Tag Archives: theology

What is the Gospel?

The word “gospel” as used within Christian circles today carry different meanings. They are used to refer to the NT books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When used in this way, they are using “gospels” as a literary genre – that is in reference to these books that provide a narrative of the life of Jesus – an ancient biography. Mark 1:1, for example, introduces the book saying:-

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark is, here, referring to the book in the sense of “biography”. It is, as it were, the gospel of Jesus Christ or the biography of the life of Jesus the Messiah.

The Greek texts of the gospels, however, as found within the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, our oldest complete manuscripts, do not actually call these books “gospels”. Not all the books are titled (eg. Matthew in Codex Sinaticus has no title) but where they are titled, they are usually called “Kata Markon” (“According to Mark”) for example, or “Kata Yohannan” (“According to John”.) In other words, the popular usage of “gospels” as reference to these books of the NT is more of a convenient usage, but one that does not relate to the bible’s internal use of the word “gospel”.

“According to John”, Codex Sinaiticus

“According to Mark”, Codex Vaticanus

*There are other works that present themselves as “gospels” that are not part of our regular NT canon. You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, among many others.

The gospel of the kingdom of God

Within the NT, the word that is usually translated as “gospel”, “good news” or “glad tidings” is the Greek noun εὐαγγέλιον (pronounced euaggelion). This breaks down to “eu” which means “good” and “aggelia” which means “message”. Put together, the word literally means “good message” or “good news”. Mark, immediately after introducing his work as the gospel-biography of Jesus, goes on to use the same word in a very different sense. In Mark 1:14-15, we have:

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

In this case, it cannot be referring to the book of Mark which would have been anachronistic. The “gospel” here is referring to the message that Jesus preached at the very onset of his ministry in Galilee, what Mark called the “gospel of the kingdom of God” as opposed to the “gospel (biography) of Jesus Christ”. This “gospel of the kingdom” is the one that is being presented to the hearers and demanding their belief. At this point, Jesus had not called his disciples yet. He certainly had not been crucified yet, nor died on the cross and resurrected three days later. What, then, was this “gospel” or “good news” that Jesus was asking his hearers to believe in?

In Luke 8:1, we once again see that the message that Jesus brought was the “gospel of the kingdom of God”:

Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God.

This wasn’t just some passing news, but appears to be the central preaching of Jesus during his years of ministry, and for this reason we can get some idea of the substance of this “gospel” by looking at what Jesus preached. In Luke’s account, right after Jesus’ temptation, he went to a synagogue in Nazareth, in the Lower Galilee area, and inaugurated his ministry with the familiar words of Isaiah. Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.

Jesus had been appointed to read the prophets, which on that day happened to fall on Isa 61:1-2 (NKJV):

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, …

This was the “gospel” that Jesus was preaching. The Hebrew word that is translated “good tidings” here is actually a bit more neutral. The Hebrew noun and cognate to the Greek εὐαγγέλιον is בְּשׂוֹרָ֥ה (pronounced besorah) simply means “news”. It could be good news or bad news. Moreover, the form in which this word often appears, such as in Isa 61, is usually as a verb baser which can be translated as “heralding” or “announcing”. There is no implicit “good” in the news. That “good” is more of a translatorial interjection. For example, if we look at 2Sam 18:31, the verb yitbaser there was translated as “good news” in the NKJV, NASB and ESV but was translated as “informed” in the JPS. In 1Chr 16:23, on the other hand, baseru was translated in the NKJV and NASB as “proclaim the good news/tidings” whereas the ESV simply translated it as “tell of.” Whether this news was good or not, for the translators, was a matter of contextual interpretation and not intrinsic to the word itself.

In order to understand the nature of the message, therefore, we have to look beyond just the lexical meaning of the word to the context (of Isa 61 in this case.) Isa 61:1 gives us some clues – the message is about healing, liberty, release – but the summary of this message is found in Isa 61:2, that is to declare the “acceptable year of the Lord” or the “year of favour to/of Yehovah.” The word translated as “liberty” (NKJV) is the Hebrew word דְּר֔וֹר (pronounced deror) which refers to the emancipation of slaves upon the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10), along with the cancellation of debt. This, according to Isaiah, was what the “news” was about. The rest of the chapter goes on to describe a time of great deliverance for the people of God and a time of restoration for the city of God, a day of divine retribution when wrongs would be put right. More than that, Isa 61:8 tells us that this was also the day in which Yehovah would make a (new) covenant with His people. In many ways, this was the day many Jews had been waiting and hoping for. Isa 52:7 similarly speaks of the “news” of such a day when God’s reign is restored:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

Isa 49:8 speaks of this “acceptable time” as follows:

Thus says the LORD: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you. I will preserve You and give you as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth, to cause them to inherit the desolate heritages.

The “acceptable time” is a reference to the day of deliverance and salvation. It is also a reference to the promise of restoration as well as the covenant. One could say that this hope for God’s deliverance and restoration of Israel was nothing new to the Jews. They had been longing for this ever since the destruction of the first temple in 586BC. After the Hasmonean dynasty ended in 37BC, giving way to the Herodian rule as a client of the Roman state, these aspirations were heightened with messianic hopes. So when Jesus told the synagogue in Nazareth what he did, you can just imagine their shock. Lk 4:20-21:

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus was basically saying to them that their waiting for deliverance was over, and that God was finally ushering in the promises of a restoration and of the covenant. The year of Jubilee had finally arrived. That was the “news” and it was good, for those who had been waiting and felt like they had been in bondage as slaves. At this point, we may also look at how Jeremiah had prophesied concerning a time when God would make a “new covenant” with the house of Judah and the house of Israel in Jer 31:31:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah …

In the same way that Isa 61:4 looked forward to the day of rebuilding of the old ruins and former desolations, Jer 31:38 also anticipated the rebuilding of the city of God, and by implication the restoration of the rule and kingdom of God. This was not just a picture of personal salvation, but of the ushering in of a new era of the kingdom of God. Jesus confirms the prophecy of Isaiah by performing the very miracles that was described. Mt 4:23:

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.

Mk 1:14-15 says:

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

One can imagine that on the evening just before the Jubilee would be ushered in (Jewish days start in the evening), there would be the sounding of the shofar throughout the land (Lev 25:9) and every slave, every debtor, everyone who had lost his land and become dispossessed, would have leapt for joy upon hearing the sound of the shofar that starts in Jerusalem and is then echoed and relayed throughout the land of Israel. There would be people who may not have been aware of their Jubilee liberty, and would have had to rely on someone to announce to them the good news as heralds ran from village to village. Jesus was that herald, as well as the fulfilment of the promise. His message was the good news of emancipation, of restoration, and of the establishment of a new era of God’s rulership over the world. This was the gospel of the kingdom of God and the kingdom encompasses every aspect of life, as well as the afterlife, but it was not just about going to heaven.

The writer of Matthew must have understood the imminent advent of this kingdom. As soon as the news gets to everyone who needed to hear it, God’s day of judgement would come. In Mt 24:14, he wrote:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.

It was clear that the disciples of Jesus believed that the day of the Lord was imminent and “at hand.” This was why they asked what they did in Acts 1:6:

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

That was the capping of the good news. Today, we see that this period had lasted longer than anyone had anticipated and that may have been why Jesus did not answer the direct question that was posed to him. It does, however, help us understand what “good news” meant for Jesus and his disciples.

Paul’s gospel

Once we move past Jesus, we discover that Paul’s usage of the “gospel” is somewhat different. Nowhere in his writings does he ever mention the “gospel of the kingdom”. Rather, Paul preached a “gospel of the grace of God”. In his own words in Acts 20:24:

But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

In several other places, he calls his message the “gospel of Christ” (Rom 1:16, 15:29, 1Cor 9:12,18, 2Cor 2:12, 9:13, 10:14, Phil 1:27, 1Thes 3:2, 2Thes 1:8). Elsewhere he seems to suggest that this gospel which he often referred to as “my gospel” was somehow distinctly for the Gentiles. In Gal 2:7 Paul compares his gospel to that of Peter’s:

But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter.

Paul’s gospel focused on salvation for gentiles (Eph 1:13, Rom 1:16), and specifically salvation by faith (Rom 1:17) without the need of conforming to the traditional requirements of the Law (Col 2:14). This involved, primarily, a belief and confession in Jesus Christ (Act 16:31, Rom 10:9) and that salvation comes as a result of God’s grace (Tit 2:11)

This version of “gospel” is the one that is most theologically prevalent in evangelical circles today, but it isn’t the only “gospel” in the bible nor is it even the primary one. I would like to think of this as a subset of the gospel of the kingdom, and one that focuses more on gentile adoption into the plan of God and on salvation specifically. For Paul, the cross represented an “offense”, particularly to the Jews, and is the power that granted to Gentiles access to God for reconciliation (Col 1:20), and salvation as a consequence.

James, the first leader of the Jerusalem church and the brother of Jesus, espoused a gospel that is much more in line with Jesus’ teachings. He does not mention the cross nor utilized it in the way Paul did. For James, the hope of the believer is in the faithfulness of God with the idea that if we keep our part of the covenant, God will surely keep His part which includes our deliverance and salvation. This encompassed more than just a belief, but required obedience as the evidence of that faith (Jas 2:18-24). This also happens to be the direction the Didache taught, that the way of life being found in obeying God’s commands, particularly that of loving God and our neighbours (Did 1).


In summary, we see that the word “gospel” (good news, glad tidings) isn’t always used int the same way throughout the bible. We also see that much of the evangelical understanding of the gospel tends to be more Pauline than the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus himself preached. For Paul, the “cross” symbolizes his theology of justification by faith, which he considers an offense to the Jews (possibly including James.)