In most modern cultures, the idea of “gospel” has become broad, fuzzy, and vague. As Christians set out to evangelize, they will quickly run into the confusion surround this concept. How can the idea of the gospel be refined to present a clearer understanding of its theological impact.
The confusion derives from its use more than its definition. Gospel (euangelion) was used in classical Greek to refer to good news or the reward to the bearer of good news. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns to his home and meets the swineherd, Eumaeus, who does not recognize him. In their conversation, Eumaeus laments his master and believes him to be dead. Odysseus says, “I tell you, not simply but with an oath, that Odysseus shall return. And let me have a reward for bearing good tidings” (Odyssey, XIV, 152). Here Odysseus asks for a reward for the good news (euangelion). The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses euangelion in the same way (2 Sam 4:10; 18:22).
Euangelion also referred to the good news or message itself. It was a term used for “news of victory” (Gerhard Friedrich, s.v., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). Prior to the New Testament, euangelion was tied to the imperial cult, or emperor worship. The Roman emperor was looked upon as a god who had authority over all the earth and all that was in it. He healed, saved, and redeemed those under this dominion. His presence brought good fortune to the people (Friedrich).
In the New Testament, euangelion is used in different ways. Mark uses it to describe the entire account of Jesus and what he brought through his death and resurrection (Mark 1:1). Outside of that usage, Mark uses it six other times to referring to the teachings of Jesus (1:14, 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). Matthew usually associates it directly with Jesus’ preaching about the arrival of the Kingdom (4:23; 9:35; 24:14). Neither Luke (in his gospel account) nor John use the noun form of euangelion, preferring the verb form only, which Mark never uses.
Paul makes the most prolific use of euangelion—eighty-four times in his writings. He often uses it like Mark does in Mark 1:1 in reference to the full Jesus narrative, focusing on the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus (1 Cor 15:1-5). He also uses it to refer to his teachings (Rom 2:16) or the subject of what is preached (Rom 10:15; 1 Cor 9:14). A peculiar use is that euangelion is what sinners obey to be saved (Rom 2:16; 2 Thes. 1:8). He even says he is in service to the gospel (Rom 15:16).
Thus, the basic idea of gospel (euangelion) is the good news about the story of Jesus. However, added to the Jesus story is the advent of the Kingdom of God, or church. This is a vital part of the gospel, especially for modern Christians. This same gospel binds Christians together but enlists them in service to the King to continue teaching and preaching the gospel to others. Obedience to the gospel is often described as “reenacting” the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is included, but hardly the totality of obeying the gospel.
Finally, euangelion is used to refer to the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels. These books seem to be historical biographies of the life of Jesus. However, that usually misses the point of these books. Wilfrid Harrington believes the “Gospels are proclamations of the Good News, not records destined for an archive” (Reading Mark for the First Time, 7). In other words, there is more to the gospel accounts than merely preserving the story of Jesus. They seek to tell the story, but also to create faith through the story (John 20:30-31). Each writer is inspired to shape the story to the needs of their initial audience, choosing to use some stories and leave others on the cutting room floor.
The simplicity of the gospel is it proclaims the good news of salvation for all people everywhere. The complexity is its nuances, challenges, theologies, and demands. As Christians take the gospel into the world confused by sin, they must be acquainted with its purpose to effectively minister to people.