Imagine a friend walking up to you one day and saying, “Have you heard the good news?” You’d wait a second or two for him to complete his thought, and then you’d ask, “Good news about what?”
The word “gospel” (euangelion in Greek) originally meant the reward given to the bearer of good tidings but the meaning shifted until the word meant the good tidings themselves. On its own, the word is no more specific than “good news” is to us today.
If you ask people what they mean when they say “gospel,” most of them will refer to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the salvation we receive when we trust in Him. And many of the uses of the word in Scripture refer to exactly that.
But many others don’t.
When we see the word “gospel” in the Bible, we should always stop and ask “Gospel about what?” “What gospel?” In the Bible, the word is used to describe different good messages, and the assumption that it always refers to the same news causes a great deal of confusion.
Here’s a list of first appearances of various “gospels.”
• Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 9:35)
• Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1)
• Gospel of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14)
• Gospel of the grace of God (Romans 1:1)
• Gospel of His Son (Romans 1:9)
• Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16)
• My [Paul’s] gospel (Romans 2:16)
• Gospel of peace (Romans 10:15)
• Gospel of God (Romans 15:16)
• Gospel which I [Paul] preached to you (1 Corinthians 15:1)
• Gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4)
• Gospel which I [Paul] preach among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:2)
• Gospel for the uncircumcised [Gentiles] (Galatians 2:7)
• Gospel for the circumcised [Jews] (Galatians 2:7)
• Gospel to Abraham (Galatians 3:8)
• Gospel of your [Gentiles] salvation (Ephesians 1:13)
• Gospel which you [Gentiles] heard (Colossians 1:23)
• Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:8)
• Gospel of the blessed God (1 Timothy 1:11)
• Everlasting gospel (Revelation 14:6)
Obviously, there is a lot of overlap. All of them have something to do with salvation and, therefore, ultimately, with Jesus Christ. But the gospel didn’t always include the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ directly. The only way to be sure what specific “good news” a passage is referring to is by context.
For example, the gospel God preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:8) was that in him [Abraham] all the nations would be blessed. This is a prophecy that all nations will someday be blessed through Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel, during the Millennial Kingdom. It’s also a prophecy that all nations are blessed through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ. But specifically, it’s a prophecy that all will be saved as Abraham himself was, by his example of faith in God. This was good news to Abraham, but there was nothing in the news that could have informed him of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Still not sure whether “gospel” can refer to anything else? Consider Luke 9:1-6:
Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece. “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.
In obedience to the Lord, the twelve apostles traveled about Judea preaching the gospel. And yet, later in the chapter (Luke 9:44-45), we read this:
“Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.
In Luke 18:31-34, we read this:
Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.
They did not understand that the Messiah would have to die. So what “gospel” were they preaching on their travels?
It wasn’t until after His resurrection that the apostles finally understood what the Lord had been talking about (Luke 24:5-7; 36-46). But long before then, they had been preaching a gospel.
The gospel that Jesus Christ preached during His earthly ministry, and that He instructed His disciples to preach was that Israel should “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
The long awaited Messiah, prophesied throughout the Old Testament, was on the scene. The kingdom that He would rule over and through which the whole world would be blessed, was fast approaching. The people needed to repent of their sins and be prepared.
This message was for Israel and only for Israel. The blessing of the rest of the nations could only occur through Israel and, therefore, couldn’t happen until Israel had accepted the Messiah (Matthew 10:5-7).
That was before Christ’s death and resurrection. What about afterwards? The Bible makes it clear that there were still two gospels in operation.
But on the contrary, when they [the twelve apostles] saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me [Paul], as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (Galatians 2:7).
So what’s going on here? Christ had died and risen again by this time. Why are there two messages of good news at this point, approximately 20 years later?
Because God was still dealing with two distinct groups of people, the Jews saved under the kingdom dispensation and all those in the Body of Christ, Gentiles and Jews, who were saved under Paul’s ministry.
Here is the gospel for the circumcised given to Peter.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
“Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it [killed the Messiah] in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:17-21).
In short, they had killed Jesus Christ. That act had separated the nation of Israel from their promised Messiah. They had to repent of their sin and be baptized in order to have their sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. When the nation had done that, the Lord would return and the kingdom would begin.
The nation didn’t repent. The Jewish leaders put Steven to death (Acts 7:51-60). Very shortly thereafter, the Lord raised up Paul and gave him a new, different gospel to a new group of people, the Gentiles. In Paul’s gospel, the cross was no longer a cause of separation but the means of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:21). He made no call to repent and be baptized, but simply to believe (Romans 4:5).
As you can see in the list at the beginning of this post, there are other shades of meaning when “gospel” is used in Scripture. It isn’t my purpose to explain each one. I only wanted to point out that the word can only be understood in context. Don’t assume that “gospel” in Scripture always refers to the same good news for the same audience. Always ask yourself “What good news?”