(You can also listen – or watch – Fake News here. The sermon begins at 22:26 and runs approximately 22 minutes.)
Many of us know that the Greek word translated “gospel” means “good news,” but in what sense is it good? In what sense is it news? And is it news we can trust? In our day, that is a pressing concern.
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries people chose the term “post-truth” as their “word of the year.” Questions about truth and even doubts about there being such a thing pervade society. A number of things have brought us to this place, not least of which is the ubiquitous presence in our lives of social and news media.
Our days are saturated with information, whether about people we know on Facebook or about the president of the United States on the evening news. Some of this news (and in certain settings, much of it) is either fake or what I call “enhanced” news. Fake news reports something that is not true and has not happened as though it is true and has happened. Enhanced news presents something that has happened but does so in a way that is intended to move the reader or listener in a certain direction.
When I am in the car, I frequently listen to classical music, which is presented on a platform that includes hourly news updates. The corporation behind that news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. But for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words that at best reflect the new staffs’ biases and at worst expose a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. That is enhanced news.
Can we trust what we hear? Did you know that many of the online sites you visit employ tools to covertly influence your thinking? Some are relatively straightforward (paying people to submit likes or to become followers), while others are more sophisticated, like stuffing online polls, forcing site owners to take down stories, crashing entire sites, and more.
A study from Carnegie Mellon found that something like 45% of tweets on the coronavirus originated from bots – automated computer programs – instead of people. Evidence points to China’s and Russia’s involvement. Furthermore, 80% of the most retweeted posts on Twitter came from bots. The “likes” that boost a post and give it visibility often come from bots created by people who are trying to game the system.
In this environment, who can we trust? I say, “In this environment,” but fake and enhanced news is not news; there is nothing new about it. Fake news has been a thing throughout our lives. What’s more, it was a thing in our great grandparents’ lives and a thing in the lives of the apostles and prophets. Fake news has been around forever. It’s just the form it takes that is new.
The difference between real news and fake (or enhanced) news is that someone tells real news because something has happened. Someone tells fake news because they want something to happen. Keep that difference in mind for a few minutes.
We are starting a series today on the gospel: what it is and what it means. In the weeks to come we will look at the context of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the consequences of the gospel. What do we do with the gospel? What does it do with us?
I had a friend who loved to use the word “gospel.” The word would come up in conversation a dizzying number of times and I would sometimes get a little lost. It seemed like “the gospel” covered an awful lot of territory. This thing was gospel. That thing was gospel. It seemed like everything was gospel—but if something wasn’t gospel, it wasn’t good.
That is not how the Bible uses the word “gospel.” By trying to make the word mean more than it does, we only succeed in making it mean less. Many good things are not gospel.
Let me give you an example. In First Corinthians 15, Paul summarizes the gospel in five bullet points. (We’ll look at his summary – and it is a summary; it isn’t meant to be comprehensive – in a couple of weeks.) That summary takes only four or five of the letter’s 453 verses. 1 Corinthians also addresses church unity, which is extremely important and has a bearing on the gospel but is not gospel. He takes on marriage. Again, important stuff that has gospel implications, but it is not gospel. He talks about meat sacrificed to idols, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual gifts, all of which is inspired by God’s Spirit and important for our lives but not all of which is gospel.
Sometimes people will say a person is a “gospel preacher,” when all they really mean is that he invites people to trust in Jesus. Or they say a particular congregation is a “gospel church,” when they only mean they have high regard for the Bible. But that is not what “gospel” means – certainly not what Jesus meant by it, nor Paul, nor any of the apostles.
Why go on about this? Isn’t this just an in-house quarrel over words? What difference does it make to any of us in real life?
A big difference. The gospel, when we really understand it, is life-transforming, mission-initiating, and endurance-inspiring. The gospel is to the Bible what the core is to an apple. It is to the church what the constitution is to the country. The gospel is not fake news; not enhanced news; it is remarkably good news.
That brings us to something we must get straight if we are to benefit from this series. The gospel is news about something that has happened. One scholar suggests translating the word as “newsflash.” Someone else thought “breaking news” might be better. Both have their problems but they do capture something fundamental (and fundamentally important) about the word: it conveys the idea that something has happened.
So when Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,” he means by gospel the news report of something that has happened. When he writes to Timothy, “This is my gospel,” he is talking about the news report he had broadcast around the Mediterranean regarding something that had taken place.
Now the Apostle Paul wasn’t the only person using the word “gospel” in the first century. Jesus used it before him. John the Baptist used it even earlier. When we hear that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul all used the word, we are liable to conclude that “gospel” is a religious word, but that would be a mistake. It may be a religious word now, but there was nothing religious about it then. The word simply referred to something that had happened or was happening, particularly – and this is important – something that was welcome and good. “Gospel” refers to an announcement of “good news.”
In the first century, the word “gospel” got a lot of use. There were gospels about government projects, military victories, weddings, births—even about the flash sale on anchovies down at the market. (I’m not kidding about that.) They didn’t use phrases like “news release” or “breaking news.” They used the term gospel.
Just a few years before Jesus was born, the proconsul Paullus Fabius Maximus recommended the Roman calendar be retooled so that the new year would begin on Caesar Augustus’ birthday, rather like we reckon time around the birth of Jesus. He sent a letter to the Provincial Assembly with that request, after which this news release was published. Note the use of the word “gospel”:
Augustus has made war to cease and has put everything in peaceful order; and whereas the birthday of our god [Augustus] signaled the beginning of the gospels for the world…Paullus Fabbius Maximus … has discovered a way to honor Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his birth.
“The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospels for the world.” How much that sounds like the first verse of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There were many gospel announcements made round the empire when Paul was working, some about Augustus and some about anchovies, some that were fake gospels (as in Galatians 1) and some that were enhanced gospels (as in 2 Corinthians 11).
Paul traveled the empire announcing his gospel, the good news about what had happened through Jesus Christ. We will explore what he said in the weeks to come, but for now I want us to get firmly in our minds the basic truth that the word “gospel” refers to something that has happened – something good.
When we are trying to get up the courage to tell a friend or family member the gospel, do we picture ourselves sharing good news or do we picture ourselves trying to get them to do something? If the latter, it may be a sign that we are not quite understanding the gospel. We have forgotten that the gospel is news about something that has happened in real life, in the real world, with real consequences.
Now you might be thinking, “Okay, okay. We get it. The gospel is about something that has happened or is happening. You can move on now.”
I know it may seem like I am belaboring the point. I don’t think I am. I am trying to firmly root in our minds the idea that “gospel” refers to something that has happened or is happening because many people use the word to refer to something else. They use it in a way that is inconsistent with the Bible and they don’t even know it. Instead of talking about something that has happened, they are talking about something that should happen or could happen.
Let me get specific. People repeatedly use the word “gospel” to refer to the invitation to accept Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die. That’s the gospel. Jesus died for you so that you can go to heaven. In other words, the gospel is not seen as something that has happened but as advice a person might take or a cure he might swallow or a deal he might strike.
That last one is particularly troubling. When I was a young pastor in a denominational church, the district superintendent sent me off to a week-long conference on evangelism. (He knew I was an introvert and he wanted to give me some tools to use and maybe help me come out of my shell.) So I went off and learned how to sell Jesus. It was a spiritual The Art of the Deal seminar. I don’t say it was all bad – I learned some helpful things – but it changed the gospel from telling the news about something that had happened into selling a deal you can’t afford to miss. And it turned gospel messengers into salespeople.
Those natural born salesmen among us might be fine with that, might even relish the challenge, but we are not all salesman. I am certainly not. I once sold a boat to some people who couldn’t wait to buy it and, by the time I got done, I felt like I needed to pay them to take it off my hands.
After attending that spiritual Art of the Deal conference, I spent a couple of years knocking on every door in our neighborhood – probably 1200 homes – trying to sell Jesus to people. It was a joyless task which I thoroughly disliked. You know, a person ought to pray before knocking on a door when doing that kind of evangelism—and I did. I prayed, “O God, please don’t let anybody be at home.”
If we don’t share the gospel because something has happened (as is the case with real news) but because we want something to happen (which is the case with fake news), people will sense the difference.
C. S. Lewis described the gospel as “Something perfectly new in the history of the universe [that] had happened.” He complained that the great difficulty was keeping before people the question of truth. “You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point.” The gospel is not an ethical system. It is not a set of religious practices that can be compared to Islam or Buddhism. The gospel is news about something that had happened.
That “Christ died for our sins” is part of the gospel. It is, in fact, the centerpiece of the gospel. But understand that it actually happened. God sent a person we know as Jesus into our world who died by order of the procurator Pontius Pilate. It happened. It is news. It is not advice. It is not a sales contract. This is news, in the same way that the President of the United States contracting the coronavirus is news. It is news as the Lakers winning Game 2 of the NBA finals is news.
If you tell someone that the Lakers won, you will not be giving them advice, though that news may change their behavior – especially if they recorded the game to watch later or if they were planning to bet on the Heat. Similarly, telling someone that Jesus died is not advice. It is news. Now it is news that makes a difference, that can change a person’s life, as we are going to see in this series. But if we think of the gospel as advice to give or a product to sell, we will not handle it the way the apostles did and we will not see the results the apostles saw.
The Apostle Paul crossed Asia and Europe, enduring scorn, mistreatment, and imprisonment because he believed something remarkably important had happened and people needed to know about it. The God who made the world and maintains a relationship with it entered the world through the person of Jesus. He sent him to save the world (John 3:17), but he was misunderstood, opposed, and killed.
God, however, refused to allow Jesus’s death to be the final word. He raised Jesus back to life, which had been the plan from the beginning. Jesus has now returned to heaven but is going to come back to earth and make things right. Things will not always be broken, painful, and sad. They will be right, good, and joyful. That is good news.
Now if we hear that news and believe it, we will want to know what to do about it. We will ask (as people in the Bible did), “What should we do?” Paul had a ready answer for that question, which he summarized as: repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ. That is, rethink your life in the light of what God has done (repentance), entrust yourself to Jesus, and join him and his people (faith). But this only makes a difference if something really happened.
At Lockwood, we try to win people for Jesus. We don’t do this because we believe Christianity is the best religion out there. We don’t do this because we think it will change people’s lives for the better (though we do). We don’t do this because we believe the Christian moral code surpasses those of other faiths. We do it because we believe something has happened: The creator of the universe has sent his Christ to earth on a rescue mission. This happened at a point in earth’s history when Augustus Caesar was Emperor of the Roman Empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. It happened when Pontius Pilate was procurator in Israel and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests In Jerusalem. It happened and it makes all the difference.
This is news worth telling. God cares, God has come, things have changed. In light of this, we should (in the words of Jesus) “repent [rethink our lives] and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). It is news—news that ought to be spread.
 From Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission.
 Dickson, p. 112
 Dickson, p. 113, taken from Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones 2:458
 Letter, May, 1944