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.