What is the Gospel?

Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees Question Jesus by Tissot (1886-1894)

As Catholics, we’re immersed in the Gospel. We hear about it in the Liturgy, in the Bible, in homilies, in spiritual books, and just about everywhere else we read or hear about the faith. But do we really know what it is? The glossary in the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “[t]he ‘good news’ of God’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.” That is a perfectly fine definition of the word “Gospel,” but I am asking about something deeper. I am asking if we know the content of the Gospel, if we know what is good about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, or how it reveals God’s mercy and love.

To some, that may seem like a ridiculous question. Of course, we know the content of the Gospel. Jesus died and rose again so we can have our sins forgiven, and go to heaven, and this shows that God loves us because he was willing to send his Son to suffer and die for us. However, there is something missing here. That explanation only mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the Catechism says that the Gospel involves his life as well. As a result, there has to be something more; the Gospel has to be about more than just forgiveness of sins, and getting to heaven. To see what this “something more” is, I suggest that we look to the four Gospels, the inspired accounts of the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and see what light they can shed on our question.

The Gospels tell us that the central point of Jesus’ preaching was the kingdom of God. For example, Mark summarizes Jesus’ message with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Matthew goes a step further and calls Jesus’ message the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14), and Luke takes it even further than that. In his account of Jesus’ commissioning the Apostles for their first evangelization mission, Jesus tells them to “preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:2), but when Luke actually describes their work a few verses later, he says they were “preaching the gospel” (Luke 9:6). Thus, for Luke, the Gospel and the kingdom of God are one and the same.

The exception is John’s Gospel, in which Jesus rarely uses the phrase “kingdom of God” (only in John 3:3, 5), preferring instead to preach about eternal life (for example, John 5:24). However, when the Gospel of John does use the phrase “kingdom of God,” it seems to be interchangeable with eternal life (John 3:3-16), implying that eternal life is simply the life of the kingdom. This is confirmed for us by the Synoptic Gospels, which explicitly equate the two (Matthew 19:16-23, Mark 10:17-30),1 so we can safely conclude that the kingdom of God was, in fact, the focal point of Jesus’ preaching and, as the Synoptics make clear, the content of his Gospel.

This then raises the question for us of what exactly the kingdom of God is. While the concept may seem strange to us, Jesus’ original audience would have known exactly what he was talking about: the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. To understand what this means, we need to know a bit about the history of Israel in the Old Testament. In 2 Samuel, God promised King David an everlasting dynasty. God told him:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

The immediate referent of this oracle was David’s son, Solomon, who reigned after his father, and who built the Temple in Jerusalem (the “house for my name”). Nevertheless, Solomon eventually died, so God’s words could not have been limited to him alone. God promised that the throne of David would endure “forever,” so he must have been referring to an everlasting dynasty, not just a single successor. In other words, David’s descendants were to rule over the kingdom of Israel for all time.

However, this is not what actually happened. Solomon’s son Rehoboam was a bad king, so ten of the twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel seceded and formed their own kingdom in the north (1 Kings 12:16-20). Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained under the rule of the Davidic dynasty in the south (1 Kings 12:21). After that, things only got worse. While there were a few bright spots after David and Solomon, the rest of the history of Israel is largely a story of one rebellion against God after another. Eventually, the northern kingdom became so mired in sin that God allowed them to be conquered and exiled away from their land (2 Kings 17:1-23), and they were assimilated into the Gentiles among whom they were scattered, never to be heard from again.

The southern kingdom, the one ruled by the descendants of David, survived a bit longer, but they, too, were eventually conquered and exiled (2 Kings 24:1-4, 20; 25:8-21). With their conquest, the Davidic dynasty came to an end, and God’s promise seemed to have failed. However, the Israelites did not give up hope that God really meant what he said, and the prophets foretold a day when the exile would be over, the people would return to their land, and all twelve tribes would be reunited in a restored Davidic kingdom (for example, Isaiah 11:10-16, Ezekiel 37:15-28). The prophets also said that when this happened, the Gentiles would join the Israelites in worshipping the one true God, and they would be incorporated into his people as well (for example, Zechariah 8:7-8, 20-23).

One of the most important of these prophecies about the restoration of Israel comes from the book of Daniel, and it says that when Israel’s exile is over, God will set up an everlasting kingdom, and give it to his people. In fact, this prophecy is so important that the book recounts it twice. We first read about it in a dream that the king of Babylon had in which a stone “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35), and we later find out what this stone represents: “And in the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people” (Daniel 2:44). We, then, encounter this same prediction a second time in a vision that Daniel himself had, and this time we learn that the kingdom will belong to the people of God, the Israelites (Daniel 7:18, 27).

These prophecies were partially fulfilled about seventy years later when the exile of the southern kingdom finally ended, and the people were eventually allowed to return to their land. However, not everything foretold by the prophets came true, as the ten northern tribes were still in exile, and the throne of David remained empty. The people of Israel were still suffering the consequences of their sins, so when Jesus began his ministry, the Jews were anxiously awaiting the full restoration of their nation, and the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies.2

In fact, we see this hope explicitly in the New Testament itself. Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus in the Temple, they met an old man named Simeon who was “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). This phrase alludes to the hope expressed in Isaiah 40:1-2 that God would “comfort” (in the Septuagint, this is the verb form of the noun translated “consolation” in Luke 2:25)3 his people, and finally bring an end to their punishment.4 Similarly, we also read in this same story about a woman named Anna who was “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38), and the narrative shows us that these hopes were fulfilled in Jesus. Simeon explicitly said that Jesus was the savior he had been waiting for (Luke 2:27-32), and Anna gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to everyone who shared her hope (Luke 2:38), implying that he would be the one to fulfill it. With these two characters, Luke tells us that Jesus came precisely to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of the restoration of Israel.

When we read the Gospels with all this Old Testament background in mind, we can properly understand the good news Jesus preached. For example, the kingdom he announced was the eternal kingdom foretold by Daniel, the reunion of all twelve tribes under a new Davidic king. Even though Daniel did not actually mention a new son of David, when we read his prophecy of an eternal kingdom together with what the other prophets said about the end of the exile, we can infer that the eternal kingdom he foretold is, in fact, the restored Davidic kingdom; God was not going to establish two Israelite kingdoms, one with, and one without, a Davidic king. This then explains why he was hailed as “Son of David” (Matthew 9:27, Mark 10:47-48) and why people recognized that he had come to restore the kingdom of David (Mark 11:10). Moreover, by choosing twelve Apostles, Jesus was symbolizing that he had come to reunite the twelve tribes of Israel, as we can clearly see from his promise that the Apostles would sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30).5

Furthermore, some of Jesus’ parables contain very strong connections to Daniel’s prophecy of an eternal kingdom. For example, one parable compares the kingdom to a mustard seed that grows and becomes a great bush (Matthew 13:31-32), and another likens it to a bit of yeast that leavens a whole batch of meal (Matthew 13:33). Both of these parables say that the kingdom will start small, and then grow much larger, just like the kingdom in Daniel starts out as a stone, and then becomes a mountain. Additionally, in the parable of the yeast, the yeast fills the whole batch of meal, just like the kingdom in Daniel fills the whole world. These connections confirm for us that the kingdom Jesus preached was, in fact, the same one that Daniel said God would establish when the exile came to an end.

Now, this does not mean that Jesus came to save only the people of Israel. Remember, the Old Testament prophecies said that once Israel was restored, the Gentiles would join them and become God’s people, too. In accordance with those prophecies, Jesus’ earthly ministry was limited to the Jews (Matthew 15:24), but after he died and rose again, he told the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:20; cf. Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46-47). In other words, Jesus’ first task was to restore Israel, and impart the saving benefits of his death and resurrection to the Jews who believed in him, and only after he had done that could salvation then be brought to the Gentiles. This is why St. Paul calls the Gospel “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). There was a precise order to God’s plan of salvation, just like the prophets had said.

That is the Gospel that Jesus preached, and if we look at the rest of the New Testament, we can see that it is also the Gospel the early Church preached. For example, we read in Acts that the deacon, Philip, “preached good news about the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12). In that verse, the Greek word translated “preached” as euangelizomai, which is simply the verb form of euangelion, the Greek word for “Gospel.” As a result, this phrase really means that Philip preached the Gospel about the kingdom of God, just like Jesus did.6 Similarly, we read that the kingdom of God was the content of Paul’s message as well (Acts 20:25, 28:31).

Moreover, we can also see that when the Apostles preached the Gospel, they did not simply say that Jesus’ death and resurrection had opened the gates of heaven for us. No, they also taught that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises in the Old Testament. For example, in Acts we see both Peter and Paul explaining that Jesus is the definitive Son of David (Acts 2:30-31, 13:22-23, respectively), and in Romans, Paul says that the Gospel is about Jesus “who was descended from David” (Romans 1:3). Thus, it is clear that the Apostles did not preach Jesus in isolation from his salvation historical context; rather, the connection between Jesus’ ministry, and the hope for restoration expressed in the Old Testament, was an essential element of their message.

From all this, we can understand what the Gospel really is. It is the good news that Jesus has brought the story of Israel to its conclusion.7 In him, the long-awaited restoration of their kingdom has finally come, and the promises God made through the prophets have finally been fulfilled. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the people of Israel have been freed from their true enemy, the real oppressor that lay behind all the kingdoms that ruled over them throughout their history: the power of sin and death. The true Son of David has taken his seat upon the throne of his ancestors, thereby making good on God’s promise to give David an everlasting dynasty.

As a result of this restoration, the saving benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection have also been brought to the Gentiles, so everyone—Jew and non-Jew alike—can be free from the power of evil. Additionally, this in-gathering of the Gentiles serves another purpose in God’s plan as well. Since the people of the northern kingdom were assimilated into the nations among whom they had been scattered, their descendants became Gentiles, so the reunion of all twelve tribes of Israel actually takes place through the incorporation of non-Jews into the restored people of God. By gathering together people from all nations, the kingdom thereby reunites descendants from all the tribes, not just the ones that still retained their distinct identity at the time of Jesus.8

This is not to say that the common idea of the Gospel as the good news that Jesus’ death and resurrection have opened the gates of heaven to us is wrong; it is simply incomplete. The Gospel is also the good news that God has shown his faithfulness to his people Israel by keeping all of his promises to them, even though it seemed impossible. The ten northern tribes were scattered among the nations, and the Davidic dynasty had been cut off for centuries, but God found a way to stay true to his word. Despite all the twists and turns in the story of Israel, despite the people’s continual rebellion against him, he was able to restore their kingdom just like he said he would.

The Gospel shows just how committed God is to his people, to each and every one of us, no matter how far we may be from him at the moment, or how many obstacles we may face in trying to follow him and do his will. If he can accomplish the impossible with the nation of Israel, he can definitely do the same in our individual lives. He has proven that he always remains faithful, and that he is able to overcome any difficulty we face, no matter how intimidating or overwhelming it may seem to us. As a result, the Gospel, the full Gospel that Jesus and the early Church preached, should give us the confidence to place our complete trust in the God who loves us more than we could ever imagine, knowing that he can never fail or steer us in the wrong direction.

  1. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 50; George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 32-33.
  2. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 268-272; Brant James Pitre, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile: Restoration Eschatology and the Origin of the Atonement (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 31-40.
  3. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889), 597.
  4. Edward P. Sri, Dawn of the Messiah: The Coming of Christ in Scripture (Cincinnati: Servant Books, 2005), 85-86.
  5. Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 219; Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 230-231.
  6. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 322.
  7. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 50-51; N T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 23-26.
  8. Michael Patrick Barber, Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2001), 173; Pablo T. Gadenz, “’The Lord Will Accomplish His Word’: Paul’s Argumentation and Use of Scripture in Romans 9:24-29,” Letter and Spirit 2 (2006): 148-149.
John Paul Nunez About John Paul Nunez

John Paul Nunez has been studying theology both formally and on his own since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and during his time there he worked as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.