“Preach the Gospel.”
It’s a phrase we hear all the time in Christian circles. We find it in church mission statements, Bible studies, Christian t-shirts. But how often do we put a lot of thought into what that phrase means?
In a collaborative effort, all the bloggers here on Misfits are to write a reflection on this quote: “Preach the Gospel to yourself every day.” The idea is that we’ll end up with a beautiful mosaic about what the Gospel is and what it means to preach it. What you’re about to read is my own view. I do not claim it to be the correct view, and I’m not trying to convince you that it should be your view. No, all I’m doing is adding my own little tile to the mosaic. My own small piece to the much larger puzzle. [Insert your own cheesy metaphor here.] In the end, my prayer is that you won’t see my view over against the other views on this blog. Only that you see the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
Click here to read part two of this series and click here to read part three.
An envelope, a letter, and a stamp.
As I began writing this blog post, it was evident to me that this wouldn’t fit into one blog post. So I’ve divided my perspective into three parts. To explain my thought process behind these divisions, here’s a postal metaphor.
For this introductory blog post, we’ll take a look at an envelope. What is the gospel? What does the word mean? How was the word used in its original contexts? More specifically, we’ll examine “good news” in the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds of the New Testament.
In the second part of this series, we’ll open up the envelope and do our best to answer the question, what’s inside the Gospel? In other words, what is the content of this good news?
Finally, we’ll put a stamp on it and drop it in the mail. Here we’ll talk more practically about the act of preaching the Gospel.
Now let’s jump into it.
Before we talk about what the Gospel is, we first must discuss what the Gospel means. That’s going to be our only goal for this first post.
This is an important task. That’s because “Gospel” is a watered-down, over-used, and meaningless word.
It’s watered down because we have reduced its meaning to a series of verses from Romans taken out of context. A message about saving human souls from hell with a simple prayer.
It’s over-used because we use the word all the time, even without reflecting upon what we mean when we say it.
And it’s meaningless because it’s not even an English word!
Well, it is now. Webster’s dictionary defines it as “the message concerning Christ, the kingdom of God, and salvation,” or “something accepted or promoted as infallible truth or as a guiding principle or doctrine.” But that’s not what it originally meant. Gospel comes from the Old English word god spel, a translation of the Greek euangelion. “Good news.”
We need to get rid of the word “Gospel” in our Bibles and in our Christian vocabulary. Gospel is inherently religious, whereas god spel was not. The word Gospel has become a loaded term, packed with false associations and baggage.
“Good news” is a common English phrase and the most literal translation of god spel and euangelion. However, it’s also a religious phrase when used in reference to the Bible. Since most people know that “Gospel” means “Good News,” it often evokes the same associations.
So how should we translate the word euangelion?
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. When the writers of the New Testament wrote the word euangelion, they were also using a loaded word. It was a word with its own baggage. Different from the baggage we associate with the word “Gospel,” but baggage all the same.
New Testament translation is more than translating words. We must also translate cultural associations. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, and it will be at a later point. But for now, I want to apply this concept to the word Gospel.
How would a first century Jewish person understand the word euangelion? To answer this question, we must examine two streams of thought that combine to form the background of the New Testament.
“Good News” in the Septuagint
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For the most part, this would have been the Bible read by Jesus, the apostles, and the early church. It’s an important body of work for New Testament interpreters for several reasons. It offers a window into Hellenistic Jewish culture. It sheds light on early Jewish hermeneutics. It helps us understand how a Jew in the Second Temple period would have read certain words. For our purposes here, the Septuagint can point us to a more Jewish definition of the word euangelion.
We can see two spheres of meaning for this word in the Septuagint. We’ll start with the word in its secular sense, and then we’ll move into a more religious sense.
King David’s Good News
At least twice in his life, King David found himself in a power struggle with someone he loved. The first was at the beginning of his reign and the second was toward the end of his reign. So we could call these struggles inclusios or the bookends of David’s political career.
First, King Saul.
I wish there was more time to get into the story of David and Saul’s relationship. It’s a rich story, with lots of irony and humor, and I encourage you to go read through the whole thing in one sitting. Start around 1 Samuel 16, the introduction of David, and read until the end of the book. Or even a couple of chapters into 2 Samuel. I guess you might as well start with 1 Samuel 1 and read through both books. It’ll take a while, but it’ll be worth it!
So, here’s the story in a nutshell.
Israel wants a king to be like the other nations. God (in a move that my wife and I would consider “gentle parenting”) gives them their desires, knowing it won’t go well. It doesn’t go well. The handsomely tall and beefy Saul becomes their king. The Spirit of the God comes upon him to lead the nation as God’s Anointed One (or Christ in Greek). But when Saul does his own thing and makes a mess, God’s Spirit leaves him. It lands surprisingly upon the skinny ginger shepherd-musician, David.
Sensing this shift in God’s Spirit, Saul goes mad with rage. And thus begins a long, manipulative, cowardly, and comical battle between the two. Well, not a battle, per se. It’s more like one of those classic Benny Hill chase scenes with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background. And at every twist and turn, Saul fails to kill David. So maybe it’s more like Tom and Jerry.
David, on the other hand, has a few opportunities to kill Saul. But he doesn’t take the opportunity for several reasons. Saul is David’s King, the father of his wife and of his best friend, and a friend to David himself. But more than all these reasons, David doesn’t take Saul’s life because Saul is the Lord’s Anointed!
Flash forward a few chapters and we find Saul and his sons caught in a heavy battle against the Philistines. His sons are killed and Saul is mortally wounded by an arrow. Saul ends up taking his own life before the Philistines can find him and make a mockery of him. And just like that, the Benny Hill battle is over. David has won. What great news for David!
At least that’s what one man thinks, who somehow gets a hold of Saul’s crown and bracelet before the Philistines do. He brings these to David and shares the Gospel with him.
No, wait, that’s not right. He shares the good news that David’s enemy is dead. What is David’s response to this good news? 2 Samuel 4:10 tells us the answer:
“When one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news (LXX euangelizo, “I bring good news”), I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news” (ESV).
The messenger thought he was the bearer of good news. But he lied to David and confessed to killing Saul himself. David’s friend, father-in-law, King, and—here’s the biggest offense-God’s anointed.
From this story, we can glean a couple of insights about the Greek word euangelion. First, it was used to describe the declaration of political victory. Second, one sharing “good news” would expect some kind of reward.
There’s more we could say about Saul and David, but we have to move on.
On to Absalom
David’s next challenger was his own son, Absalom. He led a rebellion, stole the hearts of the Israelites, and usurped the throne from his father.
Seriously, you guys need to read these books. They’re fantastic. Especially for you Game of Thrones fans.
Anyway, Absalom was known for his long, gorgeous hair. One day while he was riding his mule, his hair got caught in a large oak tree. He hung there while his mule carried on and left him. David’s men find him hanging and begin to debate about whether they should kill him. Joab, David’s nephew and military leader, gets impatient and slays Absalom, his own cousin.
Once again, David’s enemy is dead. David is victorious. What great news! Right?
No. By this point, the reader knows where this story is going. We’ve read this story before, just with different characters.
Enter Ahimaaz. He is desperate to share this good news with David. Joab tells him no way, that’s not a good idea. “You are not to carry news today. You may carry news another day, but today you shall carry no news, because the king’s son is dead” (2 Sam 18:20). Joab sends a Cushite with the news instead. Ahimaaz persists, but Joab tells him he won’t get any kind of reward for sharing this news.
Eventually he does get to go. He ends up taking a shortcut and outrunning the Cushite. When David sees him coming, he says, “He is a good man and comes with good news!” (2 Sam 18:27).
“Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king!” Ahimaaz shouts.
“Cool, but what about Absalom?” David asks (heavy paraphrase).
“Yeah, I uh, I don’t really know. There was a lot going on, it was kinda confusing, so…”
This is the second time a “bringer of ‘good’ news” lied to David, manipulating the news to maximize his own reward.
Then the Cushite comes and tells King David the truth about his son’s death. David mourns, all of Israel joins him, it’s a mess.
We see the same concept in this story. The Greek word euangelion here also describes political victory. This story emphasizes even more the expectation of a reward for a bearer of good news. Why else would Ahimaaz have been so adamant about running to King David?
Okay, unfortunately this isn’t a blog post about the life of David. So let’s move on to the Old Testament Prophets.
The Good News of the Prophets
The word euangelion, or variations of the word, appears 9 times in the Latter Prophets. It’s here where we see the word take on a more religious sense. It would be great if we had time to look at each of the occurrence of this word. But for now we’re going to focus on its use in Isaiah.
If you’re interested in checking out all the references that we don’t have time to go into here, I’ve created an “under-the-hood” post on my personal blog. There you can find all the occurrences of euangelion in the Septuagint. Click here to go to that post.
Now, to Isaiah.
Between 39 and 40
Isaiah 1-39 is often referred to as “First Isaiah.” Isaiah 40 begins what is often referred to as, you guessed it, “Second Isaiah.” Without getting too much into it, it’s clear that there is a shift that takes place between Isaiah 39 and 40.
In Isaiah 39, Hezekiah is the King of Israel. For the few chapters leading up to 39, everything was going great. The narrator describes Hezekiah as a great King. In fact, one might be tempted to think he was the promised ruler described in Isaiah 9 (you know, the whole “For to us a child is born” thing, the government on his shoulders, the everlasting peace, etc. etc.). But then Isaiah 39 comes along.
Hezekiah invites the Babylonians into his house and gives them a tour of literally everything. He shows them all his silver, gold, spices, oil, weapons. The text goes as far as to say that “there was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them” (Isa 39:2).
Isaiah is less than pleased. Here is his response:
“Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (Isa 39:6–7)
“The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah says. “There will be peace and security in my days.”
So no. While Hezekiah’s reign might have brought an era of peace, his was not the reign that would bring peace everlasting.
Then, darkness. A historical gap in the text. Isaiah doesn’t describe the details of the Babylonian exile. Right after Hezekiah’s response, we flash forward a couple of hundred years. Isaiah 40 picks back up after the exile has already taken place. Israel is desolate. The temple is in ruins. The gods of the Babylonians have defeated the God of Israel. The people of the LORD have been humiliated, scattered, and given new identities as Babylonians.
And here come the first words of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
Wait a minute. What? Wasn’t this God defeated? He no longer has a people. And even if he did, where would they find comfort?
The poem continues.
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 40:3–5)
It’s evident that this God was not defeated. He was very much alive. (Cue the Newsboys!) Moreover, he was planning his victorious return to his people.
This is… good news!
“Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” (Isaiah 40:9–10)
God’s people are called to go on a mountain and evangelize. Proclaim the Good News, the victory of God.
The article about euangelion in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says it better than I could.
“The term is especially significant in Is. 40ff., where the messenger comes to Zion to proclaim the worldwide victory of God which initiates the age of salvation (52:7). This declaration is not just human word and breath, for God himself speaks through it, bringing to pass what is said by his own creative word.” (TDNT abridged, p. 268)
From this we can see that the Good News, in a more religious sense, is first and foremost a message of good news about God and his victory. But more than that, it is a message of good news that comes from God. It finds its source in God. Human beings are merely the vessels for this message of good news.
Okay, hang onto this thread from Isaiah 40, because we’ll pick it back up when we get to the New Testament.
For now let’s move on to the second tradition feeding into a first century Jew’s understanding of euangelion.
The “Good News” in Greco-Roman Culture
The Greco-Roman backgrounds of the New Testament is not my area of expertise. I’ve barely dabbled in this field. However, it’s an important piece of tradition that feeds into the thought life of a first century Jew. So I’m going to do my best to touch on it before we move on to Jesus.
I won’t use many of my own words here. Instead, I’ll point you to resources by people who actually know what they’re talking about.
First, back to the TNDT:
The verb form of euangelion “is used for bringing news, especially of a victory or some other joyous event, in person or by letter. Often, especially in war, the news may be false. Words like salvation may be combined with it, but also, in secular Greek, the idea of fate or luck. The messenger may come with an oracle, and this yields the thought of “promise” or even “threat.” We also find the term used for announcing in the royal palace the arrival of the divine man Apollonius.”
A couple of connections from this I want to highlight. First, the connection of “good news” to “victory.” We saw this in both accounts of David and in Isaiah’s proclamation. Second, the idea that “often…the news may be false.”
Think of David’s news bearers who thought they were bringing good news, who twisted and manipulated their stories, only to have it backfire on them.
But to the Greeks, the word euangelion can take on a religious sense to, in connection with the Imperial Cult.
Consider these words from a calendar inscription excavated at Priene.
“It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna.”
Back the truck up. Savior? End war? Arrange all things? THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS FOR THE WORLD? This was written about Augustus? Change a couple of words and it looks like a paragraph Paul could have composed.
Okay, I’m just going to leave that there and let it speak for itself. Read it a couple of times before we move on.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
Great! We now have two strands. The Old Testament and Greco-Roman backgrounds. Each strand feeds its own baggage into the word euangelion. ˆ Each strand contributes to the worldview of a first century Jew.
Then we get to Mark, chapter one, verse one.
Imagine that you’ve never read this before in your life. Imagine that you’re reading it through the eyes of a first century Jew.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Wow. This sentence. It’s short and sweet, but packed like sardines. Where do we even start?
Contrary to the Priene inscription, Mark tells us that the beginning of the Good News is not Augustus. It’s not Caesar. It’s not even about Rome at all. It’s Jesus the Messiah.
But what is this Good News that Mark speaks about? Well, the Greek is a bit unclear. The phrase Mark used could mean “the good news about Jesus” or “the good news preached by Jesus.” I’m under the persuasion that he means both. Like in Isaiah, the good news is about the Son of God, but it also finds its source in the Son of God.
Speaking of Isaiah, let’s read Mark’s next few sentences!
“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming ca baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:2–4)
Wow! You can’t make this stuff up.
In case you’re lost in my 4,000-word ramble, here’s a brief summary to bring you up to speed.
Good news! David is King! Wait, that’s not really good news. Good news! David is King again! Wait, that’s still not very good news. But God promised a descendant for David who would reign forever, so that’s good news.
Later we learn that the reign of this promised king would establish everlasting peace. Hezekiah, a descendant of David, comes along. Yay, good news! Except no, he’s not the one we’ve been waiting for. But God promised comfort for his people and a victorious return, so that’s good news.
Along comes Caesar, the son of God, the savior, whose birth is… wait for it… the beginning of all good news! Finally, what we’ve been waiting for! Everlasting peace! Turns out it’s only peace for the powerful empire, at the expense of everyone else.
Mark’s reference to Isaiah 40 reminds us of the gap between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. It’s as if Mark is saying there has been darkness and exile for centuries. Death, destruction, sin, chaos, confusion. False reports of good news. But here comes John to prepare the paths, build the highways, and level the ground for God’s victorious return to his people. Good news.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he speaks his very first words in the book of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the [good news]” (Mark 1:10).
This is good news about Jesus, but it’s also good news about God’s reign over the earth. Whereas the “good news” of human kings and kingdoms will always fail, this “good news” of God’s Kingdom is the only thing that will last forever. The never-ending reign of God. Eternal peace. Everlasting life.
This message of good news is a declaration of God’s victory, of the permanence of God’s reign. But it’s also a message that flies in the face of the political and cultural structures of Jesus’ day.
So when we see the Greek word euangelion, we shouldn’t just think “good news.” While it very much is good news, the message of Jesus Christ is more than that. It’s controversial news. To the Greek, it’s foolish news. To the Jew, it’s scandalous news. It’s strange, out of the ordinary, countercultural. It goes against the grain of the status quo.
I wonder what Mark’s opening sentence would have been if he had been writing in our current political and cultural climate in America.
“The beginning of the campaign of Jesus Christ.” I can hear his slogan now: Repent, for God’s Administration is at hand.
“The beginning of the real news of Jesus Christ.” In the midst of a war on the media and truth, the good news about Jesus is the only substantial news that we can trust.
It’s a fun thought exercise. But Mark didn’t write his Gospel in our cultural and political environment. All we can do is read his words against the backdrop of his own culture.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It lacks the cultural and political baggage euangelion carries. But it’s sufficient enough for published translations. However, in sermons and Bible studies, we must bring out the deeper sense of this word.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is the greatest news this world has ever seen, or will ever see again. In my next post, we open up the envelope and take a look at what’s inside. What is the content of this Good News? Click here to go to part two.
If you’d like to do some further reading on these topics, head over to my Under the Hood post and check out the recommended reading section.