Open just about any dictionary in the English-speaking world, and it will tell you that the word ‘gospel’ denotes the teaching or revelation of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the first four books of the New Testament. ‘Gospel’ is the Old English translation of the Greek word euangélion, meaning ‘good news’.
However, the word ‘gospel’ was originally used in the Greco-Roman world to denote reports of political, military, or societal victories. More specifically, it was used at the time of the Roman Empire to herald the reign of a king who would bring war to an end and introduce an era of peace and prosperity to the earth. In theory, all who surrendered and pledged allegiance to this king would experience the economic and social benefits of his kingdom.
In the last decade of the 19th century, a German archaeological expedition in Southern Turkey made a remarkable discovery among the remains of the market place of the old town of Priene, 33 miles south of Ephesus. A text inscribed on two stones and dated around 9 B.C. announces the intention of the city of Priene to adopt the Julian calendar and to commence the New Year on the 23rd September to mark the birth of the emperor Augustus. It is believed to be a response to an earlier letter to the Provincial Assembly from the consul/proconsul Paullus Fabius Maximus.
The ‘Calendar Inscription of Priene’ also proclaims ‘the gospel of Caesar Augustus’ — the emergence of a divine saviour who puts an end to war and sets all things in order. Indeed, the birthday of Augustus is described as “the beginning of the good tidings for the world.” Thus, it is significant that the earliest written record of Jesus’ life and ministry begins with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1.1).
The gospel writers portray Jesus as the true divine King who brings salvation to the world. Viewed in the context of 1st century geo-politics (the Pax Romana) and Augustan ideology (as depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid), the gospel of Jesus represented a direct challenge to the might of Rome. One can therefore understand why the apostles were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king — Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).
The apostles of Rome
The Phoenicians and Greeks first developed and used the word apostolos as a designation for a cargo ship and a bill of lading. Over time it came to signify the dispatch of a fleet, the fleet itself, the admiral commanding the fleet, and the colonisation of a new territory. Theologian Gerhard Kittel notes that the word is “almost a technical political term in this sense.”
The Roman Empire adopted the word and developed its meaning and function even further to include the idea of a king’s envoy, appointed to personally represent him and transact the business of the kingdom at the seat of government of a foreign power. Thus, the word denoted not just a messenger, but an appointed representative with official status who carried the credentials of his office. J.B. Lightfoot (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians) observes that “in designating his immediate disciples ‘Apostles’, our Lord was not introducing a new term but adopting one which from its current usage would suggest to his hearers the idea of a highly responsible mission.”
In an effort to expand Rome’s power and influence, Augustus dispatched armies and emissaries to various parts of Europe and Africa. By the end of his reign, Augustus had conquered northern Hispania (Spain and Portugal), Raetia and Noricum (Switzerland, Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia), Illyricum and Pannonia (Albania, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia), and had extended the borders of the Africa Province to the east and south.
These ‘apostles’ or envoys were sent by Caesar to develop diplomatic and trade relations with foreign entities, and to establish Roman rule over uncharted and potentially lucrative territories. The role of the ‘apostle’ or envoy was to introduce Roman law and order, culture and language, architecture and education, commerce and industry — in short, to integrate the territory into the Greater Roman Empire. In order to achieve this task, the ‘apostle’ or envoy would have all the resources of the empire at his disposal.
It is interesting to note that Paul uses two secular Greek words with clear political connotations to describe his ministry and his message. He refers to himself as an “apostle set apart to proclaim the gospel of God” (Rom 1.1). And he continues with the imagery of territorial expansionism, declaring:
“Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name … I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient — in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom 1.5; 15.18-19).
New apostles, sent by a new King, to proclaim a new gospel. No wonder the fledgling Christian sect was perceived to be a threat to the Imperial cult and the Pax Romana! From a pagan Roman perspective, even Christian prayers assumed a dangerous and subversive undertone: “Our Father in heaven … Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth …”
The pointy end of suffering
It was a somewhat hazardous occupation to be an apostle of Jesus Christ and a proclaimer of his gospel in 1st century Rome. Jesus alluded to this in his message to Ananias, “He [Paul] is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9.15-16).
For his part, Paul gladly embraced the suffering that went with being an apostle and a preacher of the gospel. Forced to defend his apostolic credentials before a rebellious faction in the church at Corinth, Paul said: “In nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Cor 12.11-12).
The great Chinese church leader, Watchman Nee, observed that the ability to endure steadfastly under continuous pressure is one of the signs of an apostle. Nee practiced what he preached — following the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, Nee was persecuted for his faith and spent the last 20 years of his life in prison.
Perseverance in the face of adversity is one of the distinguishing marks of an apostle. It’s not just about performing miracles, and establishing churches, and overseeing networks — it’s about “sharing in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Tim 1.8). Indeed, being an apostle according to the New Testament criteria, puts one at the pointy end of suffering.
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death: for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonoured! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labour, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Cor 4.9-13).
Paul uses graphic imagery from the Roman arena to portray the situation in which the apostles found themselves. They were like gladiators fighting to the death or like criminals thrown to ravenous beasts — the final spectacle of a Roman triumph or a day’s entertainment at the amphitheatre.
For Paul, being an apostle of Jesus Christ was a study in contradictions. On one hand, apostles were ‘first’ in terms of authority (1 Cor 12.28), and at the same time, ‘last’ in terms of privilege (1 Cor 4.9). This is congruent with the philosophy of Jesus himself, who declared that the greatest leader is the greatest servant (Mat 20.26). This is the ‘Kingdom way’, in contrast to the way of the world which is predicated on selfish ambition and conceit. Addressing his apostles, Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you” (Mat 20.26).
Yet it seems that in today’s so-called ‘apostolic movement’, the paradigm has been inverted. Self-styled ‘apostles’ act like CEO’s of large corporations. They enjoy the fringe benefits and exclusive opportunities of elite executives. But in so doing, they compromise the integrity of the office they claim to hold, and tarnish the image of the Church they purport to represent.
Is this really a surprise? The richest and most successful church in the New Testament era (by Western standards) was located in Laodicea, in the Roman province of Asia. This arrogant, self-sufficient church perfectly reflected the culture of the city in which it was based. Fuelled by commercial profits, the church, like the city, was “rich and in need of nothing.” But Jesus said, “In actual fact, you’re wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked … and because you’re lukewarm, I’ll vomit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3.16-17).
In my view, the western Church is at a crossroads. We urgently need to rediscover our apostolic roots and the essence of the gospel, before it’s too late.