Words are strange creatures. Often, they mean what we want them to mean. It has been said that words are the patterns by which people think. Since words frame our thinking world, it is really important that we correctly shape our ideas with properly defined words. In the case at hand, understanding the meaning of the Christian word gospel depends on understanding how the word gospel is presented in the New Testament.
The English word Gospel most likely derives from the Old English word gōd spell, which meant “good story” or “good message.” William Deal points out that gōd spell meant a good mystery, doctrine, or secret, something hidden which was being brought out. And the gospel is definitely a mystery revealed (Ephesians 3:1-14). The words translated gospel is, however, roughly the result of the combination of two Greek words: eu (good) and angelia (message, news). It roughly approximates “a good message,” but even this is not enough to tell us how the word is shaped by the New Testament.
Within the 27 New Testament volumes, the gospel is connected to three focuses: (1) “the gospel” as a message (euangelion), (2) the action of “preaching/bearing the gospel” (euangelizo), and (3) those individuals who proclaim the gospel (euangelistes). These words have a combined total of 133 instances, scattered over 20 of the 27 New Testament books. The only books that do not use these words are the Gospel of John and his three Letters, and James, 2 Peter, and Jude. These books tend to use other words which emphasize the same ideas (cf. truth, proclaiming, hope, light, the message, etc.).
Let us consider a few lines of thought that will help us define and shape an accurate understanding of the gospel message.
How do you Define Gospel?
First, the gospel is not the result of religious evolution and philosophical development. In the ancient world, a number of religions and beliefs often blend into each other or break out into their own religions. For example, the far eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism resulted from a philosophical and religious reaction to their view of social order (the caste system) and how to become one with the ultimate reality of the universe. This development of ideas is not along parallel lines with how the gospel message is defined in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Second, the gospel is not the result of social progress. One of the modern concerns in the industrial world is that of social concern for equality. These social concerns tug at our values, our ethics. Equality is the hallmark (gospel) of the modern social order, and because of it, we are seeking ways to save everything. Yet, as the late atheist and satirical comedian George Carlin quips against this elevation of self-importance:
“Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.” And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet. […. explicit deleted] Save the planet[?], we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet […]
I would argue that here inlays the problem of a socially derived “good news”; The gospel must be defined by other means. Humanity needs help from the Creator.
Third, the gospel is the result of divine revelation (Galatians 1:11-17). The authors of the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular assume and argue that their religious instruction is not the result of human philosophy or development. For example, Paul affirms his source is Jesus Christ:
For I make known to you, brethren, as touching the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not after man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ. (1:11–12).
The contrast between “not after man” and “through revelation of Jesus” is clear. The gospel of the New Testament is, by definition, from God and not from the insights of humanity (1 Corinthians 2:1-16).
The New Testament Gospel
But how should we understand the word gospel? At its basic sense, the word gospel is focused on something positive being announced (military victory, news, etc). This meaning is older than New Testament times but it is found in a few verses. For example, Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica about the good feelings they felt for him and his ministry, he writes,
when Timothy came even now unto us from you, and brought us glad tidings [euangelisamenou] of your faith and love, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us, even as we also to see you. (1 Thessalonians 3:6).
The report of Timothy was positive, a good report, an enjoyable announcement (cf. Galatians 3:8, proeuangelizomai).
More significantly, when the Gospel of Mark —a biography of Jesus’s ministry— opens we read, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). This tells us something about the story of Jesus. It starts out by anticipating a message to embrace as a celebration and victory (Matthew 11:5). The content of the gospel not only includes the ministry and message of Jesus, but also his rejection, crucifixion, resurrection, glorification of Jesus.
The four Gospel Accounts (Matthew-John) are so named because they provide the “building blocks” of what is to be proclaimed as the message of the gospel (Mark 1:14-15), by those whose role it is to proclaim it and bear it to the world (Acts 21:8; Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5; Mark 16:15). At the beginning, Jesus proclaimed a message based upon the kingdom of God, repentance, his role as the son of God, and the gospel’s role to change people’s lives (Matthew 4:23; 9:35). Later, after the resurrection of Jesus, the gospel is to be proclaimed on behalf of Jesus throughout the world (Matthew 24:14, 26:13; Colossians 1:23).
It is not surprising, then, to see the apostle Paul in Athens described by onlookers as one who “preached Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Paul made it a ministry goal to “to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:16, 19-20). Indeed, he explains his “aim” as a sense of indebtedness to mankind to share this message (Romans 1:14-15). For this reason, he affirms clearly:
I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16-17)
Paul would seek to pass along this conviction to his protégé Timothy (2 Timothy 1:8-10). It is the responsibility of every Christian to boldly share this victorious good news (2:2).
The Earliest Gospel “Statement”
Among the New Testament writers, the earliest statement of the content of the preaching of the gospel is found in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Paul’s activity in ancient Corinth is around the early fifties of the first century AD, and this letter is dated to this timeframe no later than AD 55.
In this letter, Paul presents a lengthy discussion —and definition— of the gospel message that he preached. The passage of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 can be outlined based upon key elements of the gospel message:
(1) the preaching of the gospel word provides salvation to the believer (15:1-2),
Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain.
(2) the compelling force of the gospel is from the foretelling of events fulfilled in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (15:3-4),
For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;
(3) the gospel is based upon eyewitnesses testimony of those who witnessed Jesus, resurrected bodily from the dead (15:5-8), and
and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.
(4) the gospel is based upon God’s offer of unearned grace and humanity’s response of faith (9-11).
For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not found vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Whether then it be I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
The passage is significant, first, because Paul has an early and authentic message. Paul even “checked in” with Peter in Jerusalem and at some point compared notes regarding the gospel (Galatians 1:18). Second, the outline of this passage is significant because of its point by point details. Thirdly, it shows that the gospel bridges the gap between earth-history and God. The victory message of the gospel is based upon the supernatural events firmly established in the historical life, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation as Lord and God (John 20:24-29).
In short, to understand the gospel one must understand Jesus, the purpose of his teaching and his ministry, the death-burial-and-resurrection of Jesus, and the life-changing message of the kingdom of God. It is not insignificant to point out that gospel obedience is described as an imitation of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection in baptism. In this way, the gospel is lived out in the Christian life manifested in obedience (Romans 6:1-10; Colossians 3:1-3).
- See, Doug Burleson, “Gospel,” in One Word Study Guide, eds. Chad Landman, et al. (Mt. Juliet, TN: Mt. Juliet church of Christ, 2016), 134-36. Burleson provides a perfect snapshot of “good news” in the Hebrew Bible (besorah) and the New Testament (euangelion).
- William S. Deal, Pictorial Introduction to the Bible, 3rd ed. (1982; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 246.
- Figures worked out based upon calculations from the Logos Bible platform’s “Bible Word Study” for euangelion (76), euangelizo (54), euangelistes (3).
- George Carlin, “The Planet is Fine” routine in the 1992 HBO George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York Comedy Special (Cable Stuff Productions).
- All Scripture references are from the American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
This is argued on the basis of two points. First, the Book of Acts recounts his trip to Corinth (18:12-17), during which time he stands for religious accusations before the tribunal of the governor (proconsul) of Greece (Achaia), one L. Junius Gallio. Because this was a matter of Jewish religion and not Roman law, Gallio lets Paul go. Second, an inscription was found from Delphi with Gallio’s name on it. Most likely it refers to his proconsulship during July 51 to July 52, which means Paul’s year-and-a-half stay began a year or so before this time (ca. 50-51). This is often regarded one of the surest historical points of New Testament chronology. A few years later, Paul’s writes to the Corinthians. This would be no later than 55 AD. See, Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 545-86. For an online source see, Mark Cartwright, “Corinth,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.