Today when evangelicals speak of the gospel, they almost always mean, simply, the personal plan of salvation. This is generally limited to an activity in which we present people with some facts about Jesus, ask them to agree with these facts, and if they do, instruct them to invite him into their lives or pray the sinner's prayer. Once they do this, we tell them, "You are saved!" And this, we teach, is the Christian's highest calling and fullest expression of the Christian faith.
We've heard this version of the gospel so many times that we don't even bother to question it-we simply accept it as "the gospel." However, when we put aside our culturally induced conceptions and study the scriptures, we discover that we have unwittingly embraced a truncated version of the gospel whose real-life implications are almost entirely private and centered on ourselves. In truth, the gospel, according to Scripture, focuses far less on Jesus' substitutionary death for us and being born again-and much more on his kingdom. In fact, Jesus only mentions the term born again one time in the Gospels and that was during his meeting with Nicodemus. However, Jesus mentions the kingdom 108 times! Even here, Jesus' mention of being born again points Nicodemus to the kingdom. Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [also translated, from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Jesus is explaining that unless one is born from above-an act of God that precedes any action of man-he cannot partake of the kingdom. In other words, he cannot posses, he cannot see, and he cannot enjoy the rule and reign of God both now and throughout eternity.
How Does the Bible Describe the Gospel?
According to the Scriptures, Jesus enters history proclaiming, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God, is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15, emphasis mine). Matthew records the beginning of Jesus' ministry and message with the following words: "Jesus began to preach, saying, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17, emphasis mine). Matthew again describes Jesus' ministry by saying: "And he went throughout Galilee … proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom …" (4:23, emphasis mine). Matthew reiterates this theme again in chapter 9 when he writes, "Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages … proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom…" (9:35, emphasis mine). Later in Matthew, Jesus himself describes the gospel in relation to the kingdom when he says, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world…" (24:14, emphasis mine).
Jesus instructed the disciples to "proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 10:7). Philip "preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12). Paul and Barnabas encouraged new believers to "continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God'" (Acts 14:22). Paul appeared in the synagogue in Ephesus "reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8). Paul, writing about his own ministry said, "I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom" (Acts 20:25). While under house arrest, Paul received many visitors to whom he "testified to the kingdom of God…" (see Acts 28:23–31).
Clearly, by Jesus' own words and the testimony of the apostles, Jesus was preaching the good news that through him, God's reign-the kingdom of God-has come into the world. Jesus and the apostles continually emphasized the "good news of the kingdom," the announcement that God's long awaited Messianic reign had finally broken into our world in a new and decisive way to restore God's lost creation. The unmerited gift we receive is admission into his kingdom; his mission is now our mission. And that mission is not the expansion of church membership, it is the expansion of the kingdom-the loving rule and reign of God that has come, is coming, and will one day be complete when all things are finally and forever made new. The church-chosen by God-is the instrument through which God makes his rule and reign manifest, and by which he is setting right what sin has set wrong. We are to be a sign and foretaste of the future consummation of God's reign on earth. In light of this, it is not we who invite Jesus into our lives; he invites us into his!
The Messianic expectation throughout the Old Testament underscores the coming of God's reign over the whole world, as N. T. Wright notes:
They were not thinking about how to secure themselves a place in heaven after they died. The phrase "kingdom of heaven," which we find frequently in Matthew's gospel where the others have "kingdom of God" does not refer to a place called "heaven," where God's people will go after death. It refers to the rule of heaven, that is, of God, being brought to bear in the present world. Thy kingdom come, said Jesus, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. Jesus' contemporaries knew that the creator God intended to bring justice and peace to his world here and now (Wright, The Challenge of Jesus [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001], 36–37).
Can you see the difference? If we think of the gospel only in terms of personal salvation, then our natural tendency is towards rescuing individuals from this world. The emphasis centers more on evacuation to a better place after death. Practically speaking, this view teaches that this world really does not matter. If, however, we understand the gospel in relation to the kingdom of God coming into the world, then we see that the world does matter to God-and he calls us to occupy and redeem it as ambassadors of the King and his kingdom. This kingdom is not a country or place, neither is it a future heaven or the church. The kingdom, or basileia (Gr.), is about the dynamic of God's kingship being applied here and now in every aspect of society and culture.
The church is better understood as an outpost of God's kingdom come into the world, and it is from there that we go into the world bringing the blessings of God's truth, righteousness, peace, justice, and love-light penetrating the kingdom of darkness! This is the good news of the kingdom-hope for the world and those who repent. This tangible demonstration of life and reality brought under the reign of God is more essential to sharing the good news than personal evangelism.
Next week we will examine why Jesus came and the broader purpose of his kingdom and the role of the church in this mission. Then we will examine the nature of God's kingdom and how we, the church, manifest this kingdom on earth and truly bear witness to the gospel.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV).