By Shannon Youell
One of the things I like to do is ask Christians “what is the gospel?” I don’t do it because I enjoy watching people squirm, but rather because these reactions show how those of us who are followers of Jesus have a hard time articulating the very thing we are commanded to proclaim.
So, I’ve been doing a survey. For about ten years now. It goes something like this:
“What is the gospel? What is the good news that Jesus ushered in?”
I’ve asked it of long-time Christians and new believers alike. More often than not, the answers range from explaining that the gospels are the first four books of the New Testament; or the gospel is the Creed; or the Gospel is summarized in four spiritual laws. Certainly we find aspects of the good news in all of those answers.
But there’s a follow up to question one:
Is our articulation of this gospel—this good news announced by angels, proclaimed by Jesus as the news of the kingdom now near us, among us, with us; of the fulfillment of prophecies that spoke of good news—actually heard as good news?
It’s the question everyone should be wrestling with—because we should be able to talk about good news that, when shared with others, actually sounds like good news to them. To do so requires us to first look back at the historical Jesus and what He meant and what His hearers understood as “good news.”
When Jesus stepped out of His ordinary life into the spotlight, He said these things:
The kingdom of God has come near.
Come follow me.
The story continues by telling us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria….” (Matthew 4:23, 24a).
The people who heard Jesus make these statements had an embedded understanding of what was being said to them because Jesus used concepts that meant something to them. The context, of course is their story, the story of Israel from the beginning and including their current occupied state.
The term gospel or good news had a known meaning. It was used as a heralding that a new king had battled an oppressive king. This new king would change everything about their lives. He had saved them from the results of that oppression and promised them peace and justice, both in the immediacy of the near future and into the future beyond.
When Jesus told those who heard Him that “the kingdom of God was near,” this was what they understood it would look like. The term “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God,” had an embedded understanding that comes both out of the story of God and his people, Israel and their understanding of the royal pronouncement of Good News represented.
So when the Jewish people heard John the Baptist and Jesus speak the phrases “good news” and “the kingdom of God has come near,” their ears immediately perked up. Here is something they’ve been waiting for, looking for. It had deep meaning to them even if many of them became disappointed and then many more disillusioned, that it wasn’t a power exchange that led to some kind of political domination.
They also recognized and understood that good news is only good news if there is a king. They were anticipating God’s movement of anointing a new king to His kingdom who would be the deliverer of salvation for all peoples. Thus those who heard this pronouncement looked towards the one in whom the pronouncement was focused. Without the anointed king, there could be no kingdom, so the good news was the victorious king.
Thus, Peter’s epiphany–that Jesus Himself is the Messiah, the saving King who will come to usher in God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven–became those first followers’ battle cry. It is because Jesus is that King, that Lord, that salvation from the oppressiveness of fallen humanity has broken into reality.
It is because Jesus is Lord that the sick are saved from sickness because mercy and justice are now upon them; that the “sinners” (literally “outsiders”) can be welcomed into the kingdom; that enemies can imagine what it looks like to love one another; that forgiveness can dominate and shape our thinking and actions towards one another; that we can now be in the presence of God who never stops looking for His lost children and be restored to relationship with Him and with community.
This was the rich, deep, joyful good news that pierced the hearts and souls of those who both heard and received it. It tangibly touched the aspects of their lives that were most separated from community relationships and from relationship with God their creator. It was so big that everyone with humbled hearts and willingness to rethink what they thought they already understood about God and themselves, could find a place of entry made possible by Jesus the King, Jesus their Lord. Good news indeed!
Tune in next week as we discuss what this good news means in our world today.