A Definite Gospel (Part 2)

In the New Testament (NT) the gospel is a specific message. As I have previously explored, when we fail to recognize this we wrongly conflate certain issues, some more understandable than others, with the gospel message even though they are distinct. Those issues may be very important and even intimately related to the gospel but they are not what the NT considers the gospel. If the NT goes to the trouble to make those often-subtle distinctions, we should too. As the NT indicates, a precise understanding of what does and does not constitute the gospel matters because the good news is the foundation of the entire Christian edifice.

Studying what the NT defines as gospel led me to appreciate more and more that it is not just some good news but the good news. I learned this was not only in the way they talked about the gospel but also in their grammar. In NT Greek, the word for gospel [1]euangelion” when it refers to the Christian message is usually a singular noun, instead of the usual plural form, and [2]it is usually preceded by a definite article. The NT authors really did mean “the gospel” in that they had a definite message with particular content in mind. As I have previously said, together passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Romans 1:1-4 and Acts 2:34-36 essentially summarise the gospel. It is specifically the story of Jesus, how through his death and resurrection he was vindicated as the promised Messiah and exalted to the right hand of God as Lord. The good news of the kingdom is that Jesus, the Son of God, is the one in and through whom God is establishing his rule on earth as in heaven, just as he promised.

The gospel is indeed a unique message so it has to be recognised as such. Now it is obvious to most believers that there is only one gospel, even if they cannot precisely say what it consists of. The more I reflected on the fact that it is “the gospel” I started to see the definite article was not only indicating the unique content of the Christian message. As I have previously said, in the NT the gospel is not some good news, it is the good news. It is the gospel with a capital “G” in the sense that it is making a claim about what ultimately is good news.

The question of what is good news is not something that we think about it. It is something that we wish to hear or anticipate but we do not ponder the nature of what makes some news “good.” We generally determine what is good news based on our circumstances, desires and experiences. Now to say regardless of all these factors, that no matter who and where you are, this is the good news is an extraordinary claim. It raises a worldview question because it is making a universal claim about how history should ultimately be evaluated.

We live in a world of space and time where things happen and we experience them. News is about significant events that affect the world and consequently how we live in it. News is therefore about things that affect the course of history. Now we all recognise that the world is not an ideal place. This assessment is only possible if we assign purpose and significance to events. So for people history is not just the record of past events but what the course of those events mean.

How a person views what history means is a matter of their worldview. Since a worldview is the framework by which we make sense of reality and our place in it, it has to address why the world is less than ideal and how what is wrong might be resolved or at least mitigated. Since our experience of the world is not ideal, something has to happen for it to be more ideal. Such a favourable turn of events in the course of history would be newsworthy. In terms of a worldview, to ask what that good news would look like is to ask what sort of event or set of events in history would set the world right. Different worldviews view history differently and therefore answer the question differently. The fundamental Christian message is the grand claim that of all the favourable events that have ever happened, are happening and will happen, this particular news about a particular set of events is what is definitively good news and no other.

Another thing that further intensifies the claim that it is the definitive “good news” is the claim that it is from God. As the NT calls it, it is “the gospel of God.” This means it is actually what God wants to tell the world and those who preach the gospel are those he has called and sent to the world to deliver his message. This God is the sole maker of all things. If the gospel is the news he has for the world it not only means that he participates in the course of human events, it is also his assessment of history of itself. From his sovereign perspective as the creator, it is this and only this turn of events that is good news for the world. As far as he is concerned, until Jesus’ death and resurrection no good news had ever happened in the world. It being the gospel of God means it is about how God is finally achieving the purpose for which he made the world. So the gospel is not just a worldview claim but how God himself definitively views the world he made.

To name your message so boldly as “the good news”, and from God no less, can only be warranted by the actual contents of the message, that is, the events it refers to and what they mean. The gospel is a very Jewish message. It is about the coming of the Jewish king i.e. the Messiah, as the God of Israel promised in Israel’s scriptures. What makes this essentially Jewish story a universal message basically comes down to the resurrection. It is the linchpin of the gospel and Christian faith. Resurrection, as Wright has shown, is a quintessentially Jewish belief. Even beyond the Jewish understanding of it, the event on its own fundamentally changes reality. In fact, it is the beginning of a new reality, or as the New Testament calls it, a new creation. [3]The Greek word for gospel originally meant the news of victory from battle. The gospel is the good news of God’s victory in Christ Jesus over death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57.) This means death is no longer the end.

The gospel is of unparalleled significance. Even within its ancient Jewish context, the gospel was a unique message. What was particularly unique was the Christian account of resurrection. The Christians did not simply have a vague, generically Jewish view of the resurrection. Instead of the common view of a single mass resurrection of all the righteous at the end of time, Jesus was raised ahead of time, vindicating him as the Messiah and exalting him to the right hand of God. The gospel message had other distinctive features even within the Jewish milieu of the early church and it was certainly unique in the wider world. As Christians today, we need to know what was definitive about it and recognise what makes it so singular, even in today’s world.

⇐Part 1

[1] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 168-169, Eerdmans, 1998.

[2] Thomas L. Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 232, Grace Gospel Press, 2009.

[3] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, euangélion, p.269, Eerdmans, 1985.

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