How do you define The Gospel?

Of course, you can’t really define a biblical word by looking only at the English. The first verse of Mark serves as a title: “Αρχη του ευαγγελιου Ιησου χριστου υιου του Θεου” (The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.) Ευαγγελιον is where the “Evangelical” movement gets its name. (They have to butcher the meaning to do so, but that’s what movements do.)

A variant and the word itself both occur in 2 Sam 4:10. (In the Septuagint.) “when one told me, saying, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing *good news*, I seized him and killed him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his *news.*” It’s also used a few times in 2 Sam 18. Really, we can see that the standard usage of this is pretty much the same as what we man when we say “Good News!” If you send me to the grocery store to pick up the last missing ingredient for your child’s favorite birthday treat just hours before the party starts, and all I text back to you is, “Good News!” then you know the party is safe.

Reading the Gospel, though, it doesn’t sound like good news. The king of the Jews came, but the Jews killed him. The king of the world came, but the world power killed him. The son of God came, but God killed him. How is that good news?

It’s good news because he didn’t stay dead. This is a rare thing. Usually when someone dies, it is the end of their story. David was King… then he died. Caesar conquered the world.. then he died. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in America… then he died. The Big Bad Wolf tried to eat the pigs… see even kids get it!

Not with Christ. Christ died, and that was the beginning of his story. He started a movement, he died, the movement died, then he came back and got it going again!

Why is this good news? For this, we need to think about what makes any news good. The birthday news was good because bad news would have been that there were no ingredients. What would have been the bad news in the Gospel? Simply, that Jesus died and stayed dead. Why would that have been bad news?

We tend to look at the Gospel message through the lense of the middle ages, either Reformation theology or medieval Roman Catholic theology. So many words (like Evangelical) have come to have churchy meanings. Have you ever tried taking a few minutes and go through your Bible and redefine the churchy words by only non-churchy words? Baptism, Grace, Sin, Faith, Beget, Baptism, and most people skim over these words as if they know what they mean, but really they just know they’ve experienced them being said a lot. Try reading your Bible to a four year old and answering all the “What’s that?” questions. Now be brave: a four year old whose family doesn’t attend church.

When you learn a little Hebrew and Greek, one of the first things you figure out is that these words don’t mean what the pastor means when he uses them from the pulpit. There’s a whole lecture in this somewhere about how that’s not really as bad as it sounds, communicating with the people where they are and blah blah blah, but I’m already bored with that and so are you, and since I can safely say it’s not the subject at hand, let’s move on.

The Jewish people of the first century weren’t looking for a savior to save them from their sins. All of our Reformation based talk about it being good news because we are saved from our sins would have sounded insane. Have you read Acts? It only mentions the forgiveness of sins about eight times. That’s once every three and a half chapters. Forgiveness of sins is important, but it’s definitely not the whole story.

What did Jesus say?

Matthew 3:2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Mark 1:15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Luke 10:9 And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.

Somewhere along the line, we got it in our collective head that we’re “going to heaven.” We will go sit on a cloud in a disembodied state and sing praises to God, they say. If they’re really really theologically literate, they think that after that, we’ll come back to our bodies and do it in the future rebodied. Great story. It’s not even altogether wrong, given enough nuance and ignoring of popular publications and such like. It’s just not the good news.

The good news isn’t what’s leaving, it’s what’s coming. The only time we say something is good news because it left is when it’s a bad thing. It’s good news that the bee left, it’s bad news that it took the honey. The good news is that Jesus came as King, and even death couldn’t stop him. The good news that he’s sent us out to tell everyone he’s in charge. The good news is that evil had a chance, but the Good King and God won, is winning, and will win. The good news is that we get to be the shock troops, the Stormtroopers, the advanced guard in God’s Kingdom as he invades. We get to represent God, so that the world will see who is invading. And then in the end, the kingdoms of this world will become his. We invade by turning the other check. We invade by healing the sick and feeding the hungry and visiting the lonely. We invade by kneeling before lions and being eaten for the entertainment of our enemies. We die, because we know he’s stronger than death. We know he’s stronger than death, because he already beat it once, and now it is running scared.

Sadly, we don’t really live like that. We act like we’re the ones defending territory. “Quick, back to ‘traditional values.’” “Quick, defend Marriage!” “Quick, defend the Constitution!” These false gods don’t scare me. If they need defending by someone as weak as those who claim to defend them, then news flash, my God is way scarier. No one defended him. He let them do their worst, and when it was all said and done, he said, “Oh, you thought that was rough? You thought that was supposed to, what, slow me down? That is so cute! Here, I’ll be back in a bit, then I’ll show you what rough really looks like, okay? In the meantime, how about you and Peter and Paul and John sit down and discuss who’s really in charge around here.”

The good news isn’t that Jesus came, that Jesus forgave us, or that we don’t have to sacrifice sheep. The good news is that Jesus left us to prepare for his return. Like the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming! Everyone look busy!”

(This was written in response to

3 thoughts on “How do you define The Gospel?

    1. There’s not a short answer to that. There’s so many buzzwords, and sometimes there’s a legitimate reason to think that the daily definition for the word isn’t the ceremonial definition used by early Christians. When this happens, it’s totally legit to ask, “Did this happen in New Testament times, or soon after?” The perfect example this is “baptism.” Βαπτίζω pretty clearly means “dunk.” It meant it in the first century BC and it means that today, and there’s no sign of it changing meaning by any noticable amount during any point in the history of the Greek language. But by the beginning of the third century, we have manuals of Christian ceremony that describe baptism as being sprinkling of water in places where water was limited. Where there’s rivers or lakes, you have people arguing over the legitimacy of baptizing in a lake. (Apparently there were people saying, “Real baptisms only happen in a river, because Jesus was baptized in a river.”) In places where gathering water and digging wells was a full time ordeal, they argued over how small they were allowed to build the baptistry. When did this ceremonial definition come into play? There’s some evidence that some first century BC Jewish sects (like the one at Qumran) did some sort of ritual cleansing when someone joined their community. Might John the Baptist have been borrowing this from those sects, and therefore we’re talking about it entirely in ceremonial terms right from John straight through to Jesus? Or maybe John came up with the idea independently, and he really was starting his own ceremonial practice of dunking? It’s hard to say from the evidence presented. Even if we decide it was a ritual right from the start, does that mean that translating it as a term which has only a ceremonial meaning in English is the best translation? At the very least, translating it as “dunk” conveys the first thought that would have come to John’s listeners.
      If I throw all that aside and try to just answer your question, though, I’d translate “sin” by some variety of “screw up.” “Mistake” doesn’t quite carry the same weight. You can make a mistake and forget to carry the one. You can purposely not give someone their whole change and that’s still a screw up.
      Grace would take a lot more thought. My tendency is to say something like “favor,” but that’s another word we don’t use much today. I can’t remember the last time I said, “I have his favor.” If I were going for dynamic equivalence, I’d probably try to rephrase the sentences to make it a verb: “He really likes me.” Something along those lines. Grace does have the same problems as Baptism above, though, especially in Paul’s letters. We’ve taken Paul to mean something for do long, and “Grace” and “Faith” don’t really seem to mean the same thing to Paul as they do to everyone else, unless we’re all reading Paul very very wrong. And if we’re reading Paul wrong, they’ve been reading Paul wrong since at least the 5th century, because St Augustine and St Jerome read it the same way we do. Even the people who say Augustine and Jerome were nuts end up reading Paul very nearly the same way, because there’s a lot of local context that seems to drive the meanings we understand. If you want to find people trying to take Paul as meaning what everyone else in his day means by “Grace” and “Faith,” look up The New Perspective on Paul. It kind of started with people going, “No one in the two centuries surrounding Paul used these words these ways,” but then the movement grew beyond just that.

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