It’s time for a Fish Hooks quiz! Which of the following are NOT TRUE statements about the word gospel:
(A) It’s a generic word for important religious teachings
(B) It’s a corruption of an Old English word
(C) It’s derived from a Greek word
(D) It’s what we call the first four books of the New Testament
(E) It’s correctly interpreted as ‘truth’
Before we reveal answers (we like to keep you guessing), let’s talk about the strange history of this word we use so commonly in the Church. The word that we translate ‘gospel’ in our English Bibles started out as the Greek word euangelion, which originally denoted the payment made to a messenger who brought good news (think of a ‘tip’) but eventually came to mean the good news itself. Used in the sense of ‘good tidings’ it is found on a Roman inscription celebrating the emperor Caesar Augustus dating from around 9 BC, and the word is used in the same sense in Luke 2:10 when the angels proclaimed “good tidings of great joy” to the shepherds. But it wasn’t yet a ‘religious’ word – if you were living in the first century you might greet your neighbor with: “Hey Demetrius, what’s the euangelion?” It meant nothing more or less than “good news.”
Jesus’ first-recorded sermon is when He read from Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-21) and stated that the prophecy was fulfilled in Him:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
You notice that phrase ‘good news’ in the middle? That occurs in five of Isaiah’s prophecies (in Hebrew, of course) and it became a hallmark of Jesus’ preaching as He said things like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the [good news].” (Mark 1:15) ‘Good news’ was such an important characteristic of Jesus’ ministry that when Mark wrote the book that bears his name, he began it like this: “Arche tou euangeliou Iesou Christou huiou theo” (“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”) And that word ‘euangelion’ came to be used as the name for not only his book (the Euangelion/Gospel of Mark) but for all other Christian books of this type. So, the word euangelion had now acquired two specifically Christian connotations: (1) the message of how God was acting to redeem mankind; and (2) the kind of literary work that proclaimed this message within a historical narrative. Both of those usages were invented by Christians and aren’t part of the vocabulary of other religions.
So, if euangelion literally means ‘good news,’ why isn’t that the way it’s translated into English? Actually, it originally was! But in Old English where ‘god’ was the word for ‘good’ and ‘spell’ was the word for ‘news’ so it was rendered ‘godspell.’ Then, with the passage of time, it morphed into our modern word ‘gospel.’ And that’s how Christ’s proclamation of ‘good news’ became euangelion which became godspell which became gospel. Eventually gospel became so familiar as just another ‘churchy word’ that people may not realize that it still denotes ‘good news.’
So, how did you do on the quiz? B, C, and D are TRUE statements. A is FALSE because the word ‘gospel’ is unique to Christianity. E is kind of a tossup: It’s technically FALSE because the word was literally intended to mean ‘good news,’ but in both fact and common usage the word has become synonymous with ‘truth.’ So you can give yourself credit either way!
But interesting/complicated as the history of the word might be, the ‘gospel truth’ remains that the ‘Good News’ that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue us for eternal life with Him is simply the VERY BEST NEWS that mankind has ever received! Jesus IS the Good News!
“… the gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16)