What is the Gospel?

The word “gospel” means “good news.” Literally, it’s a “good message” and is related to the word for “messenger” or “angel.” One place we can look to understand what the gospel is Isaiah 40: after many chapters of judgment proclaimed on Israel and Judah and the nations, God proclaims, “Comfort, comfort my people… speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned…” (Is. 40:1-2). And right after that is the famous verse, “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is. 40:3-5). Isaiah goes on to tell Jerusalem to go up on the high mountains and announce this good news (Is. 40:9).

Bad News Before Good News
The good news of the gospel comes in the face of bad news. The gospel interrupts bad news. Some news always seems good: you won the lottery, you’ve been selected for a free Caribbean cruise. But the gospel is the kind of good news that comes in the face of bad news. It’s like waking up one morning and realizing that you completely forgot about the huge project that’s due today and your entire grade rides on it, and you arrive at school ashamed and terrified only to receive the good news that your teacher has moved the due date to next week. The bad news, the bad situation has been interrupted, overtaken, completely altered and reversed by the good news. This is what the gospel is like.

There are various things that can and do go wrong in this world, but the worst things are the things that you cannot change. They are like mountains that you cannot move. They are like canyons that you cannot cross. I remember as a young boy we visited my grandpa in Arkansas, and he took me and my siblings to a toy store so that we could pick out a toy. I picked out something excitedly and brought it to my grandpa and he told me he didn’t think it was a good choice and to pick something else out. And for whatever reason, in my six or seven year old little heart, I was angry and bitter at my grandpa for not letting me get what I had selected. We went home to California, and I never saw my grandpa again. He died a year or so later. And one day it hit me that I had been angry and bitter with my grandpa, and I had never made it right. And now there was nothing I could do. It was like a mountain that could not be moved, a canyon that could not be crossed. It was really bad news.

But sometimes the bad news is a bad situation that just eats at you, something you try to fix, but nothing you do seems to work. Maybe it’s someone in your family who hurts you or someone you just can’t get along with. Maybe it’s your dad, maybe it’s your mom, an older brother or sisters, an aunt or uncle, or grandparent, or a classmate or a teacher. Or maybe it’s you. You know that you’ve hurt others, you’ve said things that hurt others. Maybe you’ve thought things in your heart that are angry, unclean, shameful. You try to be better. Maybe you pray about it. But it just doesn’t get better; it doesn’t go away. It’s still there, nagging you, eating at you. Maybe you try not to think about because it just makes you feel bad. Maybe it even makes you feel physically sick.

I remember when I was probably 12 or 13 lying to my parents several times; it would eat at me. I would feel awful, even physically sick, and I would try my hardest not to think about it. I would tell myself not to be so sensitive. I would tell myself lies about the lies, that they weren’t really bad lies, or very big lies, or that they wouldn’t hurt anyone. And I would feel so sick, and finally I would go to my parents and confess that I had lied. And then I would feel such relief, and I would determine to myself that I wouldn’t ever tell a lie again. And then, a few months later, I would tell another lie. And I would start it all over again, explaining to myself why I didn’t need to worry about this one, or that since I really wasn’t going to do it again, God would understand. And this happened a number of times, and I felt like I just couldn’t stop. It was like a horrible, rough road full of potholes, and for some reason I just couldn’t avoid them. No matter how hard I tried, I always ended up in another pothole, and there was nothing I could do about it. That’s bad news.

Our Sin Against God and God Alone
But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The Bible teaches that these impossible problems, these failures, these sins are ultimately all rooted in our broken relationship with God, our Maker, our Father. What is so very obvious is the fact that we didn’t make ourselves. We were created, and we have been given this gift called life. And yet, you can walk through this world not acknowledging this gift, not knowing the Giver, your Maker. Everyone senses that something isn’t quite right in this world. There’s all this beauty, all this goodness, and yet there’s all this evil, all this suffering, all this pain, and you can easily feel lost, lonely, confused, overwhelmed. What’s wrong with me? You might ask yourself. Why do I feel this way? Why do I think these awful thoughts? Why do say these awful words? And maybe you’re like me, and you try to stop, you confess it even, and then it just happens over and over and over again. And it just seems impossible to stop.

The Bible says that the root of all of this impossibility is our sin against God. It’s not just that we’ve sinned against one another. Think about it: We were made by God but we can’t see Him, hear Him, touch Him. But this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, and it isn’t God’s fault. It’s our fault. We were born under a curse; we were born under an evil spell. We are born as rebels and traitors. We’ve run away from God our Maker. We’ve despised Him, hated Him, ignored Him. All of those sins and others that we commit against one another, we’re actually committing against Him as well. How could we be happy in this world – sinning against the One who made us and all things? Not being in fellowship with Him? We know we’ve sinned against other people, and worst of all, we’ve sinned against God. And now we are under the curse of sin and death. Sin deserves death. We’ve betrayed the One who made us, and we deserve death and Hell forever. Sin pretends that God isn’t there, and Hell is where God gives us up to eternal suffering and separation from Him. And plus there’s death and dying all around us. We’re on a battlefield, and everyone is dying. Sooner or later, there will be a tombstone with your name it, with my name on it. On one end of the Moscow Cemetery there’s a stone with my father in-law’s name on it, and on the other end there’s a small plaque with my son’s name on it. And new names appear almost daily.

This is the most impossible situation of all. This is the worst news. How can we make this bad situation, right? How can we talk to Someone we can’t even see? How can we know if He’ll have mercy on us? If there’s a God, He’s holy and just, and He punishes sinners. He can’t let sin just go. He can’t just pretend it’s not there. If He does that for your lies, for your lust, for your anger – why shouldn’t He do that for everyone else? But that would be evil, and He would be no god. This is the immovable mountain, the uncrossable canyon, the roughest road, the most uneven path. We’re unclean, and we can’t wash ourselves. We’re guilty, and we can’t change that fact. And we’ve run into a wilderness where we can’t see God, hear God, or touch God. We can’t find our way back to God. Like my realization about my grandpa, it’s too late. Nothing can be done.

Every Valley Shall Be Lifted
This is why Isaiah said, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

You see: the bad news is that every one of us have impossible valleys in our lives –canyons that cannot be crossed, impossible mountains in our lives – things we cannot change, impossible uneven ground in our lives – things we cannot fix, impossible rough places in our lives – things that seem like they’ll never get better. And ultimately, our sin separates us from God. We’ve lied, and we can’t stop lying. We’ve lusted, and we can’t stop lusting. We’ve hated, and we can’t stop hating. We’ve cheated, and we can’t stop cheating. We’ve stolen, and we can’t stop stealing. We’ve been hurt, and we can’t stop hurting. We’re afraid, ashamed, embarrassed, guilt-ridden, and it seems impossible to change anything. But Isaiah says, go up on a high mountain and tell my people, “Comfort, comfort, says your God… speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” Tell her the good news, the gospel, that “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The Gospel
The good news of the gospel of Jesus comes in the face of our bad news. If you haven’t yet reckoned with the bad news, then the gospel doesn’t seem like such good news. But if you stop for a moment and tell the truth about yourself and this world, the bad news starts piling up pretty quickly: the mountains and the valleys and the rough roads seem impossible. But what Isaiah foretold, John came announcing. And he pointed at a man named Jesus of Nazareth, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’ You see, the worst news is that we’ve sinned against God and now we can’t find Him. We’ve rebelled against our Maker, and now we can’t get back to Him. We can’t see Him, we can’t talk to Him, we don’t even know what He thinks of us. And into this world came Jesus, who was born of a Virgin, who lived a perfect life, who walked on water, who calmed the storms, who healed the blind, the lame, the deaf, who raised the dead. Jesus said that He came to lead us back to our Father, our Maker. He said He came to show us the way back. He said that if we knew Him, we would know His Father. And He said that He came for the lost and the sick and the suffering. He said he came for the poor, for the needy, for the sorrowful, for the prostitutes and tax collectors. And He said that he came to give His life as a ransom. A ransom is the payment required to return something. Jesus says He came to give His life as a ransom for many. He came to give His life to bring us home.

So this is the good news of the gospel of Jesus. In the face of the impossibility of our sin, the impossibility of finding the God we have wronged, God Himself has come to find us. And not only has He come to find us, He has come in the person of His only Son in order to pay all the costs associated with our return home. Our sin deserves death, and God in His justice and mercy and love sent His Son to seek and save the lost, to receive the justice we deserve by standing in our place, so that God might offer us mercy without ignoring any of our sin. He who knew no sin, became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.

This is why Isaiah says to go up on a high mountain and cry out with a loud voice. “Comfort, comfort my people… speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” This is why John cries in the wilderness that every valley will be lifted up and every mountain and hill will be made low and every rough place will become plain. God came in His Son Jesus Christ to break through every barrier that keeps us from Him. The good news is that God has come for us, and that He has paved a road straight back home for us. There are no impossible valleys, no impossible mountains, no impossible potholes for God because He paved the way by the blood of Jesus.

Now, most of you are from Christian homes and you attend Christian churches, and you regularly hear Bible readings and prayers and you hear the words God and Jesus and gospel regularly. But you need to know that it’s entirely possible for all of that to just be words. So my question for you is this: is it good news? It is good news for you?

In order for it to be good news it has to interrupt your bad news. It has to be the answer to your bad news. It has to be the answer to the impossible valleys, the immoveable mountains, and all your roads full of potholes. Even as a young boy, I remember realizing that there was no way to make things right with my grandpa. Only God could make things right. And so I prayed and I asked Him to somehow make it right. And He did. He lifted that valley. He brought that mountain low. And though it was a process, He delivered me from my lying tongue and taught me to love the truth. He made that rough place plain. And let me tell you – you never outgrow your need for the gospel. I’m still a sinner, and I still face mountains and valleys and potholes. I still run up against walls that feel like impossibilities, things that cannot change, things that seem completely stuck. But God is not stuck. God is not trapped. The good news of the gospel is that not even death is too difficult for God. Because He is the God of the resurrection, the God who breaks through the impossible.

Have you experienced that? Do you know that joy? That peace? Do you hear the words of comfort and does your heart sing? Is Jesus your priceless treasure – your glory, your crown? Or do you really want this comfort but you aren’t really sure it actually exists? Have you heard about this comfort but never really felt it?

Jesus says, come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

[Note: This was a talk originally given for an assembly at Logos School last week. Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash]

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