Winter 2009

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospel Through the Ages

David Hulme

Say the word gospel, and many things come to mind. In a chronological stream, we might include gospel writers, gospel preachers, gospel workers, gospel truth, gospel singers—and perhaps even the 1970s religious rock musical Godspell (from godspel, “good story”), with its allusion to the English language’s debt to its Anglo-Saxon roots.

For many in our time, the proclamation of the kingdom of God and its central character, Jesus of Nazareth, provides nothing more than a good story, the stuff of movies and musicals. But in the broadest biblical sense, the gospel, or “good news,” is  information about God’s great purpose on the earth, otherwise unknown. In one letter, the apostle Paul defined it as what “[God] set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9–10). 

He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.”

Ephesians 1:9–10, The Message

Here Paul provides an all-encompassing description of the gospel that incorporates the breadth of God’s plan for humanity and all of creation. His words are just one way to express the gospel and its intent. He mentions Christ, but not specifically His coming kingdom, though it is implied.

This apparent omission is not so strange as at first it seems. If you study the Bible to understand how God has communicated the good news of His purpose throughout the ages, a pattern of theme and variation emerges. Its expression is not always the same, though there are common elements. In this article, we’ll trace these variations across time.

In the Beginning

Most today undoubtedly think of the gospel in terms of New Testament teaching. Yet as we’ll see, the message of God’s plan and purpose spans the entire breadth of the Bible. In the earliest days of humanity’s journey, it is introduced in terms of eating of “the tree of life,” an act that would provide the key to a right relationship with Him and would endow humanity with the ability to live not just temporarily but eternally. Eating of the tree of life could be understood as access to and use of the Holy Spirit. In the Genesis account, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, the consequences include prevention of access to the tree of life and thus eternal life (see Genesis 3:22–23).

Nothing is said here about Christ’s forthcoming role as the savior of humanity, which is surely part of God’s plan. But in the same book there are some indirect references to the spiritual salvation that comes through Christ. From these references, you could say that at some early point certain people understood the implications.

For example, speaking to Satan in the Garden of Eden, God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The bruising of the woman’s child by Satan is understood as referring to Christ’s death at His first coming. Thus Satan’s bruising is a reference to the event at Christ’s second coming, when according to Scripture Satan will be restrained from access to humanity. Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome that this would be accomplished and that they would be party to it: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). God’s resurrected people will triumph over Satan at Christ’s return. This is surely another aspect of God’s good news. 

From the Patriarchs to the Prophets

God made a specific promise to Abraham, the patriarch of the people who became known as the children of Israel. He said, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). How was this blessing on all humanity to come about? Again, the apostle Paul provides essential information: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8). He meant that as a descendant of Abraham, Jesus would fulfill God’s promise to reconcile all humanity to Himself. This is the limit of this version of the gospel message—nothing here about a kingdom or the reconciling of all of creation, or the death of a savior. But there is a sense in which the good news of Christ’s mission to the whole world was already proclaimed through Abraham in his time. Yet that period of time is seldom considered in defining ways in which the transmission of the gospel has taken place.

Further, when Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, in a limited way he pictured the Father’s role in the sacrificial death of Jesus. In Genesis, we read that an angel said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld [or “spared”] your son, your only son, from me” (22:12). Paul said: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). So Abraham enacted to a degree what God the Father would later do completely. In this, he exemplified a portion of the good news.

Throughout the period before Christ came, whenever this part of the story of the patriarch Abraham was rehearsed, the good news of reconciliation to God through Christ’s sacrificial death was intimated. And there is evidence that Abraham himself understood to a degree what Christ would do. Jesus told the religious leaders: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).

What is the essence of the gospel message that we have discovered so far? It is that God has a great purpose for humanity, which includes eternal life; that a Savior is part of it; and that He will be sacrificed.

Let’s look at another example of an expression of the good news.

The book of Hebrews makes a very interesting observation about the gospel message in the time of “all those who left Egypt led by Moses” (3:16). The author wrote, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:1–2).

Not surprisingly, here some translations use the word gospel for “good news.” The good news in the time of the ancient Israelites was that they would enter the physical land of promise, the land of rest—a type of God’s kingdom, as Hebrews further shows (see 4:6–11).

Looking next at the message delivered by the prophets, who were sent as God’s servants to the Israelites, we find that the future establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth was often a central idea in their writings. They preached the gospel in that sense.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . .” 

Isaiah 9:2, English Standard Version

Some knew more in detail than others, it seems. Isaiah, for example, foretold both Christ’s first and second comings. He wrote, “In the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:1–2). This is understood to refer to Jesus’ coming the first time as a man from Galilee. Isaiah continued with the same prophecy, speaking of the Messiah’s birth: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (verse 6). Then there is a time break. Isaiah next disclosed details that can only be true of Christ at His second coming: “. . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (6–7). 

The prophet Daniel delivered information that alludes to Christ’s first coming and extends beyond it (Daniel 9:24–27). He also wrote about the preparations for Christ’s second coming: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).

There is no question that Daniel was allowed to understand a lot about the futuaulre, but the extent to which he and others understood all that they prophesied is framed by statements such as this one: “I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, ‘O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand’” (Daniel 12:8–10).

Progressive Understanding

The New Testament record shows that more understanding of the good news of the kingdom of God came over time. Jesus told His disciples that they were privileged to grasp what others before them had not. He said, “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17). 

When the apostle Peter wrote about this same phenomenon, he mentioned that the prophets of old knew that only later generations would understand what they had written about God’s plan for humanity. He said: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when [it] predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10–12).

So the details of the good news of God’s plan are revealed progressively over time. The good news as expressed to Jesus’ mother, Mary, before His birth was quite specific: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31–33).

During Jesus’ first coming, the announcement was that God would establish His kingdom on the earth, but that Jesus’ own sacrificial death—an essential part of the good news of reconciliation—would precede that event. Again, Mary was the recipient of that information at an early stage: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).

During His lifetime, Jesus would bring knowledge of His immediate role in fulfillment of the good news of God’s coming kingdom. At the beginning of His ministry, He went into the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth and read the following from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” He added, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18–19, 21).

Isaiah 61, from which this is taken, continues with references to the second coming. But Jesus broke off in mid-sentence. Here He did not explain everything concerning the good news, only what pertained to His first coming. 

During His ministry, He also explained to those called to follow Him that the kingdom of God was yet future. He spoke about the nature of the kingdom to His disciples, explaining parables and appearing before some of them in a vision of that kingdom, in what is known as the transfiguration (see Matthew 16:28–17:9). 

Eventually the apostles took up the delivery of the good news. They brought a new dimension to the message—that of being eyewitnesses to Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Following His resurrection, Jesus told them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). No one could do that before or since. We simply have their recorded testimony.

Paul’s Unique Role

As we have seen, Paul, who was an apostle but not an eyewitness, was used extensively to proclaim the gospel message. In his case, it involved “the rest of mankind” in the wider Roman world beyond Judea. This was confirmed in a special meeting of the early Church’s leadership convened in Jerusalem and recorded in Acts 15.

How Paul presented that message varied depending on his audience. Acts 17 contains accounts of his visits to synagogues in Thessalonica and Berea. In Thessalonica, “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2–3). In Berea, he followed a similar approach. 

Shortly afterward, in the synagogue at Athens but also in the marketplace, he discussed Jesus and the resurrection. When the Greek philosophers challenged him, he found a way to address them that was unlike his approach in the synagogue. It would have to be different if they were to hear him. He didn’t go to the Scriptures to build his case. He didn’t mention Jesus by name. But as in Thessalonica and Berea, there were people in Athens whom God called through Paul’s proclamation.

Good News for Today

In considering the expression of the gospel through the ages, it’s important to reflect on the fact that it is multifaceted. There are various ways of conveying it. Here are some of the other ways it is described in the New Testament: it is the gospel of peace, the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the grace of God, the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of salvation.      

He must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets.” 

Acts 3:21, New Living Translation

Today we build on all of these earlier variations on the gospel theme and approaches to its delivery. At Vision, we look for God’s guidance in helping us grasp the best ways to communicate with an increasingly skeptical and individualistic social order and in opening doors to the general public. The good news for humanity today includes the solutions to dilemmas that are fast outpacing human problem-solving abilities. That message includes but is not limited to the permanent answers to economic, political, educational, religious, social, medical, agricultural and environmental problems. It is based on faith that the promised kingdom of God will come on the earth, “that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:20–21).