If someone asked you what the word “Gospel” means, chances are you would say something like “. . . a book about Jesus, about his life and what he taught and did . . .” And we do have four such, official “Gospels.” But Mark, who gave us the first such book cannot have meant anything like that when here, in the first chapter of that first “Gospel” he says “After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Gospel from God.” Nor can Paul, even earlier than Mark, in the beginning of his Letter to the Romans, where he says that he served God “in the Gospel of his Son”. Paul isn’t even mentioned in any of the four book Gospels. What are we missing?
The word in Mark and Paul that we translate “Gospel” means literally “good news”. But not just any good news, like “My mother is recovering from her cancer” or “Our team won the tournament”. In Hebrew scripture the word was reserved to describe a decisive victory in which God had intervened on behalf of his people – a victory that would soon result in setting things right, removing injustice and oppression. Imagine the enthusiasm in the crowds as Jesus used that special word. When Jesus announced this “good news” the people of Galilee understood immediately what he meant. That’s why they flocked to him. They knew that they were subject to the tyranny of a foreign power; they craved justice and freedom.
The content of Jesus’ message (“Good news from God”) was simple and easily comprehended, at least as long as you understand the special meaning of “Gospel”. “The time has come”, Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent” (that is, change your priorities). “Accept the good news.” Not just any “time” has come but the time of God’s great victory, creating the new Israel.
Not surprisingly, the people, oppressed by Rome, thought in worldly terms, for example, of the great victory of Cyrus of Persia over the Babylonians, which had meant the end of Israel’s Babylonian captivity (and for which Isaiah had used the very term “Gospel”). But Jesus’ victory was larger even than that. It was a victory over sin and death, a victory freeing everyone from that greatest of all tyrannies.
Do we really believe the good news? Just as many of the Israelites
of old failed to take advantage of Cyrus’ victory and chose to stay behind
in Babylon, ignoring Isaiah’s call to return, so many in Jesus’ time also
chose not to respond. We too can fail to heed Jesus’ good news, can fail
to stop business as usual or change our priorities. “Accept the good news”
Jesus asks us.
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