[See first comment for explanation of this essay’s original setting.]
Paul reserved his harshest words for those whom he perceived to be polluting the one true gospel. He called down anathema on anyone—even an angel of God, even himself—who perverted its basic message. Yes, Paul took his gospel very seriously, and he would certainly demand that we do the same. Unfortunately, taking him seriously is easier than understanding what exactly he was saying. That “the gospel” was central to Paul’s life and thought is clear, but his gospel has rightly been compared to a chameleon: “it changes colour and shape according to the background against which it is set.” It may be true that “euangelion is not a consistent and clearly definable term which we can express in a brief formula.” Nevertheless, it is to this question that the present essay aims to propose an answer: What is the gospel according to Paul? The format will be as follows: In section one I will briefly examine the background(s) for Paul’s use of the terms euangelion and euangelizesthai, after which I will set out the basic elements of Paul’s gospel in section two. I will then attempt to put together the pieces and offer a satisfactory articulation of the gospel as Paul conceived it.
Where did Paul get the word euangelion and its cognates and why did he use them in the ways that he did? In both Classical Greek and the Septuagint the word generally referred to (1) a message of victory or success (in both political and private affairs), and (2) the rewards or benefits received by the messenger. By Paul’s day, however, the word had acquired more specific connotations. On the one hand, the word was employed by the growing cult of Caesar. As Ulrich Becker notes, “In the [imperial cult] news of the divine ruler’s birth, coming of age, or enthronement, and also his speeches, decrees and acts are glad tidings which bring long hoped-for fulfillment to the longings of the world for happiness and peace.” Many Pauline scholars have argued that this provides the primary background for Paul’s use of the terms.
On the other hand, some hold that Paul must be understood not against the backdrop of Roman politics, but against the promises in Isaiah about God coming to save Israel and set her free (Isaiah 40.9; 57.2; 60.6; 61.1). As James Dunn points out, “A tradition of using Isa. 52.7 and 61.1 in exposition of the gospel evidently developed quite quickly in earliest Christianity, as Paul’s own quotation of Isa. 52.7 in Rom. 10.15 confirms.”
A growing number of scholars, however, are beginning to see that the two should not be played off against one another as they so often have been. Isaiah’s promises had everything to do with who ruled the world; the good news brought by the messenger of Isaiah 52 was unmistakably political as well as religious: “Your God reigns.” If that would not engage the imperial sphere of whatever world in which it was quoted, it is difficult to see what would. As N.T. Wright notes, “The Isaianic hope was always conceived as a challenge to paganism at every level…. Paul’s gospel, in declaring that Israel’s hope is fulfilled in her Messiah, ipso facto declares also that the pagan world is confronted with a new ruler.” Paul’s “gospel” language, therefore, must be read in the light of the Old Testament, specifically the Isaianic promises, as well as the Greco-Roman world, specifically the cult associated with Caesar.
Though Pauline scholars seem at times to agree on little else, nearly everyone affirms that the death and resurrection of Jesus stand at the very heart of Paul’s conception of the gospel. This is perhaps seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8, where Paul summarizes his gospel as the Messiah’s death, burial, resurrection, and appearances. (Mentioning the burial and the appearances serves to underscore the two primary elements: that he died and rose again. ) These events form the essential backdrop for Paul’s various summary descriptions of his proclamation: “Christ crucified,” “the gospel concerning [God’s] Son,” “the message about the cross,” “the gospel of the glory of Christ,” “the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” or more frequently “the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 1.23; Rom 1.3; 1 Cor 1.18; 2 Cor 4.4; 2 Thess 1.8; Gal 1.7; Phil 1.27; 1 Thess 3.2).
More specifically, Paul’s gospel revolves around what God has done in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He claims that the gospel is the power of God—that is, some way in which God has acted (Rom 1.16). This “salvific force unleashed by God himself,” as Fitzmyer describes it, can also be seen in the divine passive regularly associated with the resurrection: Christ was raised (1 Cor 15.4). As David Horrell observes, “It is clear throughout Paul’s letters that his good news about Jesus Christ is the good news of what God has done in Christ, how God has sent his Son, raised him from death, exalted him as Lord, and so on.”
Furthermore, what God has done in and through these central events, according to Romans 1.16, involves the salvation of Jew and Greek alike. But this salvation must be understood first and foremost in terms of the long-awaited deliverance of the people of God from all who oppose them. That is simply what the word “salvation” had come to primarily mean in the Judaism of Paul’s day. In this light one can see that precisely what God has done is somehow bring his plan of redeeming Israel to its long-awaited climax. Only this would explain the continual emphasis on the gospel as the fulfillment of ancient promises to Israel: it is the gospel “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (Rom 1.2; cf. 16.26; 1 Cor 15.3; Gal 3.10-14; 4.4-6; Eph 3.5). This also explains the importance of Jesus’ Davidic descent; why else would Paul (or someone trying to sound just like him) define his gospel as “Jesus the Messiah, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2 Tim 2.8; cf. Rom 1.3)? Through his encounter with the living Messiah Paul could not but conclude “that the great turning-point in history had not taken place, as he had always believed, on Mount Sinai, but on Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.” The good news for the Jews is that the one on whom their hopes rested had come, and God had vindicated this One as his Anointed King by raising him from the dead.
This quite dramatically turned their world upside down. While a full-scale analysis of Jewish Messianic expectations is beyond the scope of this essay and my abilities, suffice it to say that what Paul was saying would have struck (and did strike!) most as ridiculous and offensive (cf. 1 Cor 1.23; Gal 5.11). The Messiah’s victory was to signal, among other things, Israel’s victory over her evil enemies, the resurrection of God’s righteous ones, and the onset of God’s new world. And as we should perhaps expect, it is precisely these themes, reworked through the surprising death and individual resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, which fill out the remaining content of Paul’s gospel.
Through the resurrection of Jesus God dealt the decisive blow to all of Israel’s greatest oppressors: not merely Rome, but sin, the Law (or its abuse rather), the satan, and death itself (Rom 6.7-10; 7.4-6; 8.35-39; 1 Cor 2.6-8; 15.26). As J. Christiaan Beker rightly observes, “This field operates as an interrelated whole, and no single power can be viewed in isolation from the others.” He continues, “The death of Christ shatters the alliance of the apocalyptic powers and signals the imminent overthrow of death, ‘the last enemy’.” This is exactly what Paul means when he writes that the Lord Jesus the Messiah “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal 1.4). The new exodus—the great liberation from the powers of evil and oppression—has taken place; God’s new world has come.
And this is precisely the point at which all of this becomes good news for the Gentiles. Not only has God fulfilled the promises of Abraham, he has dealt with the more universal problem of Adam as well. One of the crowning characteristics of God’s new creation is the new community made up of both Jew and Gentile. This was the mystery of God’s plan from the beginning—the mystery that has been made known precisely through Paul’s gospel (Eph 3.2-9). Paul saw more clearly than most, not least many of his recent interpreters, that the story of Gentiles—the story of the whole world—could not be understood or accomplished apart from the story of Israel (and vice versa). As Wright notes, “What the Gentiles needed and longed for, whether they knew it or not, was the Jewish Messiah, who would bring the just and peaceful rule of the true God to bear on the whole world.” This is the meaning of the imperial confrontation between Christ and Caesar and their respective gospels. The emperors told a story about a world of peace and justice and liberty, to be accomplished through the spread of their own power and fame, “but when the gospel of Jesus is unveiled it reveals the true empire, the true citizenship, and in that light all the pretensions of empire, not least the arrogant and blasphemous claims of the emperor himself, are shown up.”
While Paul’s challenge to the Jews involved turning from Torah to the Messiah, he called the Gentiles to turn from worthless idols “to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess 1.9). This does not signal a move away from the Messiah to God, as if Paul de-Israelized his message for the sake of his Gentile hearers. On the contrary, “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3.6). Paul’s good news for the Gentiles is that because of the death and resurrection of the true Lord of the world, they who were estranged from the One True God—and living contrary to the one Creator’s design—have now been brought near, reconciled to the God they never knew they had by the criminal of whom they had only recently heard (cf. Col 1.21-23).
Brief mention must be made of two more elements of Paul’s message. First, God’s new world brings with it a new way of life—“the obedience of faith” or “lives worthy of the gospel” (Rom 1.5; Phil 1.27). This new way of life came as possibility and responsibility, offer and demand. Not only did God call for new behavior, he sent his Spirit as the power by which the obedience of faith might become a reality (Rom 6-8). And finally, citizenship in the new community of the Messiah, as in the Roman Empire, endowed each member not only with a new identity to enjoy but a new mission to accomplish: spread the fame and reign of the one true Lord of the world, under whose rule alone the nations may finds liberty and justice and peace (cf. Eph 3.10).
Bringing all of this together is the task of every serious interpreter of Paul, as well as every loving pastor of God’s church. Here is my best shot: Paul’s euangelion is the proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, in whom God has brought his plan of redemption to its long-awaited climax. Through the Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection God has ushered in a new world, defeating evil and freeing humanity from sin and wrath and death, and through his renewed community he is restoring harmony to all of creation. That, to say nothing else, is good news indeed.