When we think of the words ‘gospel’ or ‘evangelism’, what invariably comes to mind is the church telling people (often reluctantly) that God loves them, that Jesus died for them, and that if they believe in this good news, they will have the assurance of eternal life, by which is usually meant life after death in heaven. This is a very inadequate synopsis of how the word euangelion (‘good news’ or ‘gospel’) and the verb euangelizō (‘to proclaim good news’) are used in the New Testament. The problem essentially is that these important biblical categories have been extracted from their original context and modified to fit an understanding of Christianity as a universal, a-historical system of belief, whose ultimate objective is to secure eternal life. If we restore these categories to their natural environment (see also ‘How to rescue Romans from the fish tank of Reformed theology and return it to the sea of history’), what emerges is a powerful story about how a devastating crisis in the history of the people of God came to be interpreted as good news for the world.
Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom
The ‘gospel of the kingdom’ is an announcement made first throughout the towns and villages of Israel regarding the imminence of the ‘kingdom of God’. It is accompanied, on the one hand, by a call to repentance (Mk. 1:14), and on the other, by miracles of bodily and psychic healing (eg. Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 11:4-5). The meaning of this ‘gospel’, therefore, is determined by the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. The emphasis on repentance points to the fact that the coming ‘kingdom of God’ will entail judgment on Israel; the healings and exorcisms, the preaching of good news to the poor, show that it will also constitute a moment of restoration for the people of God (cf. Lk. 4:18-19; cf. Is. 61:1-4; Hos. 6:1-2).
The disciples are sent out initially by Jesus to make exactly the same ‘gospel’ announcement about imminent judgment and deliverance to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:5-7). The Jerusalem church in Acts continues this mission: the nation faces a judgment of a kind foreshadowed in Joel 2:30-32, but Jews who repent of their rebelliousness and wickedness and are baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ will be saved from this ‘crooked generation’, will not be destroyed, and will find the life of the age to come (cf. Acts 2:14-41; 3:17-26; 4:10-12; 5:30-31).
Good news for Israel proclaimed to the nations
Jesus also tells his followers, however, that this ‘gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations’, after which ‘the end will come’ (Matt. 24:14; cf. 26:13; Mk. 13:10). The ‘end’ in view here is the end of the sufferings that they will have to endure – the birthpangs of the new age – before the destruction of Jerusalem and the vindication of this nascent renewal movement. This is not global personal evangelism in the modern sense. In keeping with expectations generated by Old Testament prophecy, it is the announcement to the nations, notably to the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or empire, that Israel’s God is about to act decisively in the course of history (this should be an entirely unnecessary qualification to add) in order to transform the condition and standing of his people in the world. The concrete evidence for this will be the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of a growing prophetic movement of people driven by the Spirit of God, intensely loyal to their confession that God has made Jesus Lord over the gods and rulers of the ancient world.
Salvation according to this large-scale narrative has two parts to it (cf. Rom. 1:16). For the Jews, salvation means deliverance from the final judgment on national Israel that will take the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For the Greek-Roman world it will mean deliverance from an obsolete religious system, a bankrupt culture, and participation in the life of a new redeemed humanity in Christ. Paul’s argument in Romans, in a nutshell, is that God must first hold Israel accountable for its failure to live up to the Law before he may judge the pagan world with integrity (cf. Rom. 3:5-6, 19); but he will also save a community out of Israel through which he will demonstrate his righteousness and sovereignty before the nations.
The good news that Paul preaches to the Jews of the diaspora is consistent with this evolving narrative. Again, to make things clear, this is not simply a gospel of personal salvation: it may entail that, but it is fundamentally an announcement made to Israel about Israel. What God promised to the fathers, he has fulfilled by raising Jesus from the dead, which Paul interprets by means of Psalm 2:7: ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ The point of this is precisely that God is overcoming Israel’s enemies (Ps. 2:1-6, 9-12; cf. Rom. 1:1-4) by making Jesus his Son, that is, Israel’s king; and that he will give to this ‘king’ the nations as his heritage, the ends of the earth as his possession (Ps. 2:8). The good news to Israel, therefore, is that through the current crisis of judgment and restoration, which Jesus spoke of as the coming of the reign of God, Israel’s God will assert his sovereignty over the nations, over Israel’s enemies, over the powers of the pagan world, through Jesus whom he has raised from the dead.
Good news for the nations
The announcement, however, is not made only to the Jews. According to Isaiah, when God demonstrates his power by delivering and restoring his people following judgment, that action is to be proclaimed among the nations (eg. Is. 52:1-12). This is how Paul interprets his ‘evangelistic’ ministry: he proclaims publicly to the nations that God has confirmed the promises made to the patriarchs and shown mercy to his people Israel (Rom. 15:8-12). But when many Gentiles believed this message regarding the God of Israel, they received as a matter of faith the same Spirit of worship and prophecy (cf. Acts 10:44-48) and were bound, therefore, to be incorporated into this movement of renewal, which was also an emerging new humanity or new creation. The good news to the Gentiles, as Paul explains it to the Ephesians, is that membership of the previously exclusive commonwealth of Israel has been opened up to non-Jews (Eph. 2:11-3:6).
This is as far as the New Testament takes us. The good news that is proclaimed to the Gentiles is the Creator God is not God of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles (cf. Rom. 3:29-30), and that they may, therefore, become part of the priestly people whom he has chosen for his own possession, part of the emerging new creation in Christ. Salvation by faith for these alien believers did not mean primarily that they would go to heaven when they died (though there are certainly questions here that need to be addressed) but that they would become part of a people that was in restored relationship with the Creator and which had a future beyond the foreseen judgment of the pagan world. Paul’s statement ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Eph. 2:8), which has become axiomatic for modern evangelicalism, is oriented not towards a final, post mortem judgment but towards active, concrete participation in the people of God: they have been saved from the futility of paganism not as a result of works but for the sake of ‘good works’ (Eph. 2:8-10), for the sake of participation in an authentic worshipping community (2:19-22).
The gospel today
How are we to formulate a ‘gospel’ today that is consistent with this narrative? My view is that the church has travelled beyond the horizons of the eschatological landscape presupposed by the New Testament proclamation of a good news to Israel that would entail judgment on the pagan world. But the natural place to start is with Paul’s good news of indiscriminate inclusion in the people of God by grace and through faith. Ours is not the proclamation of Jesus and the Jewish church regarding imminent judgment and restoration for Israel: we do not proclaim a ‘gospel of the kingdom’ in that sense. We proclaim a gospel of universal and unassailable reconciliation with the Creator God and incorporation into a people saved from destruction by the death of Jesus. That has limitless possibilities for the individual, but it presupposes in the first place the continuing story of the existence in the world of a people called to be new creation, created now ‘in Christ Jesus for good works’. If we cannot communicate that story to the world as genuinely ‘good news’, then we fall short of the New Testament understanding of the gospel.