There are over 100 references of the word “gospel” mentioned by several authors in the New Testament. But it wasn’t a new word that they made up to describe what was accomplished and offered by Jesus. It was a well-known word in classical Greek (euangelion) referring to a message of victory, or other political or personal news, that caused joy! It was a word that was commonly used by people in the Roman Empire.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44BC in the Theatre of Pompey, a period of political unrest followed. The Roman Republic struggled for a time in civil war until Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian (later called Augustus) took the throne in 31BC. Caesar Augustus is the earliest figure of the Roman Empire mentioned in the New Testament as he was the emperor during the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2).
Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “Saviour” of the whole earth through bringing an end to civil war and ushering in the Pax Romana (200 years of “peace” to Rome). The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augustus were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion. His deeds were celebrated with poems and inscriptions, coins and images, statues, altars and structures.
An imperial quote stated, “All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year … the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”
Caesar is depicted as having been born, and therefore as human, but also in some mysterious way, he is also divine. The poet Horace put it this way: “upon you [Augustus] however, while still among us, we already bestow honours, set up altars to swear by in our name, and confess that nothing like you will arise hereafter or has ever arisen before now” (Epistles 2.1.15-17)
So to summarise: Augustus was seen as a god in human form who ushered in a new era of peace. He was called the son of god and the Saviour. His birth changed the calendar and his deeds were celebrated as good news, or gospel, that brought joy to people. In the midst of this, Jesus was born – the one referred to as the Saviour, the Son of God who would bring peace and good news that will cause great joy for all the people (see Luke 1:35; 2:10-14).
No wonder the introduction of the Christian faith brought such a clash of cultures that resulted in Rome persecuting Christians for the best part of 300 years. Author Edward Gibbon put it this way: “By embracing the faith of the Gospel the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offence. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred.”
Throughout the centuries the radical teaching of grace and love by Jesus and His followers has continued to create a clash with the culture of the day – and life today is no different. In this age of entitlement, the “like me” generation that is looking for its “best life” clashes severely with the teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Emphasising only the internal aspects of the gospel has raised up a generation of selfish consumer-Christians who stop at Jesus being their “own personal Saviour,” while neglecting the fact that the gospel is not just something you experience – it’s something you live! The gospel of Jesus is not just about “me” – it’s about “us” and it’s about “others.”
When Jesus began His ministry He did so by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. He presented the gospel – a message of victory that caused joy! Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus taught that living the gospel message would mean that He and His people would bring:
- Good news to the poor
- Freedom for the prisoners
- Sight for the blind
- Freedom for the oppressed
He finished the reading by saying that the gospel was a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour. Interestingly enough Jesus stopped reading halfway through a sentence. The next line says, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus announced that this was the time when God is willing to accept people. The original word refers to an amnesty – a general pardon for offenses, often granted before any trial or conviction, as well as an act of forgiveness for, and the forgetting or overlooking of any past offense. What wonderful news Jesus proclaimed for all people. All of us who have been changed by the gospel are carriers of good news that should bring great joy to others.