By Mark E. Moore
Words get tossed about recklessly. We use love for a sweater and a spouse. Few things are actually awesome. And like has been functionally reduced to a comma in common vernacular. Most of the time this loose language matters little. But when it comes to the bedrock of our faith, we might want to be a little more faithful to the meaning of our words. So, let’s start with this question: What precisely is “the gospel”?
THE GOSPELS OF THE GREEKS AND THE ROMANS
The term gospel, which literally means “good news,” was not originally a religious word. It was a political term among the Greeks and Romans. It was used for public proclamations about emperors and generals. These proclamations were about the supposed welfare of the state. For example, if a general won a war, it was broadcast far and wide as “good news.” If an emperor had a birthday or a baby, likewise, it was announced as “good news” because that would mean the empire would endure.
Perhaps the most famous example is the proclamation in the Priene inscription concerning Octavian (circa 9 BCE). It etches in stone a birthday blessing of the emperor as divine: “Because providence has ordered our life in a divine way . . . and since the Emperor through his epiphany has exceeded the hopes of former good news (euangelia), surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future will surpass him, and since the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of his good news [may it therefore be decreed that] . . .” (see See W. Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptions Selectae, 1960; and Craig A. Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1, 2000).
When one compares the Priene inscription with the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the similarities are striking. This is even more important since the Gospel of Mark is likely the first public document in which gospel is applied to Jesus: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis mine). Jesus is declared a universal monarch by both a Jewish term “Christ/Messiah” and a Roman title “Son of God.”
The Imperial Cult imbued their sovereign political ruler with divine status through this Greek term. This is more striking since Jesus is the only person other than an emperor to be the embodiment of good news (euangelizomenos). You can only imagine the shock and awe of Mark’s Roman readers when the book opened with such an overt and politically charged claim that Jesus was the rightful heir to every throne. It was a slap in the face to the emperor.
To make matters worse (or better, depending on your affiliation), Mark, unlike most Greek authors, used the term “good news” in the singular, not the plural. For Greeks and Romans, each emperor was merely one among many. By using its singular form, Mark was asserting there would be no other. He was asserting, Jesus is the ultimate among world rulers, the King of kings, never to be trumped or triumphed.
If we are to talk about the “Authentic Gospel,” we must begin with this understanding—the good news is about the King. Acclaiming the message of Jesus is not merely a religious doctrine, it is a public statement of the hegemony of our sovereign, Jesus. To quote Jesus himself: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, emphasis mine).
THE GOSPELS OF THE CHRISTIANS
When most of us hear the term gospels, we think immediately of the four biographies of Jesus. That’s not wrong. But remember, it is still plural. There are four diverse documents telling us the story of Jesus. While Christians are grateful for the Gospels as sacred Scripture, they are not, technically, “The Gospel.” They give us irreplaceable stories of miracles and sermons, of encounters and debates. They draw us to Jesus as a person and help transform our personalities to mimic his. However, if we use the technical definition of gospel as “a public announcement of good news,” they do not synthesize the ultimate declaration of Jesus in the same way as the Priene inscription did for Augustus. So, if we are to understand the “Authentic Gospel”—the core message of Christianity—we will have to look to the Epistles for such a proclamation, specifically 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
In about AD 54, Paul penned his first letter to the church in Corinth (the economic capital of the Roman world). Toward the end of the letter, he let loose a flurry of theology that, in my opinion, best summarizes “The Gospel”: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Notice the three core elements: death, burial, and resurrection. To flesh this out:
- Jesus died for our sins as the perfect sacrifice, replacing the entire temple system of sacrifices and priests. This speaks to our primary problem of sin and separation from God.
- Jesus was buried. He experienced the ultimate loss and humiliation. This speaks to our need to give our lives fully and finally to Jesus.
- Jesus rose from the dead. He was exalted to the right hand of God. This speaks to our future when Jesus returns, and we are raised to a new body and a new world.
There are several salient points to observe from Paul’s summary of “The Gospel.” First, he was only passing on what he had received. He was being faithful to the authentic and authoritative witness of the twelve apostles who walked with Jesus during his life, stood by him in his death, and witnessed him alive through the resurrection. This was not Paul’s Gospel but “The Gospel.”
Second, it was “of first importance.” This was not tangential theological blather. It was—it is—the core of the message of Jesus.
Third, this was all predicted by the ancient texts of the Old Testament. What are the implications of these observations?
A. We are saved by grace through faith. The good news of Jesus declares that we are saved despite our sins, not because of our goodness. That is good news indeed since none of us can reach the moral purity of God or earn a place in his heaven. It is a gift given, not a reward achieved. Or to put it more colloquially, Christianity is about what Jesus has done, not what we have to do.
B. “The Gospel” is history not philosophy. It’s real. It’s a verifiable historical event, not a philosophical pathway that few can find. Moreover, we are not called to believe the right things or follow the right rules. We are invited to allegiance and loyalty to the right person. How?
C. “The Gospel” is our pathway. Just as Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, so too do we. It is imaged in immersion at the beginning of our faith journey (Romans 6:3-6). The self-abnegation and sacrifice of Jesus is the crowning call of every disciple: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Any proclamation of the gospel that deviates from these core concepts is a false gospel. Paul’s most famous tirade against such false gospels is found in Galatians 1:6-9:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
Why does the “Authentic Gospel” matter so much? Because of point “C” above. “The Gospel” is not philosophy, it is a call to loyalty, allegiance, obedience. If we have the wrong gospel, we wind up with a lifestyle that is disloyal to Jesus. Paul put it this way: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27, emphasis mine). Or again: “Because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Our behavior impacts our proclamation, as Peter found out so painfully (Galatians 2:14).
So, let’s get to the truth of the matter. What behavior demonstrates our fidelity to the true gospel? Well, by sheer statistics, it is the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ. Of the 76 uses of gospel in the New Testament, 49 times it is connected to our verbal, public declaration of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; 26:13; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15; Acts 15:7; 20:24; Romans 10:16; 15:16, 19; 16:25; 1 Corinthians 9:14 [twice]; 16, 18 [twice], 23; 15:1; 2 Corinthians 2:12; 8:18; 9:13; 10:14; 11:4, 7; Galatians 1:6-9 [twice]; 2:2, 5, 7; Ephesians 1:13; 3:6-7; 6:15, 19; Philippians 1:5, 7, 12, 16, 27; Colossians 1:5, 23; 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 4, 8, 9; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 14:6).
Simply put, if you are not announcing the good news of Jesus Christ, do you really believe it is good news? Seriously, would you date someone without changing your status on social media? Would you play a professional sport without wearing the team’s jersey? Would you go on a great vacation, buy a new pet, go to a concert, or get a new car and not share the good news with those you care about? This kind of common sense leaches out in Paul’s opening foray of Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” The Authentic Gospel is authenticated when you share it with those around you.
Let me leave you with this question: What evidence is there that you believe the Authentic Gospel by sharing the good news with those you love?
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Mark E. Moore serves as teaching pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, and is author of Core52: A Fifteen-Minute Daily Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year and Quest 52: A Fifteen-Minute-a-Day Yearlong Pursuit of Jesus.