The gospel is a Jewish thing. But the word “gospel” doesn’t sound very Jewish! You’d be hard pressed to find a rabbi who would use the word in their religious vocabulary. So you might find it surprising that—if you understand its true meaning—it actually refers to the core message of Judaism.
That fact is often obscured by the way that followers of Jesus aren’t always careful about how they use the word. As often happens with big, important terms, it gets overused and the definition starts to get hazy. Truth be told, if you asked three Christians at random for a definition, you might get seven different answers.
The definition comes straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures.
All that can make understanding what “gospel” means a bit confusing. But the word really does have a clear definition. The definition comes straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures, the history of the Jewish people, and their hope for God to save them from their oppressors and establish His kingdom rule on the earth. We’ll explore the background of the term and try to find a clear definition.
Roots in Ancient Life
The English word “gospel” comes from the Old English translation of the ancient Greek word used in the New Testament (not sure why we haven’t updated that in the last thousand years).1 That Greek word, euangelion, can be woodenly translated as “good news.”
This term was drawn from the political sphere of ancient life. In the days when there were lots of warring kingdoms but no telephones or internet (and most people couldn’t afford a homing pigeon), you had a very common problem, where news of a war’s end would travel very slowly.
Imagine being an ancient peasant, and someone rides into your village saying they’re bringing news that your capital city is under siege and your king is in danger. That would be scary because, as in a game of chess, if your king falls, your country goes with him. If you weren’t one of the men who was called away to go fight the invaders, you’d have to wait around for weeks or months, anxiously praying for another rider to come and tell you that your king had won the war. What you were hoping for was a victory report, i.e., a gospel.
So a gospel was just a normal part of everyday life in the ancient world for both Jews and Gentiles. They probably wouldn’t need to use the word every day, but they’d know what it meant. It’s like how modern American political jargon has words like “battleground state.” Most of us don’t use that word a lot, but we know what it means.2
Roots in the Hebrew Scriptures
A gospel was simply the news that was proclaimed across a nation when their king won a decisive victory to secure the kingdom’s peace; or sometimes it was news of a new king coming into power through victory or succession. It was such a normal part of ancient life that different languages had their own word for it.
The Jewish New Testament writers used euangelion as a translation of the older Hebrew word, besorah.
The Jewish New Testament writers used the Greek term, euangelion, because Greek was the common tongue used broadly around the Eastern Mediterranean in that day. But Yeshua (Jesus), being a Jewish man from Judea born around 3 BC, was an Aramaic speaker. When the New Testament says he told people to repent and believe the “euangelion,” he would have used the Aramaic word, besura.3 And his audience would have probably recognized an older biblical reference: the Hebrew word, besorah (note the sound similarity).
The plain meaning of both besura and besorah is equivalent to the Greek, euangelion.4 And both Hebrew and Greek had a verb form of the root word that meant to proclaim good news. But in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh), the concept gathered a more important significance than the plain political meaning it normally had. It was often associated with the coming victory of the God of Israel, which was often linked closely with the victory of the son of David, the anointed king of Israel/Judah.
This idea shows up in the stories of Israel’s kings in the Tanakh at several key points. For instance, the verb form of the word appears in the story where Solomon is anointed king to inherit his father David’s throne (1 Kings 1:38-45).5
In the Psalms and the prophets, the good news being proclaimed is directly about God Himself. It’s the salvation He brings to His people on account of His faithfulness to fulfill His promise.
I have gospelled of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation. (Psalm 40:9-10—in the Hebrew Bible it is verses 10-11.)
A use of this term in the prophets is found in Isaiah. The prophet looks to the future restoration of Israel and the return of God’s special presence to his people and says:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those gospelling, who proclaim peace, who gospel good things, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7, based on the NIV)
So we can see that, for the Jewish people, the ultimate gospel they hoped for was when God would save Israel and establish the line of David. Of course, they could use the word for other things. But the most significant use was when they were specifically talking about the arrival of the kingdom of their God.
New Testament Use: Gospel of the Kingdom
It’s important to see that the whole concept of a gospel is actually empty unless we know which king has had the victory! A gospel is always a “gospel of ____,” fill in the blank. If we want to talk about the gospel that the Bible proclaims, we have to understand that we’re using a shorthand way of talking specifically about the good news of the victory of the kingdom of the God of Israel. You could call it the “gospel of the kingdom.” That’s what the New Testament writers were actually trying to tell people about.
In the days of Yeshua, the Jewish people were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the kingdom of God, which would appear with the coming of an anointed Davidic king to save Israel from oppression. He would bring back the special presence of God to His people and restore the nation.
The Jewish people wanted freedom from Roman oppression. Tied in with that hope was the expectation of divine mercy. The prophets taught that the nation’s plight was the outcome of their past unfaithfulness, which God would one day forgive (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34 or Ezekiel 36:23-31). The salvation brought about by the Messiah would mean that God had forgiven the nation’s past sins.
This connection between national salvation and divine mercy is illustrated for us in the words of Yeshua’s mother Miriam. When she found out that she would bear the Messiah, she composed a psalm of worship to God in which she says,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, … He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. (Full passage: Luke 1:46-55)
So when Yeshua showed up on the scene saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), his people would have heard that as a claim about God’s forgiveness of His people, the coming of a new king (the Messiah), restoration of freedom and dignity for Israel, and the special presence of God coming to dwell with His people again (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
That’s a really big idea! But Yeshua actually wanted to expand it. Even though the gospel that he proclaimed was rooted fully in the Tanakh, it also clashed with some of the expectations of many other Jewish people in his day.
For one, it was more universal than they seem to have expected. Many of the people Yeshua encountered (very understandably) limited their hopes for salvation to Israel’s immediate needs and issues.6 But God’s goal was to do something through the Jewish people and their Messiah that was cosmic in scope. The arrival of the kingdom would change the nature of humanity and clear the path for the renewal of the entire creation (Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 60:1-3, Revelation 21).
Rather than conquering, the righteous son of David allowed himself to be conquered.
For another, the victory of the Messiah came in a shockingly ironic way. It did not come through the glorious military victory of the anointed one leading the armies of Israel (as even many statements in the prophets seemed to imply). Rather than conquering, the righteous son of David allowed himself to be conquered, to face the rejection of his people and execution on a Gentile cross. But in that apparent defeat was a decisive victory on a cosmic scale. It was the victory over the great evils that are the ancient banes of Israel and the universal enemies of all humanity: sin and death (Genesis 3-4).
A Working Definition
For the New Testament writers, being first-century Jewish people, this big and nuanced picture of salvation through Messiah was so intuitive that they rarely felt the need to give a didactic description of it. But we do get some helpful summaries of the gospel of God’s kingdom in the book of Acts.
Acts (long title: Acts of the Apostles) is the New Testament book that records how the early followers of Yeshua spread the good news to their Jewish, and later to their Gentile, neighbors. For example, Saul (a rabbinically educated Benjamite from Tarsus), gives a drash (a teaching on the Scriptures) at a diaspora synagogue in chapter 13, where he summarizes the history of the Jewish people as the story of God establishing His kingdom on earth. Then he argues that the resurrection of Messiah Yeshua has secured salvation and forgiveness of sins for all who trust in him (Acts 13:13-43). Later in chapter 17, he translates this message for a Gentile audience, explaining it in more universal terms (Acts 17:22-34).
Based on these passages and others from the New Testament, we can put together a working summary of the gospel message they proclaimed.
God promised to one day bring forth an heir from David who would restore all things.
God, seeing that His human creatures had rebelled and rejected Him, chose Abraham’s children through Isaac and Jacob to be a holy kingdom in which He would reign in love and mercy. They were to be a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations. But the people of Israel kept being lured back into the idolatry of their Gentile neighbors and rejected God as king over them. God allowed them to have a human king and later chose the royal line of David to be eternal. Then He promised to one day bring forth an heir from David who would restore all things. But the people, led by the sons of David, continued to drift away into idolatry (and the social evils that always accompanied it). While God disciplined them, He refused to reject His people. He sent them the prophets and ultimately sent them Messiah Yeshua, the anointed and only perfectly obedient son of David. As Messiah, he represented God’s authority to the people, and was the representative of the people before God. As such, he was uniquely able to take on and resolve the jagged rift in the relationship between God and His people. Yeshua suffered and died for the sins of his people. Then God raised him from the dead, destroying the power of death and giving His people the sign and the firstfruits of God’s kingdom come for the world—the resurrection and renewal of all things. Because of Israel’s special calling to be God’s representatives to the world, that cleansing of sin and promise of renewal extend through Messiah Yeshua, not only to his Jewish people, but to any and all Gentiles who put their faith in him and are joined to his kingdom community.
That’s pretty dense! Try putting all of that in a single tweet. Can we make it shorter?
The gospel is the good news that Yeshua, Messiah of Israel, has overcome sin and death by giving his life for his people. In his resurrection, he has inaugurated and secured the promised arrival of the kingdom of God, restoration of Israel, and the same resurrected life for all those who put their trust in him.
A New Exodus
Perhaps one of the best ways for us to think about the gospel is that it’s like the announcement of a new exodus. The Gospel writers strongly hint at that metaphor at many points.7 In the exodus, God’s people didn’t know exactly where they were going, what it would look like when they got there, or if they even wanted to go! But God had a plan for them that was much bigger than their imaginations. And God’s plan for His people was secured when He rescued them from slavery and became their king (Deuteronomy 33:5).
The life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua give us a picture of what God has in store.
In a similar way, those who put their faith in Yeshua find themselves somewhere on the road between being freed from slavery and their ultimate salvation in the fully realized kingdom of God. Like the Jewish people following Moses in the wilderness, we don’t know exactly what God’s kingdom will look like. There are plenty of reasons we might be apprehensive about it! But the life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua give us a picture of what God has in store: a renewed humanity in a renewed world, basking in the loving and glorious presence of the Creator, the God of Israel.
The gospel is the good news that Yeshua has won the victory to bring this new world about, and he invites us all to join him through repentance and faith.
1 Once English speakers got it translated into Middle English, we apparently just never thought to update it again, even after the English language totally changed and became early modern (think Shakespeare), and then contemporary English.
2 A lot of Christians would be surprised to know that in the decades before Jesus was born, Augustus Caesar’s rise to power—sealed by his victory in a bloody civil war that enforced “peace” in the conquered territories (like Israel) at the point of a spear—was hailed as an euangelion for the whole world by Caesar’s hype men. This was explicitly stated on an ancient inscription from 9 BC. https://kairoscenter.org/good-tidings-caesar-jesus/
4 That’s why the ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the Septuagint (circa 200 BC), used euangelion to translate besorah. For example, you can compare 2 Samuel 18:20 in Hebrew against the Septuagint Greek translation of the same verse.
5 In this story it’s a little ironic because David’s other son, Adonijah, who had tried to declare himself king, hears from afar the shofars blowing for Solomon’s coronation. Then he asks if that means good news for himself, but he’s quickly informed that it’s all for Solomon, which for him is dangerous and bad news.
6 This is very understandable, as so often the Scriptures themselves are very focused on Israel. And there is always a temptation to shrink the gospel down to be about little more than our immediate concerns. The church through the ages has done this in a number of different ways, and it often takes a renewal movement to remind Christians of the full scope and depth of the gospel.
7 They often show Jesus doing things that remind us strikingly of Moses. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus ascends a hill to give a five-part sermon on the law, recalling Moses bringing the law down from the mountain and the five books of the Torah. In Mark 9:2-8, Jesus ascends a hill to meet God and be transfigured in glory, again like Moses, who came down from his meeting with God at Sinai with his face shining. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness and is tempted to reject God and his mission, recalling the 40-year journey of Israel in the wilderness, where they were tempted to return to Egypt.