What is the Gospel?

The word “gospel” simply means good news. The word occurs over ninety times in the New Testament and is a translation of the Greek noun euangelion. Both the noun and the verb form, euangelizo, are derived from the noun angelos, which is often translated “messenger.” “An angelos was one who brought a message of victory or political news that brought joy” (2.107, NIDNT). We should note there is nothing inherently religious in the word gospel itself.

The Biblical Structure of the Gospel

The structure of the gospel is best displayed in 1 Corinthians 15:1–8, which serves as a helpful, concise summary of the gospel. Paul reminds his followers of the core message in light of the resurrection: “Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place” (1 Cor. 15:1–2 NLT).

Paul reminds us that believing something and standing firm in it are the same thing. His words indicate that belief is more than mere agreement or intellectual assent; belief involves existential living as a demonstration of belief. Paul includes a somewhat cryptic phrase, “unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.” He may be referring to a belief in the gospel without the hope of the resurrection or to belief in a different “gospel,” one corrupted by his enemies or rivals. 

The Origin of the Gospel

Paul then speaks of the origin of this gospel message and its importance: “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me” (1 Cor. 15:3a NLT). He wants us to understand that the gospel is not his, something he made up or created. He does not have permission or authority to make up the gospel or to write his own version of it. The gospel is something that is received, passed on, and entrusted to others. It is not to be edited, adorned, or removed from its proper context, here referring to the resurrection. Receiving the gospel and passing it on—unchanged—is the only way to preserve it from corruption.

The skeleton structure Paul gives us in this passage has three parts: Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ was raised.

1. Christ died

“Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said” (1 Cor. 15:3 NLT).

“Just as the Scriptures said” is shorthand for the writings of the Old Testament. In particular, Paul is thinking of the predictions of the coming Messiah, the promises God gave to Abraham, David, and others that were fulfilled in the birth and work of Christ. When Jesus was born and formally began his ministry, he presented the full revelation of God to the world. My point here is to remind us that before Jesus died, he lived. Ninety percent of his time on earth he lived in obscurity—not exactly a strategy designed for impact. Yet in three short years, he rocked the world in which he lived and started a movement that continues today.

Jesus’ death meant something far more than most deaths because of who he was: God incarnate. His death had greater meaning because of his godly heritage (John 14:1–14) and because those closest to him considered him sinless (1 Peter 2:22–23). In another passage, Paul interprets Jesus’ death to mean something that all Israel should have understood: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21 NLT).

When Paul proclaimed “Christ died,” he meant several additional things that are a result of Jesus’ death. Because Jesus was the appointed one, chosen by God as a substitute, he took the penalty of sin in place of all who are guilty by birth through Adam’s curse. Why God decided on this plan is not explained here. But we have the simple revelation that Christ died for us and that his death in some way satisfied God’s requirements for humans to be reconciled with him (2 Cor. 5:15–16; 1 John 2:1–2) A living Christ was both chosen and volunteered to give up his life. This is where the gospel begins.

2. Christ was buried

At first, this second point may seem incidental (1 Cor. 15:4). You might think, “Of course he was buried. Why mention it?” But Paul includes this point because it establishes that Christ really was dead, locked away in a tomb with a two-ton stone wedged against the opening and a Roman guard making sure no one would steal his body. Jesus himself claimed that he would be in the earth for three days and nights and then would be raised (Matt. 12:40; John 2:19). So part of authenticating Jesus’ words and life and establishing the truth of the promise he fulfilled is verifying his death. Yes, Christ was buried. He really died. And as we shall see, he was truly raised from death.

3. Christ was resurrected

“He was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said” (1 Cor. 15:4). Again, the phrase “just as the Scriptures said” refers to all of the messianic promises God made, starting with his statement to the serpent that the deliverer would strike a fatal blow to his head while he would wound his heel (Gen. 3:15). However, the fact that Jesus experienced a verifiable death and burial does not hold much meaning for us without the final act, his resurrection. And resurrection is only an abstraction without appearances and eyewitnesses. Paul chronicles Jesus’ appearances to Peter, the twelve, and more than five hundred others and explicitly states that many of these five hundred could verify to Paul’s original readers what they saw (1 Cor. 15:5–6). Paul even mentions James and himself as among those who saw Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7–8).

These three points are the skeletal structure of the gospel. The remainder of 1 Corinthians 15 is devoted to explaining the significance of the resurrection and includes the fact that Jesus will one day return and subject all things to himself (1 Cor. 15:9–58). The resurrection naturally leads to the return of Christ, the consummation of the gospel and the believer’s blessed hope for the future.

The Story Continues

But the story of the gospel is not over yet! The good news for today is that because of what Christ has done, we will one day see God eliminate sin, free us from the distress of living in a broken world, give justice, creating a new, eternal world. These truths, guaranteed by the resurrection, should bring great joy for all who have placed their hope in Christ.

Written by Bill Hull, whom you can follow on Twitter here and Facebook here

This is an excerpt that has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.