When contemporary evangelicals speak about ‘the gospel’, they can mean anything from a formula on how one gets saved to a network of beliefs thought to be essential to the faith. Perhaps the most common use of the phrase in evangelical circles is as an approximation for the doctrine of justification by faith. Given the centrality of the term in the New Testament, it is clearly important that we get its meaning right. Paul frequently referred to himself as a minister of the gospel while scripture refers to the work of the early apostles as spreading or testifying to the gospel. What did they mean?
The word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings.’ It is not enough to simply say that this good news refers, in a rather general way, to the news about Jesus and His message. While this is true so far as it goes, in the 1st century the gospel had a more specific nuance. In order to fully appreciate “the power of the gospel”, we must understand this original nuance.
As with all New Testament studies, the place to begin is always the Old Testament. This is especially true if we want to understand the meaning of gospel. In Isaiah’s prophecies we read quite a lot about the gospel, which is translated as ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good tidings’, and it is usually always connected to the Messianic kingdom coming to the earth. Consider Isaiah 40:9-11:
O Zion, You who bring good tidings [euangelion in Gk.]
Get up into the high mountain;
O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young. (Is. 40:9-11)
This is clearly a prophecy about the Messianic kingdom that would be established on the earth. The glad tidings would be when Israel’s God finally came to rule the earth with a strong hand. The corollary of this would be that God’s people would return from their physical and spiritual exile as Israel’s God gathers His elect like a shepherd gathers His flock. These themes occur throughout Isaiah, where the heralding of glad tidings is always connected with the reign of Israel’s God and the return from exile. Consider Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’
The gospel theme in the New Testament draws on this background. When the angels spoke to the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth, they said, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Lk. 2:10) These ‘good tidings’ would have been understood in light of their Isaianic background and the kingdom context. Earlier, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he described to her exactly what these glad tidings were. Notice first what they were not: they were not that Jesus was coming to offer a system of personal salvation, or that Jesus was coming to make it possible for every person to have a relationship with Him, or that He was coming to start a new religion. On the contrary, Gabriel says that Jesus is coming to sit on the throne of David, to reign over the house of Jacob and that His kingdom will have no end (Lk. 1:32-33). That is the gospel and that was the glad tidings that the angels announced to the shepherds.
If there be any further doubt on the true meaning of the gospel, we need look no further than Jesus own words in Luke 4:16-21 where he applied Isaiah’s ‘glad tidings’ to his own ministry.