Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

When did the good news become a gospel?

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Today’s Gospel reading is the first eight verses of the Gospel written by Mark. Here’s how it begins: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…

The Greek word translated as “gospel” is evangelion = “good news.” So how did “good news” become “gospel”? Or, to put it more pointedly, how did the good news become a gospel – in this instance, the gospel written by Mark? And to take things further along in history, how did the good news of Jesus Christ become a Gospel book? A book kept on the altar table? A book with fancy covers and padlocks on the side? How indeed did the good news become a padlocked book? Can you see the development? Good news = gospel = Gospel book.

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Here’s a story that will help us understand: The children were lined up in a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nuns had made a note and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE, God is watching.” Moving further along the lunch line at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, “take all you want. . . God is watching the apples.”

That is the difference between good news and religion! Religion tries to limit God and God’s goodness. The good news knows no limits!

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet… You’d say, appropriate words at the beginning of a book. Right? No.

Let’s try this instead: The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote….

The word “Christ” comes from Χριστός, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah.” Both the Greek and the Hebrew mean the same thing: “the anointed one.” We should also note that “Son of God” is missing from most of the best early manuscripts, and some modern translations omit the phrase altogether. Perhaps the words were added by a later scribe, when evangelion had ceased to be good news and had become a book; perhaps with the good intention of making the opening sentence a true introduction of a book.

Consider what Luke wrote near the beginning of his book. And again a quote from Isaiah is involved:

Luke 4:16-21 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Verse 19 could be translated more meaningfully as “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.” That’s not a literal translation, but that’s what it means. Clearly Isaiah’s reference is to the Old Testament practice of the Jubilee year, when debts were forgiven and all prisoners and slaves were set free. It was a general amnesty. Isaiah was proclaiming such a year. And Jesus came as the fulfillment of the promise.

And here is something else that’s interesting. In reading from Isaiah, Jesus stopped at a key moment. Here is what Isaiah (61:1-2) wrote:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God… 

Did you see that? Jesus left out the day of vengeance! Clearly, vengeance did not fit the good news.

So the bigger question today is: When did good news become good news for some and bad news for everyone else? When did the message of liberty become a message of fear-mongering and threats of eternal punishment? Don’t settle for ONE apple; go for the chocolate chip cookies, and take all you want!

One thought on “When did the good news become a gospel?

  1. Liberation . . . snow-bound today, but grateful for your sermon, accessible by this mysterious technology to bring me good news. Thank you.

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