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.

The “Other” Words

In my church, we talk a lot about words of life. They are meant to be words that encourage people and call them into a deeper, more joyful way of living. However, there’s another paradigm that sometimes enters into the words we listen to. There are other words out there that are much more difficult to hear, sometimes so much so that they don’t feel much like “words of life” at all. In fact, they feel a bit like.

Death.

At least, they hurt pretty bad.

Once I was with my family and I was wondering about how I hadn’t been more successful in my somewhat anti-climactic musical career, and my beloved sister just looked at me and said, “Well it’s probably because you were just too lazy and too unhealthy to be successful.”

Ouch.

But the thing is, even with words that direct, and that challenging (and trust me: I don’t really like to hear words like that), I wasn’t crushed. I didn’t yell, or lash back.

In fact, I realized that I was sitting in front of deep truth, and I had to choose whether to hear and embrace it, or turn away.

To that end, I chose to hear it, and some remarkable things happened:

  • That truth actually released me from some regret and some preoccupation with my past failures as an artist. I realized that I really was responsible—in a way—for my lack of success.
  • It led me to continue to confront those two themes—laziness and “un-health”—in my life, which has led to some cool healing.

Now, I take it as a given for Christians that we understand that sometimes death needs to happen before new life can take place.

Good Friday happens before Easter.

To that end, sometimes words of life don’t feel like words of life at all. They can feel like words of death: hard and challenging even sad. But when they are spoken by people we trust, and spoken in a manner that is designed for us to grow, these hard words can kill something inside of us that needs to die in order for growth, new life, and healing to take place.

However, I also know that words can be uttered with the intent to destroy, not resurrect; to reduce, not instruct; to hurt and not love. So before you decide to “hear” hard words, I’d offer a few suggestions:

  • Consider the source: do you trust them? Do you trust that they love you? Are they people of the light?
  • Consider the environment: were they angry when they said it (my sister was not)? Were you in a fight?
  • Consider the implications: what would happen if you took their words into your heart? In my case, I sensed that Beth’s words would set me free, and so I could allow them in.

I’ve heard other harsh words in my life, but what about you? Have you heard hard truths that ultimately invited you to grow in profound ways?

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