What Is the Gospel?

Ken Schenck

We have all heard that the word gospel means “good news.” What we may not fully appreciate are the layers of good news in the NT — the rich, multiple nuances and dimensions the word “gospel” took on in the decades when the books of the NT were written. The story of the word may stretch all the way back to how John the Baptist framed his mission and extend into the way Christians of the second century understood the four books we now call the Gospels.

We can make a good argument that Jesus and John the Baptist originally drew the word from Isa 52:7, a text that celebrates how beautiful the feet were of those who brought the good news—the “gospel”—of Israel’s liberation from captivity. They had been captives in Babylon for the better part of a century until 538 BC, when Cyrus, king of Persia, allowed as many who wanted to return home to Israel. The background of the word is thus the restoration of Israel after years of exile as a result of its sin.

John the Baptist arguably grabbed hold of this imagery and proclaimed the impending restoration of Israel in his day as well, not least including the return of an anointed king to restore the line of David: the “messiah” or “anointed one.” This was good news indeed, the gospel of the restoration of God’s kingship over Israel through his king. John baptized near the place where Joshua was thought to have led Israel the first time into its land, perhaps symbolizing Israel’s soon return. After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus himself went around with this imminent “kingdom of God” as the cornerstone of his message.

What was the kingdom of God? The imagery again comes from Isa 52:7: the restoration of Israel indicates that “our God reigns.” The kingdom of God is the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt 6:30). The focus at this point is on God reigning. The good news or gospel was that God was restoring his people. John the Baptist called everyone in Israel to repent of their sins and wash themselves in preparation for what was coming.

Of course things may not have played out quite the way John the Baptist imagined. The failure of ethnic Israel to believe was something Paul would struggle with in Rom 9-11, and even today we do not find nearly as many Christian Jews as we might have imagined. John was hopeful that Jesus was the coming one, but it is possible even then that Jesus did not behave exactly the way he expected (cf. Matt 11:2-6). Even after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples seem confused to find out that the kingdom was not yet to be restored to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6).

When John asks Jesus if he is the one, Jesus also responds from Isaiah, but this time from Isa 61:1. The indication that he is the anointed one comes not from the fact that he is raising an army to expel the Romans militarily. Rather, the signs he brings are the healing of the deaf, the raising of the dead, and his bringing good news, the gospel, to the poor.

One significant feature of the gospel in Luke-Acts especially is good news for the poor and disempowered, including women. When Luke sets up its presentation of Jesus, it makes this sort of good news the cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. Isaiah 61 becomes a kind of inaugural address for Jesus’ ministry, proclaimed in Nazareth in Luke 4 as Jesus is beginning his mission. The rest of Luke-Acts then plays out this core value.

One dimension of the good news in Luke is thus the restoration of the prodigal son, those within Israel who were not even trying to serve God or keep his covenant with Israel. It was also the reclamation of other lost sheep within Israel like the poor, widows, the lame, the blind, and the demon-possessed. The restoration of Israel for Jesus was not simply some political reconstitution of power but was even more fundamentally a move toward the wholeness of God’s people.

After the resurrection, Jesus’ own role in the good news would become clearer. In Rom 1:2-3, the good news relates directly to the fact that the resurrected Jesus is the Son of God, the enthroned, cosmic king over everything. The messianic identity of Jesus arguably became clearer to his disciples as he approached the end of his ministry and the earliest Christians heard in Ps 110:1 a prophecy of Jesus’ enthronement by God as king at his right hand. This was a “gospel” with which those in the Roman world could readily identify.

Gospel in a Roman context referred to some momentous event such as the enthronement of a new emperor, the birth of an heir to the throne, or some significant military victory. Luke especially captures this sense of the good news of Jesus. Luke 2:10-11 tells of angels announcing good news to the shepherds and the world that their Savior has been born. We are reminded of a first-dcentury inscription about the emperor Augustus that hailed his birth as the beginning of good news, of a gospel for the world. In the inscription, he is similarly hailed as a savior for the world by ending wars and bringing peace to the empire. A good Roman hearing Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ birth would have heard these overtones.

When the author of Mark went to write his Gospel, he began by calling the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene as the beginning of the gospel of King Jesus (Mark 1:1). Mark thus conveys the royal dimension of the good news, the inauguration of Jesus as king by his resurrection from the dead. While Luke looks at these beginnings from Jesus’ birth, Mark focuses on the beginnings in the ministry of John the Baptist, who prophesied Jesus’ coming. Later readers perhaps saw these words, “the beginning of the gospel” and began calling the book of Mark itself a Gospel. Thus a new genre of literature was born: a Gospel as a presentation of the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the good news for the world.

Some scholars have reacted to the popular sense that the gospel is “how to get saved” and have limited the sense of the word rather narrowly to the good news that Jesus is king. Nevertheless, a careful study of the way the word is used in the NT reveals that the word can be used both in this narrow sense and also in much broader reference to all the things associated with it, with Christ’s momentous enthronement on his cosmic throne that took place with his resurrection at the climax of history. For example, in the book of Acts, the gospel probably can refer more or less to the entire story of salvation that each of its sermons repeats (cf. Acts 17:18), certainly with Christ’s enthroned lordship at its center.

What then is the gospel for us today? How do we appropriate the diverse and particular development of this rich term in the NT?

First, the gospel is the good news that “our God reigns.” This is arguably where the very term started on the basis of Isa 52:7. This was the bottom line presumably when John the Baptist called Israel out to wash themselves in preparation for what was coming. Most scholarship on Jesus historically has concluded that his role in this good news probably was not completely obvious to those around him, although we think that by the end of his ministry most were thinking of him in messianic terms. So even Jesus himself must have primarily proclaimed the gospel as the good news of God’s coming reign.

What does this good news mean for us today? It means that God wins. It means that God is in control. Despite how things may look, everything is going to work out — if not on earth, then in the coming kingdom. Everything works out for good (Rom 8:28). To be sure, Paul was taking a long view of things when he wrote these words. He was not saying that we will never have our home taken away or that our relationship with our spouse will always survive. He was saying that when all is said and done, we will live in the transformed world of the kingdom.

God does not always intervene. Why he sometimes interjects himself into the flow of history and why at other times he lets the inevitable and callous sequence of cause and effect take its course, we cannot know in this world. Why do the nations conspire, the psalmist asks (Ps 2:1)? Why does God allow evil intentions to carry out their designs? We do not know. We can only trust that God has no evil intent and that he is in control.

This is truly good news, because our lives are so confusing. We believe God can stop evil and pain. Sometimes he does. Often he does not. It is good news to know that nothing gets by him, that he knows what he is doing. It is good news to know that he loves us and is in control.

A second aspect of the gospel, in fact a subset of the first, is the fact that Jesus is king. We find this as perhaps the focal understanding of the good news for Paul and we find it in the birth story of Luke. God the Father reigns on earth and in his creation through Jesus, whom he has enthroned as cosmic king of the universe.

Like the emperor Augustus, King Jesus also promises peace to a world at conflict and victory over our enemies, but our struggle is not so much with flesh and blood as with spiritual powers that work evil in our hearts and lives. King Jesus stands victorious over all the powers of this age. Through his Spirit he stands victorious over the power of Sin in our lives. We no longer need to live defeated and unable to do the good we now want to do. King Jesus stands victorious over the forces of evil, over Satan and his minions, over those who wish only to bring destruction and devastation toward their own advantage or even for the shear love of it. Through him we have the hope of resurrection and eternal life, since King Jesus is victorious over death.

Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel as good news for the poor jumps across the divide of history directly to our time. This gospel is good news for those who find themselves disempowered in this world, knocked off track because of earthly status or circumstance. True, the way in which disempowerment manifests itself can vary from time to time and place to place. The poor are not simply those without resources. We can be impoverished in our will to rise above our disempowered condition and in many other ways.

The bottom line is that the good news works to empower all kinds of social disempowerment. There should be no shame in saying that the gospel is a social gospel as well as a spiritual gospel. Indeed, Can we even separate the two? Where there are disempowered women, individuals in the minority, or people who are marginal, the gospel works to give them the quality of life and status of the majority. Further, it is not merely a gospel that addresses only the situation of individuals, but it seeks out opportunities to change the very structures of society so that they are more equitable to all.

Finally, the gospel means the redemption and reconciliation of the world to God. We see this first in the gospel John the Baptist preached, good news about the potential restoration of Israel. We see it in Paul’s gospel that made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. In Acts we see that the entire story of salvation is part of the good news, and it leads to a day when God will finally set everything right through Christ.

We are proper ministers of the gospel when we are also agents of reconciliation. Paul’s primary mission was to work toward the reconciliation of Gentile with Jew so that all people could be part of the people of God. In our ministries and in our lives, we encounter an endless stream of people alienated from each other, people with broken lives. So many stand apart. It is the default state of human nature currently, it seems, to separate, to fight, to divide.

The gospel is good news that can bring together, make peace, and unify. Ironically, so many who use the name of Christ seem to use the name to exclude and inveigh. They can turn the words of Scripture around to advocate trajectories diametrically opposed to the unifying nature of the gospel. Instead, the good news leads people to forgiveness. The good news seeks out the different and invites it to fellowship. The good news gives a second and third chance, even seventy times seven.

We are people of the good news, and those of us who minister are messengers of the good news. We bring news of God’s gracious favor both now and in eternity. The good news now works to reconcile the divided and restore the disempowered. The good news then will be resurrection and eternal life in the kingdom of God. The good news is made possible because our God reigns and works everything out for good in the end, and he does this through King Christ, his Son.

Posted Feb 01, 2012