What’s the difference between “the gospel” and “the gospels”?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 03, July 2013 | Category:   Scripture

The word gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon “god-spell,” or good tidings. In Greek that’s evangelion, which is how it appears in the New Testament. There it’s used to convey the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Note: The gospel isn’t the teachings of Jesus, his parables and sermons; it’s the teachings about Jesus—his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—which reveal him as the divine Son who saves the world from sin and death. In the plural the gospels are simply the four books written to tell the story of how that gospel came to be.

Gospel

The term evangelion was used in Roman times for news that the emperor had gained an heir or that a new Caesar had been installed. Christians adopted it to describe the idea that God had a Son and a new reign was at hand. Saint Paul uses the term most frequently, referring to “God’s gospel” rather than those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (remember, in Paul’s generation, those books had yet to be written). Paul saw himself as the servant of the gospel, which for him eventually boiled down to one impenetrable idea: “Christ crucified.” The paradox that the world could be saved from sin and death by the shameful sacrifice of the Messiah, Paul was the first to admit, sounded like foolishness to Greeks and created a theological obstacle to Jews. Yet Paul refused to back down from the story of the cross with all its apparent absurdity.

Mark calls his whole book “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” using the term six more times to refer to the saving power of God’s Son. To Matthew the good news is that God has seized power over evil and begun a new reign in the world. In Luke Jesus announces “glad tidings to the poor,” and it’s this message of worldly reversals of circumstances in God’s great cause of justice that takes precedence. John’s gospel doesn’t employ the term, but his announcement of the divine word that becomes flesh for our sake has the same implications.

The four gospels serve the gospel by helping subsequent generations of disciples to understand how we must live in the face of this new Christian reality. If salvation has come to the entire world in the person of Jesus, we have to be clear what embracing this truth will mean.

Scripture
Matthew 24:14; Mark 1:1, 14-15; 8:35; 10:29-30; 13:10; 14:9; Luke 4:18-21; John 1:1-5; Romans 1:1; 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:17-25; 2 Corinthians 11:4-11; Galatians 2:7-9; Philippians 1:3-7; 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9; 2:4-13

Books
Reading the New Testament, 3rd ed., by Pheme Perkins (Paulist Press, 2012)
Invitation to the New Testament by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2004)

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