Words: “Good News” 

I like words. I’m fascinated with them, how they change, how they come into and out of daily use. (In fact, I believe I am solely responsible for introducing “wonky” into our vernacular.)

But some words, to me, are more important than others, particularly in regards to faith. In this realm, the stakes can be high, and also very much prone to mis-use and misunderstanding. I thought I’d spend some time here with some particular words that have may have drifted over the years. Now, these are good words: they are rich and full of meaning, but they have, in a variety of cases, been stolen, manipulated, abused and mis-communicated to the point where we are afraid of them, or just avoid them altogether.

The first word I’d like to look at is the word gospel. Now, this is a basic word, a “Faith 101” word. We think we know what it means, but it strikes me that maybe there are some nuances we might have missed over the years.

“Gospel” appears 95 times in the English New Testament. It’s sprinkled through the four gospels (though, strangely, not in John’s) and in the book of Acts. But it’s Saint Paul who really goes to town with it: it pervades every single one of his letters; he constantly mentions the word.

Growing up, I understood “gospel” to mean, “good news”. I was told that the good news was that Jesus died to set us free from sin: his death paid the price for my brokenness. We didn’t need to work to pay off our sins (in fact, we couldn’t). The subtle communication was that Paul’s “good news” was theological, and mainly focused on the Jews: they preferred the law over the freedom of the gospel. (I’m grossly summarizing, but you get the point.)

However, the more I learned and studied, I learned that gospel actually had a specific and more nuanced meaning in the first century (to Paul’s—and the Bibles—first readers)

In Greek “gospel” is the Greek euangelion, and that word had a particular use in the first century. Some people may be familiar with the definition “glad tidings”, but what most people don’t realize is that “gospel” was particularly used by the Roman empire to announce military and civic victories.

In other words, the first century already had a gospel, and it was decidedly Caesar’s. 

The word gospel was about who protected the world. Who provided ultimate peace and security for people who lived in the Roman kingdom. 

What this does, however is bring another dimension to our use of the word as well: a dimension of victory and celebration, of faith and peace.

“Gospel” isn’t only about grace versus the Law, it’s about a victory. It’s about who wins. 

(Hint: it’s love, and it’s Jesus.)

So, when Paul (and Mark as well) writes the word gospel he’s doing at least two other things (besides talking about grace). First, he’s drawing a contrast: the emphasis is on whose gospel. It’s not Caesar’s gospel, it’s Jesus’ gospel. Second (and relatedly), he’s saying Jesus is the one who provides peace and security. Don’t find security in the state, in the empire. Jesus is the one (the King) who provides for you.

The message of euangelion is that Jesus has won a victory, that he is King, and that he cares for his subjects. It’s not only about “believe and go to heaven” (though that is a nice benefit), it’s about a long-lasting existence in the Kingdom of Jesus.

When Good News is Really Good Pt 2 :: “Creation is One Great Magic Trick”

When I was young, I was taught that Jesus’ miracles offered proof of his divinity: after all, who else but the son of God could turn water into wine, heal people, or feed thousands (much less bring someone back to life)?

This is absolutely true; God was working supernaturally through Jesus and his ministry, restoring the people of God and inviting others into the family.

But is there something else going on in the miracles stories as well?

In contrast to the other three gospel writers, John has a very interesting and specific agenda, and he hints at it in the opening lines of his gospel:

“In the beginning the Word already existed.

The Word was with God,

and the Word was God…”

John’s opening words are not mere prose—compare them with way Luke begins: “Many people have set out to write accounts about the vents that have been fulfilled among us.”

John is up to something else here. His opening is less like an account and more like a poem. It’s almost like a song.

And we have seen this before.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

In the beginning…”

John opens his gospel with a poem. What’s more, he uses the same opening phrase. It’s as if John is intentionally pointing us back to Genesis 1, saying, “this is the filter you need to read this gospel through.” Not only that, but I’d also like to suggest that John pushes this Genesis connection strongly through his gospel.

Especially through Jesus’ miracle stories.

Jesus works a few significant miracles in John’s gospel, and John directs our attention to them in a very unique way. For example, after Jesus has “got the party started” at the wedding feast in Cana, John writes this, “This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory.” (2v11)

John uses phrase miraculous sign in a very distinct way. It’s associated with Jesus doing some kind of miracle and associated with a revelation of his glory.

But John is telling another story as well.

Because if you read the whole of John gospel, you’d find that he uses that phrase five more times between chapter 4 and chapter 12.

  1. After Jesus heals the Roman Centurion’s servant (4v54)
  2. After Jesus heals the man by the pool in Bethesda (5v9; technically John doesn’t use the word “sign” here but scholars identify this as one of the significant healings in this gospel)
  3. After the feeding of the 5,000 (6v14)
  4. After Jesus heals the man born blind (9v16)
  5. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (11v47)

For a total of six… 

OH, and the sixth one involves giving life to a human being. 

Hmmmmm….Where else has there been six of something, with something involving humanity on the sixth? 

Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reigh over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’

“So God creed human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them…

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!

And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.
(Gen 1v26-27, 31)

John is telling another story here, one that has to do with creation—new creation, in fact.

In other words, Jesus’ miracles aren’t just cool magic tricks. Something radical and cosmic is happening in Jesus and through Jesus, and John wants us to know it. Through Jesus and his ministry, a newness and a freshness is beginning (“God saw that it was very good!”). Through Jesus, a new reality is breaking into this present reality; a foretaste of what God eventually wants to do everywhere, for everyone.

To restore creation, ultimately and completely.

But John’s not done yet; there were only six miracles, but Genesis accounts for seven days.

“So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” (Gen 2v1-2)

When is John’s “seventh day”?

Before we get there, the sixth day isn’t over yet. John has an interesting account of Jesus’ interaction with Pilate, hinting at where all of this is going. John tells us that Pilate had Jesus beaten, whipped, and mocked. If you’ve read accounts of this, or seen The Passion of the Christ, you know that this was not pretty. 

Jesus is bloody; broken.

And in the midst of this scene, John relates a curious phrase by Pilate: “And Pilate said, ‘Look here is the man.” 



Genesis 1 (and 2) again.

John is trying to get us to see that Jesus is the “new Adam”, but also that this newness comes with a cost. In order to fulfill Adam’s “commission”, suffering has to happen.

Blood has to be spilt.

And we’re still not done.

When does the “seventh day” come in John? When does Sabbath—which means wholeness, peace, healing, completion—occur?

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.’ A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. When Jesus had tasted, he said, ‘It is finished!’ Then he bowed his head and released his spirit (John 19v28-30).

“It is finished.”

Genesis 1.

The six “signs” culminate in this one. 

Only at the cross is Jesus truly done.

John’s “seventh day” comes on the cross, with Jesus’ death. Only when Jesus has done what only he could do—to be obedient all the way to death, to defeat evil by letting evil do its worst to him—could he say, along with God in Genesis 1, that this work of New Creation is truly “finished.”

Sabbath is coming: healing, completeness, rest.

Death will shortly be defeated, and the era of the resurrection will begin.

When good news is really good, miracles aren’t just clever magic tricks: they are signs that something cosmic is breaking out all around us. When good news is really good, we realize that God wants to heal the whole world, and every one in it. 


When Good News Is Really Good Pt 1 (or “It’s Okay With God if You Don’t Join the Choir”)

Mark’s Gospel

I confess: I’m passionate about the Bible. Maybe it’s too reflective of my status as a (decidedly not young) grad student, but I am determined to see it taught well, and “used” accurately.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were talking about how there can be a difference between the historical meaning and significance of Scripture and the individual/devotional meaning and significance.

I land decidedly on the historical/contextual side: Jesus meant what he said, not what we in the 21st century wish he would have said.

I’d like to suggest this: the overwhelming agenda of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is to prove that God’s story was coming to an epic resolution and fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Everything that we read in the gospels flows into and out of that. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to separate Jesus sayings (and actions) from this agenda. 

For the next few weeks, I’d like to spend some time pushing back on some (what I believe) are misreadings of the gospels, and try to recover some of the (sometimes even more explosive) things that Jesus actually may have been saying.

Let’s start with a story out of Matthew. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man (generally understood to be God) who goes on a long journey. He entrusts  different sums of money to his servants, and when he returns he asks what they did with the amounts. Two of the three double his money, while one buries it.

The two that gained money get praise from the master, but the one who buried it (safely) gets some harsh words: “‘You wicked and lazy servant… To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Just in case you were wondering, historically, the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is just as bad as it sounds.

… and cue awkward silence.

Is God really that way?

Divorced form the agenda of the gospels, this can be (and has been) taught as a story about stewardship and giftedness.

Again, is God really that way? 

If you don’t play in the church band, are you going to be thrown into outer darkness?

If you don’t risk investment (in people or things or whatever), is what you have going to be taken from you?

Gnash teeth much?


But once you understand the agenda of Jesus—and the gospel writers—things begin to fall into place a bit more…

  • if the sums of money represent God’s mission and message in the world…
  • if the servants—including Israel—are people with whom God has entrusted His mission…
  • if (by extension) the “wicked and lazy servant” is the religious establishment in Israel…

then we begin to see what Jesus (and Matthew) might be saying here:

  • God has entrusted his mission to people, specifically Israel
  • Israel believes that God has left on a long journey—His presence has not returned to the Temple
  • God has come back to find (a) that unexpected people have valued His mission/message, and (b) Israel (or rather their leaders) have buried His message
  • God is taking His message away from Israel and entrusting it—through Jesus and his ministry—to others (the Gentiles; that’s us)

Is God still stern? Yes, because His mission is at stake. When you read the parable this way, this is why Jesus uses such strong language.

Good news is really good: God isn’t concerned so much with how much risk you take in life, or whether or not you serve in the nursery (though you should!); He’s concerned with how faithful His church is to His message and agenda in the world.