The idea of ‘good news’, for which an older English word is ‘gospel’, had two principal meanings for firstcentury Jews.
First, with roots in Isaiah, it meant the good news of YHWH’s longawaited victory over evil and rescue of his people. That is, the early Church used the ancient Jewish word gospel meaning good news to talk about the significance of the kingdom of God. That word gospel actually went back to Is 40 9 which talked about God’s comforting news to Israel in Exile, the news that God was redeeming Israel by defeating all the evil that had stood against God. This was the great news that God was doing something which would change everything.
Second, when the early Church used that word gospel, they knew as well that in the world of their day, the word gospel was what Roman emperors used to talk about their own enthronement, birthday or accession day.
As such, when the early Christians said the Scriptures are fulfilled and Jesus the Jewish Messiah is now the Lord of the world, they knew first of all that was an invitation to anyone anywhere who was tired of whatever system they had and needed release from. For instance, they knew it was an invitation for release from sin and death and everything that was cramping them as human beings. But at the same time, they knew that it was a slap in the face for Caesar on the throne, because the gospel message, such as we get in Paul, was that Jesus, the crucified Messiah of Israel, was (and is) the Lord of the world. The clear implication was that, therefore, Caesar isn’t the Lord of the world. Jesus was. As such, the gospel message was not some simple intellectual invitation such as ‘I have a new religious experience which you might like to try on for size’ nor was it ‘here’s a few propositions you might like to consider because it is soft and pleasant’. Unfortunately, although many Christians through the centuries, and especially today, try to water the gospel message down like that, the invitation to believe in the gospel cannot simply be some such intellectual invitation because the gospel is not some intellectual invitation.
Instead, the gospel message is always a challenge to what Paul called the “obedience of faith” which means to say that if Jesus is Lord, the summons to believe is the summons to allegiance, and allegiance means a total change in how you live. Further, it means a change which will be very subversive politically. For instance, as we look out in our world, we see that “Caesar” is at times harder to define in our world. But it’s still the case that there are many forces out there that claim our allegiance just like Caesar did then. Still, for Paul the gospel was that Jesus is Lord which means that, therefore, Caesar isn’t. All of this means, in turn, that the gospel is to grasp our head, our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength. And, to grasp the gospel message in that fashion means that we are to be sent out to live very differently from how we would otherwise live.
So, in summary, we can now better see that for Jesus, Paul and the others the announcement of God’s inbreaking kingdom – the gospel – was both the fulfillment of prophecy and a challenge to the world’s present rulers. As such, ‘gospel’ became an important shorthand for both the message of Jesus himself, and the apostolic message about him. That is, Paul saw this message as itself the vehicle of God’s saving power as we read about, for instance, in Ro 1 16 and 1 Th 2 13.
16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.
Also, the four canonical ‘gospels’ also tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to bring out both these aspects (unlike some other socalled gospels that circulated in the second and subsequent centuries, which tended both to cut off the scriptural and Jewish roots of Jesus’ achievement and to inculcate a private spirituality rather than confrontation with the world’s rulers).
And, since in Is this creative, lifegiving good news was seen as God’s own powerful Word (40 8-9; 55 11), the early Christians could use ‘Word’ or ‘message’ as another shorthand for the basic Christian proclamation of the gospel.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” 9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for