I pray that one of the effects of this book will be that the gospel of Jesus Christ is heralded—proclaimed, announced, declared, broadcast—in all its magnificent fullness for all the world to hear. That is what a person does who has heard good news. He tells it. And gospel means good news. Good news is for proclaiming—for heralding the way an old-fashioned town crier would do.
Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All rebels, insurgents, dissidents, and protesters against the King! Hear the royal decree! A great day of reckoning is coming, a day of justice and vengeance. But now hear this, all inhabitants of the King’s realm! Amnesty is herewith published by the mercy of your Sovereign. A price has been paid. All debts may be forgiven. All rebellion absolved. All dishonor pardoned. None is excluded from this offer. Lay down the weapons of rebellion, kneel in submission, receive the royal amnesty as a gift of imperial love, swear fealty to your sovereign, and rise a free and happy subject of your King.
NEWS! NEWS! NEWS!
The word for gospel in the New Testament is euangelion (eujaggevlion). It’s built out of a prefix that means good or joyful and a root word that means message or news. The word was used widely in the New Testament world to mean “the message of victory, but also used of political and private messages bringing joy.”1 In a period of history without print media or radio or television, the messenger with the good news delivered the news in person. It was spoken as an announcement. It had a celebrative feel to it. The messenger exulted over the news he had to bring. It was good news.
It is easy in our day to lose the sense of wonder and amazement at the news quality of the gospel. If we would feel what the good news of the New Testament really was, we should not forget the way it was announced in Luke 2:10-11: “The angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”
When this news landed on the earth, the effect was extraordinary— because the news was extraordinary. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nothing like it has ever happened since. Something absolutely new had entered history. One could even say, a whole new history began with the coming of Jesus.
WHY ARE THE PRISONERS REJOICING? NEWS!
Consider another picture of the gospel arriving. This time not the ancient town crier, but a modern prison camp. Imagine American prisoners of war held behind barbed wire in a camp with little food and filthy conditions near the end of the Second World War.2 On the outside of the fence the captors are free and go about their business as though they don’t have a care. Inside the fence the captured soldiers are thin, hollow-eyed, unshaven, and dirty. Some die each day.
Then somehow a shortwave radio is smuggled into one of the barracks. There is connection with the outside world and the progress of the war. Then one day the captors on the outside of the fence see something very strange. Inside the fence the weak, dirty, unshaved American soldiers are smiling and laughing, and a few who have the strength give a whoop and throw tin pans into the air.
What makes this so strange to everyone outside the fence is that nothing has changed. These American soldiers are still in captivity. They still have little food and water. And many are still sick and dying. But what the captors don’t know is that what these soldiers do have is news. The enemy lines have been broken through. The decisive battle of liberation has been fought. And the liberating troops are only miles away from the camp. Freedom is imminent.
This is the difference that news makes. Christians have heard the news that Christ has come into the world and has fought the decisive battle to defeat Satan and death and sin and hell. The war will be over soon, and there is no longer any doubt as to who will win. Christ will win, and he will liberate all those who have put their hope in him.
The good news is not that there is no pain or death or sin or hell. There is. The good news is that the King himself has come, and these enemies have been defeated, and if we trust in what he has done and what he promises, we will escape the death sentence and see the glory of our Liberator and live with him forever. This news fills us with hope and joy (Rom. 15:13) and frees us from self-pity and empowers us to love those who are suffering. In this hope-sustained love he will help us persevere until the final trumpet of liberation sounds and the prison camp is made into a “new earth” (2 Pet. 3:13).
BUT WHAT DOES THE NEWS MEAN?
But the gospel is not only news. It is first news, and then it is doctrine. Doctrine means teaching, explaining, clarifying. Doctrine is part of the gospel because news can’t be just declared by the mouth of a herald—it has to be understood in the mind of a hearer. If the town crier says, “Amnesty is herewith published by the mercy of your Sovereign,” someone will ask, “What does ‘amnesty’ mean?” There will be many questions when the news is announced. “What is the price that has been paid?” “How have we dishonored the King?” When the gospel is proclaimed, it must be explained. What if the shortwave radio announcer used technical terminology that some of the prisoners were not sure of? Someone would need to explain it. Unintelligible good news is not even news, let alone good.
Gospel doctrine matters because the good news is so full and rich and wonderful that it must be opened like a treasure chest, and all its treasures brought out for the enjoyment of the world. Doctrine is the description of these treasures. Doctrine describes their true value and why they are so valuable. Doctrine guards the diamonds of the gospel from being discarded as mere crystals. Doctrine protects the treasures of the gospel from the pirates who don’t like the diamonds but who make their living trading them for other stones. Doctrine polishes the old gems buried at the bottom of the chest. It puts the jewels of gospel truth in order on the scarlet tapestry of history so each is seen in its most beautiful place.
And all the while, doctrine does this with its head bowed in wonder that it should be allowed to touch the things of God. It whispers praise and thanks as it deals with the diamonds of the King. Its fingers tremble at the cost of what it handles. Prayers ascend for help, lest any stone be minimized or misplaced. And on its knees gospel doctrine knows it serves the herald. The gospel is not mainly about being explained. Explanation is necessary, but it is not primary. A love letter must be intelligible, but grammar and logic are not the point. Love is the point. The gospel is good news. Doctrine serves that. It serves the one whose feet are bruised (and beautiful!) from walking to the unreached places with news: “Come, listen to the news of God! Listen to what God has done! Listen! Understand! Bow! Believe!”
DEFINING THE GOOD NEWS
What then is the news? What is the message that must be proclaimed and explained? To that we turn in the next chapters. But keep in mind the angle of this book. Our question is not merely, what is the gospel? Our question is: What is the ultimate good of the gospel that makes all the aspects of good news good? What is the goal of the gospel that, if we miss it, takes all the good out of the gospel? What do we mean when we say God is the gospel?