Re-Contextualizing the NT: The Gospel

No term is better known inside and outside of the Church than the term “gospel,” yet no term is perhaps more misunderstood by everyone involved. In order to unpack what the term means, we must start with how Jesus uses it and what He means by it.

When Jesus appears in Israel after His temptation in the wilderness, the gospels record that “he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people,” (Matt. 4:23). The declaration of evangelion (good news, gospel) and healing are closely tied together, as we shall see in a moment. But first to the “good news” itself. The announcement of “good news” has a long Old Testament history, and it always refers to deliverance of the people of God and the destruction of their enemies. The first usage of “good news” in the Old Testament is when the rebellion of Absalom and Israel is put down by King David. “So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men,” (2 Sam. 18:6-7). Two runners are sent back to David, “And the king said, ‘He is a good man and comes with good news.‘ Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, ‘All is well.’ And he bowed before the king with his face to the earth and said, ‘Blessed be Yahweh your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.’” (2 Sam. 18:27-28). As Peter Leithart has noted, at this point in the narrative, David is in exile, and his armies are being organized as a “New Israel.”[1] The passage is about God bringing about the end of the exile of His faithful and the defeat of unfaithful Israel. The “good news” is the declaration of this saving event.

The second major usage of the term “good news” is upon the coronation of Solomon as King of Israel. At the start of the book of Kings, David is old and frail, and so Adonijah puts himself through the ritual to become King of Israel in his place without informing anyone (1 Kings 1:1-31). Getting word of this coup, David orders Solomon to come to Gihon riding on a mule, where he is appointed the rightful King (1 Kings 1:32-40). The trumpets were blown, and all the people shouted so loudly “that the earth was split by their noise,” (1 Kings 1:40). The commotion is so great that it drowns out Adonijah’s own feast and they wonder what is going on (1 Kings 1:41). While they are still wondering, “Jonathan the son of Abiathar the priest came. And Adonijah said, ‘Come in, for you are a worthy man and bring good news.’ Jonathan answered Adonijah, ‘No, for our lord King David has made Solomon king . . . Solomon sits on the royal throne,’” (1 Kings 1:42-43, 46). Of course, Adonijah thinks the sound is good news, that the people are celebrating his claiming of the throne, but it is bad news for him and good news for the people of God. His feast ends in chaos as his guests scatter (1 Kings 1:49). In both stories, God acts to save His people from the oppression of a false ruler and ends with the enthronement of the true King.

Yahweh acting decisively to deliver his faithful people, crown the rightful king, and destroy their enemies as illustrated in these two stories becomes Israel’s hope after the exile that the Messiah, a descendant of David, would act to bring about their exile, gather scattered Israel together, and overcome her enemies. The “good news” which Zion is to declare with the Messiah’s arrival is just such a return from exile and restoration of the people of God:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord Yahweh comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young, (Isa. 40:9-11).

In Isaiah 41, Yahweh declares His superiority over all idols because He first prophesied that Israel would return from exile: “I was the first to say to Zion, ‘Behold, here they are!’ and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news,” (Isa. 41:27). What is this “good news” He gave to Jerusalem to declare? The end of exile and the accomplishment of all His purposes.

But you, Israel,
my servant, Jacob,
whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you,
I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Behold, all who are incensed against you
shall be put to shame and confounded;
those who strive against you shall
be as nothing and shall perish. (Isa. 41:8-11)

Three verses after He declares that He has delivered His good news for Israel to proclaim (Isa. 41:27), He declares Who will bring it about:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
Thus says God, Yahweh,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am Yahweh;
I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am Yahweh;
that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth I tell you of them,” (Isa. 42:1-9).

Likewise, Isaiah 52 makes clear what this “good news” is:

Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion;
put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake yourself from the dust and arise;
be seated, O Jerusalem;
loose the bonds from your neck, O captive Zion.
For thus says Yahweh:
“You were sold for nothing,
and you shall be redeemed without money.”
For thus says the Lord Yahweh:
“My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there,
and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing.
Now therefore what have I here,” declares Yahweh,
“seeing that my people are taken away for nothing?
Their rulers wail,” declares Yahweh,
“and continually all the day my name is despised.
Therefore my people shall know my name.
Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak;
here am I.”
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace,
who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see the return of Yahweh to Zion (Isa. 52:1-8).
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but Yahweh will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of Yahweh….
Foreigners shall build up your walls,
and their kings shall minister to you;
for in my wrath I struck you,
but in my favor I have had mercy on you.
Your gates shall be open continually;
day and night they shall not be shut,
that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations,
with their kings led in procession.
For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish;
those nations shall be utterly laid waste….
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.
The sun shall be no more your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give you light;
but Yahweh will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for Yahweh will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended. (Isa. 60: 1-6, 10-12, 18-20).

Israel’s expectation—and indeed her hope—was that God would finally act in His Messiah to fulfill these promises to restore Israel, to gather the scattered people, to overthrow their enemies, and to build the final holy City and Temple where the faithful would reign and worship forever.[2] As we have seen earlier, Jesus radically reinterpreted these promises around Himself and the people He was calling out of Israel to be the new reordered people of God, that the exile was coming to an end in His own ministry.[3] The gospel of St. Luke records that after the wilderness temptation, Jesus attended the synagogue and stood up to read Isaiah 61, and then announces that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:21). What Scripture was that?

The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn….
For I Yahweh love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring Yahweh has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Isa. 61:1-2, 8-10).

Various theologians have been recovering the original gospel in recent decades, and New Perspective writers like N. T. Wright are a great help along the way, but they are ultimately only a stop along the road. It is vital and important to see the gospel as the announcement that God has become King over the world, to be sure.[4] Our God reigns, and let us never forget it. No gospel without it. However, more important than the fact of God becoming King over the world, for Jesus, is the sort of Kingdom that was being brought about. Israel was already well aware that the coming of the Messiah would bring about the final Kingdom of Yahweh and crown God as King over the whole earth. That was the message of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the expectation of post-exilic Israel. But they expected the Messiah to be a powerful ruler, one who would conquer with the sword of violence and power, slaughtering their enemies and getting gleeful vengeance upon all those who set themselves up against Israel and her God.

The gospel Jesus presented, the “good news” which He came to proclaim, was a good news proclaimed to the poor and oppressed, the suffering and helpless. The “year of Yahweh’s favor” which He identifies with His ministry, the Scriptures fulfilled in the hearing of His fellow synagogue-attenders that day in the first century, was the eschatological Jubilee release, in which debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and the social-economic balance of power was reset (Lev. 25; Deut. 15). It is “good news to the poor.” Mary, the mother of Jesus, clearly expected this to be so:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty, (Luke 1:51-53).

More than anything else, the gospel is the announcement that the Kingdom community in which this is true, in which the proud are scattered and the mighty are cast down, where the hungry are filled, the poor are cared for, the oppressed free, the widow and fatherless comforted—this community was being set up by Jesus, and that any who followed Him in living before the Kingdom as if it had already come to pass would be ushered into that Kingdom and blessed when it arrived. The Sermon on the Mount and the whole life of Jesus are the exposition of what this Kingdom community would look like.

When Isaiah prophesies the birth of Jesus, he declares that “the government shall be on his shoulder,” and “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore,” (Isa. 9:7). While most postmillennials today see this as a prophesy that Jesus will crush ungodly nations and conquer all human culture for the Christian faith,[5] the means by which Jesus will rule the nations is clearly the same as the example set forth in His life and death.[6] The theocracy of Jesus’ rule over the nations is a rule by service and restoration, not a nightmare dystopian theocratic rule commonly thought of today. The “justice and righteousness” upon which Jesus establishes His throne is the “good news” of the eschatological Jubilee; this is the sacrifice which He commanded to Israel, to justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God. The way in which God becomes King of the nations is by serving and loving them; God’s way of Kingship is the way of the cross, the way of the Sermon on the Mount. This is as true today after Jesus ascended the throne as it was in His life and ministry.

Let us now return to Matthew 4:23, in which Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” We have already looked at the gospel which Jesus was proclaiming, that God’s Kingdom would come into the world as a way of weakness and glory-through-suffering, not through the conquesting glories of Gentile power, and that this Kingdom was “good news” for the poor, the fulfillment and embodiment of the eschatological Jubilee. The same sentiment is found in Jesus’s acts to heal Israel.

The Old Testament background for His healing every disease and affliction among Israel is Isa. 35:7

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert (Isa. 35:3-6).

We have already seen the “coming” of God in vengeance took place in A.D. 70, and the sign that this will happen, that Yahweh is acting to save His people, is that the eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk. The miracles of healing which Jesus perform in His earthly ministry are signs that He is this Messiah and that the Kingdom is coming, that God is going to act decisively to rescue His people. Jesus even argues this Himself. When John the Forerunner hears of the works which Jesus performed, he sent his own disciples to Jesus to ask whether He was the Messiah, or if they were to wait for another (Matt. 11:2-3). Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them,” (Matt. 11:4-5).

It is important, then, to understand the gospel announcement as the “good news” that God has become the King of the world by the way of suffering and weakness, and continues to rule in this same way forever. The “good news” is that He has called all who respond to His call into a redeemed community that is to operate in this same way, a community which makes this servanthood reign of God manifest in the world by following her King on the way of cross-bearing. The call of the gospel is the call to live in this world in a certain way, together with the rest of the redeemed community of the Church, the place where the Kingdom is made manifest on earth.

Notes:
1. Leithart, A Son to Me, 252-257.
2. See Wright, New Testament and the People of God, ch. 9-10.
3. See Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 6-9.
4. See Wright, How God Became King; McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel.
5. See, for example, Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion.
6. Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, ch. 2.
7. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Beale and Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 20.

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