In my book The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible, I include the word gospel as one of the most misunderstood Bible words.
If you asked a hundred Evangelicals to explain what the gospel is, most of them would quote 1 Cor 15:3-4. They would say that the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If asked what we must believe to have everlasting life, most of those same people would say that we need to believe the gospel.
But is that true? Is there any verse anywhere that promises that whoever believes the gospel has everlasting life? Nope.i How about a verse that says that whoever believes that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead is born again? Nope. There are nearly 2.4 billion people who profess to be Christians today. Almost all of those people believe the gospel, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. But very few of them believe the promise of everlasting life to whoever simply believes in Jesus. Most professing Christians believe in works salvation, including Catholics, Orthodox, and most Protestants too.
Matthew 11:5 and the parallel in Luke 7:22 are prime examples of the confusion that can be caused by misunderstanding what the word gospel means. The Lord said to representatives of John the Baptist, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that…the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
The word gospel means good news. In the Synoptic Gospels (the word gospel does not occur anywhere in John’s Gospel, other than the title), it is used to refer to the announcement to Zacharias by an angel of the good news of the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:19), the announcement to shepherds by an angel concerning the birth of Christ (Luke 2:10), and the announcement by Jesus of the good news that the kingdom was at hand (Matt 4:17, 23; 9:35; 10:7; and Mark 1:14, 15). Other than that, the other twelve uses of the word gospel in the Synoptics are unexplained (Matt 11:5; 26:13; Mark 1:1; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10: 14:9; 16:15; Luke 4:18; 7:22; 9:6; 20:1). It would not make sense that they refer to the very specific good news of the birth of John the Baptist or even the birth of Jesus. They most naturally refer to the other good news explicitly mentioned in the Synoptics, the gospel (= good news) of the kingdom (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; and Mark 1:14), that the kingdom was near, and Messiah was here.
Yet consider the comments on Luke 7:22 by some leading commentators.
Green writes, “Collocated with these other persons who stand in need of divine intervention and appearing at the conclusion of the list, “the poor” interprets and is amplified by these other designations of those who stand on the margins of respectable society yet are the unexpected recipients of salvation” (Luke, p. 297, emphasis added).
This statement by Wiersbe follows the same path: “History shows that the church has often led the way in humanitarian service and reform, but the church’s main job is to bring lost sinners to the Saviour. Everything else is a by-product of that. Proclaiming the Gospel must always be the church’s first priority” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 197).
Childress seems to hold the same view, writing, “Our Lord saw to it that hungry crowds were fed by loaves and fish; yet he emphasized that his greatest gift to the poor is the gospel” (Luke’s Gospel, p. 65).
Many commentators note that the reference to preaching the gospel to the poor is based on Isa 61:1. However, they either fail to explain what good news was to be preached to the poor, or, if they do explain, they see this as the preaching of individual salvation from eternal condemnation.
The word gospel did not refer to the death and resurrection during Jesus’ ministry. It referred to the good news that the kingdom was drawing near. The expression “the gospel of kingdom” is found in Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; and Mark 1:14. The point in those texts is that kingdom was now near since Messiah was here and ready to give it to Israel.
Luke 9:6 is instructive: “So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.” The disciples did not come to believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection until after He rose from the dead (cf. Matt 16:21-23; John 20:9, 25-28). Whatever Luke 9:6 means, it certainly does not mean that the disciples were preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus. While it is likely that they preached the promise of everlasting life as well, that is not what preaching the gospel means in Luke 9:6. It means that they preached the good news of the kingdom. They told people that Jesus is the Messiah and that His kingdom is near.
Of course, the good news that the kingdom was near was directly related to the promise of everlasting life. Upon hearing that good news message, people should have asked what they needed to do in order be assured that they would be in the kingdom. They would have then heard the promise found in John 3:16 and many other texts.
Why does it matter that we understand this? Because if we think that the gospel is the saving message, we may wrongly conclude that nearly 100% of the people in Christianity are born again. We might think that works salvation is a saving message as long as someone believes the good news that the kingdom is near, or the good news that Jesus died and rose again. But the only saving message is the faith-alone message that the Lord and His apostles preached (John 3:16; 11:25-27; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:16). Works salvation does not work.
i In fact, the only book of the Bible written to lead unbelievers to faith in Christ, the Gospel of John, does not even use the word gospel.