Here’s an irony, surely. The Gospel to which everyone turns for their definition of the “gospel” is one of the few books of the New Testament in which the euangelion word-group does not appear. The other gospel-free texts are Titus, James, 2 Peter, the letters of John, and Jude—all minor epistles and three of them Johannine. It’s John who gives us the classic statement, so beloved of “evangelicals”, so often the theme of “evangelists”: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). But he nowhere uses either the noun euangelion or the verb euangelizō.
Does that tell us anything interesting? I think it does. I think that the anomaly highlights a pervasive and persistent misunderstanding of “gospel” in the New Testament.
Modern evangelicalism has, for its own historical reasons, taken the saving death of Jesus out of its narrative-historical context and has put it firmly at the heart of its theological programme. It has then taken the word “gospel”—rightly perceiving it to be central to the New Testament kerygma or proclamation—and has applied it to the theological abstraction, without bothering to check whether the word and the concept actually line up.
The euangelion word-group belongs to the sphere of ancient “political” discourse. The background for its use in the New Testament is to be found in several Old Testament texts which speak of the proclamation of good news to Israel regarding such impending events as the return of the captives from Babylon, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the defeat of YHWH’s enemies, and deliverance from judgment. For example:
And it shall be, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, because in Mount Sion and in Jerusalem there shall be one who escapes, as the Lord has said, and people who have good news announced (euangelizomenoi) to them, whom the Lord has called. (Joel 2:32 LXX; cf. Ps. 95:2; Is. 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1; Nah. 1:15 LXX; also Pss. Sol. 11:1)
This language had a secondary resonance in the imperial discourse of the Greek-Roman world. The best known illustration is the Priene Calendar Inscription (9 BC), which speaks of the birthday of the god and saviour Augustus as “the beginning of the good tidings (euangeliōn) for the world that came by reason of him”. Comparison has often been made with Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
So when the euangelion word-group pops up in the New Testament, both in the Synoptic Gospels and in the literature of the apostolic mission in the pagan world, in close connection with ideas of kingdom (e.g., Mk. 1:14-15) and kingship (Rom. 1:2-4), it should be clear that what is being announced is an imminent intervention of YHWH to judge and deliver his people that would have far-reaching “political” implications for the nations ruled by Rome.
I would argue, in fact, that one of the best texts for understanding the meaning of “gospel” in the New Testament is Revelation 14:6-12. Following his vision of the 144,000 martyrs gathered with the Lamb on Mount Zion, who had been “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (14:1-5), John sees an angel “flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people”.
This is the “gospel” that the early churches proclaimed to the nations of Greek-Roman world. It was a message not of personal salvation but of the impending historical judgment of the living creator God on the whole political-religious system of pagan empire:
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. (Rev. 14:7)
A second angel announces the coming fall of Babylon the great, which is Rome. A third vividly depicts the torment of those people who wholeheartedly supported the idolatrous imperial régime.
How was this good news? It was good news because it meant that the one true living God, who created the heavens and the earth, was about to establish his own empire, through his Son as a proxy ruler at his right hand, in place of the corrupt and deceitful powers that for so long (cf. Acts 17:30; 1 Cor. 2:6) had ruled the oikoumenē, from Jerusalem to Spain.
The other significant omission from John’s Gospel, in this regard, is Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. In the Synoptic Gospels, which begin with the proclamation of “good news” that the kingdom of God is at hand, both as judgment and salvation, Jesus explains to his disciples that the age will end with a war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which will be the concrete historical vindication of the Son of Man and of those who believed in him (Matt. 24:3-31; Mk. 13:3-27).
This narrative-historical framework for the mission of Jesus to Israel has been largely suppressed in John’s Gospel. The Son of Man is not the representative of suffering Israel who is brought to the throne of God to receive a kingdom. He is one who descends from the Father and returns to the Father (Jn. 3:13). There is a coming judgment and resurrection (Jn. 5:25-29), and a vestige of the expectation that the Son of Man will be seen coming with the clouds of heaven within the lifetime of the disciples (Jn. 21:22), but nothing of the graphic prelude to the eschatological crisis that we find in the Synoptics. John is more interested in the destruction of Jesus’ body than in the destruction of the temple (Jn. 2:18-21).
Caiaphas’ opinion that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (Jn. 11:50) has historical plausibility. Kingdom is at issue at Jesus’ trial, but he tells Pilate that his kingdom “is not from here”; and when he is asked by Pilate if he is a king, he shifts the ground: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (Jn. 18:37).
Unlike the dominant tradition in the New Testament, which at every point is dependent on a reconstructed prophetic vision of the story of Israel and the nations, we sense that with John we have come adrift from the Old Testament narrative and have lost contact with the euangelion word-group in the process.
The long story that begins with the announcement of the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand and runs through to the defeat of Babylon the great and the vindication of the martyrs of the early church has been condensed down to John’s non-gospel of spiritual enlightenment, presented against the dark background of the Jews’ violent rejection of Jesus and his followers.