The Gospel in our contemporary context is most often associated with Jesus’ death for sins: the sinless savior sacrificed himself to rescue us from death, hell, and/or God’s wrath. His deed of obedience is effective for all people for all time.
Such an understanding of the Gospel sometimes stands in tension with how the Bible uses the term “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον). For instance, consider YHWH’s speech concerning Israel’s redemption after the Babylonian Crisis preserved in Deutero-Isaiah.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says God. O priests, speak to the heart of Ierousalem;
comfort her, because her humiliation has been fulfilled, her sin has been done away with, because she has received from the Lord’s hand double that of her sins… Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good tidings to Sion; lift up your voice with strength, you who bring good tidings to Ierousalem.
LXX Isaiah 40:1-2, 9
See, all who oppose [Israel] shall be ashamed and disgraced, for they shall be as though they were not, and all your adversaries shall perish.
LXX Isaiah 41:11
Let rulers come, and like potter’s clay—even as a potter treading clay—so shall you be trodden down… I will give dominion to Sion, and I will comfort Ierousalem on the way.
LXX Isaiah 41:25, 27
Imagined here is a threefold redemption. God will gather Israel, empower Jerusalem, and judge the nations on behalf of His people. In the fuller context of Deutero-Isaiah, we see that God identifies Cyrus as His “anointed” instrument of this salvation (44:28, 45:1). Through Cyrus, God will return Jacob to his land, restore Zion, and defeat Jacob’s enemies. God will rouse the Persians to crush Babylon and free Israel from captivity. Isaiah’s gospel is therefore decidedly historical and political in nature. Jerusalem will be restored as both the locus of God’s presence and as the center for Judean political power. These concrete events will represent God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins.
The word “gospel” also appears in Isaiah 60, a chapter which likewise awaits the gathering of Israel, the “obedience of the nations” and the ascendancy of Jerusalem. So whereas our modern Gospel constitutes a redemption wholly distinct from the historical/political existence of God’s people, Israel’s gospel was never envisioned as such.
Jesus and the Fall of Babylon
This observation brings us to Revelation 14, a text which perhaps most clearly exposes the meaning of the Christian gospel.
Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
After this gospel-announcement, John describes its manifestation upon the earth.
Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.”So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.
This is John’s good news. It is the announcement that the nations are to be judged and Babylon, the great persecutor of the church, is to be annihilated. Like Isaiah’s gospel, this gospel includes judgement. As such, it represents the first step toward the exaltation of God’s people in the historical-political realm. For the faithful to “sit on Christ’s throne,” “rule the nations,” and find refuge in the New Jerusalem, Babylon must first be removed from the earth once more.
As was the case in Isaiah then, the basic problem to which John presents his gospel is the problem of rebellious, idolatrous nations and empires that mock and oppose God’s lowly, oppressed people. John’s answer is that God has made the slain lamb to be the lion of Judah. Christ will carry out divine judgment in the world in order to save and exalt his faithful people. This gospel is the proclamation that because of the obedience of Christ and his people, the churches will inherit the power once arrogantly maintained by pagan kings.
What does this mean? It means that the historical-political nature of the gospel as depicted in Isaiah remains entirely untouched by John. John has not transformed the good news into something wholly spiritual. Rather, he has announced the actions God will soon take in order to address the unjust existence of His people under imperial domination. God will once again defeat Babylon and exalt his people.
So while Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sins is certainly a component of John’s gospel, it is not the entirety of the good news preached by the early churches. Christ’s death was understood not simply as a metaphysical exchange but as an event with ramifications no less concrete and historical than Israel’s return from exile.