What is the gospel?

What is the gospel? Take your average Christian out of the average evangelical church in the nation today (I don’t suppose the non-evangelical ones would be too bothered about being kept out of the way for this one) and they might say something like: the good news of Jesus Christ; the story of Jesus’ life; God so loved the world that He gave His only Son… You might get the kind of idea.

It’s something to do with Jesus’ life, something to do with what He preached, and pretty much always to the point, why He died and rose again, as we Christians say He did.

On the face of it, pretty simple. “The gospel is simple,” I heard someone recently say, and I completely agree with them. At the age of 4 I remember asking my mum if I could follow Jesus – something about it wasn’t hard to get, I knew I wanted it even then!

Yet with any time spent in the church or reading the Bible, Christians may nevertheless come across variance in the idea of what the gospel actually is, often related to the doctrinal focus of a church, or even just their preferred emphasis. In my mind most prominent is the divide between the signs-and-wonders preaching of the gospel which some would argue is the ‘full’ gospel as described by Paul in Romans 15:19, and the formulaic word-only spread of an idea which is the gospel, to which people should subscribe and believe in, usually promulgated by the more conservative and cessationist churches (those who say that the gifts of the Spirit are not in operation today). Regular readers of my blog will not be surprised to find that I sympathise very much with the former view and do even believe that the operation of signs and wonders is at least a fundamental accompaniment to the preaching of the gospel, therefore at least tying the two ideas together very closely. The latter group would have no such thing. With these I do not share such sympathy!

But let us return to the roots. The word ‘gospel’ comes from OLD English ‘god-spell’ which in those days meant good news. These days it only means that by association, in other words you’d have to know that ‘good news’ was being talked about when someone was saying the word ‘gospel’. Otherwise one of two things could happen: 1. the foreign word being used to describe something you’ve never encountered before would not help in telling you what it was. 2. You think of big African-American ladies singing heartily “Oh happy day”. The latter is probably a preferable reaction.

I’m not against using the word gospel if the people in the room know what you mean, but if we want a modern English translation of the Greek word, ‘good news’ is perfectly adequate, then there’s no ambiguity about what’s being discussed! The Greek word is euangellion. It’s an intriguing word. Beginning with angellion, you might register that this looks a bit like the word ‘angel’, and indeed they were derivatives in the Greek – angelos is ‘angel’. This word simply meant ‘messenger’ so angellion means ‘message/tidings/news’. The prefix eu-, so I have heard from a respected authority, buoys the attached word up so that it becomes something beautiful, good, something great! So where angellion is the news, euangellion is the GOOD news, the beautiful news, the excellent news!

I hope that’s helpful. I think it’s worth remembering. If you’re using the word ‘gospel’ and yet there’s someone in the room who’s never heard it before, they might not even know what you mean by the word ‘gospel’ itself as it comes from an extinct language. Instead, you might as well give them the best translation of the Greek word/idea and tell them it’s the “great news!” Because it is – great news!

But what is the great news about? Now we’ve asked that question briefly at the beginning but now I want to take it to the next level. When the New Testament talks about the gospel, it seems on some levels to be emphatic that there is ONE gospel, one essentially great message which is to be preached everywhere through the agency of the church. Paul went so far as to say to the Galatian church that “even if we, or a messenger from heaven, should preach to you a gospel (good news, great message) contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal 1:8) Evidently there were people going around trying to distort or change the original ‘good news’ that had been preached to the church, usually for their own purposes, and Paul would have none of it. The funny thing is, from what I’ve seen, I think people use this very passage to then go on to propound their own Gospel, assuming that their hearers will believe that what they hear was the original gospel! I must give an example: this passage was used to then explain why the King James Version is the only correct God-given English version of the Bible in a video (I believe it’s this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-cwwoCaUJ0) – was Paul talking about the King James Version? No!

So how do we define what the good news is? Is it written down somewhere? The way some churches do evangelism these days, they seem to think it is: zillions of tracts with a formulaic exposure of sin and the story of the cross and resurrection followed by a prayer to repent an invite Jesus into your life. Now I’m all for tracts, and for praying with unbelievers even to the point of salvation. But to try and create a formula to make it as easy as possible for us as Christians to tot up our numbers and feel we’ve done a good job not only potentially falsifies the situation but also removes the relational aspect of the good news which to Jesus was so fundamental – He got close and personal with those He preached and ministered to. He took care of their needs and got to know them. Our relational God wants to extend His kingdom through relationship!

Kingdom. That brings me to my next point. Having a tract which talks about the last moments of Jesus’ life, and then all about you, has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the person reading the tract doesn’t realise that what the man who died for them actually went on and on about until His disciples were exasperated with it was the kingdom of God! Moreover, very often in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) when Jesus is spoken of going about preaching, what He is preaching is the ‘good news of the kingdom’. Or if it simply says ‘gospel/good news’ it is shown to be closely accompanied by the healing of the sick, signs and wonders – things which I believe Jesus taught are incontrovertibly associated with the work of the kingdom, and I believe the writers affirmed that by making the association clear. The good news spoken about in the Gospels then has to do with the kingdom, NOT with the cross and personal salvation! (I’m about to be burned at the stake, I can tell!)

Not that personal salvation doesn’t come into it, but I think that our present day emphasis on personal salvation reflects one of the detriments of Western culture that has elevated the individual with mantras about rights and choice and freedoms, and the New Testament balance has much more to do with community than it does with individual faith. Individuals ARE shown to have faith – don’t worry – and to get saved and baptised individually – think of the Philippian jailer or Lydia in Acts 16. But even then their whole households ended up getting saved, and they were brought into the community of believing individuals, the church.

But if I may re-emphasise my main point again: it was the good news OF THE KINGDOM that was preached, and so I believe it should be today. Furthermore as I said signs and wonders, the healing of the sick, the ‘demonstration of the Spirit’ is clearly intended to accompany ‘the preaching of the good news’ (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 10:7-8; 11:5; Mark 16:14-18; Luke 4:18-19; Romans 15:19; 1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

For me, I’m going to try and keep taking my thinking back to square one. The gospel is good news. So if it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel! It’s gotta be good for those who hear it! Really good – God good! It has to involve the kingdom, and not just in word, but in power (1 Corinthians 4:20). And it should be relational, as Jesus was and is, as God is. Then, perhaps, I might be living a bit more fully what this gospel ‘is’. I don’t think it’s written down on half a side of A4 anywhere and we’ve all got to learn it in our native tongue; but I do agree that it is something that we could say with Paul in Galatians 1 is clear and definable, and something which shouldn’t be altered. It’s something not just for individuals, but for communities and nations (Matthew 28:19-20; Isaiah 66:8). I hope this little thought helps.

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