Recently our church took up the task of “feeding ourselves” by reading the Bible regularly using the same reading plan and journaling format. You can read about it here. I won’t post regularly on this because I don’t want to ruin my own devotions by going public with them, but I’ll throw out some thoughts as I see fit. Part of yesterday’s reading was Romans 1. The first few verses are jam-packed with goodness. But there’s a lot in there that has been caked over with dust through the centuries, so it’s important for us to be clear on what some of the key terms originally meant.
“gospel” – I can’t stress enough how important it is that we get a clear grasp of what this word meant and means. It’s one of the most loved words in the Christian world, but sadly one of the most misunderstood. As is typical with key words, it is often asked to mean so much that it comes to mean very little, and it becomes a code-word for whatever the one using it thinks is important. (I’ve written a longer explanation of what the word meant for Paul, which you can view here.) The key thing is to ask, What did this word mean for Paul? And since Paul was a first century Jew immersed in what we call the Old Testament, as well as a citizen of the Roman Empire, we should look in these twin contexts to find our answer. The word takes its cues primarily from the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 40.9-11 and 52.7-10, where it refers to announcing the good news of Babylon’s defeat, the end of Israel’s exile, and the victorious return of Yahweh – Israel’s great God and King – to Zion (Jerusalem). So the word spoke of Yahweh as a victorious king; by definition, the “good news” was the announcement to Israel that, “Your God reigns!” (Isa 52.7). It was (1) a declaration about kingship, a regime change, a transformation in the balance of real power, and therefore (2) a confrontation of all possible rivals to the throne. This bridges the gap to the other background for Paul’s thinking and writing, the world of the Roman Empire, a world in which Caesar was regularly hailed as “Savior and Lord.” Moreover, it was a world in which “gospel” referred to the victorious accession of a new emperor. It was a political term, even a propaganda one. The word literally means “good news” – in this case the news was that Augustus (or whoever) was now in charge, and this was good because Augustus was supposedly a beneficent ruler.
Please note at this point that this is different from the way “gospel” is normally used in the church today. It refers, in our mouths, to the way we are saved – specifically, that we are saved by God’s grace and not our own efforts. This is true – thankfully! – and it is very near the center of Paul’s heart, but it is not most centrally what he means when he says “gospel.” The “gospel” is the declaration that Jesus is truly Israel’s Messiah and thus the world’s rightful King. The way we are saved flows from this, because this new king is in fact a good and gracious king. (This is very evident in Romans 1.16-17, where Paul that the gospel brings salvation for everyone who believes.) So being saved by grace may fill out why the good news is indeed good, but it is not specifically what the word gospel means. Why does this matter? Because when we make “the gospel” refer to how we are saved, we lose the centerpiece of what Paul meant by the term. The only reason Jesus is in a position to offer salvation at all is because he is truly the Lord of the world. I could say much more, but that’s enough for now. Make sense? Agree?