What is the Gospel? It likely isn't what you think it is.

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The word “gospel” comes from the old English word “gödspel” translated from the Greek word “euangelion” (εὐαγγέλιον) which literally means “good news.” But what exactly is the news that is good? If you ask different people, you are going to get different answers because there are a lot of different ideas about what the Gospel actually is. Some will say that the Gospel is that “Jesus died so that you can go to Heaven when you die.” Some will say that the Gospel is that “God vented his wrath on Jesus instead of you so you don’t have to go to Hell.” The problem with answers like these is that whether or not they may have glimpses of truth, Jesus didn’t teach them.

The predominant focus of mainstream Christianity is the undeserved crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the subsequent forgiveness of sins that is available through accepting that sacrifice. While this selfless act was and is unquestionably momentous, and its effects exceedingly far-reaching, many would be shocked to find out that the Bible defines the Gospel differently than what they have always been told. A thoughtful reading shows that accepting Christ’s blood in payment of our sins—as foundationally important as it is—is actually not the focus of the “good news” that he brought and that the apostles continued to preach.

So then what exactly is the Gospel?

What Is the Gospel, Really?

A: Did Jesus preach the Gospel?

B: Yes.

A: What is the Gospel?

B: That Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven.

A: Jesus taught that?

B: Well, no…

A: But Jesus did teach the Gospel?

B: Yes.

A: What then is the Gospel?

What the Gospel Isn’t

The first thing we all must agree on is that Jesus did preach the Gospel to the Jews and some Gentiles. We all agree on this point. But Jesus didn’t preach that his death provided salvation, though true that may be. That just wasn’t the Gospel that Jesus taught. Jesus actually kept his upcoming death fairly secret, only mentioning it a few times to his disciples, but no one else. The synoptic Gospel books only record three times Jesus mentioned his upcoming death.

The first time that Jesus tells his disciples (and only his disciples) that he was going to die, he strictly commands them to tell no one else (Luke 9:21-22). When Peter heard him say this he rebuked Jesus, to which Jesus replied, “get behind me Satan!” (Mark 8:30-33). Clearly, Peter didn’t understand any message or teaching about Jesus dying. Nine days later Jesus reminded his disciples again that he would be arrested but “they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.” (Luke 9:43-45). One final time, as they made their way to Jerusalem, Jesus explicitly told his twelve disciples that he would die, but “the disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:31-34).

Jesus did tell a small handful of people, his disciples, about his upcoming death and resurrection, but it was a secret and they didn’t even understand. On the other hand, the Gospel was preached to the multitudes a great many times. Clearly, Jesus’ death and resurrection were not included in his Gospel preaching. So why is the death and resurrection of Jesus so central to modern teachings of the Gospel? Maybe, just maybe, popular Christianity may not even know what the word ‘gospel’ means.

Good News

The use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘euangelion’ (εὐαγγέλιον), and its word family, originally wasn’t made popular by the Bible or Jesus.1 ‘Euangelion’ was a word that was already being used before Jesus came on the scene; it already had a meaning, a usage, and a purpose in the Roman world. So before Jesus started using the word, what was the “good news” that was being referred to? A ‘gospel’ is first and foremost a proclamation, an announcement of something good. Nearly all of the time we find the Greek word being used in other secular writings of the time it is in the context of a royal proclamation, especially that of a military victory or announcing the arrival of a king.2

The word ‘gospel’ was one of political propaganda. In the year 44 BC, a few decades before Jesus, the most famous emperor of Rome, Julius Caesar was assassinated. His death threw the empire into a massive civil war between his murderers, Brutis and Casias, and Caesar’s best friend, Mark Antoni, and his adopted nephew, Octavian. They defeated Brutis and Casias but then turned on each other for ultimate power. The decisive battle was fought at sea off the coast of Greece in 31 BC. Octavian won and Mark Antoni fled with Cleopatra to Egypt in shame. After 13 long years of civil war and chaos, Octavian brought peace to the Roman world. Octavian renamed himself Augustus (Luke 2:1) and was declared the “son of god.” He was called “lord,” “savior,” and “prince of peace.” There are ancient inscriptions uncovered by archeologists all over the Mediterranean world that reads, “the birthday of the god (Caesar Augustus) was the beginning for the world of the gospel (euangelion) that have come to men through him.”

Caesar Augustus, the emperor over Rome at the birth of Jesus, had a gospel; it was his Pax Romana—Roman Peace. Augustus sent evangelists (euangelistēs/gospelers) all over the Roman world to preach the gospel that Caesar had defeated his enemies, that he is the son of god, that he is lord and savior, and he has ushered in a worldwide era of peace and justice. Sound familiar? The Romans who had been on the wrong side of the civil war had to decide whether or not they would “repent and believe the gospel.” ‘Euangelion’ in the Roman world was a royal announcement concerning a king and a kingdom. ‘Gospel’ was a political term through and through.

The Gospel According to Jesus

The “good news” (Gospel) that Jesus proclaimed was highly political as well. After all, when any Jew or Roman heard the term ‘gospel’ they would think of a royal proclamation of sovereignty or victory. So when Jesus proclaimed “good news” it was understood in that context. The Gospel that Jesus taught was that the Kingdom of God, a new nation in which he was to be crowned King, had finally come.

Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15

According to Jesus, the Gospel (the good news) is the Kingdom of God. If you have any doubts just look at this sampling of how the Gospel is described:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Matthew 4:23

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.
Matthew 9:35

…the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations…
Matthew 24:14

Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him.
Luke 8:1

Christ’s message was bigger than personal grace and salvation—as wonderful as they are. His message was about the reign, rule, and dominion of the One who is to be the King of that Kingdom.

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than he talked about anything else.

The phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” are found over a hundred times in the New Testament, the majority of them in the four gospel accounts. It is important to note that these terms are used interchangeably but they both mean “Kingdom of God.”3 Jesus spent his entire ministry talking about his new nation. Christ’s ministry started with the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 3:2) and ended with the Gospel of the Kingdom (Acts 1:3). The book of Acts, which tells us about the early Church, starts with the Kingdom and ends with it as well (Acts 28:30-31). Paul preached the Kingdom (Acts 14:22, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 28:31, 29:25; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20), he began his ministry teaching the Kingdom (Acts 14:22, 20:25) and he ended his ministry teaching the Kingdom (Acts 28:16, 30-31). The early Church preached the Kingdom (Acts 8:12; Hebrews 1:8, 11:33, 12:28; James 2:5; 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 1:6, 1:9, 5:10, 11:15, 12:10). Proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God was the reason Jesus was sent, it is the one message he wished to get across (Luke 9:57-60).

Jesus said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
Luke 4:43

Jesus proclaimed the Gospel before his crucifixion and resurrection and when he proclaimed the Gospel after his resurrection, he didn’t mention his crucifixion or resurrection. This is because the Gospel is the Kingdom of God.

Another Gospel?

Because the word ‘gospel’ has become so decontextualized and religious-sounding, it has often and easily been hijacked by certain denominations, theological movements, or trends. When we lose the royal and imperial context of the word ‘gospel’ it can be made to stand for any number of things.

Different theological movements at different times highlight varying aspects of Christ’s ministry and attempt to conflate it with the Gospel (of the Kingdom). One noteworthy one is Calvinism, or the Reformed movement, which assumes that justification is the gospel. While Paul teaches a doctrine of justification, he never actually conflates it with the Gospel. Jesus does speak of justification by faith (or more accurately, ‘allegiance‘), but only once in a parable; clearly not the content of the Gospel.

Another popular, but incorrect understanding of the Gospel is the idea of a “gospel of grace.” The Gospel is taught to be related to “personal salvation,” or grace from the consequences of sin. But the phrase “kingdom of grace” never appears in the Bible, nor—to the surprise of many—does “gospel of grace.” “Gospel of peace” is found twice, in Romans 10:15 and Ephesians 6:15, both probably echoing Isaiah 52:7 and Nahum 1:15. In Ephesians 1:13, Paul calls it “the gospel of your salvation.” Yes, the Kingdom of God provides peace and salvation, but the Gospel of Jesus (and thus the only Gospel of God) is the Kingdom.4

By far, in Scripture, the gospel is most often called “the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 2:12, 9:13, 10:14; Galatians 1:7; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 3:2), “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1, 15:16; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:8, 9; 1 Peter 4:17), and “the gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14; Luke 4:43, 8:1, 16:16; Acts 8:12). From the Bible’s own wording, then, we can conclude that the divinely inspired Gospel is about the Kingdom of God. This, after all, is the gospel that Jesus proclaimed.

Regarding Paul - Optional Reading (press to read more)

Some traditions of Christianity get their understanding of what the Gospel is from Paul, often citing Romans or 1 Corinthians. But Paul didn’t have a different gospel than Jesus. Paul taught the Gospel of the Kingdom.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God…” (Acts 14:22)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

“…I have gone about preaching the kingdom…” (Acts 20:25)

“[Paul] witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

“He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

“the kingdom of God is… righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

“the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Corinthians 4:20)

The apostles of Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.

“when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized…” (Acts 8:12)

The so-called “Romans Road” is not the Gospel. The Gospel is clearly, as Jesus taught, the Kingdom of God. Paul doesn’t present us with a different gospel message.

What About 1 Corinthians 15?

Many Christians believe that Paul summarizes the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, and that it isn’t the Gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus taught. But let’s take a look at Paul’s writing.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
1 Corinthians 15:1-7 ESV

Once you know what to look for, it is fairly obvious. First Paul affirms that he preached the gospel to them. As we’ve seen from the verses above, Paul preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, just as Jesus did. After that, he goes on to be more specific about a related topic: the resurrection of Christ. But Paul isn’t saying that the resurrection is the Gospel message. He says, “for I delivered to you… what I also received…” before he talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul is essentially saying that the bit about the resurrection is in addition to the Gospel. The resurrection of our bodies is the entire topic of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus and of us is part of the Gospel, but just a small part. The Gospel is primarily about Jesus being enthroned as King over his nation.

Subverting the Rebellion

Once you lose the kingdom theme, which is central to the gospels, everything else becomes reinterpreted in ways that radically distort, that substitute a subtly different “gospel” message for the one Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are eager to convey.
—N.T. Wright5

We’ve seen how the Gospel, according to Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. But what is the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom of God is the dominion of God. The Kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. The Kingdom of God is where God is finally back on the throne as King. The Kingdom of God is the creator taking back his creation back from the enemy. But wait, is this not God’s world? Is he not its creator? Is he not sovereign of the entire universe? Why, then, did Jesus have to announce that God’s dominion was on its way?

The answer is simple: This is not God’s world. Yes, he created it, but his creation has rebelled against him. Scripture repeatedly claims that the Satan is the god of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). 1 John 5:19 says that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (Read more on this here.) The Kingdom of God is Jesus’ answer to this problem.

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 9:1-2

Participation in God’s Kingdom is achieved when we live like Jesus lived and love like Jesus loved.

Salvation for the World

Jesus calls upon his followers to make disciples of all the nations. The significance of this command must not be understated. For the early Christians, obedience to the Great Commission involved nothing less than going to nations that Rome had conquered and claimed as its own and calling on the people to switch their allegiance from Caesar to Christ. Caesar had already sent out evangelists to preach his gospel and now Jesus was sending out his. Such an effort was considered treasonous. The kingdoms of Christ and Caesar were on a collision course. The new disciples were required to pledge their loyalty to a foreign King in a public baptism in the name of a God who was foreign to Rome. This could mean the death penalty, especially if the new converts were Roman citizens or served in a governmental capacity.

The devil and his nations have their idea of what the “good news” is. The word “gospel” is surprisingly political. Before Jesus started his ministry, he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the enemy (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world because they are his to offer. But Jesus refused them because he knows it is not his mission to take back the world by violent force, which the worship of Satan requires. Instead, Jesus’ nation would take over the world with love.

Just three verses after the end of the temptation narrative, Luke recounts Jesus announcing that he is the Messiah in Nazareth’s synagogue (Luke 4:16-21). He quotes from Isaiah 49:8-9, which describes his mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Luke 4:18-19

His mission, he says, is to preach the good news to the poor, free those whom Satan has imprisoned and deceived, heal the sick, and begin the process of freeing them from oppression. God’s Kingdom is an eternal Kingdom that started with the arrival of Jesus and its mission is to reverse the curse of death, sin, sickness, and decay. The true Gospel is the announcement of the arrival of Christ’s new world order.

God’s Foothold

Many centuries of pagan tradition have convinced people that heaven is their “home” and their reward when they die. Nevertheless, the biblical record is plain: God’s Kingdom is being established on the earth he created, and it will be an everlasting kingdom.

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.
Revelation 5:10

As strange as it may seem, for many people, the Gospel is not good news at all (1 Corinthians 1:18). People like “the gospel” when it is limited to the forgiveness that is available through Christ’s sacrifice. However, when they hear that God’s Kingdom includes obedience to his commands to love their enemies and refusal of the use of violence, they cannot tolerate it, preferring the pagan fantasy of easy grace and its self-indulgent reward of floating around heaven. For many, the true Gospel is anathema because it contradicts them, their traditions, their patriotism, and their ideas. Ultimately, the true Gospel spells the total destruction of worldly nations that many Christians hold dear.

The gospel of the kingdom is a gospel of spiritual violence. It shakes nations to their foundations and provokes either obedience or rejection. It’s so powerful it will upset every generation that hears it, altering the lives of those who submit to its claims. This is true even in societies like the United States of America where “freedom of speech” is the norm. The gospel of the kingdom, when preached without compromise and in its original purity, sounds treasonous.
—Frank Viola6

Yet, to those who “have an ear to hear,” the Gospel is good news. Christ’s gospel is the proclamation of the expanding government of God to govern all the world. The establishment of God’s rule is the only way today’s confused, violence-addicted earth will ever have peace, joy, and abundance. The true Gospel is the powerful message of God’s government, which triumphs peacefully and subversively over all the pagan governments of the world.

Join Us

The announcement of “good news”—the very best news that could be heard today—was about Christ’s Kingdom being established on earth. Living in God’s Kingdom is salvation from the sin of empire. Unfortunately, ‘Jesus as Savior’ is often preached without reference to the Kingdom. But apart from the Kingdom, there is no gospel, and there is no salvation. Paul issues a sharp rebuke for anyone who preaches a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-8). Christians rarely set out to twist the gospel, but they often preach a gospel that is shaped more by the pagan cultures around them than by the Scriptures.

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.
1 Corinthians 4:20

God calls us out of the nations we were born in and into citizenship in his Kingdom. This is why we only experience true salvation when we forsake the pagan nations of the world that Christ’s Kingdom has been set up in opposition to. Pagan nations offer Satan’s way of ruling the world while the Kingdom offers God’s way.

The salvation of the Gospel means saving you from something and into something else.

The Gospel is about liberation from our enslavement to the violent powers and principalities that structure our world. The Gospel of the Kingdom is that Christ’s nation will continue to grow until it overtakes the world and wipes away all the destruction, pain, and misery that violence and greed subject it to. The Gospel is that Jesus is King. The Gospel is about the world that is being restored. The Gospel of the Kingdom is that this victory happens through self-sacrifice and non-violence with love for all, even enemies. You are invited to participate in it.


Go Deeper

Footnotes

  1. In the Old Testament, the word ‘gospel’ (when Hebrew Scriptures were translated to Greek) is almost exclusively used in the context of the defeat of an enemy (1 Samuel 31:9; 2 Samuel 4:10, 18:19, 31; 1 Chronicles 10:9; Psalms 40:9) or in relation to a king (1 Kings 1:42; 2 Samuel 18:20; Isaiah 52:7). The “good news” proclamation usually always meant that a new king was put on the throne, a mighty victory had been won, and in either case, the world was being told that things were about to be different. So the Jews had a context for the word ‘gospel,’ but there was an even greater context to be considered.
  2. Neil Elliott, “Paul and the Politics of Empire,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, ed. Richard Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 24; Dieter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology, trans. David E. Green (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 83; N. T. Wright, “Gospel and Theology in Galatians,” in Gospel in Paul: Studies on Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans for Richard N. Longenecker, ed. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 226–28.
  3. Mark, Luke, and John use the phrase “Kingdom of God,” while only Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven.” He does this not because he has a different view of the meaning or content of the kingdom of God; rather, out of sensitivity to his Jewish readers, he makes common use of what is called periphrasis, doing so because of a superstition common at the time of avoiding the use of the sacred name of God (a certain interpretation of Exodus 20:7). So for Matthew, the doctrine of the kingdom of heaven is the same kingdom that the other writers speak of as the Kingdom of God.
  4. While beyond the scope of this article, there is a historical reason for this confusion, and it is quite recent. The idea that the Gospel of the Kingdom was for the Jews and the “gospel of grace” is for the Gentiles began in the mid-nineteenth century with the Plymouth Brethren—the inventors of dispensationalism. Their doctrine was popularized by C. I. Scofield, who published his famous Scofield Study Bible in 1909. Scofield’s Bible was used at Moody Bible Institute, and it spread throughout evangelical schools all across America. Although the majority of scholars have refuted it throughout the years, the doctrine is still with us today.
  5. Wright, N. T.. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (p. 158). HarperCollins.
  6. Frank Viola, Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom (Baker Books, 2018), 28.