Do you understand what the gospel really is? Many have never comprehended this most important truth.
A gross misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ has kept sincere students of the Bible from comprehending other biblical teachings for centuries. A proper understanding of the message Jesus brought is necessary for an accurate understanding of the whole Bible.
The apostle Paul not only pronounced a curse on anyone who would teach a gospel different from the one he taught; he pronounced a double curse. Obviously important to Paul was that people correctly understand the gospel; he felt it vitally important that it not be misunderstood, twisted or distorted.
To help our understanding of the gospel, which is simply an old word for "good news," let's take a journey through God's Word, beginning with God's promise to Abraham and ending with Paul's experiences while in jail. This excursion through the Scriptures will show us the undeniable meaning of the gospel.
Four verses only
The gospel is best understood when the rest of the Bible is used to describe it. Yet some insist on defining it through only one brief passage of four verses: "Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you-unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
Paul stresses that he is declaring the gospel to the church in Corinth, that he preached that same gospel to them before and that they received it from him. Paul had heard the gospel from Christ personally (Galatians 1:12, 15-18). What the Corinthians received, and what Paul received, is the gospel.
Which gospel did Paul receive?
Did Paul teach the entire gospel in these four verses of 1 Corinthians 15? Is the gospel only a message about the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, His burial and His resurrection?
In writing to the Galatians, Paul said he marveled at how quickly they had turned from the grace of Christ to a different gospel, a perverted gospel. He twice pronounced a curse on any, including even angels from heaven, if they taught any gospel other than that "received" by the Galatians from himself (Galatians 1:6-9).
A cursory biblical search of the word gospel can be confusing. The "gospel of God" or the "gospel of the grace of God" is used nine times in the New Testament. We find "gospel" used by itself on more than 60 occasions, connected with Jesus Christ more than a dozen times and as part of the terms "gospel of the kingdom" or "gospel of the kingdom of God" five times.
Paul used gospel in every letter he wrote to the churches and to the ministry, except his letter to Titus. The writers of the Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—used the word only some 17 times. The books of Hebrews and Revelation and the general epistles combined use the term only six times. If we want a solid understanding of what the gospel is, we certainly have to refer to Paul's writings, in which he used the term more than 70 times.
To grasp the full story, we need to begin with the first record of the gospel being taught. We find this information in a New Testament quote from an Old Testament passage appearing in Paul's letter to the Galatians. As a percentage of the book's size, the term gospel is used more often in Galatians than in any other book in the Bible.
The gospel to Abraham
"And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, 'In you all the nations shall be blessed'" (Galatians 3:8).
Did you catch what this says? The gospel was preached to Abraham. As a foundational statement for the gospel, this is significant, since it shows that the gospel was known from an early time, and it was spoken to Abraham directly by God.
As we study this subject, we find two elements frequently repeated:
Nations will be blessed.
The blessing of the nations comes through Abraham.
The quote we just read in Galatians comes from Genesis 22:18: "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice." The blessing was not to come from Abraham himself, but from the "seed" of his body, his offspring.
This passage records a second time that God appeared to Abraham through an angel. The first occurrence is found in Genesis 12, when God told Abraham to leave his father's country and go to a land He would show him. God promised He would make of Abraham a great nation and that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed.
The gospel was the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his seed. So far we don't know what the blessing is, and we don't know who the seed is. But let's take one step at a time.
Land, inheritance, world
Thousands of years later, in the early days of the Church, Stephen was on trial before the Sanhedrin. There he related the story of Abraham, and the promise given to Abraham becomes clear in Stephen's narrative:
"The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it [the land] to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him" (Acts 7:2-5).
Although Abraham had no child, no seed through whom the promised blessing could come, God promised the land to him as his inheritance. Abraham was to inherit and possess the land God allowed him to live in, through Abraham's promised seed. Paul told the congregation in Rome that Abraham was promised to be "heir of the world" (Romans 4:13).
These verses make it clear that the blessing promised Abraham included the inheritance of land, a heritage ultimately circling the world.
But, while Abraham lived, he didn't inherit one square foot.
Another passage that clearly concerns this blessing can be found in Hebrews 11:8-13: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance . . . By faith he dwelt in the land of promise . . ." Abraham, along with Isaac and Jacob, "died in faith, not having received the promises." They "waited for the city" whose "builder and maker is God."
The gospel message is in part about land; it's a message about inheriting the world. And it's good news about a world whose builder and maker is God.
Through Abraham's seed
Now we come to a seemingly insoluble difficulty. Abraham has an inheritance coming, but he's dead. How, then, can he possibly receive this inheritance, of which he never in his lifetime received "even enough to set his foot on"? (Acts 7:5).
Let's look more closely at the promise of Abraham's seed. What is this seed, and why was it necessary? How would this promised seed bring about an inheritance to a dead Abraham?
First we need to establish who is the seed of Abraham. The line of Abraham has spanned 42 generations by the time we come to the New Testament. Galatians 3:16 makes clear that the promises were made to Abraham and to one seed, "who is Christ." Christ is the seed of Abraham.
Jesus Christ is the "heir of all things" (Hebrews 1:2). When we become Christ's, "then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29).
In Galatians 3:18 we find that God gave the inheritance to Abraham as a promise, not because of a law. God looks at an inheritance the same way we might look at an inheritance from our earthly parents. Their property was theirs—they earned it—yet they are pleased to give it to their children. They may have specified certain conditions in their will, but the inheritance was not earned through any efforts of the children.
Our inheritance from God differs from an earthly inheritance in two significant ways:
We will perish, never to live again, unless God forgives our sins.
Unless God resurrects our mortal bodies to immortality, our spiritual inheritance is of little benefit.
Paul explained to the Galatians how these problems can be overcome—how the penalty of death has been nullified and how we can become inheritors forever. "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us . . ." Paul explains that this "curse" is the death penalty, which Christ freely took on Himself for us (Galatians 3:13).
Why did Jesus Christ do this? Paul explains that our Savior assumed the death penalty so that "the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles [all nations] in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (verse 14).
Paul describes the prospect of our living again because Christ took our death penalty upon Himself. Because of this, he writes, we can be raised to immortality because we receive, through faith, the promised Holy Spirit.
Paul added when he later wrote to the Ephesian church that we are marked "with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, [which] is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance . . ." (Ephesians 1:13-14, New International Version).
To the congregation in Rome, Paul explains that we are Christ's if we have the Holy Spirit—that, just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, we will be raised to immortality through that Spirit (Romans 8:9-11).
No wonder Jesus Christ said Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing His day (John 8:56). Christ fulfilled the promise to Abraham.
Back to Corinth
Paul's definition of the gospel didn't change when he wrote to the Corinthians. In the letter to Corinth Paul describes the good news using different phrases but conveying the same message, the same two elements that he wrote about to the Galatians. First, Christ (the seed of Abraham) died for our sins. Second, He rose from the dead to receive the blessing of His inheritance, the Kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-24).
The resurrection to an inheritance is a major theme of 1 Corinthians 15. Note how often the words resurrection, rise, rose, risen, raise and raised appear—a total of 23 times. Paul goes to great lengths to describe how many people witnessed Christ's resurrection (verses 5-8), the importance of Christ's resurrection (verses 12-19), the order of the resurrections (verses 20-28), the moral implications of Christ's resurrection (verses 29-34) and the bodies of the resurrected dead (verses 35-49).
Confirming and defending the resurrection
Let's approach the study of the gospel from an entirely different standpoint to prove that the gospel is really about a resurrection through Jesus Christ to inherit the Kingdom of God. Paul told the Philippian church that he was in prison because of the gospel, that he was defending and confirming the gospel while in chains (Philippians 1:7, 16-17). Scripture records why Paul was being judged. What did he defend and confirm? Did his defense have anything to do with the hope of the promise to the fathers, an inheritance or a resurrection through Christ?
Before Ananias he said that "concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!" (Acts 23:6, emphasis added throughout).
Before Felix he said, "Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me . . . I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead . . . Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day" (Acts 24:13, 15, 21).
Before King Agrippa, Festus said concerning Paul's accusers: "When the accusers stood up, they . . . had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive" (Acts 25:18-19).
Before the king, Paul said, "And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers . . . For this hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26: 6-8).
Inheritance in God's Kingdom
Continuing with King Agrippa, Paul recounts his conversion and the mission Jesus Christ gave him. Paul was told "to turn [the gentiles] from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God" (verse 18). Paul told the Colossians the same thing, that he prayed they would receive knowledge, wisdom and spiritual understanding by God's power since they had been delivered from the "power" of darkness and were then subject to the power of the Kingdom of the Son of God (Colossians 1:9-13).
We are not already in the Kingdom of God. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom. But we do have the power of God's Kingdom within us, the Spirit of God, by which He will raise us to eternal life.
Again to Agrippa, Paul explained that the repentant could "receive forgiveness of sins [the first element] and an inheritance [the second element] among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ] . . . To this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come-that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead . . ." (Acts 26:18, 22-23).
The whole of the Bible confirms the story of the gospel. The Law details the account of the gospel given to Abraham. The Prophets foretell the coming of the Christ to fulfill the promises. The Writings proclaim Christ's return to restore the Kingdom to spiritual Israel.
The books of the New Testament likewise record witness of His message as well as His death, burial and resurrection so we can also inherit the Kingdom of God. From the beginning and throughout the book of Acts, Christ told His apostles to proclaim their witness of His resurrection so the world would understand that He brought the fulfillment of the promise to the fathers (Acts 1:8; 4:2, 33; 13:31-33).
What the gospel is
Paul received the gospel; in turn he gives it to us. Polluting or wresting the gospel twists our thinking. A distorted gospel teaches that repentance is not really necessary because Christ did everything for us and nothing other than belief is required of us. A twisted gospel teaches that the Kingdom of God is already here and our reward is to go to heaven when we die. Perverting the gospel brings a double curse because it robs us of for-giveness of sins and our inheritance of God's Kingdom.
The gospel is the promise of an inheritance to Abraham through his seed, Jesus Christ. It is the gospel of God, Jesus Christ, grace and the Kingdom of God knit together in one beautiful package: grace through Jesus Christ so that we can inherit the Kingdom of God for eternity when we are resurrected.
Let's all praise God for His promises and, as Paul wrote in Philippians 1:27, let our conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ. GN