Theology pop quiz time: what does the word “gospel” mean?
No, the answer is not “a style of music” (unless you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin). If you said, “one of the first four books of the New Testament,” you get partial credit. If your answer included something about Jesus’ death or resurrection, you get an B+ (if you used a big word like “propitiation,” you earn three bonus points for going to seminary but lose three points for being a smarty pants).
How do you get that A+? Simple: if your answer was “good news.” The Greek word translated “gospel” in our modern Bibles is “euangelion” (from which we get our English words “evangelize” and “evangelical”). “Euangelion” simply meant “good news.” It wasn’t necessarily a religious word; it referred to any situation in which there was news that was good. Test results from your doctor. Your sister coming to town. A promotion at work. These are all euangelion.
In the first century, however, there was one primary context for the word euangelion: politics. “Gospel” or “good news” was a technical term for an imperial proclamation, a message from the king or emperor to his subjects. Just like the phrase “State of the Union” brings to mind the trappings and pageantry of American political life, the term “good news” had a specific political meaning to the biblical authors. In the first century Roman context, “good news” was a simple declaration: “Caesar is Lord!” That declaration, of course, had numerous applications. “Good news” was the message a herald would bring from the front lines of the battle. “Good news” was an imperial proclamation that the enemy had been defeated. In classic Roman fashion, “good news” was often euphemistic doublespeak for the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and you were now his subjects (of course, those conquered subjects might disagree that the news was “good,” but they no longer had much say in the matter).
A Roman inscription from a few years before Jesus’ birth heralded this euangelion of empire: “Augustus was sent as Savior…the birthday of the son of the god Caesar was the beginning of his good news.” This was Rome’s gospel, a euangelion enforced at spear-point: Augustus, the son of god, was the Savior. Embrace him, all you conquered peoples (or else).
Against this backdrop of imperial pretension, the opening line of the earliest Christian gospel bristles with a subtly subversive agenda:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
There’s a new king in town, Caesar. The long promised Christ—“Christ” itself being a royal title meaning “Anointed One” or simply “King”—had come. His birth ushered in a new era of euangelion, a good news that trumped Augustus’ and turned it upside down. The real Son of God had arrived, and it was time for the pretender to vacate the throne. Rome’s imperium had been voted out of office by a higher authority, and a new administration was moving into the building.
No wonder Herod tried to stamp out the insurrection in its infancy.
No wonder Pilate tried to bury the King.
They both understood the claim that was being made: the good news of a different King who would overturn Rome from the bottom up, a slow motion revolution that would sweep away all their pretend power. The euangelion of King Jesus was a direct challenge to the euangelion of Rome. And in an empire predicated on power, there was only room for one gospel.
Their fears, it turns out, were well-founded. Like a lamb, Jesus was led to the slaughter… but today his executioners are dead and he’s feeling fine. The authority of Rome crushed the messianic usurper, but today Rome is a crumbling tourist attraction and the kingdom of Jesus marches on. Caesar is now a salad dressing. Jesus is still the King.