Key Terms for the Gospel

Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos | 29 December 2021

For many Christians today the word “gospel” quickly brings to mind one of the four written Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. For the earliest Christians, however, the term “gospel” was not about books but about the central message of salvation itself, communicated with the living voice. This oral message preceded by many years the composition of the four Gospels and also the other New Testament writings. This oral message helped shape the intrinsic evangelical character as these documents.  The early Christian preachers and teachers, as well as the authors of the New Testament when composing their texts, referred to the message of salvation by means of a several key terms.

Euangelion

Most prominent was the term euangelion, rendered in Latin as euangelium, from which eventually came the contemporary word “gospel.”[1] The term euangelionis composite term from two Greek words, eu (“good”) and angelia (“announcement” or “message”).[2] Used in the neuter plural euangelia, the term originally meant the reward given to a messenger bearing good news, for example about a victory by an army or the birth of a king. By the time of the rise of Christianity, the word had come to designate the news itself. The news could be bad news, too, for example, the defeat of an army or the death of a king. The authors of the New Testament adopted this Greek term only in its positive sense and only in the singular form euangelion. Most importantly, they put new content into it—the central Christian message of salvation in Christ and the Spirit.

Let us give some examples. The Evangelist Mark intimates that the entire ministry of Jesus is good news when he opens his own Gospel book with the words: The beginning of the gospel (evangelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The Evangelist Matthew employs the same term to identify the central message of Jesus as good news: “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel (evangelion) of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Mat 4:23; 9:35). The apostle Paul regards the task of his entire apostolic ministry of preaching the gospel as a sacred “liturgy.” He writes about “the grace given me by God to be a minister (literally leitourgos or “liturgist”) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God (hierourgounta to evangelion tou Theou), so that the offering (prosfora) of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15-16). In its Christian usage the term evangelion generally signified the announcement of the extraordinary good news of God’s saving activity in Christ and the Holy Spirit, including of course the blessings and ethical implications of God’s saving work on behalf of humanity. The most frequent usage occurs in the letters of Paul for whom the death of Christ by crucifixion is good news because it is the source of redemption (1 Cor 1:22-24, 30). Likewise, according to the Gospel of John, despite its lack of explicit use of the term euangelion, the message about the death of Christ is about His “hour of glory,” the zenith of the work of redemption crowned by His resurrection.[3]

The verb evangelizesthai(“to evangelize” or “to proclaim the good news”) is also frequently employed in the New Testament. This verb designates either the act of the announcement or the content of the good news, or both. It connects the Christian gospel with the language of the Old Testament referring to the good news of God’s saving activity on behalf of His people, as in Psalm 95:2 (LXX) which declares: “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; proclaim from day to day the good news of his salvation (euangelizesthe to sōtērion autou).” And Jesus viewed His own work as saving good news when He applied the words of Isaiah 61:1-2 to His ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news (euangelisasthai) 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 (Luke 4:18­-19; cf. 7:22).

Similarly, the apostle Paul invoked the text of Isaiah 52:7 which he interpreted as a promise now fulfilled in the ministry of the Christian preachers of the gospel: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” (tōn euangelizomenōn ta agatha, Rom 10:15). Whether by means of the noun or the verb, the early Christian preachers and authors used the language of euangelionto proclaim the message about what God had accomplished in Christ and the Spirit as glorious good news for humanity.

Logos

The term logos(“word,” from the verb legein, “to speak”) carried a plethora of meanings in antiquity. It could refer to a specific word, statement, message, discourse, instruction, or even the attribute of reason as such. Many of these applications occur in the New Testament. Our concern here is with the particular usage denoting or connoting the Christian message of salvation. Such uses of logos overlap and are virtually identical in meaning with that of euangelion(“gospel” or “good news”).

For example, the Gospel of Mark sums up the main message of Jesus when it states that He was preaching the word (ton logon)” to a gathering of people (Mark 2:2). The Gospel of Matthew also connotes Jesus’ central message when it refers to Jesus proclaiming to people ton logon tēs basileias (“the word of the kingdom,” Mat 13:19-23). When composing his own Gospel, Luke mentioned traditional dependence on earlier unnamed “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (tou logou, Luke 1:2), where the “word” signifies the core message about Christ and His ministry as given in the Gospel of Luke. For the Gospel of John, the primary and supreme “word” is Christ himself as the eternal and pre-existent Word of God (Logos Theou) who “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14). But what Jesus proclaims about himself and His ministry in the Gospel of John is also summed up with the same term: “Whoever hears my word (ton logon mou) . . . has eternal life” (John 5:24). And again: “if anyone loves me, he will keep my word (ton logon mou), and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

The book of Acts features the most frequent use of the term logos for the message of salvation. The first Christians were those “who heard the word and believed” (Acts 4:40). The apostles devoted themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). When persecuted and expelled from Jerusalem, the Christians went about spreading the word (ton logon),[4]meaning the message of salvation. In some instances, the terms logos and euangelion are combined in various ways.  For example, those expelled from Jerusalem went about “preaching the good news of the word” (euangelizomenoi ton logon, Acts 8:4).  The apostle Peter preached “the word of the gospel” (ton logon tou euangeliou) to the family of Cornelius (Acts 15:7).

Paul also employed the term logos for the gospel, but less frequently. For example, he reminded the Christians in Thessalonica that they received “the word (ton logon) in much affliction” (1 Thes 1:6), where the “word” means the core message of salvation. A notable occurrence is in 1 Cor 1:18: “For the word of the cross (logos tou stavrou) is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What is the “word of the cross” here? It is none other than the message of the gospel concerning the death of Christ as an event of redemption. Paul’s emphatic reference to the scandal of Jesus’ humiliating death is a sharp rebuke to the prideful Christians in Corinth who boasted about their spiritual gifts but at the same time were divided over the apostolic leaders, viewing as bearers of wisdom and rhetoric according to worldly standards (1 Cor 1:12, 19-21; 2:1-4, 13). The use of the term logos for the saving good news occurs as well in virtually all of the other books of the New Testament.[5]  Occasionally the term rhema (another form of the same verb legein, “to speak,” translated also as “word”) is employed for the gospel. Paul used this term by quoting Deut 30:14 and applying it to the good news: “The word (rhema) is near you, on your lips and in your heart, that is, theword of faith (rhēma tēs pisteōs) which we preach” (Rom 10:8; cf. 1 Pet 1:25), that is, the gospel.

Kerygma

In the ancient world a keryx was a “herald,” a town crier, whose duty it was to make authorized public announcements. The verb kērysso meant “to announce” or “to proclaim,” especially in the public forum. The noun kērygma, meaning “heralding” or “proclamation,” could refer to the act of the announcement and also in particular to its content. The use of the noun is rare in the New Testament. Only Paul employs it several times referring exclusively to the central saving message (1 Cor 1:21; 2:4-5; 15:14). In the ending doxology of Romans the terms euangelion and kērygma are connected in a text which praises God “who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel (euangelion mou) and the proclamation (kērygma) of Jesus Christ” (Rom 16:25), meaning means the saving good news about Christ. Far more frequent is the verb keryssein (“to herald” or “to preach,” “to proclaim”) which appears dozens of times in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. The abundance of this usage for the core Christian message, whether proclaimed by Jesus or the Christian preachers, underscores its power and self-authenticating character. To call upon the risen Lord, prospective converts had to believe in him, but to believe in Him, they had first to hear the message about Him, and that was the task of the one heralding the message (kēryssōn, Rom 10:14-15).

Martyria

The noun martyria(“testimony”) and the verb martyrein(“to bear witness,” “to testify,” “to declare,” “to confirm”) are also sometimes used in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, as a reference to the proclamation of the message of salvation. John the Baptist testifies (martyrei) that Jesus is the Son of God upon whom the Spirit of God descends and abides (John 1:32-34). Jesus testifies (martyrei) that his words “I am the light of the world” constitute a testimony (martyria) that is true (John 8:12-14). Jesus tells Pilate that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth (martyrein tē alētheia, John 19:37). The beloved disciple is one who testifies (martyrōn) to the truth of all that is written, the entire Gospel being a true testimony (martyria alēthēs), now confirmed by the circle of the author’s assistants (John 21:24).

According to the book of Acts the risen Lord himself bore witness to the word of His grace (martyrounti tō logō tēs charitos autou) through the bold preaching of Paul and Barnabas at Iconium (Acts 14:3).  By means of a vision the risen Christ further tells Paul that, just as the apostle had born witness in Jerusalem to the things about Christ (diemartyrō ta peri emou), he must take courage to do the same in Rome (Acts 23:11).

According to 1 John 1:1-4, that which from the beginning was heard, seen, experienced and now committed to writing, the whole revelation in Christ, is said to be attested to and proclaimed (martyroumen kai apangellomen) by those making up the community of faith. The book of Revelation, too, employs the term martyria(“testimony”), along with the term logos, as a reference to the good news. The prophet John was exiled to the island of Patmos on account of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (ton logon tou Theou kai ten matyrian tou Iesou, Rev 1:9). Steadfast believers conquer the devil by the blood of the Lamb and by “the word of their testimony” (ton logon tēs martyrias autōn, Rev 12:11) concerning Christ. In such cases the term martyria and martyrein signify the witness to Christ made through the verbal or written proclamation of the good news of salvation.

 

[1]The English word “gospel” is derived form of the Anglo-Saxon “god-spell,” meaning a message or story about a god or from a god, and it received a new meaning in the Christian tradition. Gospel as message should be distinguished from Gospel as literary type or genre evidenced by the four canonical and many other apocryphal Gospels.

[2] A still useful and more detailed analysis of the verb “euangelizomai” and its cognates is by Gerhard Friedrich, found in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol II, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), pp. 707-37.

[3] John 3:14-15; 12:27-33; 14:18-20; 16:19-22; 17:1-5.

[4] Acts 8:4; 11:19; 14:25; 17:11.

[5] For example, Jam 1:18; 1 Pet 3:1; 1 John 1:1; Rev 1:2.

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