What exactly is the Gospel?

We Christians talk so much about “the Gospel,” one might think that we know what the word means.

But do we?

While speaking to a class of Divinity School students, I opened with a surprise quiz. The exam sheet said they had 60 seconds to give two definitions: first, “the American Dream,” and second, “the Gospel.” I had previously gone through a similar exercise with approximately thirty long-standing church-goers not studying at the Divinity School.

Everyone found it easy to come up with a common answer that the American Dream had something to do with finding freedom, prosperity, and success.

But the second question caused everyone to pause and really have to think how they would actually articulate their own definition. A few of the second group I tested simply said “I don’t know,” even though they’d been attending church for decades. Approximately a third of them answered along the lines of “the gospel is the life-story/biography of Jesus” (in other words, the gospel stories themselves are the gospel message … does that sound circular to you too?).

All of the rest of those taking my surprise quiz — the Divinity College students and the average church-goers — gave a wide-ranging set of theological statements, like:

  • “God is no longer mad at us. Jesus paid our sins, opened a pathway for us to God … we are now sons of God.”
  • “The fulfillment of the Old Testament.”
  • “Loving God and loving others as you would want to be loved.”
  • “Something in the world is broken … it can be fixed … Jesus is the solution.”

My goal in asking for these two definitions was to show how poorly the church has equipped believers with a crystal clear, pithy statement of our primary mission … it seems to have completely failed Marketing Class 101. Try this with your own church group(s) to see if they fare any differently in being able to define the Gospel as quickly and uniformly as they define the American Dream.

That word “gospel,” or its equivalent, will not be found anywhere in the Old Testament. But then it suddenly appears dozens of times in the New Testament … in those books which are otherwise referred to as the “Gospel accounts.” Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Do you think those disciples started looking around at each other with puzzled faces, mouthing the words “what’s the gospel?” and shrugging their shoulders in response?

I don’t.

They had encountered this word “gospel” many times throughout their whole lives, long before they had encountered Jesus, and when they heard him re-appropriate the word in an entirely new context, they knew exactly what he meant.

The word that Jesus is quoted as saying — the Greek word euangelion, or at least an Aramaic equivalent (just like we now use the English equivalent) — literally means “good news.” The euangelion was everywhere in first century Hebrew society, but not in any religious sense. It was a political word borrowed from their surrounding pagan culture. The Romans had been using that word euangelion long before the birth of Christ.

During this time, the Romans ruled the world. But their Republic was being torn apart by internal conflict, corruption, violence, in-fighting between factions and self-appointed dictators. And that spilled out into their conquered regions, including Greece. The philosophical Greeks longed for peace, order, stability, and intellectual pursuit, but their view of the future was rather dim because of what was going on in the ruling government of their day: the Roman Empire.

Then along came Caesar Augustus who took the role of emperor, did away with the Republican model of government, and worked to bring those values that the Greeks wanted in a government. They had much to say in favor of this new Caesar … here’s an excerpt which speaks for all of them (it’s been found in copies of a letter sent by a Roman Proconsul to several cities many years before the birth of Christ, and decades before Christ began his ministry. Here, a Greek high priest is referring to the impersonal, universal life-force called “Providence” giving Caesar Augustus to the world:

“… Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things. And since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euangelion] for the world that came by reason of him…’”

Christians could simply replace a few names in that passage and say it was just as easily talking about Christ!?

In other words, the Romans were preaching their own euangelion decades before Christ and his disciples preached theirs. The Roman good news was that a savior had been sent to the world to bring peace to all mankind: Caesar Augustus, who finally put an end to the internal conflict within the Roman Empire and its conquered regions, and brought peace to everyone. That world peace — the pax Romana — brought:

  • stability and liberty from internal political turmoil, pirates on the seas, bandits on the highways, crooks in the cities, and from the barbarian hordes outside of the Roman Empire;
  • strong leadership (the catch-phrase of the day was “Caesar is Lord”);
  • unity in the form of one common language, one common currency, and one common law;
  • freedom (or at least a form of it): even slaves had a degree of freedom that they didn’t have under the self-destructive Roman world before Caesar, and of course the Jews especially enjoyed their freedom to practice their Jewish faith;
  • the benefits of a modern civilization: technology, medicine, education, justice, and law;
  • prosperity because of the common currency, the system of roads that the Romans built and the safety they ensured for the transportation of goods.

This was good news indeed, and the Greeks and Romans loudly proclaimed it: “Caesar is Lord!” The word “Lord” was one of the imperial titles used at the time for Caesar, and the phrase “son of God” was already being used in the Roman Empire to refer to a divinized Caesar, son of Zeus.

Christ appropriated that Greek word from Roman political propaganda, and claimed that he too had a euangelion.

His also promised peace and unity, although now between God and humans, and between different groups of humans … “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” (Luke 2:14).

His also brought liberty, although now from a very different form of captivity.

And it brought its own equivalents of the benefits promised by the new Roman world system. Instead of medicine, Christ’s gospel brought healing (physical, emotional, spiritual). Instead of justice and law, Christ’s gospel brought forgiveness and justification.

Not only were there parallels in the promises and benefits of these two gospels, but those two world systems both came at high costs:

  • the Roman Gospel was forced on everyone, often through violence and ruthless punishment, sometimes to the point of persecution; it came with many rules and laws, exorbitant taxes, and required exclusive worship of the emperor.
  • Christ’s Gospel was “enforced” by love — one was free to choose or reject it—but it required total surrender and exclusive worship of God.

It’s a fact of history that the Roman Empire was preaching a gospel of its own decades before Christ preached his. They spoke of their own Lord (Caesar Augustus) who was in their mind the Son of God (Zeus) and brought a utopian age of peace, security and liberty to all mankind who had previously been living in fear of death and conflict.

But the writings of the disciples and of Paul present Jesus Christ as the true and universal Lord and Son of God, who brings peace and reconciliation between God and humans, as well as between humans, and he sets up the church as the new alternative social order (not the Roman empire). This new euangelion that Christ preached put his new kingdom in direct opposition to the Roman Empire in general, and to the kingdom of Caesar Augustus in particular.

It’s also a fact of history that the new kingdom — Christianity, heralded by the gospel — has indeed been growing to fantastic proportions (Matt 13:31, 33), and has indeed been producing all kinds of “treasures, new and old” (Matt 13:47, 52): not just spiritual benefits (forgiveness; salvation; healing), but also societal ones (hospitals; schools; humanitarian efforts; movements to abolish slavery; peace-and-reconciliation commissions after a genocide; the laws which govern many countries). It has been casting nets to catch “fish” (Matt 13:47; see Matt 4:19), and has been preparing a banquet (Matt 22:2).

This is the on-going fulfillment of Christ’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

And John the Revelator tells us the outcome of the competition between these two kingdoms: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Let me know what you think …

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