The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ ([amazon:978-0310492986:inline], 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.
The breakdown of the story into its component parts gets a little complicated, so I will offer a quick overview to start with. There is also a podcast version.
The background lies in the announcement of good news to Israel that we find in the prophets—that YHWH is about to act to restore his people. The good news of the kingdom that Jesus preaches is that Israel’s God is about to act in history to save his people, perhaps in deliberate defiance of the Augustan gospel of peace. For the early Jewish-Christian church the good news for Israel included the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that he was therefore messiah and Lord, to whom all authority had been given. The salvation of Israel became good news for Gentiles because the abolition of the Law through Jesus’ death meant that Gentiles who believed in Israel’s God could become part of this new creation community. Paul’s good news also included the idea that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, was the one through whom God would judge the idolatrous nations that had for so long conspired against the Lord and his anointed king.
Now for the details, beginning with some Old Testament background…
Good news in the Old Testament
The noun euangelion and the verb euangelizō are used in the Greek Old Testament—and widely in Hellenistic Greek—for the proclamation of good news. For example, when the Philistines came across the bodies of Saul and his three sons on Mount Gilboa, they sent messengers into the surrounding territory “proclaiming the good news (euangelizontes) to their idols and to their people” (1 Sam. 31:9; cf. 1 Chron. 10:9).
But the more substantial background to the New Testament idea of “gospel” is found in a series of statements in the prophets, where good news is announced to Israel and to Jerusalem regarding impending action on the part of YHWH to save his people from destruction or lead them back from exile:
And it shall be, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, because in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be one who escapes, as the Lord has said, and people who have good news announced to them, whom the Lord has called. (Joel 3:5 LXX)
Behold, on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good tidings and who announces peace. (Nah. 2:1 LXX)
Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good tidings to Zion; lift up your voice with strength, you who bring good tidings to Jerusalem; lift it up; do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “See, your God!” (Is. 40:9 LXX)
…like one bringing glad tidings of good things, because I will make your salvation heard, saying to Sion, “Your God shall reign.” (Is. 52:7 LXX; cf. 60:6; 61:1)
Isaiah 52:7 is especially important because it directly links the proclamation of good news with the “kingdom” of God: the good news is that Israel’s God reigns; he has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem, he will intervene in the sight of the nations to save his people by bringing them back from exile. That, I would suggest, is almost exactly the good news that is heard at the beginning of the Gospels.
The good news of Caesar
We should probably also take into account a corresponding “gospel” regarding the reign of Caesar. A famous calendar inscription from Priene (9 B.C.), for example, speaks of the birthday of the god Augustus, who would deliver his people from war and “create order everywhere”, as the “beginning of the good tidings (euangeliōn) for the world”. Scot McKnight (143) quotes—with some understandable hesitation—G.N. Stanton with reference to Caligula:
When Christian Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem and/or Antioch were probably first starting to use the noun “gospel” in the singular to refer both to the act of proclamation of God’s glad tiding concerning Jesus Christ and to its content, Gaius ordered his statue to be erected in the temple in Jerusalem. He was considered by many of his subjects to be a “saviour and benefactor.” His accession had been hailed as “good news,” and as marking the dawn of a new era, but his antics undermined that acclamation. So, from a very early point indeed, Christian use of the gospel word group may have formed part of a counter-story to the story associated with the imperial cult.
It was good news that God was about to act in history to transform the status of his people
Given this background, we have to suppose that if Jews in Judea or Galilee, in the early part of the first century, had heard an angel announce “good news” regarding the birth of a royal saviour (Lk. 2:10) or a prophet proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk. 1:15), they would have understood it to mean that Israel’s God was about to act—perhaps in defiance of Rome—to save his people from a crisis.
Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Lk. 4:43; 8:1; 16:16) was the public announcement to Israel that YHWH would soon act decisively to restore his people and establish his own reign over them. It was the “good news” of Isaiah 61:1, which was announced to the “poor” in Israel, that a time was coming when the devastated city and the surrounding land would be restored (cf. Matt. 11:5; Lk. 4:18; 7:22). Of course, as McKnight emphasizes (92-112), Jesus believed that he would himself be a central figure in this restoration, which is why the Son of Man was such an important figure, representing the faithful community of suffering Israel, to whom kingdom would be given.
The good news of what YHWH was doing for his people would later be proclaimed “as a testimony to all nations”—most importantly to the Jews of the diaspora (cf. Acts 13:32-33)—in the traumatic period leading up to the Jewish War (Matt. 24:14; cf. Mk. 13:10).
It was good news that Jesus was messiah and Lord
The early Jewish-Christian community added to the good news about the impending sovereign action of God the explicit belief that Jesus was the messiah or Lord: “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42; 8:12). Peter explains to the Gentile Cornelius that God sent the word to Israel, announcing the good news of “peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)” (Acts 10:36). Jewish-Christians who arrived in Antioch following the persecution of Stephen, spoke to Greeks, preaching the good news of the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20). Paul laments the fact that not all Jews have believed the Isaianic “good news” that was preached to them “through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:15-17; cf. 15:19; 16:25; 2 Cor. 2:12; 4:3; 9:13; 10:14). Finally, those who violently opposed the churches, who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus”—that is, who did not acknowledge that Jesus had been made Lord—would be shut out from the presence of God at the parousia.
It was good news about the Christ, and through it people were saved
The good news was that God had acted decisively in the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to transform the historical status of his people. Those who heard that announcement and believed it, whether Jews or Gentiles, were saved—they received the Spirit of God and were baptized into a community of new creation (cf. Rom. 1:16). The gospel was not itself the offer of personal salvation. Here we need to preserve the distinction that Scot McKnight makes in The King Jesus Gospel between the gospel and the “plan of salvation”. The conversion of Cornelius provides a good illustration. Peter tells Cornelius and his friends and relatives what God has done for Israel through Jesus. The Holy Spirit falls upon the gathered Gentiles, who presumably believed what they had heard, and they begin to praise the God of Israel for what he has done (Acts 10:34-48).
When Paul writes concerning his “gospel” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”, he means that Christ died and was raised for the sake of Israel. That is why it is in accordance with the scriptures. The predominantly Gentile church in Corinth now stood and would be saved from the coming wrath of God by holding firm to the word about what God was doing for his people. At the end of his life Paul reaffirmed the content to the gospel that he had preached: “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David” (2 Tim. 2:8). It is still a statement about what God had done for Israel and as a challenge to the pagan world by raising Jesus, the Son of David, from the dead.
It was good news that Gentiles might be included in the household of God
God would not allow the nations to walk in their idolatrous ways for much longer (Acts 14:16; cf. 17:30-31). The good news was that they “should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). The good news of the Gentiles’ salvation in Ephesians (1:13; cf. Col. 1:5) was that as a consequence of the death of Jesus for Israel, the dividing partition of the Law had been removed and Gentiles could become part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens, members of the household of God (2:14-19). The good news that Paul proclaimed amongst the Gentiles was that they did not need to be circumcised and keep the Law (Gal. 2:2).
It was good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead and appointed judge of the nations
In Athens Paul preached a good news about Jesus and the resurrection and drew from this the thought that Israel’s God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:18, 31). Paul’s “gospel” in Romans is that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:1-4). If this is an allusion to Psalm 2:7-9, the implication is that Jesus was the king who would be given the nations as an inheritance and who would judge them for having opposed the God of Israel and his anointed king (cf. Ps. 2:2). According to Paul’s “gospel” God would soon judge “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16). The angel seen “flying directly overhead” in Revelation 14:6-7 has an “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people”: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
It is still good news
This story about the salvation of Israel and the historical vindication of Israel’s God before the nations is good news for the world today. That is partly to be found in the fact that people are still called by the living God to be part of his new creation people and, as they make their way from darkness into light, from the old way of life into the new, are saved. But for the church to account adequately for its existence it has to be able to make sense of the whole story as a matter of history and not merely of belief.