The meaning of ‘gospel’

The word “gospel” was coined in older English from “good-spell”, that is, “good message”. This is a literal translation from the Greek word used in the New Testament: evangelion, from eu “good” and angelion “message”.

But the meaning of a word is not only determined by its parts. What did the original readers think when they heard the word? What associations did they make?

The Old Testament occasionally uses the word “good news”. Isaiah 40:9 speaks of those who “bring good news”, an expression that would later be translated with the Greek verb evangelizô.

A word study of the Hebrew word basar, “to bring good news”, suggests that the word functioned primarily in an official, often military, context. News of victory, news of the arrival of an important general, news of liberation. It is not difficult to recognize this military aspect in Isaiah 40: the king who rides into town, the call to prepare the roads, the announcement that “her warfare has ended”. In Isaiah 61:1, it is a proclamation of relief for the poor and freedom for prisoners. Other passages where this word indicates the proclamation of God’s victory and salvation are Psalm 40:10 (“I have proclaimed your righteousness in the great congregation”) and Psalm 68:12.

In the New Testament, evangelion is often connected to the verb kêrussô: “to proclaim”. This verb evokes the picture of a herald, an official spokesman who stands in the city square to proclaim the edict of a ruler. This is how John the Baptist is first introduced (Mat. 3:1; Mark 1:4): he is the town crier (or rather, the “desert crier”) to officially announce the coming of the Kingdom of God and its mighty King.

Jesus’ own ministry on earth is characterized (Mark 1:14) as “preaching the kingdom”, kêrussôn to evangelion. This official divine proclamation has two parts: the announcement that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom is at hand”; and the instruction to “repent and believe”.

From this brief study of the Biblical terminology, it should be clear that the “gospel” is not just “good news” in a general sense; it not merely something that is nice to know, helpful to some. Rather, it is an official announcement with divine authority that changes everything. It proclaims the overthrow of Satan’s power and the arrival of God’s Kingdom. It demands allegiance to the new King, Jesus Christ. It requires a turning away from sin and calls for holy living. When that gospel is joined by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is indeed a mighty force that changes the world for good!

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