“Jesus died for your sins, and that’s good news!”
So ended the form-letter that my friend wrote, emailed to me, and asked me to read (and edit) for him.
My friend wrote the letter so that he could cut and paste the names of various family members and friends onto the top of it as a way of “sharing the gospel” with them. He had been feeling convicted that he needed to do more to share his faith, and this was his approach of choice. The idea was that when he felt compelled to “share the gospel” he would put their name on the top, and either hand the written letter to them personally, mail it to them, or paste the text into an email and send it to them.
I was overjoyed that my friend wanted to share the gospel – the GOOD NEWS – about Jesus with his friends, but I was not overjoyed by the definition for good news given at the end of the letter…
“Jesus died for your sins.”
Let me explain before you wonder whether or not I think Jesus’ death for our sins is important… because I do – it’s just that that is not the Gospel. It’s a salvation formula centered on dying and going to heaven.
Is there a definition for the Gospel in the New Testament?
There is one text in the New Testament that overtly states… “HERE is the Gospel.” It’s 1 Cor. 15:1-4, and it was written by the Apostle Paul. Here’s what it says…
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (emphasis mine).
So, what’s the Gospel according to Paul? It is three things:
- Jesus died for our sins,
- Jesus was buried in a grave, and
- Jesus was resurrected after 3 days.
That’s the Gospel.
But what does it all mean? Someone will say – “You just said that Jesus dying for our sins was not the Gospel, but right here Paul says that it is the Gospel.”
Hold on a minute! Paul says way more than “Jesus died for your sins.” He also says two whole other things, without which the first thing makes no sense. The second thing he says is that Jesus was buried, and third, he says that Jesus was raised up from death after he died and was buried. Those three things together are the Gospel, and nothing less.
“So what?” you might say, “The second and third parts about burial and resurrection just means that since Jesus died for our sins, we can go to heaven when we die just like he did.”
No that’s not what the text says. It does not say that Jesus died for our sins and went to heaven so the we could go to heaven when we die (though that does happen to followers of Jesus). The text says that the Gospel is…
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
That is the good message about Jesus. I will say more about this in a moment. But first…
Old Testament Saints already knew about God’s forgiveness and a temporary stay in heaven…
My friend’s written presentation of the “gospel” was all about forgiveness of sins as the result of the death of Jesus, and the reward of eternal life in a place called heaven. All this, he explained, was available to those who believe in Jesus. In this formula, Good News = Forgiveness, or the good news is that you can be forgiven of your sins and go to heaven when you die.
Well, to be sure, the fact that God forgives sins is great news, and the fact that we can be with God after we die is incredible! It’s an overwhelming blessing. But announcing this to people is not the same thing as sharing the Gospel. Let me throw you a curve-ball. God was forgiving sins in the Old Testament too. In fact, He was known as the God who forgave sins and whose compassion was greater than His punishment (cf. Ex. 34:6, Ps. 103:12, Micah 7:19, etc.) And apparently Old Testament saints also expected to go (and indeed, went) into the presence of God after death to await… (wait for it…) — an eschatological resurrection (cf. Mk. 12:27, Heb. 11:4-12:1, Mat. 17:3, etc.)! In fact, one of the greatest verses about God’s forgiveness of sin is Ps. 32:1, which says…
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
The Psalmist was reveling in God’s forgiveness long before Jesus came into the world and died on the cross. In fact, the Psalms are full of prayers for forgiveness, and assurance (in the heart of the Psalmist) that God would forgive sin because He is… Forgiving! (see Ps. 25:18, 86:5, 99:8, 103:3, 130:4 as examples).
“Well,” you might say, “…if the good news about Jesus isn’t just that we can be forgiven of our sins and go to heaven, then what other possible meaning could ‘good news’ have? What is better news than news about forgiveness?” The answer is bound up in the meaning of the word gospel (good news) itself, and how that word was used in the days of Jesus. More than that, the word has been used and heard by cultures and nations all over the world for ages…
…wherever those cultures and nations… HAD A KING!
The ancient word for Gospel is euangellion, and it is a composite of two greek words together. The first is “eu” – which means “good.” We use words like “eulogy” (a speech where you share the good things about someone when they die). The second word is “angellion” which is the noun form of the word “message,” and you can see the word “angel” in there. The word “angelos” is the word for messenger, which is one of the ministries of angels in the Bible. But a person can be an “angelos” (messenger) too, if they’re functioning as one delivering a message. So, Gospel simply means “a good message.” But not only that, it is a particular kind of message delivered by a particular kind of person.
In the ancient world, and in the times and nations when Kings ruled over kingdoms, there were people called “Heralds.” That’s an archaic word for “messenger.” Remember the Christmas hymn? “Hark the herald angels sing… glory to the new-born king.” A “herald angel” is a “messaging messenger.” The heralds were the ancient equivalent of news anchors. They literally “read the news,” and then posted a written announcement of what they had read in visible places in city centers, town squares, and on major roads in order to ensure that their message trickled out to the masses. But in the case of euangellion, it was always good news.
Most heralds were dispatched throughout the kingdom when something significant happened that would affect the throne, and the people over whom a king was reigning. Three examples of significant events would be…
- The marriage of a king to his queen,
- The birth of a king’s first son — heir to the throne, or
- The coronation of a new king, and his ascendance to the throne
There were certainly other things that heralds could announce, but these were the big ones! In fact, every one of these images (marriage, birth, and ascendency to the kingly throne) is used with reference to Jesus in the Bible’s “kingdom” teaching.
WEDDING ANNOUNCEMENT – Rev. 19:7 The “lamb” is marrying his bride! The kingdom formerly divided (heaven and earth) are re-united! The Son (on the heavenly side) and the Bride (on the earthly side) have come together to re-join what was formerly torn apart! God’s Kingdom has come… on earth as it is in heaven!
BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT – Luke 2:11 Good news! The heir to David’s throne has been born!
ASCENDANCE ANNOUNCEMENT – Luke 24:5-6 Why are you looking for Jesus in a grave-yard? He has been raised up and will come back again!
Sometimes heralds were dispatched to newly-conquered lands, accompanied by the new King’s armed entourage, marching under the new King’s banner or ensign. They would announce something like…
Hear the good news all ye people. King Kingly McKingerton is now your king, and rules your land. Let every knee now bow, and every tongue confess that McKingerton is King to the glory of His Majesty!
…to which everyone would (if they valued their lives) respond…
“Long Live King Kingly McKingerton!”
At the point of that announcement, everyone would need to discover how to re-think everything in light of the reign of the new king. That is, they would have to “repent, for the reign of the new King is inaugurated.” And then, layer-by-later, the reign of the new King, and the impact of his governance would begin to reshape life in the kingdom.
If the euangellion (good news message) was read aloud, it might then be publicly posted in some prominent place in the center of the town so that passers-by could read (if they were able) the announcement themselves. The good news was delivered. The King has ascended to the throne and is now ruling over the kingdom. He is King now, and everyone in the kingdom would be governed by this King – and would need to line up their lives according to his sovereign rule. After all – he was now the King!
What does this have to do with what Paul said?
Now remember, Paul said that the “gospel” (the good announcement about Jesus) was three-fold… – Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures – Jesus was buried – Jesus was raised up according to the scriptures.
I am contending that this is NOT a message that says… “Good news, Jesus died on the cross for your sins and was resurrected so that you could be forgiven and go to heaven when you die.”
Good News… – Although sinful humans rejected Jesus as King and murdered him – And although they buried him in a tomb as though that was the end of his story – God vindicated his rightful claim to be our King by raising him from death!
GOOD NEWS! THE KING HAS ASCENDED TO THE THRONE!
That, I am saying, is the good-news announcement about Jesus.
Even though I believe that the righteous death of Jesus brings the human race into right-relationship with God when we embrace him as our true King, and even though I believe that when we die, just like the saints of old, we will go into an intermediate place of rest and fellowship with God (heaven, if you will), I do not believe that these things are the center of the gospel message.
The entire 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians is not about going to heaven. It’s about resurrection (which is physical!). The good news about Jesus is that even though he died and was buried, God raised him up. Further, if we will reject our earthly loyalties to fallen governments, fallen leaders, fallen angels, fallen humans, and fallen systems, and ascribe our loyalty fully to the RISEN King, we will reign with him forever – NOT in a distant place called heaven, but in a fully re-joined heaven-and-earth-resurrection existence where Jesus is King!
Okay, so what is the Gospel and how do we preach it?
I’ll make this easy.
What is the Gospel?
“Jesus who died and was buried has been raised up and is King, so submit to his kingly reign and live under his Lordship both now and forever.”
That’s it. Simple. That is the euangellion. That is the announcement that the herald makes. “So-and-so is King now, so change your lives and submit to the King.”
How do we preach the gospel?
Well, that should be obvious. We announce to people that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, and has been vindicated by God as the only human being that is pleasing to God. Jesus has been given heaven and earth as his kingdom, and he is calling everyone, everywhere, of every age, background, and nation to submit their lives to him as the world’s true King.
Those who affiliate with the true king will reign with him forever – starting now.
Those who reject the true King will be removed from his kingdom forever.
Now watch… With all this background in mind, read the “great commission” with fresh eyes again and tell me what you see.
18: Jesus said, “God has turned heaven and earth over to me to be the king over all of it”
19: So as you are going into all the world, bring everyone you meet into this reality. Baptize them as a sign of their loyalty to me.
20: Teach them my ways, and call them to obey me as their King. I am with you until the project is complete, and the whole kingdom is won back to me!
This is the GOOD NEWS according to Jesus.
Jesus is LORD! Follow Jesus.
For a much more lengthy and expanded understanding of the the Gospel as the announcement about a King and his Kingdom, read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.
You can also read this older post (and the interesting comments that follow) where I come at the same question using N.T. Wright’s definition of the Gospel, and survey some of the conclusions of various well-know pastors, evangelists, and theological thinkers.