“The Gospel” is one of those terms that is ubiquitous in Christianity. You defend the Gospel. You preach the Gospel. You obey the Gospel. You make sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. You take the Gospel to others. We use the term so much that there’s sort of an implicit understanding that we don’t have to explain what it is.
Which is interesting, because in my experience, if you ask a Christian to tell you what the Gospel is, you will get a lot of different thoughts on that if you get any thoughts at all. For a message that seems so fundamental to us, there doesn’t seem to be widespread clarity.
So, let’s take your handy TARDIS and go back in time before the individualism of the Great Awakening, the battle over indulgences that was the Reformation, the medieval church’s tendency to maintain political control through spiritual control, and the early Greco-Roman philosophical interest in the immortality and transmigration of the soul. Let’s go back before all those things and come to first century Judea where the Gospel was first shared by Jewish people to other Jewish people.
One of the first things to note about the Gospel is that it came to that people at that time. The proclamation of the Gospel spun up at a specific point in history – not before, not after. There has to be something about what was happening at the time that makes the Gospel relevant in a way that it would not have been relevant earlier in history.
Second, the Gospel has to be immediately relevant to the Jews, and then the Gentiles. The Gospel comes to the house of Israel first and stays there until after Pentecost, following Jesus’ instructions to make disciples of all nations and to be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem, and then to the surrounding areas. So whatever the Gospel is, it has to center immediately around Jews in the first century, and only later does it become relevant to Gentiles.
Third, the Gospel has to be a message that invites persecution from not just first century Temple authorities, but also the Roman Empire – an Empire that was basically tolerant of the many religions and cultures under its banners. This almost by necessity means the Gospel has to be political, because the Roman Empire doesn’t care about what you believe about Heaven or Hell or the end of the world. They don’t care about your view of resurrection, but they do care about your view of insurrection. This is important; the Gospel can’t just be a threat to the religious leaders of the first century – it is also a threat to the political leaders.
Fourth, the Gospel has to be good news. The people who hear it are glad to hear it, but there is also a group of people for whom the Gospel is bad news unless they are willing to change groups – the rich, the rulers, the powerful, the ostensibly religious. The Gospel is good news for the poor, the slaves, the powerless, and the sinners.
Think, for a minute, about what you think the Gospel is, and then ask yourself if it fits those criteria. My guess is that the general themes that tend to dominate American evangelicalism’s take on the Gospel have trouble satisfying the information that the Bible actually gives us.
Our popular emphases do not have any special relevance to first century Israel and could just as easily have cropped up with any people group at any point in history. While they might be offensive to a religious Jew, they would not be particularly offensive to an Empire – not the sort of thing an Empire would feel like it had to snuff out. And these emphases are not particularly good news for the poor but bad news for the rich, or good news for the powerless but bad news for the powerful. Rather, our version of the Gospel is equally good or bad news to anyone, depending on their response. So, if our general ideas about the Gospel are correct, how do we explain what the Bible says? How do we explain Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the apostles and the reaction they got and from whom? How do we explain the Roman Empire wanting to put a stop to this movement? Because even though we know people might not believe our Gospel, it’s hard to imagine how a story about an individual going to Heaven or Hell when they die would ever be systematically opposed by the rich or seen as a threat to the stability of a nation.
I would offer that much of our current stories and emphases in what we consider “the Gospel” is actually a result of centuries of people trying to take the message away from its historical context and come away with something that answers the interests of the people and the culture of the time.
By contrast, Jesus preached that the kingdom of God had arrived.
But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Luke 4:43 (NRSV)
And, incidentally, God was going to make Jesus king of that kingdom.
If the core of the Gospel is that the kingdom of God has arrived with Jesus as the king, this fits the things we see in the Bible that surround the proclamation of the Gospel.
- It is immediately relevant to Jews, because they have historically defined the kingdom of God up until this point and have been longing for its restoration. It would then be beneficial for Gentiles because the reign of God undoes all that is wrong with the world.
- It is immediately relevant to the first century, because the Jews at that time were under the mightiest pagan empire they have ever been under, creating all kinds of nastiness for them in just about every sphere of life – religiously, economically, politically, etc.
- It would draw the ire of both the power structure of the Temple as well as the Roman Empire. A new king heralding the arrival of a new kingdom of Israel is going to draw the ire both of the Temple powers trying to maintain a nice status quo and a Roman Empire who is quite firmly in power, thank you, and the news of a new kingdom springing up under their noses in a notoriously rebellious province is unwelcome.
- It is good news for those who have been suffering under the power of the Empire and the Jewish elite, but bad news for those who are benefiting from the current arrangement.
While it is true that the arrival of the kingdom will not have the same immediate implications for us that it would have had in the first century, that kingdom still exists and Jesus is still the king of it, and its arrival into the broken areas of our world is still good news because it offers a way of restoration and community life that does not have to produce the brokenness we see everywhere else.
What is the Gospel that we proclaim? Is it the same Gospel that Jesus did?