We all know what the gospel is, don’t we, even though we might express it slightly differently?
You’re a sinner (so am I), Jesus died to save you from your sins, now you can go to heaven instead of hell. That’s good news, and that’s what “gospel” means.
Trouble is, that’s not exactly what the Bible says.
What the Bible says
The word translated “gospel” is the Greek word “euangelion”, from which we get words like “evangelise” and “evangelical”. It is used dozens of times in the New Testament. But what does it mean?
The literal meaning of the word is indeed “good news” or “glad tidings”, and it can be found with this meaning in a number of classical authors and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (see Glen Davis). But by the time of Jesus, it had come to have a more specific pair of meanings within the Roman Empire:
- News of victory – a messenger bring news of a great vistory won, or
- A new king – the announcement of the birth or accession of a new emperor, who was believed to be divine.
The meaning is clear
Mark begins his gospel with a summary of Jesus’ message:
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark clearly wants us to know that Jesus is a new king, the true king, a truly divine king, and the beginning of his kingdom is good news. And Caesar is not king. If these are the words of Jesus, and not just Mark’s summary, then Jesus wanted his hearers to understand that too.
So what is the gospel according to Mark and Jesus?
Clearly their “gospel” was much bigger than you or I going to heaven:
- It involves the kingdom of God – the rule of God over the whole world. Jesus, not Caesar, is king and Lord!
- According to Jesus in Luke 4:14-21, his mission isn’t just to “get people to heaven”, but to make a difference to people’s lives now, especially the lives of the poor and oppressed.
- They should recognise that this was good news for them, for it aligns with their deepest aspirations, and should therefore be welcomed.
- Nevertheless, it would involve a re-alignment of their priorities or their way of thinking, so they saw things in Jesus’ way (that’s what “repent” means: change your way of thinking so you can act differently).
So how should we express the gospel today?
If we are going to present the gospel as “good news” that should be welcomed, we may need to offer more of a positive statement than is often used. Something like this:
The world isn’t the way it ought to be, and Jesus came into the world to put things right and establish God’s loving and just rule on earth. You and I can be part of this revolution and part of putting things right. This will need to start with us, and will require us to start thinking in the way Jesus thought, and asking forgiveness for some things we have said and done.
Christianity is changing
Many christians already have this historical understanding, but it is surprising how many still see the gospel in modern western evangelical terms. Nevertheless, I think we can see a clear move among christians to:
- build our faith and message more explicitly on the life and teachings of Jesus, and not just on his death and resurrection,
- present the gospel in more positive ways that can be recognised as good news, and
- live out the gospel in a way that makes a positive difference on earth as well as preparing us for heavcen one day.
But wait, there’s more!
- Read more in the Christianity is changing series.
- Next post: How can the kingdom of God be good news to those who don’t believe?