The Meaning of the Gospel

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!”
  Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
   He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young.

Isaiah 40:9-11

We often use the phrase ‘the gospel’ as short-hand for the message of personal salvation, and also a formula for how a person gets saved.

In his book What Saint Paul Really Said, Tom Wright suggests that this may be too small an understanding of the gospel. In its original context, the ‘gospel’ included the message of personal salvation, but it also involved a lot more.

The word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings.’ The Hebrew equivalent occurs quite a lot in Isaiah’s prophecies, and it is always connected to the Messianic kingdom coming to earth. Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7 are just a few examples of where the prophet declares the good news (gospel) of the Messiah coming and establishing Yahweh’s kingdom on the earth.

The references to “good news” or “glad tidings” in the New Testament draws on this Old Testament background, pointing to the fact that Israel’s long-waited Messiah had finally arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

For example, when the angels spoke to the shepherds announcing the birth of our blessed Lord, they said, “’behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’” (Luke 2:10) It is certain that this phraseology would have been understood in the kingdom context of its Isaianic background, since this is what the people of God had been eagerly waiting for.

Earlier, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he described to her exactly what these glad tidings would be:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk. 1:32-33).

Notice what the glad tidings were not: they were not that Jesus was coming to offer a system of personal salvation, or that He was coming to make it possible for every person to have a relationship with Him. These things are part of the good news by extension and should never be minimized. But Gabriel’s emphasis is more universal: he announces 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.

All this can be summarized by saying that the gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord, that His Kingdom is being established. The full realization of this will not be apparent until He comes again; however, the work of new creation has begun, and it began with the gospel proclamation.

See Also

Tom Wright explains all of this most helpfully in What Saint Paul Really Said. But as an historian of the first century, Wright is also able to put this theology in the context of the Roman empire. One of the fascinating points he makes is that it was not just in ancient Israel that the heralding of glad tidings was associated with the coming of a king. Throughout the Roman world of the 1st century, euangelion (‘gospel’) was used regularly to refer to the birth, announcement, accession or victory of a great emperor.

There is an inscription in Priene on the Asia Minor coast from 9 BC which refers to the birthday of Augustus. The inscription talks about this day as “the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…” In this context, as in Isaiah, glad tidings were associated with the creation of a new world, an era of peace and justice made possible by the new emperor. Thus, the inscription refers to Augustus as “a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…”

Against this backdrop, it was no small thing for Paul to speak of “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s ministry was that of a royal herald announcing a new king. The gospel is just that: the announcement that Jesus Christ is King. To the extent that Jesus is king of all things (Mt. 28:18), there is no area of life that the gospel doesn’t touch. The gospel proclamation is the announcement that He is Lord over all of creation.

So while the gospel includes a message of personal salvation, it includes much, much more. It includes every area touched by the curse.


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