Popular religion can be as confusing in its blend of ideas as a shelf of products at a mega-supermarket. Do I want extra strength or maximum strength? Lite or fat free or “made with Splenda”? Is Acme brand really better than Brand X or is generic just as good?
Listen carefully to religious talk and you will hear ideas being affirmed that are completely contradictory. A thinking person will hear one side of an issue, like predestination versus free will, and what a speaker is saying will sound reasonable. Then another speaker will advocate the other side and it will sound reasonable too. Right. Both right. They can’t both be right. That’s right too!
So in all this confusing array of religious ideas shouldn’t we be unflinchingly certain what the gospel is? But do we really have a firm hold on what is the bedrock message of our Messiah whom we are busy following? Or is the gospel just another area in which we are confused by a plethora of voices?
I encourage myself and anyone reading this to make the text of scripture a place of frequent meditation in thinking about such questions. Traditions and competing ideas in popular religion are not going to be helpful for answering a question like this. Question everything you hear and think deeply.
Gospel is a coined word from the Old English “godspell,” that fails to capture the original meaning of the New Testament word: evangelion. Far from being a religious word, evangelion was a concept of wartime and messengers and people huddled in their city walls fearful of a coming invasion. The army had marched out to meet the coming enemy and the people behind the city walls knew if their army failed, there would be a siege. There would be death, starvation, and brutality.
But along comes a messenger, a runner approaching the city walls from the front lines of the battle. The entire city would hold its collective breath. Is the message good or evil? Will it be life or death?
A good report from the battle was called evangelion, good news, a good report, a message of life and hope.
Today we translate the word as “gospel,” which has various connotations such as “the truth” or “a religious message delivered by a big-haired television evangelist.” We need to see gospel as “good news that means life and hope.”
Jesus came to bring a message of life and hope, a message that benefits those who believe and live it out.
The good message that Jesus brought has been poorly understood by too many for too long. It is not that the message has been misunderstood or that it has somehow become garbled. That would be too strong a condemnation of popular religion. Rather, the message has been emasculated, relieved of its profundity and mystery and rendered as a simple business proposition or divine lottery.
What is the gospel? In this short series we will consider the Jewish gospel of Jesus. Its glory and majesty come not just from its Jewish origin, but also from its cosmic scope and the beauty of hope.
As we begin to consider this topic, it is good to realize that gospel is not a term chosen by popular religion, but is the scripture’s own word. Mark, the first evangelist to record Jesus’ story, describes it as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus” (Mark 1:1). He says that when Jesus began his work in this world, he “went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14).
What is this gospel? What good news that meant life and hope did Jesus bring? In a world fearful of war, brutality, and death, Jesus came like a runner from the front lines of the battle and spoke a word so inspiring and hopeful, that those who had ears to ear sighed collectively and rejoiced.