What Shall We Preach? A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
How a biblical understanding of the gospel, focusing on God’s action and our response to it, will change how you preach.
by Deborah M. Gill
The word “gospel” comes from the Old English gōdspel, comprised of gōd (“good”) and spel (“news, or story”).
This term identifies the best news the world has ever heard. The Greek New Testament words from which “evangel” derives (euangelion and euangelizomai) have roots in the Old Testament Hebrew word bāśar. This verb has to do with announcing good news and bringing news of victory, as in war.
This Hebrew word is most prominent in Isaiah 40–66, chapters that promise the coming of God’s kingly rule as the ultimate good news. It is rendered in the Greek translation of the Old Testament with the verb euangelizomai (cf. Septuagint of Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1).
God’s Good News
What is the gospel? What is the nature of this good news? It is the message that in Jesus Christ God’s righteous reign has arrived on Earth. It is the invitation to enjoy the benefits of God’s kingdom — now freely extended to all.
The synoptic Gospels frequently link the good news to the concept of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:14,15; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16). The kingdom of God was the central focus of Jesus’ preaching. Christ’s good news was the announcement of the arrival of God’s kingly rule.1
Jesus read Isaiah 61:1,2 in the synagogue of Nazareth and identified himself as the fulfillment of Scripture. This marked a key moment in His ministry. Matthew and Mark record this event near the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matthew 13:53–58; Mark 6:1–5). Luke places the story near the beginning of his account, right after John’s imprisonment, highlighting its significance to Christ’s mission and message (Luke 4:16–21). In so doing, Luke illuminates the meaning of the term gospel.
Jesus identified himself as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim good news by declaring: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18,21).
The subject matter of this good news includes freedom, recovery of sight, and the Lord’s favor. Helpless and afflicted individuals — the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed — are among the recipients of Jesus’ message. Of the five actions on behalf of the helpless listed in Luke 4:18, proclaiming the good news is the most definitive summary of Jesus’ ministry. Throughout Christ’s ministry, the task most closely associated with preaching the good news is healing the sick (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 11:5; Luke 7:22; 8:1,2; 9:6).
The first fulfillment of Isaiah 61 was the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon. Isaiah prophesied they would one day be set free to return to their homeland. Isaiah’s good news may also refer in part to the year of jubilee established in Leviticus 25. God instructed the Israelites to cancel debts, free slaves, let fields lie fallow, and restore lands to the original families on the 50th year, after seven sabbaticals, or Sabbath years. In the original languages, technical terms related to the year of jubilee appear in both the Isaiah and Luke passages. Two changes Jesus made to the Isaiah passage further strengthen the probability of an allusion to the year of jubilee. First, He inserted between His reading of verses 1 and 2 of Isaiah 61 a reference from Isaiah 58:6 containing Jubilee-related terminology. Second, Jesus stopped His reading from Isaiah 61 prior to the proclamation in verse 2 of “the day of vengeance of our God.” Instead of executing judgment in His first coming, Jesus offers peace to those who are enemies and comfort to those who mourn.
After identifying himself as God’s Spirit-anointed good-news bearer and announcing the arrival of the year of the Lord’s favor, Jesus met with a mixed response from His hometown folk. At first, “all spoke well of him” (Luke 4:22). After Jesus clarified that the poor to whom the good news is addressed includes outsiders, they were furious (Luke 4:28).
Jesus regards no religious yardstick or political prerequisite to determine one’s worthiness to participate in His kingdom blessings. It is the helpless in general who qualify as recipients of Jesus’ good news.
Jesus’ message was the gospel: the good news that God’s kingdom had come, bringing freedom, liberty, and healing to those in need.2 Thus, the gospel is both the announcement and enactment of the fulfillment of God’s promises, and Jesus is the prime proclaimer and personification of that good news.
The Message of the Apostles
In his Gospel, Luke uses the verb euangelizomai (“preach the good news”) but never the noun euangelion (“gospel”). He reserves the noun for apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts. We can loosely categorize the message of the apostles as kerygma, which is missionary or evangelistic preaching, and didache, or Christian teaching.
When they announced the good news, the apostles preached Jesus. The person and work of Christ are often the objects of the verb euangelizomai (Acts 5:42; 8:35; 11:20; 17:18; Galatians 1:16; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Peter 1:11,12). The apostles sought to communicate the gospel in ways that were appropriate to the circumstances and cultural backgrounds of their readers — a method missiologists call contextualization. Still, scholars note certain themes in kerygma in Acts, including Christ’s sacrificial death; God’s vindication of Christ through resurrection; apostolic, firsthand testimony of events; Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; the presence and power of the Holy Spirit; and the offer of forgiveness.3 And like Jesus’ ministry, apostolic preaching was accompanied by supernatural power (1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:4).
It is important to look to Paul for insight into the gospel since 60 of the 76 New Testament occurrences of euangelion appear in his epistles. A key passage of special importance to a Pauline theology of the good news is one in which the apostle offers his own authoritative summary of the gospel: 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 3 of that chapter, Paul uses the verb paradidōmi, technical terminology in Judaism for transmitting tradition. This points to an authoritative gospel pattern. After all, Paul claimed to teach the same gospel as the other apostles (Galatians 1:8; 2:1–9).
And what is Paul’s gospel, according to 1 Corinthians 15? This summary includes a statement of Christ’s sacrificial death (verse 3), an emphasis on forgiveness, salvation, scriptural fulfillment, and the Resurrection (verses 2–4), and a litany of apostolic witnesses (verses 5–7).
Theologian David Jackson explains the logic of Paul’s combination of facts and doctrines this way: The death of Christ comes first, as it is of greatest importance. Scripture explains its mystery, and the Resurrection defends it. Apostolic witnesses corroborate the argument. Thus, verses 1–11 contain the elements of the general kerygma. Through the rest of the chapter, in rabbinic style, Paul offers logical arguments and further appeals to Scripture concerning Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of Christians, essential elements of apologetics in a Jewish milieu.4
What can we apply from this brief investigation of kerygma and exposition of Paul’s gospel? The elements of kerygma are essentially a condensation of the very reasons why the message is such good news. How does kerygma characterize the gospel?
The gospel is historical fact. Christ’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven are real events supported by many authentic, apostolic witnesses.
The gospel is providential. God’s mission involves divine foresight and intervention from eternity past to eternity future.
The gospel is salvific. Christ’s death is the only acceptable sacrifice sufficient to save mankind from sin.
The gospel is supernatural. The Resurrection is God’s divine exclamation point vindicating His Christ and validating the gospel.
The gospel is available. It requires only repentance and faith to receive Christ as Savior and become a child of God.
The gospel is accessible. The Lord invites all people to come to Him and receive the same presence and power of the Holy Spirit that worked in Jesus’ life.
Justification and faith are two essential theological elements of the gospel seen throughout both Galatians and Romans. Consider the important interplay of these two aspects of the gospel.
Justification is a declarative act with a judicial connotation. Just as a defendant can be cleared of charges in a courtroom, God pronounces sinners free from sin and its penalty through faith in Jesus.5 It is not people’s own good works that merit such a verdict but their trusting in Christ’s work on their behalf. The Divine Judge considers one thing in the place of the other. Through justification, God no longer views repentant sinners as guilty. Instead, He sees a people redeemed by Jesus’ atonement.6
The Greek noun pistis unites the two concepts of faith and faithfulness. The foundation of all Pauline theology is God’s faithfulness and the response of human faith for which it calls (Romans 3:3). Saving faith is the placing of the believer’s entire trust and confidence in the kerygma — the message of the Cross and the story of Christ’s faithfulness to the eternal plan of God. To have faith or to believe (pisteuein, the cognate verb of pistis) requires not only hearing the good news but confession and repentance — the faithfulness of a disciple formed of both an intellectual and moral response.
In Romans 3, Paul discloses how the gospel works. The context (verses 1–20) explains that all humans are guilty before God. With every benefit of their spiritual heritage, even Jews are sinful. Though they have the covenant, the sign of circumcision, the prophetic oracles of God, and the Law itself, they need a Savior. Indeed, no one is righteous. So God took the initiative and revealed the righteousness of God “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (verse 22). Since everyone — whether Jew or Gentile — needs righteousness, God offers it to all without distinction. For we have all failed to measure up to the image of God in us (verse 23). Justification comes as a free gift of grace to those who receive by faith the redemptive work of Christ through the blood atonement God put in place (verses 24,25).
Justification includes forgiveness, but it is more. According to theologian John R.W. Stott: “Pardon is negative, the remission of a penalty or debt; justification is positive, the bestowal of a righteous status, the sinner’s reinstatement in the favor and fellowship of God.”7 Instead of the law of works, the gospel equates to the law of faith, i.e., the principle of faith in action (Romans 3:27). Romans 3 concludes that there is no place for boasting because the gospel is a sheer gift of grace.
The Gift of the Gospel
What has God given us in the gospel? God offers His kingly rule that His purposes will prevail in the lives of those who accept Christ’s lordship. Jesus is inseparable from the Kingdom. He is the Kingdom personified (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29; Luke 18:29). Conscious of His identity and mission, Jesus invites people to himself for rest from the burden of the yoke of the Law (Matthew 11:28). He offers hope to the poor and oppressed (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1). His “I am” statements offer provision for the needy (John 6:35,41,48,51; 8:12; 10:7,9,11,14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).
To those who respond to His invitation with repentance and faith, Christ offers salvation (Luke 19:9) and entrance into the Kingdom (Luke 18:18,22,24). They come to the Father (John 14:6) and experience divine forgiveness (Matthew 18:23–35; Mark 2:5–11; Luke 7:40–48) and peace (John 14:27). He promises believers the protection and provision of the Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:25–34; 7:7–12; Luke 12:4–7,22–32) that removes anxiety in this life and assures hope in the next (John 10:29).
But there is more! Believers in Christ come into a new and eternal relationship in the family of God. They relate to God as their Father (Matthew 6:9; John 3:3–8,16; 20:17) and share the kind of intimacy Jesus experienced in the privilege of addressing God as Abba (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). They receive the Holy Spirit, who offers them guidance, instruction (Luke 11:13; 12:11,12; John 14:16,17), and power to live this life of the Kingdom (Acts 1:8). Christ followers enter a new community of love, support, and mission — His Church, the people of God. And at the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, the people of God will share in His glory and authority (Luke 12:32; 22:29,30), in the eternal security of His Father’s home (John 14:1–6).
The human heart hungers for these gifts, and man-made religions relentlessly and vainly struggle to achieve them. The good news is that God has taken all the initiative in Christ. Luke 19:10 and the parables of Luke 15 remind us Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. There is an urgency and yearning in His mission and a lament over those who reject God’s gifts (Matthew 23:37). God longs to bless us even more than we long for His blessings. What a remarkable gift He offers!
The Cost of the Gospel
As the gracious gift of God, this good news is free. Yet this free gift cost Christ profoundly, and His followers are not to regard it as cheap. What does God expect of recipients of the gospel? Since Christ is to be their final judge, they should consider most seriously their response to His invitation. Rejecting Christ means death (Mark 8:34–38; Matthew 7:13,14). Ignoring His offer equals rejection, for neutrality is impossible (Luke 11:23).
Once a person makes a decision for Christ, discipleship begins. New requirements and responsibilities emerge. The offer of rest involves a new yoke of obedience to Christ (Matthew 11:29) as God’s rule personified (Matthew 5:22–44; 7:24–27). Christ calls His disciples to live in a manner worthy of Him, adhering to His ethics both individually and communally. Their relationship with God rules over everything, and their own lives are to be reflections of God’s (Matthew 5:48). As Kingdom representatives on Earth, they are to witness for their Master (Matthew 5:13–16; Mark 8:38) and serve Him faithfully in view of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25).
Thus, as Christ is the complete expression of God’s sovereign rule, hearers of the gospel have a responsibility to glorify Christ completely. Though such a lifestyle is impossible for sinful humans to maintain by their own power, God graciously enables that outcome by grace and Spirit empowerment.
What Shall We Then Preach?
In the ancient city of Priene in western Turkey is a Greek inscription from the year 9 B.C. lauding some of the more remarkable aspects of Caesar Augustus, who ruled Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth. It begins by praising the pagan goddess Providence for giving the empire Augustus, for filling him with virtue, and for sending him as savior. The inscription concludes with the rationale for dedicating the calendar to him: because “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of good news for the world.”8
The Gospel of Mark starts with similar words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Since he was the first Christian author ever to use the noun euangelion, scholars debate whether Mark was adapting from the verb euangelizomai in Isaiah or influenced by the Roman imperial cult. Was Mark making a direct challenge, in the opening of his Gospel, to the imperial claims that the gods had chosen Rome to rule the world and usher in a lasting age of peace?9
Christ’s kingdom is not of this Earth, but of heaven. It is not temporal, but eternal. It is not grasped by the rich and powerful, but graciously given to the humble and needy. It expands not by the conquest of empires, but by the transformation of lives.
Theologian Gerhard Friedrich put it this way: “Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross, confront one another. Both [offer good news]. … But they belong to different worlds.”10
Whose gospel will you proclaim?
1. David R. Jackson, “Gospel,” in The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Revised, Accordance electronic edition, version 1.3., eds. Moisés Silva and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 2:814–820.
2. Craig C. Broyles, “Gospel (Good News),” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Accordance electronic edition, version 2.1, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 282–286.
3. The question of a stereotyped kerygma has been debated since the 1930s. The work of C.H. Dodd has had the most influence among English-speaking scholars. This list is my adaptation of general characteristics of kerygma based on more recent scholarship. Cf. Jackson, “Gospel,” ZEB 2:816–819.
4. Jackson, 2:817.
5. Lorman M. Petersen, “Justification,” in The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, 3:869–880.
6. Ibid, 370.
7. John R.W. Stott, “The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World” in The Bible Speaks Today, Accordance electronic edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 110.
8. I was introduced to this inscription while leading a “Life of Paul” study tour for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, May 2010.
9. "Pirene Inscription and Mark 1:1," by Michael Kok posted on Euangelion Kata Markon: A blog dedicated to the academic study of the Gospel of Mark, at ntddmark.wordpress.com, http://ntmark.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/the-priene-inscription-and-mark-11/accessed January 1, 2014.
10. Gerhard Friedrich. "Euangelion" in Theological Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Gerhard Kittle and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, eds. Accordance electronic edition, version 2.0. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964. 2:725 (721-735).