In the midst of various kinds of counseling and discipleship I will ask a person (or couple): what is the gospel?
Common responses include: “God forgives us”; “Jesus died for our sins”; perhaps a Scripture verse like “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (that’s Romans 8.1); words like “grace,” “mercy,” “pardon” are used. At times someone will say something like: “Jesus lived the life that we should have lived and died the death that we should have died.”
In Mark 1.14-15, we read:
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'”
So where’s the good news here? Where’s the forgiveness? the grace?
All we hear of is God’s kingdom soon coming near. How is that “good news”? And where’s all the “grace” stuff?
The coming of God’s kingdom refers to the way that Israel’s God is now–i.e., with the arrival of Jesus–re-asserting His dominion over his world. In short, the gospel (for Jesus, anyway) is that through him Israel’s God is going to get his way with his world.
Whereas Israel’s God had acted in various amazing ways in the past–always through an agent (like Moses or David), now he would act in a climactic, decisive way through a climactic, final agent of his choosing (that’s what a “messiah” is–viz., a divinely elected and empowered agent).
In response to such “news” a listener must ask two questions:
(1) will Israel’s God really get his way? (I.e., is Jesus actually right?)
(2) is his way a better way?
These two questions lie behind Jesus’ twofold command: “repent and believe the good news.” To “believe” the good news is to say, “Yes, Jesus is right: Israel’s God will get his way.” To “repent” is to say, “Yes, God’s way is better: I will abandon all other ways–whether my own way or another’s–and align myself with his way.” Why?
Because these other ways, we have decided, are both futile (God alone will get his way) and foolish (God’s way is better).
So to review: Jesus says that the gospel is the good news that Israel’s God will get his way with his world through Jesus.
That last part–“through Jesus”–is absolutely crucial. The reason that “the time has come” and that “the kingdom of God has come near” is that it is embodied–so to speak–in Jesus’ own agenda: he is God’s agent. How so?
Just prior to Jesus’ announcement of the gospel in Mark 1.14-15, he is baptized. Jesus’ baptism is both like and unlike the baptisms that others received from John the Baptist: like the others, Jesus’ baptism showed that he agreed with John’s message that Israel’s God was in fact doing something new–and big, even decisive; and to receive this baptism was a public way of saying, “I’m on board with what God now up to.”
But unlike the others, Jesus’ baptism showed that he was on board not because he needed to repent but because he was the agent through whom God was now doing something big, even decisive. It is precisely so that Jesus can be God’s agent that he hears the voice from heaven and receives the Spirit: the voice and the Spirit together authorize and empower Jesus to be this agent. (Here, when Jesus is called God’s son, it means that Jesus has a permanent derivative authority, as “son” so often means in the OT–e.g., Psalm 2.)
That’s really important: God authorizes Jesus. That is, through His Spirit God gives Jesus authority. Throughout Mark (and the other gospels) Jesus’ “authority” is a central idea, an idea that has two aspects to it–like two sides to a coin:
(1) Jesus is an authority on all (the most important) things: God’s Spirit is regularly a Spirit of wisdom (see, e.g., Isaiah 11.2), and wisdom is the ability to navigate life successfully. Endowed with the Spirit, Jesus, then, is an authority–i.e., an expert.
Later in Mark 1, when Jesus begins to teach in Capernaum, we read that “the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” In Matthew’s gospel, this statement (concerning Jesus’ authority) comes at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, immediately following the “parable” of the wise and foolish builders.
Jesus is saying: if we ignore my expertise in the Sermon on the Mount (which touches on everything in life from sexuality to money to planning for the future), we are not merely wrong; we are foolish–building our house on sand just before the flood hits. Why? Because he’s the authority on these topics. Conversely, if we listen to him, if we act upon his expertise, we not only have done the right thing; we’ll have acted wisely, so that we flourish.
So to “repent and believe the good news” means believing that God is getting his way in the world through Jesus as the authority who points the way to human flourishing. As an expert, Jesus knows the way.
That means I don’t need to find my own way anymore; it means I don’t have to wonder if I can trust another’s way. I am free of those burdens. It also means I don’t have to have life figured out; I don’t need to understand it all. As the authority on all (the important) things, I can simply take him at his word (for an illustration of this, click here).
That’s so freeing. Indeed, it’s gospel.
It is in this sense that Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
But, as we said, there’s a second dimension to Jesus’ authority. Not only is he an authority on all things, but . . .
(2) Jesus has authority over all things: God’s Spirit, the Spirit who anointed Jesus, is not only a Spirit of wisdom but of power. Again, in Mark 1, not only are the crowds amazed at the authority of Jesus’ teaching, they are amazed at his authority over demons: “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him” (Mk. 1.27).
And this authority extends–with no little controversy–even to forgiving sins and to healing paralytics and lepers–indeed, even to raising the dead (Mk. 2.10; see, e.g., 5.41-42).
Let me say that again: he has authority to forgive sins, yours and mine. Everyone’s. Jesus has been given permission by the Creator to represent him: if he welcomes you, sinner, then indeed you are welcomed by his Father.
Jesus, then, is no mere expert in the ivory tower or guru in a remote mountain village. Not only is he an authority, he has authority.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ authority is identified initially in his baptism, where he is called God’s son (leaving aside 1.1), and it is identified climactically in his crucifixion, where the (Gentile) centurion says, “Surely this man was the [or, perhaps, a] son of God.”
This is no small matter. Cryptically, enigmatically–at least in Mark’s telling–this centurion recognizes Jesus’ authority upon (or through) Jesus’ cross. It is in Jesus’ death that we begin to see his dominion over sin, death, evil, and the Evil One.
It is in his rejection that we begin to see his reign.
At the cross Christ conquers our sin, by covering for us: in humble service, he gives his life as a ransom for many. This is power.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ authority is also found in his post-resurrection appearance to the Eleven: still recovering from the astonishing reality of their Lord’s resurrection, they hear Jesus, triumphant over death, evil and the Evil One, declare:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Sin–both the sin we have done and the sin done to us–will not have its way. Death will not have its way. The demonic forces of the Evil One will not have their way.
In sum, not only is Jesus an authority on all (the most important) things; he has authority over all things. That is, not only does he have the best (i.e., the wisest) word, he has the final word. He not only knows the way, He will get his way.
And his way = God’s way.
So because of Jesus, Israel’s God–not “the god of the philosophers” but the One who is “the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin . . . yet who will not leave the guilty unpunished”–this God will at last get his way with his world.
This also means that I don’t have fear any other authority–human or supernatural: they will not get their way. It means the nations will rage and the peoples will plot, but they will do so in vain. It means that, seated at the Father’s right hand, the resurrected, reigning Jesus takes up the words of King David upon his lips, saying:
“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss the Son, or he will be angry and you be destroyed in your way…
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps. 2.10-12)
Here is good news, indeed: all–regardless of their past, their pedigree, position, or capacity–all can take refuge in him–they can find refuge under his authority, finding both wisdom to navigate life now (because he knows the way), as well as freedom (because he will get his way).
We began by talking about the answers typically given to the question, “What is the gospel?” These answers weren’t wrong insofar as they were all partially true. But “the gospel” is so much more; astonishingly, it’s even better. In so far as this gospel is a message of God’s choosing to interrupt and undermine the kingdoms of this world (include mine and yours), it is indeed and beyond all doubt a gospel of grace: rather than leaving us oppressed as slaves to our own (or another’s) way, he chooses to break in and subdue, to warn the wayward and welcome the weary.
He has not left us to our devices; he has not given us what we deserve. He has invaded and embraced us and instructed us in ways of love, true greatness, and flourishing.
But, tragically, for many “grace” equals leniency: grace becomes forgiveness without repentance–i.e., without the requirement to abandon our own (or another’s) way for God’s way. It leaves the forgiven with the assumption that the sinner’s own way is actually better, and obedience something to be merely tolerated.
Though not well known, there is actually an entire (but admittedly brief!) book of the Bible devoted to warning of the danger of such grace. In fact, its author is Jesus’ own brother, Jude, and, intriguingly, he writes the following:
“. . . although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith . . . For certain individuals . . . have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 3-4).
This grace is a counterfeit grace, a grace that refuses to recognize and rejoice in Jesus’ selfless, life-giving authority. These false teachers announced the very good news of Jesus’ redeeming death without announcing the equally good news of Jesus’ dominion and how the former is a central demonstration of the latter.
The gospel’s announcement of a foreign divine dominion and its demand for repentance are deeply threatening, welcomed only as good news by those who no longer want their way–indeed, who long for someone else to “take the reigns” and reign over them, those who urgently cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and who can fervently pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done!”
The idea that I could receive God’s forgiveness and “grace” while rejecting his demand for an all-encompassing repentance is found nowhere in Scripture.
Why? Because God loves us far too much to let us continue in our own way.
After Matthew records how the crowds were astonished by the authority with which Jesus’ taught, we read of a centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant. This (gentile) centurion recognizes Jesus precisely as one who (like himself) has authority:
“Just say the word.”
With these words it is now Jesus’ turn to be astonished. Absolutely crucial is the way that Jesus describes the centurion’s confidence in Jesus’ authority:
“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
What is true faith? (And “faith” here could possibly, even probably, be translated “allegiance”)
Faith is recognizing and fully surrendering oneself to Jesus’ authority: he is the authority on all things, and he has authority over all things. And that is very good news, news that brings an incomparable and abiding rest. No wonder the earliest Christian “creed” was the following three words: Jesus is Lord. (Lordship = authority)
. . . . . .
When Sarah and I had just moved to the UK for grad school, we had to transfer funds from the US to the UK. We used a certain e-commerce business to transfer funds, hoping it would save us a bit on the exchange rate.
What we didn’t know was that, according to (EU?) regulations, any transfer of funds greater than X amount of dollars would be automatically “frozen” for like 8-10 days or something. We had moved a sizable chunk–well over the X amount–and now our funds, which we needed to pay tuition (!), were frozen!
So I called the UK help desk. And they were rude and unable to help.
So I called the US help desk. For the first several rounds, they were (not rude but) gracious.
But we needed more than grace and kindness. I needed help. They didn’t have the authority to unfreeze the funds that we needed.
A day passed, and we got a call from a “senior emergency case handler”–or something like that. Not only was he incredibly gracious (“Yes, you transgressed the regulations, but we’ll figure a way out”), but he actually had the authority to actually do something.
I can remember sitting at my computer, with my phone to my hear. He said, “Please, push button X.” I said, with more than a little frustration, “Button X is nowhere to be found on my screen.” He said, “Oops, sorry, just refresh your page, and then look for it.”
I did so, and there it was. And that’s when I knew I had found the right guy–the guy who was an authority on the problem and who had authority to fix it.
Within 24 hours the funds were transferred and my tuition paid.
What follows is a (more technical, academic) discussion of the Greek verb “to bring / announce good news” and the Greek noun “good news.”
In the Greek translations of the Old Testament and in the New Testament the verb “to bring good news” (εὐαγγελίζομαι, overwhelmingly in the middle voice in our timeframe) and the noun “good news” (or “gospel”) (εὐαγγέλιον) are both found just under 80 times each, though εὐαγγέλιον, when pronouns (both personal or relative) are included, is used under 100 times (its use with relative pronoun is frequent).
Here’s an overview of how they’re used.
Broader usage of the verb
The verb can generally speak of any generally positive announcement–e.g., the announcement of a child’s birth (so Jer. 20.15; Lk. 1.19; 2.10; cf. also 3Reigns [=1Kings] 1.42; 1Th. 3.6; possibly Gal. 1.23; Rev. 10.7).
This broader usage reveals the basic meaning of the verb: to announce or publish good news. The act concerns the communication (overwhelmingly oral) of a report concerning an event that is in some way positive or favorable. For example, when Paul learns that the new believers in Thessalonica are enduring grave persecution, he sends Timothy to them to learn how they are doing. In 1Th. 3.6 Paul writes, “But Timothy has now just come to us from you and has brought the good news of your faith and love.”
Narrower usage of the verb in the Old Testament
But more commonly (and narrowly), the verb speaks of a positive announcement concerning a decisive military victory, revealing two (interrelated) ideas: the dominion of the victor (they are now indisputably in control), and the deliverance of those for whom the battle is fought, who then share in that victory. E.g., in 1Reigns [=1Sam.] 31.9 (cf. the parallel in 1Supp. [=1Chr.] 10.9), in the aftermath of the previous day’s battle, when the Philistine army finds the body of the slain king Saul, they “proclaim the good news to their idols [i.e., to the temples of their idols] and to the people [of Philistia]” (see 2Reigns [=2Sam.] 4.10, which also has the sole OT usage of the noun, found in the plural only here in the LXX/NT; 2Reigns [=2Sam.] 18.19, 20, 26, 31; Ps. 68.12 [67.12 LXX]; Nah. 2.1; possibly 2Reigns [=2Sam.] 1.20).
This narrower usage of the verb is found in the prophet Isaiah and deserves special attention.
Narrow usage of the verb in Isaiah
Two particular instances of the verb (when used in this more specific way–i.e., of announcing victory–and, thus, dominion and deliverance) stand out (and a third, Nah. 2.1, could perhaps also be included). We translate both below from the Greek text of Isaiah (which differs in a few ways from the Hebrew and, thus, from our English versions):
Isaiah 40.9-10 (LXX): “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord is coming with strength, and his arm with authority [or lordship (κυριεία); the Hebrew reads: “His mighty arm is ruling for him].”
The imagery here is of heralds announcing to God’s people the good news that their God is coming (or returning) to Jerusalem–as one who undoubtedly is in control: dominion and authority are his. Though defeated, dominated, and exiled on account of her disobedience, Israel has a deliverer who is returning to her, having dominion (again, Nah. 2.1 has similarities).
Isaiah 52.6-7 (LXX): God says, “I have arrived, like a season [arriving] in the mountains, like the feet of one who brings good news of a report of peace, for I will publish aloud your deliverance, saying to Zion, ‘Your God will reign!'”
The picture here is similar, as the context shows: though God has sold Jerusalem into exile for her disobedience, he will act both to vindicate his name and to redeem his people, and here he returns to them announcing that he has defeated their enemies and won “peace,” giving them “deliverance” and assuring them of his dominion (“Your God will reign!”).
Taken together, we find in these two texts that the verb “to bring good news” is associated with the deliverance of God’s people through the dominion of their God, with the result being peace. They have been delivered from their conquerors, who had vanquished them on account of their disobedience to God.
Initial implications of the usages in Isaiah for the New Testament
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of these two texts from Isaiah for the New Testament.
As for the first text (Isaiah 40), all four gospels make reference to it when introducing John the Baptist: he is announcing the return of Israel’s God to Jerusalem, summoning his people to “prepare the way of the Lord” by means of their repentance. In addition, the New Testament elsewhere quotes from Isaiah 40 (e.g., 1 Peter 1.24-25). It is, then, anything but surprising that both John the Baptist and Jesus have one and the same articulation of the good news–namely, the imminent arrival of the reign of God: “Repent, for the kingdom [or reign] of heaven / God has come near” (for John, Mt. 3.2; for Jesus, Mt. 4.17 // Mk. 1.15). On seven other occasions in the Gospels and Acts, the gospel is simply called “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 4.23; 9.35; 24.14; Lk. 4.43; 8.1; 16.16; Ac. 8.12). When Jesus sends out the Twelve, he instructs them to “proclaim, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Mt. 10.7) or to “proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9.2). When Jesus sends out the Seventy (or Seventy-two), he instructs them to announce to those who are receptive, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (10.9); but to the unreceptive they are to say . . . the same thing: “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: the Kingdom of God has come near” (10.12).
As for the second text (Isa. 52), Paul makes reference to it in Romans 10.15 when speaking of the apostolic ministry: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” In the following verse (10.16) he speaks of the rejection of this same ministry, citing Isa. 53.1, where Isaiah laments of Israel, “Lord, who has believed our message?” (see also Rom. 15.21, citing Isa. 52.15; 2Cor. 6.17, citing Isa. 52.11; also, Rom. 2..24, citing Isa. 52.5). But while Paul associates the apostolic ministry with this Isaianic herald of the good news, does he share the herald’s message of God’s reign that brings deliverance? Immediately preceding this, in 10.9-13, both Jesus’s / God’s lordship / dominion and believers’ deliverance are front and center: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved . . . . For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
“The arm of the Lord” in Isaiah: God’s agent of dominion and deliverance
If the verb announces the good news of dominion and deliverance, it could fairly be asked: How do this dominion and deliverance come? By what instrument or agent? As already mentioned, Paul cites Isaiah 53.1 (in Rom. 10.16), which reads in full:
“Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
This “arm of the Lord” is found in both of the two passages already discussed:
In Isaiah 40.10-11 LXX “the arm of the Lord” acts both to rule and to gather:
“Behold, the Lord comes with strength,
and his arm [comes? is?] with lordship [MT: “his arm rules for him”];
behold, his reward is with him and his work before him.
Like a shepherd, he will rule/tend his flock,
and his arm will gather the lambs,
and he will comfort those having young.”
In Isaiah 40, then, this arm is an arm of considerable power and “lordship,” yet a power and lordship that both fully reward and gently gather. It is an arm of might that can and will bring about great mercy.
And in Isaiah 52.9-10 LXX we see a very similar idea, yet with greater specificity:
“Let the desolate places of Jerusalem together break forth in joy,
for the Lord has shown mercy to [MT: comforted] her,
and he has rescued Jerusalem.
He will reveal his holy arm in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
And yet (as already mentioned) just a few verses later, in 53.1, this “arm of the Lord” remains unrecognized by God’s people, as Isaiah asks:
“To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
And in this context it is obvious what–or, rather, who–“the arm of the Lord’ is: it is the Lord’s suffering servant, one who (in Isa. 52.12-53.12) has (at least) four dominant characteristics: (i) though blameless, he is completely misunderstood, unrecognized by God’s people (52.14; 53.2-3); (ii) he is inestimably humiliated and then uncontestably exalted (52.13; 53.7-9, 12); (iii) he accomplishes “peace” (53.5), undeservedly bearing the “iniquities” of those who are guilty in their place (53.4, 6, 8, 11-12); (iv) though misunderstood and unrecognized, the eventual implications of the servant’s work are astounding, involving “nations” and even their “kings,” who will respond to his work with unparalleled wonder and awe-struck silence (52.15). Importantly, later in Isaiah 61.1 it seems that this same servant has himself been anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor” (cf. Lk. 4.16-19; Eph. 2.17).
So we can see how the usages of the verb “to bring good news” in Isaiah 40 and 52 deeply inform the New Testament’s own usages: it is news of God’s coming dominion / reign, a dominion that brings the deliverance, or “salvation” of his people (cf. Isa. 60.6; Ps. 95.2), resulting in “peace”–all accomplished, it seems, by YHWH’s appointed, but unrecognized / humiliated sacrificial servant who nevertheless “shall be exalted and greatly glorified.”
Further, as Isaiah 40 makes clear (and as the New Testament will repeatedly emphasize), this “good news” is both from God and about God; it is my guess that this is what is behind the New Testament’s repeated use of the phrase “the gospel of God” (Mk. 1.14; Rom. 1.1; 15.16; 2Cor. 11.7; 1Th. 2.2, 8, 9; 1Pet. 4.17; cf. 1Tim. 1.11: “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God”; the phrase “the gospel of God” should not be set in contrast with “our gospel” [2Cor. 4.3; 1Th. 1.5; 2Th. 2.14] or “my gospel” [Rom. 2.16; 2Tim. 2.8; also, Rom. 16.25, if original], since the genitives on these latter phrases are probably subjective: thus, “my/our gospel” probably means “the gospel that I/we preach”). But given Isaiah 40’s emphasis on how this “good news” is from God–i.e., it is “the word of the LORD” (40.8), we are on solid ground when we say that this is why in the NT the “good news” is associated with “the word of the Lord / the word of God” (Acts 15.35; cf. 1Th. 2.9-13; 2Tim. 2.8-9) or, more briefly, “the word” (λόγος: Acts 8.4; 1Cor. 15.2; cf. Eph. 1.13 and Col. 1.5: “the word of truth”; ῥῆμα: 1Pet. 1.25; but in Acts 15.7; 1Cor. 15.2 λόγος simply refers to the fact that the gospel is a message).
The usage of the verb elsewhere in the Old Testament
But before turning to the New Testament properly, we should highlight a further (very closely associated) way that the verb is used in the Old Testament, found in Psalm 40.10-11 (39.10-11 LXX):
“I have brought the good news of [your] righteousness into the great assembly;
behold, I do not restrain my lips–Lord, you know!
I have not concealed your righteousness in my heart.
I have spoken of your trustworthiness and salvation.
I have not hidden your mercy and your trustworthiness from the great gathering.”
David is telling God that he has publically announced to God’s people the good news of his (God’s) “righteousness.” David closely associates this righteousness with God’s “trustworthiness” (2x) and his “salvation” (or “deliverance”), as well as his “mercy.” God had delivered David (40.1-3), so that David proclaims that God is righteous, trustworthy, saving, merciful.
This complex of words–righteousness, trustworthiness, salvation, mercy–are closely, even confusingly related (one can find this complex in a number of other places in the OT–e.g., Psalm 98, which is especially relevant for Rom. 1.17). The Hebrew “behind” these words is instructive: behind “mercy” is the well-known Hebrew word hesed, which speaks of God’s committed, caring love, usually translated “steadfast / unfailing love”; behind “trustworthiness” is the word amunah, which means “faithfulness, loyalty”; the final word “salvation” (or “deliverance”) is already familiar to us.
Importantly, two of these words–namely, “righteousness” and “salvation”–are especially used in the New Testament with respect to the gospel. And it seems from Psalm 40 (and, e.g., Psalm 33.4-5; 36.10; 98.1-3; 103.17; 143; Isa. 51.6, 8; 56.1; 59.17; cf. 1Sam. 26.23; 1Ki. 3.6) that “righteousness”, which is a very generic word (cf. Gen. 30.33), can have strong connotations of commitment, loyalty, faithfulness that reveal themselves via God’s deliverance of his people. Or perhaps it’s better to say it the other way: God’s “righteousness” is his deliverance of God’s people which then reveal that he is committed, loyal, faithful. In both the Greek of Ps. 96.2 (95.2 LXX) and Isa. 60.6 we read of “the good news of the Lord’s salvation / deliverance” (cf. Joel 3.5 LXX).
The verb and noun in the New Testament
Salvation and the Righteousness of God
Having already gotten a good glimpse of how Isaiah 40 and 52 influence the Gospels, let’s turn to the New Testament, focusing on Paul’s letters. What we have just seen from Psalm 40 (and elsewhere) helps us to understand Romans 1.16-17a:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation / deliverance of all who believe, first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed . . . ”
We have seen all these elements already in the Old Testament: the gospel declares the good news of God’s dominion (here “power”), a dominion that brings about “deliverance” for the entire world–both Jew and Gentile. For the gospel reveals God’s righteousness, his saving action fulfilled in faithfulness to his people (“first for the Jew…”), yet with massive implications for the rest of the world (“…and then for the Gentile”). The phrase at the beginning of 1.17 (“the righteousness of God is revealed”) is a quote / allusion to Psalm 98.2 (97.2 LXX), where covenantal connotations abound. In view of 1.16, it isn’t surprising that Paul can elsewhere speak of “the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1.13; cf. 1Cor. 15.2: “. . . through which [gospel] you are saved”).
The Agent of God’s Dominion
But how has God’s righteousness been revealed? How has God shown himself faithful? Who or what is the instrument of his saving power?
We could answer this question well by going to Rom. 3.21-26, which elaborates on Rom. 1.16-17 (or, returning to the Gospels, we could note that just prior to Jesus’ announcement of the gospel in Mk. 1.14-15 is his own baptism as God’s Spirit-empowered son). However, 2Tim. 1.8-10 has some intriguing parallels to Rom. 1.16-17 and, perhaps more importantly (for our agenda), uses the term “gospel”:
“Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord nor of me, his prisoner, but join me in suffering for the gospel, according to the power of God, who saved / delivered us and called us to a holy life, not because of our works, but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been made manifest through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has not only destroyed death but has brought to light life and immortality through the gospel.”
(A possible alternative text would be Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13.32: “And we bring you good news about the promise God made to our ancestors–that He has fulfilled it by resurrecting Jesus. This is what the second psalm says, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.'”)
Like Rom. 1.16-17 this text speaks of an unashamed confidence in the gospel that concerns God’s power to save. But it includes more: Why has God saved? Because of “his own purpose and grace” (cf. “the gospel of God’s grace” in Acts 20.24; also Gal. 1.6; Col. 1.5-6). How has he saved? Through “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ,” who has broken the power of death and shown the way to life and immortality.
Jesus Christ, then, is the instrument of God’s saving power and, as Rom. 3.21ff says, and the revealer of God’s righteousness: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made manifest . . . through faith in [or: the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
Jesus as Messiah / Christ: “they proclaimed the good news that Jesus is the Christ”
As discussed above, God has given power to Jesus, evident in the three ways that both the Gospels and Paul refer to Jesus: he is the Messiah, the Christ; he is God’s Son; and he is Lord. Not surprisingly, then, the New Testament can articulate the gospel simply with respect to God’s agent, the Messiah, or Christ: the simple phrase “the gospel of [the?] Christ” is found nine times (Rom. 15.19; 1Cor. 9.12; 2Cor. 2.12; 9.13; 10.14; Gal. 1.7; Phil. 1.27a; 1Th. 3.2); or in Acts 5.42 we read that the apostles “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ [or Messiah].” Similarly in Acts 8.4-5 we read, “Those who had been scattered went about, proclaiming the good news of this message. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there” (cf. 18.5).
Expanded forms of this brief phrase (“the gospel of [the?] Christ”) are probably found in 2Cor. 4.4 (“the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image [i.e., the expression of the authority] of God”) and 2Tim. 2.8 (“Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, the offspring of David–according to my gospel”). Also, on one occasion in Acts we read quite simply of those who “proclaim the good news of Jesus” (8.35). Depending on one’s understanding of Mk. 1.1 (“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”), this usage could be included, though some would suggest that here “good news” refers to the literary creation called a “Gospel”–as in one of the four canonical Gospels.
But just what is meant by the phrase “the gospel of [the?] Christ”? In asking that of the New Testament we hear a harmonious answer from both the Gospels/Acts and Paul (and, we could add, Peter). These two come together well in Acts 17.3, where Paul addresses the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica. Luke describes what Paul customarily did:
“As was his custom, Paul entered into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.'”
Of course, this is hardly the first time that Luke has spoken in these terms of the Messiah (cf. 2.22-36; 3.13-21; 5.30-32; 10.36-43; 13.22-41; 26.22-23): his suffering and death, burial, resurrection, and session at the right hand of God are variously emphasized, yet always with the same “V” shape: a “V” not only in terms of the messiah’s ministry (down to a humiliation that ends in a tomb, then up to an exaltation that ends on a throne) but also in terms of the messiah’s triumph–a “V” for victory.
But what if Paul’s words in Acts 17 are shaped primarily by Luke’s own (legitimate) theological agenda? How does Paul himself elaborate on “the gospel of [the?] Christ”? Paul supplies his answer in 1 Cor. 15.3-4. After expressing his desire to articulate the gospel that he formerly preached to them, a gospel which they themselves fully embraced (15.1-2), he states:
“For I passed on to you as a matter of first importance what I also received: 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, that he appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the Twelve.”
We notice four similarities with the numerous statements made about “the gospel of [the?] Christ” from Acts: (1) Jesus is also referred to as “[the] Christ”; (2) the same “V”-shaped description is present: death and resurrection; (3) the same reliance upon the testimony of the Old Testament Scriptures; (4) the same reliance upon apostolic witness.
Given these similarities with Acts, it is hardly surprising that Paul says that he has “passed on . . . what I also received.”
It is worth mentioning here the context of Paul’s articulation of “the gospel of Christ.” In the opening verses of ch. 15 Paul is laying out what the Corinthians have already accepted: “Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (v. 11). He does this precisely so that he can speak to the pastoral matter at hand: “But . . . how is it that some among you are saying that there is no resurrection from the dead?” (v. 12). Paul goes on to argue that Jesus’ resurrection (and, logically, with it the very idea of a future resurrection) is essential for . . . what?
For dominion. Paul says that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In other words, Christ’s resurrection (and in him the resurrection of “all who belong to him”) is absolutely essential, if Jesus is to do what God appointed him to do as Christ–viz., “to put all his enemies under his feet,” and death, Paul insists, is among his enemies. “Then,” and only then, “will the end come, when he hands over dominion [βασιλεία] to God the Father, when he has destroyed every rule and every authority and power”–why?–“so that God may be all in all.”
So in the first half of 1Cor. 15 we see Paul setting forth “the gospel of Christ” and applying it to a particular pastoral matter, while ending up precisely at the other (more ultimate) aspect of the gospel–namely, the reign of God.
Jesus as the Son of God: “Paul, . . . set apart for the gospel . . . concerning his Son”
Closely related to the idea of Jesus as the “Christ / Messiah” (and already evident from 1Cor. 15) is the idea of Jesus as the son of God (e.g., Mk. 1.1; 12.35 // Mt. 22.42 // Lk. 20.41; Mk. 14.61 // Mt. 26.63; Mt. 16.16; Lk. 4.41; Jn. 11.27; 20.31; Rom. 1.4; 1Cor. 1.9; 2Cor. 1.19; Gal. 2.20; Heb. 3.6; 5.5; 1Jn. 1.3; 2.22; 3.23; 5.20; 2Jn. 9; cf. Ps. 2.2, 7). Whereas “Christ” speaks of Jesus as one set apart and authorized by God for a specific mission (i.e., it speaks of Jesus’ “authority to“), “son” speaks of Jesus as One who has received authority indefinitely from the Father (i.e., its speaks of Jesus’ “authority from“; cf. Mk. 1.11 & par.; 1Cor. 15.28; Col. 1.13; Heb. 1.2, 8; 3.6). If an anachronistic analogy may be allowed: in a family business, when the owner’s son starts to work at the business, everyone knows that he can probably act with his father’s authority from there on out. Hence, on several programmatic occasions Paul will speak of “the gospel of his Son” (Rom. 1.1-4, 9; Gal. 1.16; cf. 1.8-11; 2Cor. 1.19; also note, possibly, Mark 1.1).
Jesus as Lord: “For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord…”
Continuing this theme of authority, we also have the gospel expressed in terms of Jesus as “Lord” (it speaks of Jesus’ “authority over“): “they were telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus [or, possibly: about Jesus as Lord]” (Acts 11.20). Possibly related to this is Acts 17.18, where Paul is preaching the good news “about Jesus and the resurrection” (17.18). Finally (within Acts), and probably most significantly, in the programmatic text of Acts 10.36, which alludes to Isaiah 52.7, Peter says that God “sent a message to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all.”
Turning to Paul (yet keeping with the idea of Jesus’ lordship), we find a similarly weighty text in 2Cor. 4.3-5. We’ve already mentioned “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” but not yet what immediately follows: “For we preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for his sake” (note also that the verb “to bring / proclaim good news” in Rom. 10.15–lit.: “those who bring good news of good things”–is closely associated with what precedes in 10.9-10).
Jesus’ Authority as Christ, Son, and Lord
If we step back for a moment and consider how the noun “good news” and the verb “to proclaim / bring good news” are so closely associated with Jesus as (i) “Christ” (~9x) (ii) “Son” (at least 3-4x) and (iii) “Lord” (at least 4x) (all three terms are found together in Mk. 12.35-37 and parallels; Rom. 1.4, 7; 15.6; 1Cor. 1.9; 2Cor. 1.3; Eph. 1.3; Col. 1.3; 1Pet. 1.3; 2Pet. 1.16-17), it helps us to discern how regularly the gospel is expressed in terms of some aspect of Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ authority is from God (as “Son”), to accomplish his purposes (as “Messiah / Christ”), so that he is over all things (“as Lord”) (cf. 2Cor. 4.4-5, where “Christ”, “image”, and “Lord” are used to sound these three complementary aspects of authority). In light of that unlimited authority from God and over all things, it is not surprising that in Eph. 3.8 Paul can speak of his own particular role as “proclaiming the good news of the inexhaustible riches of Christ.”
Given the gospel’s declaration of the coming reign of Israel’s God through the authority given to Jesus, it is little wonder that the gospel calls its listeners to repentance: there must be a surrender and realignment. In the Gospels, this surrender and realignment is expressed straightforwardly through the very word ‘repent’ (programmatically, Mk. 1.15; cf. 6.12; most frequently in Luke-Acts; e.g., in Lk. 15.7: “there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent”). In Paul’s letters, it is most commonly through professing allegiance to Jesus’ lordship (e.g., Rom. 10.9-10; 1Cor. 8.6; 12.3; Col. 2.6). In Revelation, it is expressed through heeding the “eternal gospel” that summons the four corners of the earth to “Fear God and give him glory” (14.6-7; cf. 11.18; 15.4; 19.5). The gospel’s summons to repentance is crucial, for the very reign of God that brings salvation today will mete out justice “on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2.16).
The Aim of Jesus’ Authority: Peace . . .
But what is Christ’s authority for? What will all his riches do? Recalling Peter’s programmatic statement in Acts 10.36 (probably citing Isa. 52.7)–that God proclaimed “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all,” we must consider to whom Peter, a Jewish fisherman, is speaking–namely, Cornelius, a Gentile centurion.
But what Peter eventually came to understand in good measure (as he states later in Acts 11.17; 15.7-11), Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, understood and articulated in full (cf. the contrast of Peter and Paul in Gal. 2.7 vis-à-vis the gospel). In Eph. 2.11-22 Paul speaks of the hostility between Jew and Gentile, a hostility which is symptomatic of an even deeper and darker hostility between God and humanity (cf. Rom. 5.10; 8.7). Jesus, Paul says, “is our peace”: through his own body, he “reconciled both of them [Jew and Gentile] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility [toward one another]” (v. 16). He then states:
“He [Christ] came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (2.17-18; see Acts 15.8, where Peter explains at the Jerusalem counsel: “God, who knows the heart, bore witness concerning them [i.e., the Gentiles] by giving to them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us”; also cf. Acts 10.44-47; 11.12, 15-18).
It’s precisely in this vein that Paul then goes on in Eph. 3.6 to speak of the gospel in terms of ethnic reconciliation: “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together [with Israel], members together of the same body, and partakers together of the promise [or, what is promised] in Christ Jesus” (cf. 6.19; possibly also 6.15?).
So this “good news of peace” is for Jew and for Gentile, since it declares that through the cross Christ has reconciled both parties to God and to each other–indeed, in him they are nothing less than “one new humanity.”
But this “good news of peace,” says Paul, is “for the Jew first and for the Gentile also.” What does this mean?
The good news is “for the Jew first” in a very interrelated twofold sense: First, in terms of unfulfilled promises and patterns, the good news declares that through Jesus God has done what he promised to “Abraham and his descendants”–i.e., to the Jewish people: “For no matter how many promises God has made, in Christ they are ‘Yes'” (2Cor. 1.20); through Christ God has acted in climactic ways consistent with (true to the narratives and patterns, or “types”) of the Jewish Scriptures–e.g., as when Paul declares, “For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the Festival” (1Cor. 5.7-8). In sum, the Gospel is “for the Jew first” in that it heralds the climactic fulfillment of divine promises in Jesus Christ.
But the Gospel is “for the Jew first” in a second, closely related yet decidedly darker way, as expressed in Romans 3.21-26 (which, as already suggested, expands upon the gospel summary in 1.16-17). True to his startling argument thus far, Paul insists that “there is no difference” between Jew and Gentile (v. 22), such that Jews and Gentiles alike can only be “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” But Paul then provides a reason that Jews in particular were in dire need of this “redemption” that had come at long last “in Christ Jesus”: it is “because in his [incredible!] forbearance God had deliberately disregarded the sins previously committed [by Israel]” (v. 25). In her relationship with God, Israel had accrued an inestimable weight of sin that someone needed to bear. Could there be a truer demonstration of God’s righteousness–i.e., his willingness to save out on account of his commitment to his people? It is little wonder, then, that Paul could announce to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch that “through him [Jesus], everyone who believes is set free from everything from which you could not be set free in the Law of Moses” (Acts 13.38-39; here δικαιόω + ἀπό is rightly translated “to set free” [vs. “to justify”]; cf. Rom. 6.7).
But if the Gospel declares anticipated fulfillment “to the Jew first,” it declares unexpected favor “to the Gentile also.” To be sure, Gentile inclusion was foretold (and could even be found) in the Jewish Scriptures (from Jethro to Rahab to Ruth). In fact, Paul even speaks of the Old Testament Scriptures as “announcing the gospel in advance” to Abraham precisely in terms of the Gentiles: “in you all nations [or: “all the Gentiles”] will be blessed” (Gal. 3.8). But if it is true that “there is no difference” between Jew and Gentile, such that “all [or both] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” in and of themselves both stand under divine wrath and both can only be justified in precisely the same way that Abraham was justified–namely, “apart from the Law,” which is to say, “by faith,” faith in a God who made a promise to Abraham (and his multi-national descendants) to reverse the curse, a promise that he initially fulfilled in the birth of Isaac and climactically fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 4.18-25).
Hence, the gospel is the good news of peace through Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile, peace with God and peace with one another.
To fail to enact this gospel of peace is to fail to “act in line with the truth of the gospel,” as Peter fails to do in Antioch (Gal. 2.11-21). Forgetting that “peace with God” and “access to his grace” come exclusively “through our Lord Jesus Christ” to anyone, Jew or Gentile, who is justified by faith (Rom. 5.1-2), Peter in that moment turns away from faith and returns to “flesh,” manifested both in ethnic pedigree (“the circumcision group . . . the rest of the Jews . . . If you are a Jew . . . We who are Jews by birth” in 3.12-15; cf. Eph. 2.11; Rom. 2.25-29) and ethical performance (“. . . sinners . . . works of the law . . .” in Gal. 2.; cf. Phil. 3.3-6). And any return to pedigree and performance will inevitably bring an end to peace (in the case of Peter in Antioch, an end to table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians)–hence, Paul’s passion in Galatians not only toward Peter but toward the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of flesh?” (3.3; in 5.19-23, whereas the fruit of the Spirit includes such unifying virtues like love and peace, the “works of the flesh” include such divisive vices like hatred, discord, jealousy, dissensions, factions, and envy).
Such “fleshly” criteria are altogether “enslaving,” but, upon receiving the gospel, we can speak of “the freedom which we have in Christ Jesus”–such is the “truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2.4-5; cf. 5.1, 13). The logic here is simple: as he explains in Romans 14, now that Christ has become Lord over us through his death resurrection, he and he alone is our judge (i.e., there is “freedom” from any other who would judge): “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? It is before their own master [κύριος] that a servant stands or falls. And they will stand, for the Lord [κύριος] is able to make them stand” (14.3-4). In sum, “to act in line with the truth of the gospel” is to reject the criteria of flesh not only in how we view ourselves but in how we view others: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view [lit.: according to the flesh]” (2Cor. 5.16). Thus, to be subject only to the peace-making criteria of our Gracious Master and to no longer be in subjection to the criteria of the flesh–i.e., to have been crucified to the world and the world to us through the cross (Gal. 6.14)–is at the very heart of what it means to find oneself as a participant in the “new creation” ( 2Cor. 5.17; Gal. 6.15).
. . . A Cosmological Peace
Crucially, the reconciling work of Christ (that brings peace among God, Jew and Gentile), outlined in Ephesians 2-3, is intimately and inextricably related to God’s larger purpose of cosmic reconciliation, as Ephesians itself testifies (Eph. 1.7-10; 1.18-2.7). It is no mere afterthought: yes, cosmic reconciliation–the restoring of peace to “all things”–transcends the reconciliation of God and multi-ethnic humanity; yet the former is essential to the latter. (That we Westerners in the first quarter of the 21st century do not readily grasp this says much about us, as does as our surprise and confusion at the ubiquitous presence of the demonic and preternatural in the Gospels: we come to Mark’s gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, expecting to encounter an ethicist, therapist, or philanthropist, only to meet an exorcist, as well as a healer).
Here Paul’s diagnosis of humanity in Eph. 2.1-2 is especially noteworthy. Whereas the symptoms of v. 1 are perhaps more familiar (“dead in your transgressions and sins…”), those of v. 2 are, curiously, much less so: “…in which you walked in accord with the era [i.e., zeitgeist] of this world and the ruler of the dominion of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience.”
Standing against humanity is not only the mortal condition within us as “dead in transgressions and sins,” but an actively hostile environment around us, which entails both a mysterious “era of this world” (which I take to be an entire world (dis)order of cultural and institutional values and practices) and a dark “ruler” who, says Paul, is actively and effectively operating in/among each and every person as “children of disobedience” (a moment’s reflection on Gen. 3 will reveal the incredibly influential role that a dark external “power” played in the disobedience of Adam).
Accordingly, in what follows (in Eph. 2.4-6), Paul presents God’s work in Christ as holistically addressing both: as those “dead in transgressions,” we have been “made alive with Christ” (note that the ill effect of transgressions is here remedied not by Christ’s crucifixion but by his resurrection); as those under the spell of the “ruler of the dominion of the air” and living according to “the era of this world,” by virtue of our union with Christ we are “raised and seated with him in the heavenly realms,” where Christ himself is–viz., “at the right hand of the Father, far above every ruler, authority, power, lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this era but also in the one to come” (1.21; cf. Phil. 2.10, where God’s exaltation of Christ results in, as I translate it, the bowing of every knee in realms “heavenly, earthly and subterranean”; i.e., all powers–human, demonic, or angelic–will be in subjection).
What Paul says immediately after this (in 1.22-23) is climactic: citing Psalm 8 in relation to Christ, Paul declares that God the Father “‘placed all things‘”–which in the present context refers especially to hostile powers around the Ephesian Christians–“‘under his feet’ and has appointed him as head over all things for the sake of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is filling all things in every way.”
While the translation of the second half of v. 23 could be disputed, the general thrust is clear: exalted to a position of unparalleled authority over all things–especially powers hostile to the church, Christ is in a perfect position cosmologically to use his authority for the good of the church. Here the language of “body” refers to a domain under one’s control (as humans, we each have control over our own bodies), while the language of “fullness / filling” is a spatial metaphor that concretely communicates the jurisdiction of Christ’s authority: Christ has full (protective and formative) control over his body, the church, and his control is inevitably extending over (or “filling”) all things.
(By way of comparison, we could consider, e.g., Matthew 12.15-45 and explore both Jesus’ description of his own ministry in v. 28 and his diagnosis of his own “generation” in vv. 43-45 precisely in terms of Satanic forces: “But if by the Spirit of God I am casting out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how is anyone able to enter the house of a strong man and carry off his possessions, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”)
The Reconciliation of All Things
It is little wonder that Col. 1.13-23, which so eloquently captures all that has just been said, speaks of “the hope of the gospel that you heard” (1.23). A gospel that tells of the triumphant supremacy of Christ over everything that stands against us (1.18-19), accomplishing both “rescue” from “the dominion of darkness” around us (1.13) and “redemption” from “the sins” that dominate within us (1.14) is indeed a gospel of hope. Together this rescue and redemption are part of the Father’s larger agenda “to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the blood of the cross” (1.20; as in Ephesians the phrase “all things” refers especially to “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities”–see 1.16). What Colossians states explicitly here–namely that it is through the cross that this pacification / subjection of the powers has been accomplished–may well be stated more directly (with respect to the powers) later in ch. 2: Christ, “having disarmed the rulers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them ἐν αὐτῷ, tentatively understood in light of 1.20 as “by it”–viz., the cross.
Vitally, both Jesus’ pioneering resurrection (“the firstborn from the dead” in 1.18) and his violent and utterly shameful death (“the blood of his cross” in 1.20) are presented as having first and foremost cosmological (vs. exclusively soteriological) impact. In Christ “all the fullness” of God”–i.e., his unlimited power and authority–is pleased to reside and through him to reconcile–i.e., to completely restore to a state of flourishing, or peace–“all things.” This restoring work is a work of returning “all things” back to their original created design, and who better to do that than “the firstborn over all creation” in whom “all things were created” and in whom “all things hold together” (1.16-17)?
Again, at least at first glance, it is perhaps difficult for present-day Westerners to appreciate the extent to which Paul’s contemporaries, like the majority of humanity before and after them, lived in (an altogether legitimate) fear of the forces of darkness around them. However, upon further reflection, when we consider the horrific powers of the 20th-century Western world (e.g., the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow American South, the gas chambers of the Third Reich, the epidemic greed of the West, the legalized murder of millions of unborn, the hyper-individualization of Western liberalism), we are confronted with the possibility–indeed, the reality–that behind these powers were (and still are) even darker forces at play. And when one considers the frequency and extent with which these horrors effectively silenced the 20th-century church (be it the German churches of the 1930s-40s or the churches of the Jim Crow American South), we are at once confronted with the necessity of preaching a Christ whose death and resurrection accomplish dominion over not only the power of sin within us but also the powers of Satan and of societal evil around us, not simply as two complementary “parts” or “aspects” of a gospel (like oil and vinegar) but as an integrated cosmological whole (like hydrogen and oxygen molecules that bond to make water), recognizing the profound and sinister relationship between / among these forces (cf. Col. 2.13-15).
We are, then, to follow the example of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost: having proclaimed that the crucified and resurrected Jesus had been exalted as “both Lord and Christ” at the right hand of God, so that the Father was now “making all his [demonic, cultural-political] enemies a footstool for his feet,” Peter then summons his listeners not only to “Repent and be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2.38) but also to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2.40). Similarly, Paul, when relating to Agrippa the purpose for which Jesus appeared to him, says that, as a “servant and witness” of the things Jesus was revealing concerning himself, he had been sent “to open their eyes, to turn them [or: so that they might turn] from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God [why?], so that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a portion among those sanctified by faith in [or: fidelity to] me” (Ac. 26.18; cf. vv. 22-23).
So both Peter and Paul proclaim a crucified, resurrected Jesus as Lord over all powers of darkness, a lordship that both urges and empowers anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, to realign themselves with God and so receive the full forgiveness of sins. To fail to proclaim Christ as Lord over the powers of darkness (vs., exclusively over personal sins) is to leave in place prior allegiances to various demonic, structural and socio-political powers that would almost certainly relegate the expression of a Christian’s allegiance to the private sphere of personal religious experience.
This gospel, then, says that through Jesus the Creator has (1) reconciled Jew and Gentile (Eph. 3.6), (2) revealed to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly (and, thus, earthly) realms that His wisdom has won the day (3.10), and (3) redeemed sinners, securing for them a joy-filled boldness and confident access to Him (3.12). In short, it speaks of his reconciling reign over “all things.” As such, it truly declares “the boundless riches of Christ” (3.8; cf. Col. 1.27).
The Motive of God’s Coming Kingdom through Christ’s Authority: Grace!
The Creator was under no obligation to exercise his authority in this reconciliatory, restorative way. His creation did not–and still does not–deserve his interrupting, subduing, redeeming power. The Son, who is the firstborn over all creation, the one in whom all things were created, was in no way obligated to become the firstborn from the dead, one who would freely shed his blood on the cross so that the Creator could reconcile all things to himself.
Why, then, did God exert his rule in this way? In a word: grace. In a programmatic statement in Acts 20.24-25, the Apostle Paul, speaking with great emotion and affection to the Ephesian elders, whom he had loved and served for three years with tears, declares this:
“But I consider my life worth nothing to me, so that I may complete the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus–to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now I know that all of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.”
For Paul the message of the kingdom–of God’s reconciling reign coming through Jesus–is the gospel of the grace of God. It is precisely its authoritative, interrupting, invasive subduing, abounding and abiding character that makes grace truly grace. Indeed, grace itself is personified as a king: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign [βασιλείσῃ] through righteousness unto eternal life [how?] through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5.20-21). Similarly, grace is realm “under” whose authority we have come: “for sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6.14). The work of grace is even destructive in nature: God’s grace was made manifest through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has destroyed death . . .” (2Ti. 1.9-10). Not surprisingly, then, does Paul say, “his grace to me was not in vain” (1Cor. 15.10), and that this grace is extending to more and more people” (2Cor. 4.15).
Christologically, “grace” is the term that Paul can use to outline Christ’s ministry: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty mighty become rich” (2Cor. 8.9).
Unmistakably, then, the New Testament understands grace as an expression of the authority of God and his Christ’s lordship: Peter declares, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, just as they are” (Ac. 15.11); and Paul writes, “The grace of our Lord was poured out abundantly [on me],” declares Paul (1Ti. 1.14). Indeed, Paul’s epistles characteristically open with a pronouncement of “grace and peace” that come through the paternal authority of God (“God our Father”) and the lordship of Jesus Christ (“and the Lord Jesus Christ”) (Rom. 1.7; 1Cor. 1.3; 2Cor. 1.2; Gal. 1.3; Eph. 1.2; Phil. 1.2; 2Th. 1.2; 2.16-17; 1Ti. 1.2; 2Ti. 1.2; Phlm 3; cf. 2Pt. 1.2; ), just as his epistles characteristically conclude with a similar, if exclusively Christological pronouncement: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Rom. 16.20; 1Cor. 16.23; Gal. 6.18; Eph. 6.24; Phil. 4.23; 1Th. 5.28; 2Th. 3.18; Phlm 25; cf. Rev. 22.21; the benediction at 2Cor. 13.13 is Trinitarian).
Only when this grace is articulated as an expression of the reign and authority of the Creator through the Lord Jesus that one can have “heard the gospel and understood God’s grace in truth,” with the inevitable result that “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world, just as it is among you” (Col. 1.5-6). This proper articulation stands in sharpest opposition to those against whom Jude writes–i.e., those “ungodly people who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny our only Sovereign and Lord Jesus Christ” (Jd. 4). Such a heretical aberration of gospel proclamation highlights the necessity of understanding grace not only as God’s scandalous welcome of sinners in Christ, but also his sobering warning to sinners of a day in which “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2.16). Indeed, this is a grace that “has appeared, offering salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, just, and godly lives in this present age” (Ti. 2.11-12).
The Deployment of the Gospel for Specific Pastoral Situations
Above it was noted that Paul rehearsed the gospel in the opening verses of 1Cor. 15 for a specific pastoral aim–viz., to address those at Corinth who were denying the resurrection of the dead. Because of this, Paul appropriately emphasizes a particular aspect of the gospel that is preached:
“But if it is preached [κηρύσσεται] that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15.12).
To those denying the resurrection, Paul reminds them that the gospel proclaims a resurrected Christ.
But earlier in 1Cor. 1, Paul says differently:
“But we preach [κηρύσσομεν] Christ crucified–a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to us who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1.23-24).
Why the change in tack? Because of Paul’s pastoral aim, determined by the specific (and apparently dominant) need of the Corinthian church. Note the contextualized nature of Paul’s gospel-preaching to the Corinthians:
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters . . . I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2.1-2).
Thus, when Paul earlier writes of the reason why Christ “sent” him, he declares that it was to “preach the gospel,” which he uniquely but appropriately summarizes, in accord with his immediate pastoral aim, as “the message of the cross.”
. . . . . .
Aside from a few loose ends, when the above usages of the verb “to bring good news” and the noun “good news” have been duly considered, we find that the remaining (rather large) number of their usages in the New Testament are by themselves relatively indeterminate (with respect to the aim of discerning the specific content to which the noun or verb refer), either because the verb is used absolutely (and, thus, with no explicit content: Lk. 20.1; Ac. 8.25, 40; 14.7, 21; 16.10; Rom. 1.15; 15.20; 1Cor. 9.16 [2x]; 15.1, 2Cor. 10.16; Gal. 1.8 [2x], 9; 4.13; Heb. 4.2, 6; 1Pet. 1.12; 4.6), or the noun is used in a non-descriptive manner (Mt. 26.13 // Mk. 14.9; Mk. 8.35; 10.29; 13.10; Ac. 15.7; Rom. 11.28; 16.25 [?]; 1Cor. 4.15; 9.14, 18, 23; 2Cor. 8.18; 11.4; Gal. 1.6 [?]; 2.2, 5 [?]; Eph. 6.19; Phil. 1.7, 16; 27b; 2.22; 4.3; Col. 1.5-6 [?]; 1Th. 1.5; ), or, quite possibly, because it is being used as a gerund (Rom. 1.9, 16; 15.19; 1Cor. 9.18; 2Cor. 2.12; 8.18; 10.14 [?]; Gal. 2.7; Phil. 1.5 [?], 12; 2.22; 4.15; 1Th. 2.4; 2Th. 2.14; 2Ti. 1.8; Phlm 13). As such, their meaning must be informed, to the extent possible, by other usages in their immediate or broader contexts.
But while the content of the Gospel’s message cannot be discerned from these usages, they nevertheless shed considerable light on the nature of its transmission–its character, proper proclamation (i.e., by whom and how), and proper reception.
The Character of the Gospel Message
By the character of the “gospel” announced in the New Testament I refer to neither to its oratorical (or rhetorical) nor literary presentation but to its (professed) revelatory nature. Paul is not alone in making the following assertion:
“I make known to you, sisters and brothers, the gospel proclaimed by me–that is it is not of human origin [a free but fair paraphrase of the Greek’s “in accord with humanity”]. For I did not receive it from any human nor was I taught it; on the contrary, it was by a revelation of [i.e., concerning] Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.11-12; cf. vv. 15-16).
Inherent, if implicit, in the assertion that the gospel is revelation–i.e., “not according to humanity”–is not only that the gospel bears a divine (vs. merely human) authority but that it bears an exclusively divine (i.e., impossibly human) character: given humanity’s grave condition, it could never have developed, or even discovered, the gospel message, “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1Cor. 1.18); for “Jews demand signs and Greeks [i.e., Gentiles] look for ‘wisdom’, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” (1.22-23).
Thus, the gospel had to be–and, in the fullness of time, was–revealed. The climactic divine disclosure of the humanly undiscoverable message of the gospel is precisely what Paul means when he speaks of the gospel as τὸ μυστήριον, a phrase usually, if inadequately, translated “the mystery” (with emphasis on the article–the gospel is the mystery): Paul requests the prayers of the Ephesian Christians, that he might “make known with great boldness the mystery of the gospel [or, the mystery that is the gospel]” (Eph. 6.20). Both Ephesians and Colossians, as well as (one could argue) 1 Corinthians–make clear the revelatory and redemptive-historical character of the gospel of peace / reconciliation as “the mystery” (Eph. 3.1-13; Col. 1.24-2.5; 1Cor. 2).
It is in this vein that Paul can write to the Colossian Christians of “the gospel which you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature [?] under heaven” (Col. 1.23). Against numerous commentators, here Paul intends no hyperbole. Here the verb “proclaimed” refers to the once-and-for-all, irreversible disclosure of the gospel and not to its actual (still future) reception, comprehension and appropriation. Just as a highly significant press release may be sent out by the White House, even if that release has yet to be fully dispersed through the media to the wider population, nevertheless the actual contents of the press release, once dispatched, can no longer be altered. In the same way, it is from the hope of this immutable gospel message that the Colossians are to remain unmoved.
The implications of all this are significant: though humanity neither discovered nor even desired it, the gospel was nevertheless graciously and effectively disclosed. As Paul makes clear in 1Cor. 1-2, for those to whom the mystery is made known (via God’s specially chosen “holy ones”–i.e., his “holy apostles and prophets”), there can be no boasting, except in God himself: “it is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,” he declares to the divided Corinthian community (1Cor. 1.30; cf. Mk. 4.11 // Mt. 13.11). The very same ban on boasting that Paul applies locally / surgically in 1 Corinthians he also applies universally / sweepingly in Ephesians 2-3, to speak of the union of Jew and Gentile in Christ. Accordingly, the “wisdom” of this world is radically critiqued: in Christ God had given the world his Wisdom–i.e., the means to human flourishing, and yet the world’s rulers had crucified him. Little wonder that Paul must admonish the Corinthians: “Let no one deceive themselves: if anyone among you thinks themselves to be wise by [the values of] this age, let them become a fool, so that they may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight” (1Cor. 3.18).
The Proper Proclamation of the Gospel
The revelatory character of the gospel has implications for its proper proclamation.
First, in view of the necessity of the divine “givenness” of the gospel (as outlined above), it makes good sense that those to whom God assigned the original task of heralding the gospel would be regarded as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1Cor. 4.1), stewards who must “be found faithful” (4.2).
As such, Paul and Peter can speak of themselves as those “entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel” (Gal. 2.7; 1Cor. 9.17; 1Th. 2.4; 1Ti. 1.11), and Paul and his fellow laborers speak of themselves using the framework of slaves / servants (δοῦλος / διάκονος): they are subservient to both the unchanging content and to the necessity of the call of the gospel (1Cor. 3.5; 2Cor. 3.6; 6.4; Eph. 3.7; 6.21; Phil. 1.1; Col. 1.23, 25), so that Paul speaks of “discharging [his obligation of] preaching the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15.19; Col. 1.25). Indeed, he states, “If I preach the gospel, there is no basis for me to boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach it” (1Cor. 9.16).
Second, given the fact that the gospel had to be revealed on account of the foolishness of this world’s “wisdom,” it should hardly be a surprise that those who proclaim it will encounter opposition.
The Proper Reception of the Gospel