Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel announce the impending arrival of God’s reign. “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15). Although it is easy to think Jesus was the first to speak about the good news (euangelion in Greek), the origins of the “gospel” go further back. If we look for antecedents of announcements about “good news” tied to the reign of a king, we find two paths that prefigure Jesus’ proclamation.
The Jewish Path to Good News
The first is a Jewish path. Isaiah, hundreds of years before Jesus, announced the good news of God’s reign for Israel in exile, with no immediate hope of restoration.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, “good news” is conveyed by the Greek verb euangelizō, which is related to euangelion.
Isaiah has a gospel: It is the news of the reality of God’s powerful return to Zion to restore Israel (40:1-11). Isaiah sums up this good news as “Here is your God!” and “Your God reigns!” (40:9, 52:7). Isaiah looks ahead to the establishment of God’s kingdom in this world. As Jesus comes proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom as the “good news,” Jewish people would have expected the arrival of the great transformation anticipated in the wake of God’s kingdom.
Much like Isaiah’s “Your God reigns,” Jesus announces the kingdom of God. He also enacts God’s reign in this world — “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
And the Gospel writers connect the arrival of the kingdom directly to Jesus’ authority and ministry: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).
The Roman Path to Good News
The second path for understanding this “good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23, 9:35) may seem a more unlikely one — it comes from first-century Rome.
An inscription that heralds the supposedly benevolent reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) reads: “…the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning of the good news that came through him to the world.” In our contemporary context of a separation of church and state, it can be easy to assign this claim for Caesar to the political realm and to identify Jesus’ kingdom announcement as spiritual. Yet no person in that era would have conceived of such a separation. Instead, this inscription claims that Augustus was ordained as supreme ruler. Later coins minted with the image of Tiberius (AD 14-37), Rome’s ruler during Jesus’ ministry, identify Tiberius as emperor (“Caesar”), “son of the divine Augustus,” and “high priest.”
The New Testament Good News
What can we take away from these Jewish and Roman precursors for the euangelion?
First, the connection between the “gospel” and the arrival of God’s kingdom is built into the Jewish Scriptures. We can imagine that the Jewish people experiencing Jesus’ early preaching would have heard its echoes of Isaiah and understood Jesus to be announcing the promised and long-awaited in-breaking of God’s reign. Israel’s God was now coming to make all things right and to send the Messiah to rule (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Some hearers might well have been wondering if this one announcing the kingdom might be its Messiah-King. The New Testament writers confirm that this is the case. God’s reign breaks into this world definitively in Jesus. His mission of compassion and restoration culminates in his representative death. And God resurrects him, vindicating Jesus and his mission: “God has made this Jesus … both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). In this way, the New Testament story moves from Jesus preaching the kingdom to the early church preaching Jesus as its reigning King (Acts 17:7; Revelation 17:14) and Lord (Romans 1:4; Philippians 2:11).
Second, given the everyday and everywhere placement of Roman propaganda about Caesar as lord and king, those who heard Jesus and those who read and heard the apostolic testimony would have understood that announcing the reign of Israel’s God challenged Caesar’s universal lordship. Instead of thinking of Caesar as political ruler and Jesus as spiritual ruler, they reckoned with Jesus’ preaching of “the good news of the kingdom” as an all-encompassing claim of God’s truly benevolent reign in this world.
Christians are called to allegiance to God alone — all other loyalties must answer to that allegiance: “Above all pursue [God’s] kingdom and righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 NET). Following Jesus, the true “Lord of all,” involves unswerving loyalty (Acts 10:36).
The Good News for Today
Finally, our part is to “live the gospel” — to live in light of the reality of Christ as King and Lord. When we look at the world today — from natural disasters to human violence toward one another, to hunger and starvation — it may seem difficult to speak with conviction, “Jesus is Lord.”
Yet that is precisely the faith stance the New Testament leads us to confess (Romans 10:9). And if Jesus, the one who brought justice and mercy in his ministry (Matthew 12:18-21), is reigning and working to bring justice even in the center of such present ambiguities, we know that all things will be brought under his gracious and benevolent reign in the end (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). And this, truly, is good news!
The truth of the “gospel” is the announcement of the kingdom of God — now firmly planted in this world in Jesus’ reign (Matthew 28:18). We are called to pass this good news along — to proclaim and teach it (Matthew 29:19). We are called to pray, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 NET). And we are called to live in light of kingdom values. Those who follow Jesus are to live out the final day reality in the present by being people of mercy, integrity, peace and justice (Matthew 5:7-10).
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.