I have resisted getting into this because I keep telling myself, “This is not what you do here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.” Normally, I don’t engage in theological discussions, particularly those that are the equivalent of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. But, today I can’t help myself because some discussion is taking place around the interwebs about “what is the gospel?”
A couple of new books that seek to define the word “gospel” are out, which no one has asked me to review, so I’ll just let those go unmentioned. But, I do want to weigh in on the question, “What is the Gospel?” Because, generally, I haven’t found a response that satisfies me, or gets at what I think “good news” is, or was, for those who first heard the words of Jesus in Mark 1:14-15 —
14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Okay, so there it is, the first mention of “good news” or as we call it now, the “gospel.” What would have been good news to the first century Jews of Jesus’s day? What would have been good news to those to whom Jesus spoke? What was the bad news they needed to repent from, and turn to believe the good news?
What The Gospel Is Not
Okay, let’s start with what the gospel is not because that’s always a good place to start. The gospel was not, and is not, the Four Spiritual Laws. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws, but that is not the gospel. Why? Because the whole deal, from Law #1 — God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. — is too individualistic, too personal, and not addressed to the community that was Israel, God’s people. Jesus came to the Jews first, so the good news had to be good news for them before it was good news for individualistic, 21st century Americans who believe that everything is about us — or more precisely, me.
Secondly, the gospel is not Jesus died on the cross. Nor is it that he was raised from the dead. Both of those events are part of God’s salvific work, but they are not, in and of themselves, the gospel. But, here’s a disclaimer — both the cross and the empty tomb are expressions of the gospel. Remember that because it will make sense pretty soon.
Criteria for Good News
If the word we know as “gospel” — from the Greek euangelion — means good news then it had to be good news for those who heard it. And the good news itself had to have meaning for the Jews for whom it was intended first. Paul, of course, carries the good news to the Gentiles later, but first the message was to the Jews.
Secondly, good news had to be something they did not expect, or had given up on, because Jesus tells them to “repent” — change their way of thinking and acting — and believe it.
Two criteria then: good news had to have meaning and it had to be the opposite of what they expected or were living.
The Situation Into Which Good News Came
The situation in first century Judea was no secret, and that’s obvious, but important to our discussion. The Jews were in a period of “captivity” or “exile” in their own land. The Roman Empire’s legions occupied the city of Jerusalem with Antonio’s fortress right beside Herod’s Temple in the city.
The Roman occupation was cause for anxiety, and attempts to liberate themselves from Rome had failed, but were still being planned by Zealots, among others. Good news would have been that God delivered his people from “bondage” just as God had done in the Exodus experience. Good news would have been that God heard the cries of his people, just as he did in Egypt.
Many arose, the Bible tells us, who claimed to be “messiahs” — those who would lead the Jews to victory and freedom. All were proven to be false messiahs, and their movements were crushed by a collusion between Rome and the Jewish leaders. But the Jewish people still longed for freedom.
The Good News Is Simple
In light of the first century situation, here’s my definition of the gospel, or the good news brought by Jesus: God keeps His promises.
I take my definition of the good news, the gospel, from Acts 13:32-33a —
32“We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.”
There it is, simple, straight-forward, and precise. Paul could not be more clear — “We tell you the good news: What God promised…he has fulfilled.” In other words, “God keeps His promises.”
When Jesus proclaimed, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” he was saying three things:
- The time is right, and the kingdom of God is coming, which is a new thing;
- Repent — change what you believe about your situation, change what you believe about God’s abandoning you, change what you believe about what God is going to do for his people;
- Believe the good news (which is “God keeps his promises.”)
Of course, the primary promise God kept was to send the messiah to the Jews. Paul outlines that in Acts 13:23 —
23“From this man’s (David’s) descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.”
There it is, again — “as he promised.” God keeps His promises. That definition of the gospel fits our criteria. The Jews would have understood it, and it was somewhat unexpected, which is why they had to repent.
As a matter of fact, Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 is one of the best examples of presenting the “good news” to anybody, especially non-Jews who knew nothing of God’s history with Israel. Paul is preaching to a Gentile audience, but he makes the case that God had promised the messiah to the Jews, that Jesus’s resurrection was God’s way of validating Jesus as that messiah, and that God kept the promise he made to Israel long ago.
That’s it, I think — the definition of the gospel, or the good news is God keeps His promises. Of course, as I said earlier, the cross and the empty tomb are expressions of God’s promises being fulfilled. And so are the life and ministry of Jesus, the miracles, his teaching, and all of the ways in which Jesus was “God with us.”
What do you think? Do you like the idea of good news being “God keeps his promises?” Or does that not work for you? I’d be interested in what you think because I believe the message that “God keeps his promises” would also resonate in this generation.