What is the gospel? It seems that we carry a lot of baggage when we read the Bible. When was the last time you used the word “gospel” outside of a religious usage? And is the gospel limited to the “death, burial, and resurrection” of Jesus?
The English word gospel comes from the Old English gōdspel (gōd meaning “good” and spel meaning “news or story.”) The Greek word euangellion, which English translators used gospel for, however is more than mere good news. When my wife told me that she had conceived with child on both occasions, that was good news to me. Or we might exclusively use the word “gospel” in church settings. But euangellion was a political word in the first century, not a religious word. It was a loaded word that referred to life-altering, history-making, world-shaping news. It was the word of revolutionaries. And the story of Jesus the Messiah was the most revolutionary news to ever enter the annals of history.
One ancient Greek scholar shares his voice regarding the use of someone who heralds gospel: “The messenger appears, raises a big right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice… By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news. His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms and joy fills the city.” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 2, p. 722).
How would first century readers understand “gospel”? In modern-day Turkey, a stone bears the inscription to Augustus Caesar as “god and savior of the world,” and whose birthday was “the beginning of the gospel for the world.” In fact, this is how Mark begins his Gospel account to challenge Rome’s claim that what the world was offering was a sham, and that Jesus was truly Israel’s God and Savior of the world, the beginning of the Gospel of the world (Mark 1:1).
Entering into God’s Story
From the onset of the Bible, we see our first home squandered and the power of the Serpent who abdicates the humans from their status as beloved. And in the pinnacle of the moment, the God of Israel prophesies that a descendant would come from the Woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Who would be the serpent crusher? How would God fix the ruin befallen his good world? Well, keep reading!
Ultimately all of the descendants showed themselves infected by the Serpent. And so this eventually leads to the ruin of Zion and the exile of God’s People. Would God keep his promises to bless all the nations? Would Israel’s sin prove too much for God’s righteousness?
There is this really beautiful poem in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah depicts that the city of Jerusalem has just been destroyed by the Big Bad empire of Babylon. All of the people from the city have been sent away into Exile with the exception of a small remnant. This remnant is left wondering, “What has happened? Has our God abandoned us?” The abdicated throne of David was left in ruins; the hopes of this people are crushed. Of course this was all a result of Israel’s own making.
But not all hope was lost. From the walls of the city is sighted a man sprinting: his feet marred, rough, and naked. But they are the most beautiful feet because of the message they bring is Gospel: that despite Jerusalem’s destruction, Israel’s God still reigns as King, and He Himself would return one day to Zion and reign from it.
So who would be the fulfiller of these promises? When would Yahweh himself enter Zion and become king? Cue the scene for Jesus of Nazareth. This is the story that John the Immerser repeatedly tells as he is out in the wilderness “preparing the way” for the Lord’s Messiah. And just like the rough feet of the runner in Isaiah 52, John is also depicted as rather rough, wearing the garments of a prophet. And the surprising twist is how Jesus is installed as the Israel’s King: through allowing the Serpent to do its worst, and paradoxically defeating the Serpent in so doing.
The Gospel of the Reign of Heaven
And this was the message that Jesus the Messiah came proclaiming, “The gospel of the reign of heaven” (Matthew 4:23). If you went out to hear this Jesus on any given day, his message was not about “love” and “peace,” but this truth. (Note that love and peace come about as a result of this message.) Instead of “reign,” some of your English translations might have “kingdom,” which might have some connotations to it. Rather Jesus is preaching about how heaven is, quite literally, invading earth and taking it back from the spiritual powers of darkness. What did this message entail? What kind of living did it promote? This is what Matthew answers in the next few blocks: the ethic of the reign (Matthew 5-7), how Jesus lives the reign (Matthew 8-9), how others envisioned the reign (Matthew 10-16), and then the penultimate drama of Jesus’ enthronement (Matthew 17-28).
In defense of the physical bodily resurrection, Paul delves into what he considers the core components of the gospel message: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). This is rather shorthand for all that this entails, but it would also entail Jesus’ ascension and glorification as the Messianic King. In fact, when you hear the word “Messiah” or “Christ,” think and substitute the word “King” or “God’s Anointed One.” This is what this word consistently means in the New Testament, and is how Isaiah depicts the King in Isaiah 53 as one who would suffer and die for his people’s wrongs, but then would be vindicated from Sheol.
The Good News is repeated and rephrased in a variety of ways in the Book of Acts. Perhaps one of my favorite renditions is Paul’s trial before governor Festus, “But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen — that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23). Yes, he brought light to us who sat in darkness (cf. Luke 1:76-79 TS2009).
In my own words, the gospel is the royal announcement that through the hopes and dreams of Israel’s Story, יהוה (Yahweh) has enthroned יהושע (Jesus) as the true Lord of the world. And the implications of this is that Jesus has overturned the powers that keep tears in our eyes, that keep wars at our fronts, that keeps bodies in the graves, and that keeps us from table communion from our God. The Good News of Jesus is that he who sits on the throne can say, “Behold I make all things news!” (cf. Revelation 21:1-5).
Gospel Is God’s Power to Deliverance
The apostle Paul felt no shame about this message of empowerment, which was perceived by many to be a message of shame. The craft of crucifixion, after all, was meant to humiliate and debilitate any resistance to the throes of Roman power. But it was through this shameful act that true honor is now found to those who respond in allegiant faithfulness to the risen King Jesus (Philippians 2:8-9). “It is the power of God for deliverance… it is how God sets about his royal promises and it is through trusting in this hope that God’s people are not destroyed” (Romans 1:16-17 paraphrase).
The power to change worlds, the power to alter history, the power to inspire people, the power to challenge the tyranny of sin and death do not lie in the prestige of earthly powers, nor in the seat of humanism, or in pop culture “one liners,” or in wisdom self-help books. This power is not shared by Muhammed, Buddha, Gandhi, Ellen, Trump, or any other influential men and women. This power does not come about by privilege, power, status, or purity. It is not a matter of “how good a person is.” This power is in the Gospel, and in our response in obedience to the Gospel.
And so the Gospel is what Jesus wants you to take part in. It is something we take, we grow in, we stand in, and we are ultimately saved in. It is the dispelling light that takes away the shroud of imperiled darkness, that offers us quality life instead of subpar existence, that gives us true life after life after death (John 10:10). The Gospel is us saying to the world, “You may keep your Caesars. We serve a different King.” And that makes all the difference in the world.