What Was the Gospel before the Gospel?

Trick question for you: what does it mean to “preach the gospel”? To tell others about the death and resurrection of Christ, right? Then, what did Jesus mean when he said to the disciples of John the Baptist: “‘The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them’”? Jesus was not yet crucified and resurrected. So, what was this gospel they were preaching?

And that is not the only challenging use of “gospel” in the Gospels. When Jesus sends out the Twelve, tells them to take nothing, staff, bread, or money; shake off the dust if a city does not receive you; the passage then says, “So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.” And again, elsewhere, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’

“Repent, and believe in the gospel”? What does that mean? We would quickly connect the meaning of this phrase to St. Paul’s, “confess with your mouth”, “believe in your heart”, and “you will be saved”.

Without going into great depth about what exactly is meant in each instance or complicated word studies—those efforts would lead us right back to what is already fairly obvious, anyway: we have attached meanings to some words and phrases that might not be entirely proper and true.

 “Preach the Gospel”—to verbally share the way of salvation through Christ

 “Evangelism”—usually verbal, but always focused on others

 “Missions”—going somewhere else to verbally share

 “Witnessing” and “give my testimony”—another way to say “evangelism”

...and a word which, though not as common (besides habitual abuse in “missions” contexts), has the potential to enlighten all the other problematic words and reveal a course of action to both evangelistic and missions efforts:

“Incarnational”

This one word will help us answer questions like:

  • What is the difference between missions in another country and missions at home?
  • What is the difference between missions and evangelism?
  • Who is a missionary? Who should be doing missions?
  • How should Orthodox parishes in America support or engage in missions?
  • Should we build the local parish or support foreign missions?

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