and everyone went back home. Nothing happened in the hearts of the people and the kingdom of darkness was perfectly content with that ministry. What were the people getting?

Mark wants us to ask this question when he says plainly that Jesus teaching was “not as the scribes.” The scribes were the primary teachers in Israel. RC Sproul once said that the scribes were like PHD’s in theology. Their opinions were received with great appreciation by those who heard them. 

The Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings, display their endless ramblings and disputes over everything that was unimportant to the life of the people. They were so disconnected from the people, wasting all of their time on teaching trivialities, the minutiae, none of which was beneficial to the spiritual life of the people.  Their sermons were nothing more than academic exercises, and endlessly quoting of all of the other scribes.

Their focus, of course, was ethics. It’s tragic what it became. Full of self-righteous pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone else except themselves. The Pharisees would go so far as to condemn Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This ministry was “practically” killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the minutest points of the law, and their whole shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy handed yoke of manipulation. All their priorities were out of whack. They were grumpy. There was no joy, no confidence, no hope, no freedom, only sorrow and guilt, and whole bunch of fighting and division—tragic consequences of a ministry that kills instead of giving life (2 Cor. 3).

But what was so different about Jesus preaching? 

Mark answers this question by zeroing in on the response of a demon who had been hanging around the temple. Jesus preaching had thrown the kingdom of darkness into absolute panic. The demon looks at the response of the people and in absolute panic he enters man, and using his vocal chords, cries out, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Demons and false teachers aren’t noisy, they never yell out: “here I am.” It was the authoritative nature of Jesus’ preaching of the gospel of the kingdom that made him screech out in immediate response recognizing that “the time was at hand”—thus his fear that the day of doom had come.

What created such a response? Was Jesus just a teacher of ethics and the law par excellence? We can answer this by comparing this with Luke’s record of a similar synagogue event. 
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.  
What kind of words came from his lips?  Grace! (χάριτος) This was the heart of his message. Mark tells us in chapter 1 that this was the primary reason he came forth, to preach “this” gospel message of his work of fulfilling all righteousness on behalf of his people. 

The reason there was so much opposition to Jesus ministry is because his gospel got to the heart of matters. He wasn’t giving a muddled dry expositions, his goal wasn’t the dissemination of information, or simply to create controversies about how to correct human behavior. Jesus had one great goal: the salvation of people. Christ desired to bring the truth of the gospel powerfully to bear on the conscience so that when they heard him preach they understood it was a matter of life and death. The felt the urgency to turn and live "today" because "tonight their souls may be required of them." “Immediately” Mark tells us, we should believe. That’s the punch of the “gospel” in the gospel of Mark.

Calvin once said, 
Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. 
We should never forget that the principle object God intends in the gospel, no matter how "gospel" is particularly nuanced, it is to receive men into his favor by not imputing their sins. That is the priority. What if our people's souls were to be required of them this night and what if, as Jeremiah said, "the harvest is past, the summer is ended and we're still not saved?" What a tragedy if our Reformed ministries are leaving the impression upon our dying people that they are not doing enough good works to enter the kingdom of God. A gospel of the synagogue is no gospel at all but a different gospel that says we are made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:2). 

The difference between a synagogue and a Reformed church should be as evident as light is from darkness. 


  1. Excellent essay. But there are those who would want you to prove that you are not a dispensationalist. Instead of having a narrow gospel about the forgiveness of sins, they think you should have a gospel which is also the law. http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/10/did-jesus-have-a-gospelcentere.php

    Mark Jones (Antinomianism, 2013, P and R) accuses those in the “Sonship faction" as giving “boring…messages each week when they have a sort of systematic theology that they need to declare every Lord’s day”. (p 118). For Jones, the “full gospel” is not about a distinction between law and gospel “defined narrowly as pure promise”, but instead has "conditions" ( with sanctions, rewards, missing out on blessings etc)

    Let me say that I myself am bored with those who teach a “conditional sanctification” (and final salvation) which depends on grace causing us to make more effort. Week after week, essay after essay, they tell us that to live by faith is to do what Jesus says to do. Some of us are doing it. You are not doing it.

    I am bored with such "synagogue preaching". It doesn’t seem to me very different from Arminian preaching, or Council of Trent preaching. Maybe we need to pay more attention to the preaching of Jesus about election and definite atonement in John 3,5,6,10,17 .....

  2. Thanks, Mark. I have no interest in trying to prove I'm not a dispensationalist. Paul contrasted two kinds of ministries, one of death (the ministry engraved on stones) and one of righteousness (the spirit), the contrast is not between old and new testaments as the way we read our bible, but between the old and new "covenant" as marked by Abraham and Moses (2 Cor 3). "The law came through Moses, but grace came through Jesus..." The law/gospel distinction as it has been historically understood by our Reformed tradition is getting all muddied up in these discussions.

    I've been preaching Christ now 12 years andI've never been accused of being boring. But I do wonder how Paul would pass many of these criticisms today as he incessantly preached "Christ and him crucified."

    I really like your emphasis on election. I was reading the Canons the other night, Art. 9, first head, and it says that the election is the fountain of "every" saving good, faith and holiness (justification and sanctification). I'm realizing how Arminian we've become in these discussions about sanctification. All of our works are viewed as given to us from the decree of election. We may call that hyper-calvinism, but this was not said of our divines when they spoke this way.

  3. Since I am not a paedobaptist, I would appreciate hearing more about election, and less about why the Reformed are not baptists or dispensationalists. I am very well content not to be "Reformed" but I love the wonderful good news of God's election in Christ having decided which sinners Christ's death would save.

    David Gordon writes---"My own way of discerning whether a person really has an understanding of covenant theology is to see whether he can describe it without reference to dispensationalism." in John Murray’s Mono-Covenantalism, in By Faith Alone, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters (Crossway,2006, p 121

    Gordon---"Once covenant refers to an over-arching divine decree or purpose to redeem the elect in Christ, confusion Is sure to follow. In my opinion, Murray kept what ought to be discarded and discarded what ought to be kept. What Murray jettisoned was the notion of distinctions of kind between the covenants. He wrote that was not “any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.” Murray believed that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer. I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when He cursed the nation as when He blessed it."

    Mark (not the gospel writer, not jones) Mcculley---What God requires of the non-elect, God does NOT provide for the non-elect. The justice of the law does not depend on grace. But for those God loves, God provides satisfaction of the law in Christ's death.

  4. Douglas Bond, Grace Works P and R, 2014 p 92—“There are men today who encourage their congregations to tear out the page between the Old and New Testaments in their Bibles. Zealous to avoid the error of dispensationalism, these men make the continuity of the covenants the foundation of their preaching. But I wonder if it is a foundation that is able to support the scandal of grace. If we care about the distinction between law and gospel…then we will train our ears for those who don’t seem to want to keep the distinction between the old and new covenants.Their insistence on “the continuity of the covenants” may prove to be a code phrase for confusing law and gospel. Where there is a merging of the old and new covenants, it will never be the law diminished by gospel. It will always be the gospel fatally diminished by the law.”


    Lee Irons— It is the denial of the Law-Gospel paradigm that is in danger of fostering legalism. When the distinction between these two categories is denied, the meaning of “Gospel” changes. The Gospel is no longer the good news of the satisfaction, by a Substitute, of the justice of God, resulting in an imputed righteousness on account of which God justifies. Instead, the Gospel subtly begins to morph into the not-so good news that sinners are justified and judged by their covenant faithfulness. And this fidelity is usually explained within the context of so-called “grace,” which is defined as God’s gracious acceptance of our imperfect faithfulness...In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul does not say that the transition from Moses to Christ was a movement from glory to glory, as if the glory just kept getting brighter. Rather, Paul says the glory of the Old Covenant was fading away, and ultimately came to an end, whereas the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The fact that both were glorious does not mean they are the same. "

  5. I am messianic and find that the question is wrong because it is lacks the question of messiah-ship which is the key differences for evangelicals. To only ask the difference those at a synagogue don't eat pork messianic or other wise. Calvin preached that Hanukkah and Passover should be celebrated, and the idea of grace was from the Torah.

  6. Dear Matthew,

    So if such is the case, how would you answer the distinctively Christian claim, as stated by Paul, that the Jews "did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (See Romans 10)." If Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes, what kind of righteousness are you trying to establish from the Torah, one of your own or that of the Messiah's?

  7. What crowd was John the Baptist preaching repentance to?

    Was John the Baptist preaching the Marrow, that Jesus was going to be “dead for you” and wanted the non-elect to be saved, and therefore was going to die to make salvation “available” for the non-elect, and so it would be their fault if they had to live in hell forever because Jesus wanted to be their Savior also?

    Yes, I know John the Baptist was not preaching in the temple or in the synagogue. But was John the Baptist preaching to those “in the covenant”? Weren’t all the people John the Baptist was preaching to already circumcised? So doesn’t that mean that John the Baptist was still preaching to “the church”?

    So why did John the Baptist address the tax-collectors and the Roman occupation soldiers? Were some of these taxpayers and foreign military folks “in the covenant”, born Jewish or circumcised later into the covenant?

    Since we know that water is not a repeat of circumcision, and since we know that water is the fulfillment of circumcision, is the water of John the Baptist valid for those who have not been circumcised? But if there are two water baptisms, is the water of John the Baptist the same as the water of the church?

    "Without the knowledge of our sinfulness and misery, we cannot hear the gospel with profit; for unless, by the preaching of the law as touching sin and the wrath of God, a preparation be made for the proclamation of grace, a carnal security follows, and our consolation becomes unstable. Sure consolation cannot stand accompanying carnal security. Hence, it is manifest that we must, after the example of the Prophets and Apostles, start with the preaching of the law that men may thus be cast down from the conceit of their own righteousness and may obtain a knowledge of themselves and be led to true repentance. Unless this be done, men will become, through the preaching of grace, more careless and obstinate and pearls will be cast before swine to be trodden under foot.” Zacharias Ursinus

    Mark Jones—The Marrow Men ended up fighting a battle in order to defend the Auchterarder Creed.—-“It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.” … Witsius, the so-called “middle-man” in the Antinomian-Neonomian debates that emerged in the latter part of the seventeenth century, asks whether repentance precedes the remission of sins. Does sorrow for sin precede justification as a disposing condition, prerequisite in the subject? An awakened sinner will, in his experience, have a previous (or, concomitant/accompanying) hatred for sin and purpose of a new life before receiving Christ."
    – http://www.reformation21.org/…/01/the-marrow-part-1.php

  8. There are those who conclude from the story of the prodigal son that no atonement is needed in the gospel. And there are liberals who conclude from Luke 4 that there is no law or vengeance in the preaching of Jesus. But I know this is not your point. Your point is that the gospel is not the law, and that the present day is a day of grace.

    I Corinthians 15: 13 But each in his own order:Christ, the first fruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when Christ abolishes all rule and all authority and power. 25 For Christ must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death

    The age to come has now come, the age to come has not yet come. The day of recompense to come has not yet come, and this explains the (I don't say "dispensational" discontinuity between the old covenants and the new covenant. Some of us focus on the unbelief of the disciples and John the Baptist, and others of us notice their lack of understanding of the meaning of Christ’s kingdom. The age to come which has now come with Christ is not the same as the ages of the old covenants but it is also not the same as another age to come after this age. That day will be a day of vengeance and recompense

    Isaiah 35—
    3 Strengthen the weak hands,
    steady the shaking knees!
    4 Say to the cowardly:
    “Be strong; do not fear!
    Here is your God; VENGEANCE IS COMING
    GOD’S RETRIBUTION IS COMING; God will save you.”

  9. How will I know if I have preached a Gospel Sermon? You will know if it gets you thrown out of every Synagogue, Mosque and State University...