what is the gospel?
At the end of last year I was criticised by the organiser of an event I was asked to speak at because of the gospel that I preached.
“We believe the gospel is the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus,” he said.
On the surface this assertion sounds good to many Christians. But is that really what the gospel is? Is the gospel really just the stating of a doctrinal belief (albeit one based in history) whereby voluntary assent leads to post mortem safety?
Such a caricature does not seem to make sense of the biblical narrative for me. In the Old Testament the phrase “good news” was used to describe the announcement of the people of God concerning the fact that God would bring them back from Exile in a manner similar to that of the Exodus, and that he would be king over them (e.g. Isaiah 40 esp. vv.9-11; 52 esp. vv.7-10). Such kingship obviously implies a kingdom, and so the ‘good news’ (gospel) was essentially an announcement of the coming kingdom of God, that is, God’s reign/rule over his people who are formed into an alternative society to those surrounding them in accordance with the Mosaic Law.
In this way the gospel was intricately linked to the narrative of the Old Testament; God had redeemed and rescued Israel to become an alternative society to empires like Egypt, though throughout their history Israel had eventually become like such empires. For this reason God would cleanse them through fire in the Exile, and the good news (gospel) was that they would be restored as the originally intended alternative kingdom.
In the New Testament the meaning of ‘gospel’ does not really change. By the time of Jesus two things will largely affect the definition of the Greek word euangelion;
1) Israel has once again transformed into an empire-like state inasmuch as it is ruled by a minority aristocracy who oppresses the poor and consolidates its power with an iron fist, and;
2) The Roman Empire is the major political force in the world.
The Roman Empire is a major factor in our definition of the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament. The word referred to the announcement of a new king/emperor; when a new emperor took the throne messengers would be sent all over the Empire to announce this news (for more on this see Tom Wright’s What St Paul Really Said). The word could also be used when a new region was conquered and included into the Roman Empire.
The emperor himself was known by many titles, including father (of the fatherland), son of god, saviour, prince of peace (that is, the kind of peace represented by the Pax Romana), lord etc. (do these words ring any bells?)
So when Jesus begins his ministry, he takes a term that refers to the coming of God to restore an alternative society/kingdom to that of empire (OT), a term that is also used by the major empire of his day (NT). The New Testament even clearly has him announcing the gospel as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven/God is at hand.” That is to say, the gospel is the announcement of the king and his kingdom.
Could it be any clearer? Jesus takes a term used by the imperialists of his day, subverts it and uses it to announce an alternative way of existence to that of empire.
How have we muddied this up? Perhaps it is because we are so caught up in dualist and modernist paradigms that we cannot fathom the idea that Jesus did not come to whisk Platonic souls away to heaven, but he came to announce something real and earthy and political – a new world order; the kingdom of God.
Why is this important? Because it changes the whole Christian game…
The task of following Jesus does not allow us the safety or luxury to ignore what happens in our world in favour of the shallow piousness of a Sunday religion. Jesus’ gospel is the announcement of a reality diametrically opposed to that of empire. if empire stands for exploitation, then Jesus stands for liberty. If empire stands for war, murder and death, Jesus stands for peace, love and life. If empire stands for inequity then you can bet that Jesus stands for equity.
The list could go on, though I don’t think i need to insult your intelligence for you to work out the implications of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom.