In the Christian faith, the terms “Good News” and “Gospel” are often used interchangeably. There’s good reason for that since they both translate the same Greek word from the New Testament into English.
But what is this Gospel/Good News, anyway? What makes it good? And why is it supposed to matter so much?
In this post—which is a bit longer than usual—I’m going to back up a bit so we can gain more clarity and confidence about what the content of the “Gospel” or “Good News” actually is.
If you’re looking for a tweetable one-liner that sounds trendy or which doesn’t engage a few of the deeper issues please go elsewhere.
And let me be clear. This subject matters. Immensely. It is of eternal significance.
Here are a few of the reasons why this whole subject can be confusing.
First, people of various backgrounds (regardless of what they believe) sometimes use “the gospel truth” as an expression. As such, the “gospel” has, for some people, come to mean something they really, really, really think is true. Someone might talk with great confidence about how Connor McDavid is the best player in the N.H.L. That’s the “gospel truth,” they might say.
In Christian circles, I’ve heard people say that “the Gospel wasn’t preached” unless they were told that Jesus died for their sins. I’ve also heard that “the Gospel is that God loves you.”
So which one is it?
What makes it even more confusing is that we call the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life “Gospels”—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Gospel = The Good News
The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament are in Greek. The word “gospel” and the phrase “good news” both translate the same Greek word. As a noun, euangelion occurs 76 times. As a verb, “to tell good news,” euangelizo, occurs 54 times. It’s everywhere. In the older King James Version of the Bible, it’s sometimes translated as “glad tidings” (like in Luke 1:19 where the angel Gabriel comes “to shew thee these glad tidings”).
But words don’t appear out of a vacuum. They often have a history which helps us understand where they came from and how they function. Imagine if, in two hundred years from now, one person asked another what Facebook was. ‘Was it like a high school year book?’ Not really. It comes from the thought-world of the internet and social media. In a similar way, the word that is translated into “Gospel” or “Good News” emerges from a certain thought-world.
Here are two important bits of background to that thought-world which give us some clarity.
The Old Testament
The first is from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. A key passage is Isaiah 40:9 (NIV):
You who bring good news [euangelizo] to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news [euangelizo] to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
This prophecy, which dates back to more than 700 years before Christ, looks forward to a day when God’s people will return from exile in Babylon, after having had their city and temple destroyed, along with many of their hopes and dreams. It also references God’s enthronement in Jerusalem.
So it’s about the return, triumph and enthronement of God in Jerusalem, and about God’s people being restored and blessed in the process.
The Roman World
The second bit of background is from the Roman world which was the backdrop to the New Testament. In that context, a “Gospel” or “Good News” announcement was something many people would have heard about before. Yes, that’s right; it was a word that was also used outside of the Bible.
In What St Paul Really Said, Bible scholar N.T. Wright says it often referred to the birth of a new ruler, or to a great military victory, or to the accession of a new ruler like the Roman emperor. The arrival of a new ruler was supposed to bring a great benefit to his people and the start of a new reign, world, or period of history.
An example is found in the Priene Inscription from 9 B.C. which refers to the Roman Emperor Augustus:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the good news [euangelia] that have come to men through him
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it provides some of the context for how the word “Gospel” or “Good News” is used in the New Testament.
What have we learned so far?
The word for “Gospel” or “Good News” didn’t come out of thin air. It brought with it several implications.
In the Jewish context of the Old Testament it certainly would have brought to mind God’s personal return and enthronement in Jerusalem, and the liberation of God’s people from exile.
In the wider Roman context it would have brought to mind the birth, victory, and/or accession of a new ruler who would bring a life-changing benefit to his people under a new reign.
With that in mind, let’s look at just a few examples of the word for “Gospel” or “Good News” in the New Testament.
The Good News/Gospel in the New Testament
In Luke 2:10-11 (NIV) we come across a famous part of the Christmas story where the angel speaks to the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news [euangelizo] that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
Here we learn that a new ruler has in fact come. A Messiah is born, who is the long-awaited Jewish King—the “anointed one”—who is also called “Saviour.” In the Old Testament, “Saviour” is a title used for God himself, so it’s not insignificant that he’s given this title along with “Lord.”
Jesus is not only the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about a coming King, but he is set up as a superior King than even the Roman Emperor himself. God has come to us personally and victoriously in Jesus. There are religious and political implications to this kingship.
Another important use of the word for “Gospel” or “Good News” is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (NIV) where Paul is speaking to the Christians in ancient Corinth in the years following the resurrection:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel [euangelion] I preached [euangelizo] to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached [euangelizo] to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 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…
Here we learn that our salvation—being made right with God, having peace with God, both in this life and the next—is connected to our response to this new ruler and King whose name is Jesus.
Paul emphasizes a few things that are central to this Good News/Gospel—namely the death and resurrection of Jesus. As topsy-turvy as it might sound, the enthronement of our new King Jesus is most clearly seen through the cross and empty tomb. As a side note, it’s telling that several of the details in Jesus’ crucifixion narrative have parallels in enthronement ceremonies for Roman emperors.
One of the significant and eternal benefits that King Jesus brings to his people is that he rescues them from God’s wrath which they rightly deserve because of their sin. On the cross, Jesus “died for our sins,” setting us free from the penalty for our sin.
It should be stressed that in the early church, “Christ” and “Messiah” (both meaning “anointed one,” the first is a Greek word and the second is a Hebrew word) started to be used as a synonym for Jesus’ name. This sometimes happens in our own time as well. There are times when people refer to “the Prime Minister” or “Mr President” instead of using their personal names. But because of their profile and office, everyone knows who is being talked about. The same thing occurred in the first century with Jesus, but the practice became very entrenched, quickly. The downside is that it’s easy to forget that “Christ” or “Messiah” means “anointed one,” and is always supposed to remind us about his status as ruler and King.
Of the many passages we could explore, let’s just look at one more. Mark 1:14-15 (NIV) says:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [euangelion]!
So, if the “Good News” or “Gospel” is about a King, and about a significant benefit for the people who are under the care and reign of that King, Jesus himself is proclaiming the arrival of this new King, and also a new realm of care and blessing under himself—which is, appropriately, called a “King-dom.”
As the story of Jesus plays out, we learn more about his identity as this new King, about the kind of King he is, and discover what a transformed life and world looks like under this new King for his people. It is a life of forgiveness (both received and given), of love, of service, of truth, of holiness, and of justice.
As the wider narrative unfolds in the New Testament, we also discover that this King will one day return as Judge to usher in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1, NIV) where “righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NIV). God’s creation will be restored to how it was originally to be. Because of that, it is also a message of transformation and forward-looking hope.
The Centre of the Good News
The centre of the Good News/Gospel is a new ruler and King: Jesus.
When I’ve considered all the various passages about the Good News, including the identity and work of the King, and also the benefit he brings to his people, here’s how I’d spell it out a bit more fully:
The Good News is God coming to us personally and victoriously to renovate and reconcile all things through the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of King Jesus.
‘But Matthew, isn’t the Good News/Gospel that God forgives our sin when we trust what Jesus has done for us on the cross?’ Of course; that’s included in the victorious crucifixion of Jesus.
‘But Matthew, isn’t the Good News/Gospel that God loves us?’ Of course; that tells us something about the heart and motive of our heavenly Father. As it says so beautifully in John 3:16 (NIV), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Imagine a big beam of light hitting a massive diamond. The various biblical passages about the Gospel or Good News are those twinkling reflections on the wall. They all tell us something wonderful about the Good News, and they all trace back to that huge diamond, to the source: Jesus Christ.
Here is how a few other people have summarized the “Good News” or “Gospel,” each in their own way.
Pastor and best-selling author Tim Keller says it like this:
Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.
With his usual poetry, Frederick Buechner writes:
The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner… that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.
Professor D.A. Carson, puts it succinctly:
We are talking about the good news that reconciles lost men and women to the eternal God. We are confessing the gospel: that God himself has provided a Redeemer who died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to himself.
In a book devoted entirely to this subject, N.T. Wright says:
Jesus’ good news was about heaving coming to earth… [the good news] was not about how to escape the world. It was about how the one true God was changing it, radically and forever… the good news at it’s heart, [is] about the rescue and renewal of the whole creation.
Even though each person uses different words, they highlight the centrality of Jesus in the loving and forgiving work which God has done and is doing: renovating, restoring and reconciling all things to himself through Jesus.
Because of this Good News of and about Jesus:
- Each of us can be given peace and reconciliation with God, forever
- Each of us can be forgiven for the sin which separates us from God, and for which we deserve God’s wrath and judgment
- Each of us can be assured of heaven
- Each of us can live in loving relationship with God on a daily basis
- Each of us can enjoy the victory Jesus has won on our behalf
- Each of us can have a purpose for our lives as we participate in the ways Jesus is renovating the world with his love and truth as we look forward to a new heaven and new earth
That Good News can be our Good News when we ask God for forgiveness, put our faith in King Jesus, and humbly accept what he has done for us on the cross.
The Good News is Big
One of the reasons all of this is important is because the Good News is big. It offers big hope. This is big picture stuff. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people need (and I would say, crave) big hope.
If we believe in a little bit of good news (or good advice) which doesn’t do justice to the big things God has done, is doing, and will keep on doing, I believe we’ll be shortchanging people on the hope God offers them in King Jesus.
But if we do believe in the big Good News—which is the biblical Good News—I believe we’ll be doing greater justice to the hope God wills for all his children and for the wider world.
The Good News is God coming to us personally and victoriously to renovate and reconcile all things through the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of King Jesus.
This Good News can benefit every single human on planet earth—and it’s something people can’t get anywhere else.
A Firm Foundation
Let me end with this. Billy Graham tells a story about a family who purchased a plot of land for a home in the Appalachian Mountains. It was breathtaking, overlooked a valley, and faced some beautiful mountains. They made plans, chose a builder, and the house was completed.
After about a year, things started to go terribly wrong. They noticed that the soil was depleted and depressed around the foundation. Cracks started appearing in the walls. A structural engineer discovered that the concrete for the foundation was poured over a pit filled with old stumps, loose rocks, and debris. The house literally started to sink into the ground!
Because the foundation wasn’t solid.
It’s no coincidence that in Ephesians 2:20, Jesus is called our “chief cornerstone.” It isn’t a coincidence that when Jesus is speaking with Peter, he points out that the foundational rock on which the church is built is on the insight and declaration about who he is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16, NIV).
If you take an engine out of a car, it isn’t really a car anymore. It might look like a car, but it’s not really.
In a similar way, if you take the Good News or Gospel out of Christianity, you don’t have Christianity anymore. You may have the shell of something that sort of looks like Christianity, but the main thing is gone.
And when we take Jesus out of what we think the Good News is, we don’t have Good News.
And when we take the foundation out from under a house, it sinks into the ground.
King Jesus is the solid foundation on which we stand.
When it comes to the Good News, let’s be clear, confident, and think big—as we experience and share the huge, hope-filled, world-changing, and life-altering news of what God is doing for his children and world through King Jesus.
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 Wright discusses this more fully in: Tom Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford, England: Lion, 1997).
 Drawing on scholarly research, Shaine Claiborne and Chris Haw summarize these in: Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 126-131.
 This is from Christianity Today magazine, as quoted at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/gospel-definitions-tim-keller/
 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 7.
 D.A. Carson, Basics for Believers (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1996), 36-37.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Good News (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 7, 13, 91.