I feel that “Gospel” is one of the richest words in the Christian vocabulary. That is probably evident in it’s widespread use across the theological spectrum. All the way from Roman Catholics to the most fundamentalist evangelical to the progressive, emergent movement, the word Gospel figures predominantly in our thought and speech. Pope John Paul II wrote the encyclical letter “The Gospel of Life,” whereas evangelicals speak of preaching the “Gospel” to the ends of the earth. There are Southern Gospel quartets and African-American Gospel Choirs. In spite of this extensive use, and perhaps because of it, the word ‘Gospel’ has lost much of it’s original meaning.
In the Bible we find the word Gospel throughout the New Testament. Our use of this term and reliance upon it is nothing new. Just a quick search in a concordance will reveal that this word is central to our reading of the New Testament. It isn’t isolated to one author, or one tradition; instead all Christian authors of the first century saw this word as part of our basic vocabulary as followers of Jesus.
But what does it mean? If there is any word in our vocabulary that has become so abstract as to lose all significance, gospel is a good contestant.
To start, it may help us to return to the original language. In Greek the word is euaggelion, the predecessor of our word evangelism. The basic meaning of the word is “good news.” The term euaggelios means one who gives good news/glad tidings, or evangelist.
This knowledge in itself isn’t very revolutionary. It’s fairly common to see Gospel retranslated as Good News. What this does reveal to us, however, is that ‘Gospel’ isn’t really a stand-alone word. It points to something else. What is the Good News about? In the first century, the answer to that question varied, because the Roman empire had a gospel of their own.
Whenever a general won a battle, they would return home bearing the gospel of the battle, the good news that they were victorious. The gospel also went the other way as well. The newly conquered people would receive the gospel of Caesar and of the Roman peace. They were evangelists, coming to the newly conquered people bearing the gospel, the good news, of the kingdom of Rome.
Rome came bearing the ‘good news’ of Empire. Jesus came bearing the subversive Good News of the Kingdom of God. (Kingdom and empire are the same word in Greek, basilea).
When Jesus came proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, it wasn’t an abstract message about some future reality. It was a stark contrast to the reality the people were living in the present. He was offering them an alternative to the world they were living in; “There is a gospel of Rome, and here is a Gospel of God. You decide which is really good.” Much of the Gospels are there to describe to us what the Kingdom is like, how it is different than the kingdoms of the world, and how we can join in this new life. This makes the Gospels true to their name, they are pronouncements of the Good News of Jesus and his Kingdom. It also makes their concept of Gospel much more complex than what we preach in evangelistic sermons. It wasn’t reduced to five simple points, but was the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In this way we see that Gospel isn’t really a concept in and of itself but it is the pronouncement of something else. The Gospel is to be proclaimed, and this Gospel is the good news that there is another Kingdom, another way, that is exemplified in Jesus.Where the world requires violence, Gospel people work for peace. Where the world requires pride, the Gospel elevates the humble. Where the world teaches an eye for an eye, the Gospel encourages forgiveness and reconciliation. Where the world says you must push others down to get to the top, the Gospel proclaims that through serving others and thinking more in our neighbor we can attain life in its fullest. Where the world claims that only the important receive a seat at the table, the Gospel proclaims a heavenly banquet prepared for all who are willing to enter and to take part. The self-righteous judgment of the world is replaced with the self-sacrificial giving of the Gospel.
The Christian Gospel is a subversive, counter-cultural message that God is at work bringing about a new Kingdom, and God wants our participation. This is Good News. The ways of the world, the ways of Rome that lead to violence and oppression are not the only way. God has set up another Kingdom which we can freely enter at any time. This Kingdom is not only a future promise but a present reality that will transform us into a new people formed by the character of God.
That is Good News. That is Gospel.