What is the Good News?
So, then, the “gospel” is a proclamation concerning Jesus, Son of God, Lord, who lived and taught, was crucified, arose, and ascended for us. Towards the end of Romans (16:26), the Apostle Paul uses parallelism to speak about “the gospel and the preaching about Jesus Christ;” this could as easily be translated “the gospel, that is, the preaching about Jesus Christ.” The “gospel” and the “proclamation,” then, are the same thing. Moreover, St. Paul, when his ministry is coming to an end, speaks about his honor in proclaiming “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). God’s grace, or clemency towards us, is seen in the deep visitation of our world by the Son: it is that mighty act which is proclaimed in the good news.
The proclamation of God’s grace, however, assumes that there is something broken in us and in our world that God is being gracious about. The first two chapters of Romans outline our weak and sinful human condition and refer to the general judgment to which we will all be subject (see especially Romans 2:16). Accordingly, John’s Gospel speaks of the light shining “in the darkness” (John 1:4), Matthew’s Gospel about the need for Messiah to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 2:21), Luke about the pious who were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38), and Mark leads with John the Baptist proclaiming repentance. Further, Jesus, when he announces the coming of the rule of God (in Himself), issues as his first command: “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). All this assumes that there is a serious problem for the Gospel to speak into. This can be problematic in our own relativistic day: in order to perceive the Gospel as good news, we cannot be blind to our predicament. Indeed, in the 21st century, it may be necessary to open our own eyes (as well as those of our friends) to “bad news” that we and they have been avoiding, before the good news can be seen in its glory. Our need for salvation is presupposed by the humble plunging of God incarnate into our fallen world. Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it this way,
[I]t is the Christian gospel that God did not leave man in his exile, in the predicament of confused longing. In this sense of radical unfulfillment, God acted decisively: into the darkness where man was groping towards paradise, he sent light. He did so not as a rescue operation to recover lost man: it was rather for the completing of what he had undertaken from the beginning. God acted so that man might understand who he really was and where his hunger had been driving him…The light God sent was his Son: the same light that had been shining unextinguished in the world’s darkness all along, seen now in full brightness.1
This story, from incarnation through to ascension (with its promise of a second coming), is especially encoded in the four gospels of our New Testament. Other “gospels” vied for attention in the early centuries but were rejected because they did not conform to “the rule of faith” passed down by the apostles and mentioned explicitly by St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1:9:4). For example, the so-called Gospel of Thomas contained strange ideas about the body, and about our sexuality, exalted esoteric knowledge over faith, and said little or nothing about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Protevangelion of James does not concentrate upon Jesus, but what might have happened prior to his birth, and also was not recognized as canonical.2 The fathers recognized our four gospels as canonical because they conformed completely to holy Tradition passed down about Jesus, because they had a close connection to eye-witnesses (though were not all written by eyewitnesses), because they focused upon the passion and resurrection of Jesus, and because they were widely read by Christian communities everywhere.
When we study them carefully, we may be amazed both by how and where they overlap, and by how each of them is distinct in its witness. This is true when we look at the actual wording of each account, and also when we look at the selection of events, and how they are ordered. Roughly, we may say that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are most alike (and so they have been called “synoptic,” meaning that we can easily see their connections together “with the eye,” or at a glance), while John is more concentrated, less expansive in what it records, and more explicitly theological than the others. What the synoptics imply about Jesus’ deity, John explores in great depth. In academic circles, much ink has been spilled concerning the differences between John and the synoptics, and the differences between the synoptics themselves, resulting in various suggestions as to how they might be related, in terms of literary dependency.3
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 26. ↩
Though recognized as uncanonical the Protoevangelion of James includes details concerning the Holy Theotokos that form part of holy Tradition. ↩
Various theories of literary connection have been suggested through the ages, including the disappearance of certain sources (e.g., “Q,” a purported sayings-source, supposed by scholars to have been like the “Gospel” of Thomas). None of these theories is completely satisfactory, and some who write about them seem to imply that the evangelists had the ability to cut-and-paste, as we can with computers. ↩