What Is the Gospel? - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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Biblical Wisdom
September 14, 2016

What Is the Gospel?

My father, Bob Edgar, was pastor of an RP Church in NYC. His grave marker outside the city reads, “Minister of the Gospel, 1917-1953.” As World War II drew to a close, he took a young soldier passing through NYC to Macy’s Department Store to see an exhibit. You could talk into a TV camera, while your friends watched you on a black and white screen. Exciting stuff in 1945! When it was his turn, my father looked into the camera and said, “I am a minister of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

What is the Gospel? That’s an easy question for Christians. No doubt you can answer it. But don’t just think “Good News!” That’s only the etymology of “euangellion.” The question is, what news is Good News? Let’s see what the Bible teaches.

The word “Gospel” appears 80 times in the NT, usually with no explanation. Sometimes Matthew calls it “the Gospel of the Kingdom.” Mark starts, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John never uses the word “Gospel.” Luke uses the noun Gospel twice, calling it in Acts the “Gospel of the grace of God.” Paul calls it the “Gospel of God,”  “Gospel of Christ,” and the “Gospel of peace.” In I Timothy 1:11 he calls it “the glorious Gospel,” like my father did.

In the whole New Testament, “Gospel” is defined at length twice.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel, which I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (I Corinthians 15:1-5). 

Here is the other NT summary of the Gospel.

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:1-4)

 These two passages name five parts of the Christian Good News: 1) It is about Jesus the King. (“King” is what the title “Christ” means.) 2) Jesus fulfilled God’s promise to keep a son of David on the throne. 3) Jesus the King died for our sins. 4) Jesus rose from the dead to begin reigning as King from heaven. 5) Jesus chose and sent witnesses to announce the Good News about Him. The Gospel is about Jesus the King, descended from David, who died for the sins of his people, rose to life to take power, and is now sending out messengers about him. I am going to say a little about each of these five parts of the Gospel.

The Gospel is about Jesus the King. All Christians know that, of course. Sometimes we get mixed up and think that the Good News is mainly about us, how we can have a happy life, or how we can dream big and go far, or how we can go to heaven and not hell. But mostly we know that the four biographies of Jesus, which we call Gospels, are about Jesus. Another mistake we sometimes make: thinking that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name. That’s understandable, since Jesus Christ sounds like Tom Fisher or Bill Edgar. But you can see that Christ is a title, not Jesus’ last name, when you read Mark14:61. The high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ?”

“Christ” (Christos) translates the Hebrew “Mashiach,” “Messiah” in English. It means, “Anointed.” “Anointed” means “King,” because the Jews anointed their kings with olive oil. The Gospel is about Christ Jesus, King Jesus, who has all authority in heaven and in earth. Because Jesus is King of kings, his messengers do not obey commands from earthly kings not to preach the Gospel: Jesus said, “Go, baptize, and teach.”

The second part of the Good News is that Jesus the King did not appear unannounced. Israel was waiting for Him. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah, Zechariah, and the rest of the prophets told Israel that God would send another son of David to be Israel’s king. These promises comforted Israel after the Babylonians ended David’s royal dynasty and exiled Israel. These promises sustained Jewish hope as centuries passed, with the Jews home again but still living as though in exile. Persians, then Greeks, and finally Romans ruled them. They had no Davidic king, and the glory of God had not filled the Second Temple the way it did Solomon’s Temple.

Anyone who reads the Gospels can see how often they quote the prophets. The point is, “Hooray! God’s promises have come true in Jesus,” promises made to David, promises about a new Moses, promises about sins forgiven, promises about Israel being a light to all nations, promises about Satan, sin, and death defeated, promises about people once excluded from the Temple now welcomed there by God. As Isaiah said and Jesus quoted: God’s house will be a house of prayer for all nations. Jesus fulfills God’s promises about the Messiah.

Now we come to the third part of the Gospel, the part many Jews stumbled over in Jesus’ day and ours, the part that Greeks thought was just foolish. Jesus the King died, crucified outside Jerusalem. Peter was so outraged by this part of the Gospel when he first heard it that he told Jesus, “No, you won’t be killed in Jerusalem.” Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” As Psalm 110 prophesied, the coming son of David is also a Priest. Our King died for us, not a hero in battle, but a Passover sacrifice that he offered up himself. After his Resurrection, Jesus explained his death to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ (the King, remember) to have suffered these things and to enter into glory (Luke 24:25-26)?” Philip explained Isaiah 53 about the Servant of the Lord. It was about Messiah dying (Acts 8:32-35), and Jesus did that. John the Baptist introduced Jesus the Word made flesh with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God! (John 1:36).”

The Reformation fully grasped this third part of the Gospel. The priest and sacrifice typology in the Book of Hebrews, the Passover theology of John, and the Suffering Servant prophecies of Isaiah are deeply embedded in Protestant thinking, so embedded that it is sometimes put as the first part of the Gospel. But when we think of Jesus first as Priest and sacrifice and only second as King, we have trouble understanding kingly statements like Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” The Bible’s emphasis is that the King is also the priest, not that the priest is also king. See Psalm 110. Jesus the King, our Good Shepherd, laid down his life for his sheep, in order to atone for our sins and himself bring us to God.

The Book of Revelation puts Jesus the King first, and then it presents him as a slain lamb! In the throne room in heaven in chapter 5, one of the elders tells John not to fear. “Do not weep, Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals. And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain…. (Revelation 5:5-6).” “Jesus died for our sins” is a central part of the Gospel. Putting it this way, “Jesus the King died for our sins” states it clearly: Jesus our King is also our Priest who offered himself as a sacrifice for his people. That is what the sentence “Jesus Christ died for us,” means.

The fourth element of the Gospel is that after being dead for three days Jesus rose again to life. All Christians have this historical fact clear. His tomb was empty; his disciples, women and men, saw him many times, individually and in groups, in many different places. He talked and ate with them. Jesus’ Resurrection vindicates both his innocence and his mission and proves that God accepted his sacrifice. Without the Resurrection, the start of the Christian Church in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’ death is impossible.

Theology that organizes itself around Jesus dying as our sacrifice for sin rather than around “Jesus is King,” or “Christ Jesus” has a question to answer: Why did Jesus have to rise to life again? Sacrificed animals never came back to life. Once Jesus died for our sins, what does it matter whether he rose from the grave? His death had already paid for our sins. When we understand that Jesus is King, before he is priest and sacrifice, we understand why he had to be raised: in order to reign as King! Because he is reigning, his church survives and spreads to ever more people around the globe. He is behind its success and the worldwide accomplishment of God’s purpose for Israel, to be a light to the nations. The Church, made up of true and false believers, sinners all, has done some terrible things, endured unfaithful leaders, and gotten caught in much falsity. But it survives and grows, with a power of renewal that comes from its Savior and Lord.

Jesus’ Resurrection is central to the Good News. Here is a bewildered summary of the dispute between Christians and Jewish leaders by the Roman governor Festus. “When the accusers stood up, they brought no such accusation…as I supposed, but had some questions…about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul affirmed to be alive (Acts 25:18-19).” Here’s the point of the Resurrection: Jesus the King is alive, ruling from his throne in heaven. He will one day come back as Judge. If Jesus did not bodily rise from the dead, we have no King to defeat our enemies and we have no peace. The promise of our own Resurrection is empty.

The fifth element of the Gospel is that Jesus chose messengers to tell the world the Good News about Himself. The first messengers, called Apostles, were all Jews. These preachers carried out Jesus’ third office, that of prophet: telling the world God’s Word. Jesus first appeared in Israel as a prophet preaching the Word of God.

What does it mean that preachers, now from China and Korea as well as from Europe and America, preach the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ? The word “Euaggelion” translated into English as “Gospel,” or “Good News” had depth and resonance in Jesus’ day. It had an Old Testament background. Isaiah 52:7, right before chapter 53, says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news (LXX euaggelion), who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” Feet upon the mountains bringing Good News meant news of victory in battle, and therefore peace that follows victory. Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10 concerning Gospel preachers. They announce the victory of God. Jesus defeated Satan, he defeated sin, and he defeated death by rising from the dead. He brings peace.     

The word euaggelion also has a Roman background! Romans used it to announce the advent of a new Caesar who brings peace and plenty. Here is a 9 BC inscription about Augustus, Caesar when Jesus was born.

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…the day of birth of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the Gospel that has come to men through him.

Kings of the earth like to think of themselves in these terms: they are Saviors and their reign is Good News. Here is an American President talking about the meaning of his 2008 primary victory over Hilary Clinton.

… this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.        

When Christian messengers from Jesus called their message about Jesus an euaggelion, they openly challenged the political ideology of Rome.  No wonder the Greeks in Thessalonica accused Jason of harboring Paul and his companions who “are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king – Jesus (Acts 17:7).” They were declaring another King; they said he would judge the world; they said he was King of Kings; they said He had all authority in heaven and in earth; they said He would return and defeat all his remaining enemies. The very word for their message, euaggelion, meant the announcement of a Savior King. The best we can do in English, perhaps, is to say, “Jesus is President.”

What is the Gospel? 1) Jesus is King; 2) Jesus fulfilled all of God’s promises to Israel about a Messiah; 3) Jesus the King is also our Priest and sacrifice, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures. 4) Jesus rose to life again to reign from heaven. 5) Jesus the prophet sends his messengers to the whole world with the Good News about him.

Let’s go now to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Imagine yourself listening to Peter. You believe him. Jesus is King and in power, and you helped to kill Him. What might you ask in fear and despair? You’d ask this! “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Here is Peter’s answer. Jesus the King will forgive the sins of those who repent opposing Him and who pledge their loyalty to Him by being baptized in His name. Here’s how he put it, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38).” Our King is merciful because He loves His People and died for us even before we loved Him.

Like my father before me, and like my son after me, I am a minister of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of peace. God loved the world so deeply that He sent His only Son to be born the Son of David according to the flesh, so that whoever believes in Him will be saved. Repent, believe, and be baptized, and learn! Have you? Are you? Then your citizenship is in heaven; Jesus is your Lord. You are part of His Kingdom of peace, in which Christ Jesus establishes peace between you and God, peace within your own soul, and peace on earth. This is the glorious Gospel about the King of Kings, Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose again on the third day. He ascended into heaven from where he will come to judge the living and the dead. Amen. 

-William Edgar, past interim President of Geneva College, writing from Hazleton, Cyprus on October 27, 2013