If “What’s the point of the Bible?” were a question on Family Feud, there’s a good chance one of the top survey responses would be “sharing the gospel.” But what did “gospel” actually mean in biblical times? And what does the Bible itself say about sharing the gospel? Does every Christian have to be an evangelist? Although the Great Commission might be the most well-known passage of Scripture about spreading the gospel, the Bible has a lot more to say on the subject than just what is captured in Matthew 28:16–20.
What is the gospel?
“The gospel is literally ‘good news,’” says Dr. James Jinhong Kim, associate professor of Missiology and Global Christianity at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Missiology, Kim’s field of study, examines how Christians prepare and deliver the gospel message for different groups and contexts.
The word “gospel” is an Old English translation of the Greek noun euaggelion, which means “good news,” and the Greek verb euangelizo, which means “to announce good news.”
The meaning of the gospel in biblical culture
In first-century Greek culture, “gospel” in both its noun and verb forms was used most often when announcing an important news event like a victory in battle. It might evoke the image of a messenger coming into town to proclaim the good news. The word “gospel” wasn’t strongly associated with religion or used to refer to written literature until later (Bible Gateway Encyclopedia of the Bible, “What Is A Gospel?” Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels).
The Old Testament does not actually use the term “gospel” with religious meaning, though there is a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that could be seen as its equivalent. The Old Testament often employs בָּשַׂר, which means “to proclaim good news” to convey “bringing news of victory” (Bible Gateway Encyclopedia of the Bible).
The message of the gospel in the Bible
The Bible Gateway Encyclopedia of the Bible summarizes the biblical gospel as 1) the message of Jesus, 2) the message of the apostles, and 3) the teachings of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the primary source of both the teachings of Christianity and the message of the apostles. The heart of the gospel is the good news of his love and salvation. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is the only messenger for the gospel. The Bible describes both the message of the apostles and Christian teachings as the gospel, too.
The gospel books
There are four books of the Bible that are referred to as “gospels:” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These accounts weren’t just ancient biographies; they were meant to present Jesus as the prophesied Savior and King. That’s why they are called gospels; their goal is to announce good news. A gospel wasn’t yet thought of as a piece of written literature. In fact, the four biblical gospels were originally used as a script for oral proclamation (“What Is A Gospel?” Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels).
Yes, most famously in a passage of Matthew known as the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus tells his followers, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
There are many different ways you can help fulfill this mission. You don’t have to be the first person to share the gospel with someone to play a part in their journey as a disciple. Discipleship takes a village!
Bible verses about sharing the gospel
1 Corinthians 1:10–31
1 Corinthians 9:16–23
2 Corinthians 9:12–14
2 Timothy 4:5
1 Peter 2:21
Many people assume sharing the gospel is only about trying to convert new people to Christianity. Ultimately, converting someone to Christianity is the work of the Holy Spirit. Spreading the gospel is a way for us to partner with the Holy Spirit in that work. But evangelism doesn’t have to mean making your best sales pitch for Christianity to anyone who will listen. And drawing new believers isn’t the only reason for sharing the gospel.
Evangelism itself often has more to do with building relationships than building a case for Christianity. In fact, most evangelists look more like the neighbor who offers to shovel a snowy driveway than the street preacher who peddles salvation like a heavenly retirement plan.
Draw on your strengths.
According to Ephesians 4:11, the Spirit gives different gifts to different members of the body of Christ. “Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” The prophet’s wise insight and the teacher’s spiritual nurture are just as important as the evangelist’s warm invitation.
As 1 Corinthians 12:18–22 puts it: “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Listen well, and meet people where they are.
When you’re unsure what to say to someone, listening to what they have to say is often a great place to start. And sharing the gospel is no exception.
By definition, the gospel is meant to be good news. That means “it must be good to whoever is receiving the message,” says Kim. But we don’t all receive the same things as good news. And the good news a person needs to hear about the gospel can change based on what is happening in their life. So sharing the gospel often starts with asking, what does good news mean for the person in front of you right now?
To answer that question well, “we must listen: both to the person in front of us and to the Holy Spirit,” says Rev. Sara Gregory, a pastor at Meredith Drive Reformed Church in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jesus himself adjusted the way he shared the gospel depending on who he was speaking to. “When you watch Jesus in the gospels, he does not give the same stump speech to everyone he meets,” says Gregory. “He pays attention to them, and embodies the parts of the gospel they most need.
“When he was touched by the woman who suffered from bleeding, Jesus discerned that she needed both physical healing and to be seen and honored. When Jesus met the rich young ruler, he knew that the man most needed to be freed from the suffocating idol of financial security. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he knew that she was longing for freedom from the stigmas that had been placed on her. In each of those cases, these individuals’ felt needs were where Jesus started the conversation about the good news he offered.”
Consider your cultural context.
Culture shapes how people receive the gospel. So the cultural context you’re sharing the gospel within is important to understand.
“As the director of the Center for Global Christianity at NBTS, I have traveled to many different places,” says Kim, “and saw that, for people in Arab West Asia, Muslim faith is as much culture as it is religion; that for the over 800 million Hindu Indians, Hinduism is life; that Judaism is knit around the community of the Jewish people; that Buddhism is a philosophy and a psychology; that Daoism is about melding oneself to nature, and that Confucianism radiates from principles of moral self-cultivation.”
You may not be traveling across the world to spread the gospel, but you don’t have to go far to encounter someone with a different worldview, faith tradition, or cultural background than you. There’s a good chance you could find someone who fits that bill just across the street.
“Christians today mingle with people of other faiths and cultures as their coworkers, friends, and even spouses on a daily basis,” says Kim. “Sharing the gospel today means we Christians must first struggle to understand what ‘religion’ and the ‘good news’ might even mean in the context of these very different orientations toward spirituality.”
How do you faithfully adapt the gospel message for a different cultural context?
You’re probably already doing it. Following the biblical gospel today requires every Christian to adapt it for a very different cultural context than it came from. The newest material in the Bible is more than 2,000 years old. And nobody alive today is from the culture it was written for.
Many modern readers don’t automatically grasp why Jesus’s disciples are so scandalized when he opts to wash their feet or ask a Samaritan woman for water at the well. Historians and theologians can help us understand these sorts of cultural differences. But when it comes to applying the Bible to our lives today, there’s not always a straightforward translation. We have to draw on our own discernment and experiences to apply the gospel to our lives.
Contextualization—both examining what the gospel meant in its original context and applying its messages in your own context—is an important part of following the gospel. So naturally, it’s also an important part of sharing it.
But how do we ensure the core gospel truth doesn’t get edited out in our effort to contextualize it? When you’re sharing the gospel, Kim suggests focusing on the truths that transcend our differences. What aspects of the gospel seem to resonate across cultures? What is impossible to leave out of the story because you can’t understand the significance of the good news without it? These are gospel truths you should be sure to share.
At the same time, consider what aspects of the gospel speak particularly to your context. Different pieces of the gospel story rise to the surface to meet the needs of different times and places. Inviting the gospel into new places can also enhance our understanding of the gospel itself. What might your context illuminate about the gospel? Kim calls this “trans-contextualization.” And he sees it not as compromising the gospel message, “but rather as opportunity for expansion and further clarification of our understanding of the gospel.”
The apostle Paul’s missionary work among Gentile (non-Jewish) communities offers a biblical example. Paul had to explain the gospel differently when he brought the good news to Asia Minor. The people he encountered there weren’t familiar with Jewish culture. The fact that he was a Pharisee, an important leader in Jewish culture, meant nothing to them. But Paul’s understanding of Greek culture in Asia Minor helped him to share the good news in a way people understood. Paul even set aside Jewish practices like circumcision in the gospel he preached to the Gentiles, feeling Christ’s message transcended Jewish law.
Be ready to learn something new about the gospel yourself.
Everyone has more to learn about the gospel. So as you share the gospel, you may find your view of it evolves, too. That doesn’t mean the gospel is changing; it may just mean your understanding of it is growing.
Growing up in Nepal, where most people are Buddhist or Hindu, Yakuv Gurung began sharing the gospel at a young age. “Verbal evangelism was highly prioritized. That’s actually how Christianity grew in Nepal,” Gurung says. “But as I grew older, I began to realize we were missing some things in terms of approach. Rather than simply sharing the gospel, we need to actually be the gospel. My character should reflect the gospel. … In my context, where lots of Hindus and Buddhists and non-Christians are watching us, that becomes pre-evangelism.”
Today, Gurung is leading a movement of new churches both in Nepal and among Nepali immigrants in the U.S.
Paul’s missionary journeys through Asia Minor seemed to impact his understanding of the gospel, too. “Paul’s actions in effect expanded Christianity—not just regionally as we usually think of it, but theologically,” says Kim. “It is doubtful he would have had reason to insist on a Christ who transcends circumcision and kosher diet if he had not been sent to live and work among people to whom his being an upright Pharisee had no meaning.”
If Paul had restricted his evangelism to the Jewish community, whether Christians should adhere to Jewish customs and laws probably wouldn’t have seemed important. But sharing the gospel beyond the Jewish community became Paul’s life mission. And through his mission journey, Paul realized you could be spiritually transformed without adopting the physical customs of Judaism. His understanding of the gospel changed because he shared it.
“We Christians so often continue to assume that mission is essentially about giving—giving the gospel as we know it to someone else,” says Kim. “But we saw with Paul, it was his powerful ability for critical self-transformation as a Christian that laid the foundation for Christianity spreading throughout the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe.”
Treat other cultures and faith traditions with respect.
Whether you’re engaging with someone across the street or the ocean, Kim says it’s important to “respect other cultures and faiths” in their own right, not just as grounds awaiting Christian conversion. This does not mean that you have to ignore your differences from others or accept different faith traditions as the truth. But it does mean being open to listening to people from other cultures and faiths and learning from them.
Pastors usually preach to a mostly Christian crowd on Sunday morning. But what they’re preaching is still the gospel. And their messages can still reveal new things about the gospel to the people listening. “There is always more good news about God to discover,” Gregory says. And pastors are not the only ones who can help others learn more about the gospel.
Teaching the gospel is an essential part of bringing up children in faith, for example. And this is work for the whole church, not just parents, grandparents, and youth pastors; at the baptisms of children and infants, the whole congregation pledges to help raise them in the faith. Even short conversations after church can play a part in sharing the gospel with the next generation.
Demonstrate the gospel in how you live.
Sharing the gospel isn’t just about what you say. What you do matters, too. “For Christians, living itself is a way of sharing the gospel as much as teaching about it,” says Kim.
“I believe sharing the gospel faithfully happens in at least as many different ways as Jesus demonstrated it,” Gregory adds. “Sometimes it is by meeting people’s tangible needs for food as a witness to the God who created and cares about people’s bodies. Sometimes it is by protesting unjust systems as a witness to the God who leads a just Kingdom. Sometimes it is by showing people where to find the ‘living water’ that will satisfy their felt needs. Sometimes it will be talking about the deep love of Jesus that compelled him to give up his life on our behalf.
“Ultimately sharing the gospel in its fullness includes all of these components. That’s why sharing the gospel must be paired with ongoing discipleship, because there is always more good news about God to discover.”