Rethinking the Gospel

As a young Christian, I was taught that the gospel is a plan—”the plan of salvation.” Some Bible teachers used to frame that plan into “Four Spiritual Laws” and “The Romans Road.”

In the first-century Roman world, however, the word “gospel” was used to describe the announcement that a new emperor had taken the throne. “Heralds” would be “sent” throughout the Roman Empire to announce this “good news.”

Their message was, “We have a new emperor. His name is Tiberius Caesar, adjust your life and bow the knee.” Interestingly, the Roman emperor was also called “Savior” and “Lord” and was regarded as the one who would establish “peace” in the Empire.

In addition, the Roman emperor was expected to bring justice, peace, prosperity, and blessings to the world. He was also called “Pontifex Maximus” which means “chief priest.” The Romans also believed that when an emperor ascended into heaven, he was enthroned as being divine. Thus the emperor (at his death) was also called “son of God.”

Consequently, when the apostles (“sent ones”) used the term “gospel” and declared that Jesus was now the Lord and Savior of the world, it was a direct affront to the Roman hierarchy, especially Caesar (see Acts 17:7, as an example). The believing Jews no doubt connected the gospel-preaching of the apostles to Isaiah’s prophecy—a proclamation that God Himself was now reigning in the Person of Jesus (see Isa. 52:7).

If you examine everywhere the term “gospel” is used throughout the New Testament, you will discover that it’s always bound up with the Person of Jesus. (His work is united with His Person. While people regularly separate His work from His Person, you can’t separate His Person from His work. The same is true with His teachings. See Jesus Manifesto for a detailed discussion on this point.)

In His preaching and teaching, Jesus consistently pointed to Himself. Read the four gospels carefully sometime and count the number of times that Jesus speaks about Himself. You will have no doubts that His message—His gospel—was Himself. Paul, Peter, John, et al. preached the same gospel as did Jesus. Their message was also Christ.

In short, the message of the gospel is Jesus Christ as Lord (=world ruler), Savior, the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament (including the Adamic commission, the prophets, the priests, the kings, the sages, the temple, the sacrifices, the land, the Law, the promises, and the entire story of Israel), and Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.

The gospel is also bound up with the eternal purpose of God in Christ—which is not separate from Jesus—or as Paul calls it, “the mystery.” Romans 16:25, Ephesians 6:19 and Ephesians 3:7-11 associate the preaching of “the mystery” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ” with the gospel. This point is often missed among those who teach about the gospel today, for the eternal purpose (“the mystery”) gets very little air-play in evangelical circles today—even though it’s at the heart of New Testament revelation.

The gospel, then, isn’t a postulate; it’s a Person. Properly conceived, the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus—His Life, Story, and Work—reaching back from the Old Testament story of Adam, the patriarchs, and Israel to the New Testament which announces His first and second appearances.

Jesus of Nazareth is the good news.

For this reason, the four Gospels were regarded as “the gospel” by the early church. And what story do the four gospels tell? They tell the story of Jesus. He is the gospel incarnate. 

While many modern Christians reduce the gospel to two verses in 1 Corinthians 15 (v. 3-4), Paul’s “definition” of the gospel in that passage actually extends to verse 28 when God becomes “all in all.” And the story found in the gospels is the same story that is told in the New Testament.

Charles Spurgeon got it right when he said, “Preach Christ . . . He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme.”

For my thoughts on how this fleshes out practically, see The Missio Dei and Living in the Divine Parenthesis.

facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Comments

  1. Andrew Blain says

    Hi!

    I’ve often heard that intro, that this “gospel” was declared in the roman world about the emperor. But where did you read that? Is there a history book you could reference? I’d really really appreciate that. Thanks.

  2. Boby says

    Just wanted to echo what Frank mentioned about Jesus Christ being the Gospel.
    Jesus said in  Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.   (NASB)

    “The Law and the Prophets” mentioned in the above verse refers to the Old Testament.

    So what is new which caused this news to be called as the Good News or the Gospel. The key is Jesus Christ. It is  not about forgiveness of  sins through Jesus, healing through Jesus or getting material blessings by believing and praying to Jesus. It is about the person of  Jesus Christ. It is about a revelation of  Jesus Christ as a living reality in our personal lives. It is not based on what we get from Him but who we become through Him. His death and resurrection on our behalf caused us to be born into God’s family as children of God.

    John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,  1:13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.   (NASB)

    Here it talks about “receiving Him”, not just believing in Him. This is used in a similar fashion as receiving an honored guest in our home and giving Him free access. Only in this case Jesus Christ moves into our life itself. Just like an honored guest in our home changes our priorities and plans, when we receive Jesus Christ into our lives we no longer live for ourselves. Our priorities change, our plans change and we make ourselves available to Him. A change of government takes place. We no longer run our own day to day lives. We accept His government and authority over our lives. That is why the Gospel is referred to as the Gospel of the Kingdom.

    The true Gospel sets us free from a self-centered life to a Christ centered life. Our Christian life no longer consists of  religious activities at set times or  days like reading the bible, praying, going to church, listening to messages etc., but a yielding of ourselves to Him. This yielding is no longer out of compulsion or fear, but a joyful and eager outpouring of our lives made possible by what He does in us. We begin to experience the reality of what becoming children of  God mean. All things become new, the old things have passed away. I become a new me on the inside.

    That is the Good News…it is the news about me created brand new in Christ, where my life is  not defined by who I was but whom I am in Christ.

  3. says

    Hi, Frank

    You said: In the first-century Roman world, however, the word “gospel” was used to describe the announcement that a new emperor had taken the throne. “Heralds” would be “sent” throughout the Roman Empire to announce this “good news.”

    And I was wondering where you got this because I was looking for a reference for it and couldn’t find anything. Would you mind helping me out and giving me some direction?

    Thanks so much!
    Cindy

    • says

      Cindy, I’m slammed right now with the new book launch so I don’t have time to hunt sources down for you. However, this is well attested and documented in the work of N.T. Wright and James D.G. Dunn.

  4. says

    At one point, within the last year or two, I heard a pastor saying something similar to this–that this church was preaching Christ and nothing else…but then went on to say something about justification through faith. I thought to myself, “then that’s more than just preaching Jesus”, and it then still becomes about US.

  5. says

    Thx for this blog post Frank. Seperating the person of Christ from specific actions that He did, or qualities that He posesses, has been the major tragedy of religion. This must be remedied. I’m thankful for you bro, love ya!

  6. Stephen says

    Your article is great and I agree with what you have said, but there is a functional error here, that doesn’t matter a lot, but we should not propagate the stories we have been told, that someone at some distant point in time invented. From my studies of Old English, the word ‘Gospel’ is an English word. In the original Old English, it is Godspell and the ‘o’ is long, making it ‘good spell’. It means to speak forth a (the) good message (my translation). The greek word used in the bible that is translated as Gospel is euaggelion = the good message. I doubt that the Romans were using 7th century English terms in the first century.
    Keep up the good work
    Steve

    • says

      Thanks Stephen. The word “gospel” means “good news,” as you say. That the gospel is the good news is stated in the post: Jesus is the “good news”, a la, the gospel. I’m not sure throwing out the word “gospel” is necessary. But defining and reframing it, certainly is, as the post attempts to do. Appreciate the encouragement.

  7. mike says

    Maybe I’m going a step too far but earlier after listening to the letter paul wrote to the romans and one of his letters to the corinthians one of the things that really stuck out to me was one plain theme. Namely that Jesus IS the gospel.

    Any message we spread has to start there or else its in vain

    Praise God for using paul to write his letters to the body because I think there would beso many more unanswered questions but its never a question who Jesus is in His letters as he sets Jesus forth as the one and only Lord God and Savior shamelessly and right in the face of both the jews and romans

    Love it

  8. Al Boyce says

    Hey Frank:
    I think I have to agree a little more with Seeker above regarding Christ’s over-arching message pointing to the Father rather than Himself.

    Just a few scriptures:
    John 5:19
    Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

    John 8:28
    So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. [The rest of this post was a long string of verses, I deleted them as it makes for difficult reading – The Blog Manager]

    Even when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life,” I think we have to remember that He is the way to the Father.

    • says

      Al: Jesus certainly spoke about His Father a great deal. That’s never been in dispute. But He spoke just as much about LIFE (which is Himself), Himself (“I AM …”), and the Kingdom. The audio “Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ” demonstrates this biblically (http://ptmin.podbean.com). Even so, I think we may be getting away from the point of the post.

  9. says

    When I first read about all this, I found it absolutely fascinating – how Jesus and then the first Christians subverted so much of the language and traditions of the Roman empire – replacing ‘Caesar is Lord’ with ‘Jesus is Lord’, the Greek word for ‘good news’, using words like ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’ to describe Jesus instead of the emperor…

    Great stuff.

  10. Seeker says

    One struggle I have with, “Jesus of Nazareth is the good news,” is that Jesus was preaching a different type of gospel when he was alive. It appears too narrow and reductionistic to say “the biblical understanding of The Gospel was the person of Jesus”. There are many references to Jesus proclaiming the gospel and good news in the gospel accounts. I don’t think Jesus was proclaiming the good news about himself because he always pointed to the Father and the Kingdom.

    For example, in Matthew 9:35 “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” or Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

    What do we lose when we say the biblical understanding of the theological term gospel is just Jesus? Do we miss out on the broader understanding of the Kingdom of God? In 1 Corinthians 15:24, Jesus “hands over the kingdom to God the Father”. Is the Father the real King and did Jesus know that during his earthly ministry? Does this above understanding give credence to the fact that when Jesus preached “the gospel of the Kingdom,” he was not referring to himself but the kingdom of the/his Father?

    • says

      As was stated in the post, the gospel isn’t *just* Jesus as you put it. Also, to say that Jesus only talked about the Father and the Kingdom is incorrect. As stated, He spoke about HIMSELF just as much. In another place, I argued that He also spoke about LIFE an incredible amount of the time … another reference to Himself (“I am the Life” . . . see also 1 John). And the apostles preached HIM as well.

      Even Jesus’ references to the Kingdom were about Himeslf, as He is the self-kingdom as Irenaeus rightly put it (see “Kingdom Confusion” Part I and II). Again, the early church regarded the four gospels as THE GOSPEL. Not 4 gospels, but 4 documents proclaiming one gospel. And their content was Christ.

      There’s nothing reductionistic nor simplistic about saying that Jesus incarnates and embodies the gospel. The Scriptures show us that Christ is the embodiment of all spiritual things (see “Deep Ecclesiology”). It is what the testimony of the New Testament and church history affirm. Yet (as your comment confirms), this understanding has been largely lost in our time. Hope that helps.

      • Seeker says

        Frank, that really helps. I can see how the biblical witness and church history are extremely Christ centered and how it is important for many churches to “Re-Jesus” if you will.

        I guess I struggle with integration and understanding of how the Father fits in all of this (as well as the Spirit). I guess at some level it has to do with the mystery of the Trinity and I know it is impossible to figure it all out.

        Part of my struggle is that I am told to “Be like Jesus,” hence the word “Christ”-ian. If I am to be like Jesus, then shouldn’t I be Father centered? Shouldn’t I pray to the Father (Matt 6:6; 9)? Shouldn’t I fast to the Father (Matthew 6:18)? Shouldn’t I be obedient to the Father, submit myself to Him and do the Father’s will (Matthew 12:50)? Shouldn’t I praise the Father (Luke 10:21)? Shouldn’t I preach the good news of the Father’s Kingdom (Matthew 4:3)? Shouldn’t I be Abba centered as Jesus was Abba centered?

        The Father placed everything in Jesus hands (John 3:35), the Father put all things under Jesus’ power (John 13:3). All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus by the Father (Matthew 28:18) (You can’t be given something you already have)? And as I mentioned previously Jesus hands the Kingdom back to the Father and subjects himself to the Father (1 Cor 15:25) (and by doing so, does the Father have more power and authority than Jesus at this point and if so, how are they co-equal?).

        I know Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) but that shouldn’t be a verse that collapses the Trinity into a Oneness that disregards their distinctiveness. I mean it doesn’t make sense to say Jesus prayed to himself or Jesus submitted to himself or exalted himself or felt abandoned by himself or will hand over the Kingdom to himself.

        Even the Apostle Paul had an understanding of Jesus having a “God and Father” (2 Corinthians 1:3; Romans 15:6; Ephesians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3). The terms “God and Father” must entail some type of submission and authority the Father has over Jesus? Dare it mean that Jesus had a Creator and someone that he himself will worship and bow down to? I don’t think you can say that it was a mutual submission kind of thing where God submits to God. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense to say, “The Holy Spirit has a God and Father,” or “The Father has a God” etc.

        I am not trying to be conflictual or cause a ruckus with my post. I have been meaning to reach out to you with these questions for a while now as I deeply respect you as a Practical and Biblical theologian. I am just passionate about understanding the Christian life and find some struggles with understanding these deep concepts. I wonder if I should worship more of the God in Christ as opposed to the God as Christ? Should I worship and exalt more the Father who gave Jesus all that he has as opposed to Christ alone? Should I be more Abba and Father-centered as Jesus was if I am to be a faithful Christian? I feel shameful even having these types of questions as a Christian. But nevertheless, that is where I am on my journey.

        • says

          @Seeker: I know this is a year late, but maybe it will still help: Ps.110 probably explains best the New Testament understanding of the position of Jesus as sitting on the right hand (position of authority) where He will remain until all his enemies has been put under His feet. Only then (after the return of Jesus) does He surrender all back to the Father (1 Cor.15:24-28).

          There is nothing wrong with following Jesus in focusing on the Father (as the One who sent His Son in the first place – John 3:16). But the only way that I can draw close to the Father, is and remains through Jesus Himself… I pray to the Father, but in the Name and through the blood of Jesus. I fast to the Father, but still not trusting in my own righteousness, depending on the righteousness of Jesus instead. Any authority I have on earth, is only because of what Jesus has done for me and because of the authority He has received from the Father. Although I relate to the Father like Jesus did, I can only do that because Jesus is living in me by His Spirit. In contrast to Jesus Himself, I have no right to enter the Father’s presence, except through Jesus. That is why the centre of the gospel is Jesus Himself. He sanctifies me and in Him I am righteous, but apart from Him I am nothing.

  11. says

    Frank, I appreciate your post and the reminder that the gospel is more about the person of Jesus than postulates about Jesus. Your point about the gospel announcing the present rule and reign of God as an affront to the Roman hierarchy bears expansion to include an affront to patriarchy in general. In both Greco-Roman and Jewish societies, authority was passed down through fathers and honoring fathers was of utmost importance. The Patriarch’s were hallowed in the Jewish realm and being a “Son of Abraham” was part of the Jewish social identity – to whom Jesus first sent the apostles. Jesus replaced this idea of the supremacy of being a “Son of Abraham” with the idea of being a child of God and through his witness as Son of God, moved the head of patriarchy from an earthly father figure confined by social constructs of gender norms, to the ultimate patriarchy of Father God, who is head over all and transcends all ideas of gender and sex – and is as you remind us, all in all. Jesus communicated consistently that he was sent from the Father, acted on behalf of the Father, did whatever the Father told him, and existed to bring honor and glory to the Father and invited his followers to do the same, replacing the normal social structure of patriarchy with a higher social order of direct relationship with God (John 3:31-36, 5:17-47, 6:25-65, 7:14-30, 8:16-59, 10:14-39, 11:41-42, 12:26-50, 13:1-3, 14:6-31, 15-17, 20:17-21). This message was perhaps one of the most controversial messages of Jesus, leading to his crucifixion.

  12. says

    From a sociological and archeological perspective, I get this. However from a practical theology perspective I think this misses a bit. While all that you have said is likely correct, I don’t think the gospel reaches people until it is a personal “good news” for them. From the woman at the well to Zacharias, when the gospel became life changing was when it reflected who Jesus was to an individual and made a change.

    Good thoughts, so please don’t think I disagree. I just think there is more to the gospel than proclaiming who Jesus is.

    • says

      Well, *some* of it isn’t new . . . what you find in McKnight and Wright mostly can be also found in C.H. Dodd, F.F. Bruce, R.T. France, James D.G. Dunn. And even in John MacArthur’s book “The Gosepl According to Jesus.” Yet it is new for many Christians. Concerning the personal embodiment of the gospel, that goes further. T. Austin-Sparks has been saying that the gospel is a Person well before most of the aforementioned were writing, let alone Spurgeon before him.

  13. says

    I remember hearing about what you mentioned in the beginning, about what the word gospel meant in the Roman empire, but had completely forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder.

    I couldn’t agree with the rest any more. Jesus is all and in all. All the scriptures, and even creation, points to Him.

    Great post, Frank.

  14. Don says

    I have been rethinking the term ‘gospel’ myself. We had a brother in leadership who would always speak of the gospel as being all important. Others, outside the fellowship would be put down because they did not preach the ‘gospel’. I came to understand that he was only referring to the salvation message. I also came to understand that he is not alone, that much of evangelical Christendom believe the same.

    I can remember a church, years ago, that had members who only knew about the salvation message. They were 20 yrs in the Lord, but had only received messages pertaining to salvation. I could not understand why a minister would would preach salvation constantly to a saved congregation.

    The gospel is the whole message of Christ. As you point out, the gospel is Jesus Christ Himself. An angel told the apostles in Acts 5:20, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple about the whole message of this Life.” (NASB). We need to minister the whole message in order to grow ‘to a mature man, to the measure of the statue which belongs to the fullness of Christ’.

    Keep revealing Jesus.

  15. Johnny Cox says

    But if you reduce the gospel to a set of pithy directions, then you can make it your own! If you don’t personalize the gospel, there is a chance that it may reflect its original meaning and thrust, which is too complicated for modern people.

    People love it when you can break down great spiritual realities into just a few How To Tips, like the cover of a Cosmo Magazine.

    Hey, you’re strung out on Drugs, lost your family, and homeless?
    Here are some easy tips to fix all of that!

    Now you’r all better!!! Amen! Now join our church, we have a LOT MORE helpful tips to follow!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>