I recently posted an article sharing my deep distress of the age-old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. Within that article, I challenged that it is time to move on to more important things. Not that I believe it is unhealthy to discuss the intricacies of the atonement, election, regeneration, etc. One must understand that I love to read and study theology (or most of it).
But I underlined the fact that the gospel, the good news, is what is important. And the gospel is that of the gospel of the kingdom. Why would I say such? To simply reiterate myself – because the King said such.
Just a browsing of the references of Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel confirms such:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
…but he [Jesus] said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
When the word gospel shows up in the Gospels, the proclamation of the kingdom of God is regularly found within the immediate context. And when those specific words are not found alongside gospel, I am convinced the kingdom of God is still very inherent in the proclamation of the good news.
The gospel and the kingdom rule of God are so intertwined that New Testament theologian, George Ladd, would be moved to pen these words:
‘New Testament scholars generally agree that the burden of Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God…’ (The Presence of the Future)
One might say Jesus’ burden was the gospel. But to say such would not contradict Ladd, for, again, the gospel is truly the gospel of the kingdom rule of God.
I believe one problem that people face is that, when they turn to the rest of the New Testament, they find quite a lack of references to the kingdom of God alongside the proclamation of the gospel. The kingdom of God (or heaven) is referred to about 110 times in the Gospels. After the Gospels, just 30, with only 8 references found in the preaching of Acts.
If the gospel is a proclamation that the kingdom of God has broken into history, then why such a shift in wording?
There are two responses to this:
1) There is no doubt that the conceptual understanding of the kingdom of God is quite a Jewish thing. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. He stepped into a Jewish context. His message of the kingdom of God (for that was his great proclamation) meant something significant within that first century, second temple, Jewish culture.
But as the disciples moved outwards into a much larger Gentile context, we find an attempt to make the gospel an understandable reality within that larger context. It doesn’t negate the fact that, as Jesus proclaimed, the good news of the kingdom of God had come. But the apostles and others found further terminology in making the gospel known, such as eternal life, salvation, and even quite unfamiliar terms to our western thinking like The Way.
2) Secondly, and this is probably even more pertinent to the discussion, when the apostles and others went about proclaiming Jesus, we must bear in mind that they were proclaiming the King. And so, to proclaim the gospel as the reality of Jesus and the work he had done for humanity, that was an announcement of the King and the work of his kingdom.
To tell others about the justice and forgiveness and righteousness and grace and judgment and mercy and covenant faithfulness of God in Christ is to proclaim all inherent attributes of the King himself.
And here is another important aspect of this: Jesus, himself, taught that we should seek the kingdom and its righteousness. In today’s church, we more hear that we should seek Jesus. Do we have a contradiction here? I don’t believe so, for the King and the kingdom are inherently connected at their deepest core. To seek the King is to seek His rule and righteousness in our lives. To seek the kingdom is to seek the rule and righteousness of the King.
So to proclaim one is actually the proclaim the other. Hence, why the gospel of the kingdom and its King remain central to the proclamation of the gospel throughout the New Testament. (As a side note, E. Stanley Jones champions the connection between the king and his kingdom in The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person.)
Ok, so I have 1) looked to emphasise that Jesus’ major gospel message was that of the coming kingdom of God and 2) underlined that this message remained central with the apostles and other first believers.
But the next big challenge arises when we ask what was central to the gospel in the Old Testament. The gospel in the Old Testament? Huh? Yes, it’s there. We might say in more ‘seed’ form. But the gospel is truly there from the opening pages.
The first problem that can arise is when we refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Old Testament. I am not asking that we abandon such terminology. I simply recognise that the word ‘old’ could create problems. Why? Well, I am a firm believer that the new covenant (or New Testament) revelation is the actual continuation and clarification of what was in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. Most theologians recognise the revelation of God being progressively laid out in Scripture, meaning we don’t get it all in Genesis 1. It is the patient process of our God looking to communicate His ultimate planned as summed up in His Son.
So, we don’t have a 100%, completely new thing started with Christ and the New Testament. We have the unfolding of the final chapter(s) of the work of God to redeem humanity and all creation.
Therefore, what we find in full revelation in the New Testament must have been in seed form (or more) in the Old Testament (and the intertestamental period). There were hints, intimations, foreshadowings of this gospel that we see jumping off every page in the New Testament.
So, do we find the kingdom of God central to the Old Testament text and the good news of what God is doing in His world?
Well, I suppose you know how I am going to answer such a question.
But where is it?
In the opening pages of Genesis, we start with the creation of the cosmos and all that is in it. But what was going on pre-Genesis? Yahweh, our God, as Father, Son and Spirit, were together. We don’t have a great deal of insight from the Scripture text of what all was going on. So we can only speculate. We have a little bit more to chew on in John 1, but not much.
Nevertheless, in the beginning before the beginning, we have Yahweh. And, lo and behold, He is King. Seems simple enough, but something to remind ourselves. He is so much the King that He can choose to create this whole thing we now recognise as the universe. Only a true King, the King, can do such.
The psalmist celebrates this fact a few times:
The LORD is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land. (Psalm 10:16)
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. (Psalm 29:10
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm! (Psalm 47:7
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations (Psalm 145:13)
Yahweh is King and we read of His creation of male and female bearing His image. Even more, we see God entrusting His rule to Adam and Eve (i.e. Gen 1:26-28). They were to rule on earth as it was in heaven (sound familiar?).
Now, we know the story just 2 chapters later. They failed to obey the King and rule on His behalf. And so paradise was lost. But, as Calvin himself stated in his commentary on Romans:
‘For certainly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.’
And so, the King takes up a redemptive-restoration work. Redeeming back what? Restoring back to what?
Back to the original intention as expressed in the beginning. God was King and He would entrust those made in His image to carry out that rule. And we begin to see signs of one who would come to accomplish this, starting in Gen 3:15. It makes you want to turn the pages to see who this is and how it turns out (too bad we know the story, for this does somewhat knock at the excitement and anticipation).
Remember, God is the eternal King. But we soon realise that humanity is not that helpful in bringing about the rule of the King on earth as hoped. But the good news is that God has a Messianic King that can do such. This King would himself be both divine and man. Quite an interesting plan. But, I get ahead of myself…..
To simply summarise some things, we have God’s calling of a man and his family (Noah, etc) that would carry on that same purpose as expressed in our beginning. Note the similarity between the wording of Gen 1:26-28 and 9:1-3. God has really not reverted to Plan B. He wants His image bearers to bring His rule.
We move into Abraham and the patriarchs. God makes it clear that the blessing of the King would come to all people’s through this one man and his family (which is good news that it is a blessing).
Moses is called out and we see a form of theocratic kingdom set up. These people were the original kingdom priests (see Ex 19:5-6). They were to remember the words to Adam/Eve, Noah and Abraham.
Following a pitiful time of ruling by the judges, God sets up the greatest expression of His kingdom through the forebearer messiah, David. The throne and temple in Jerusalem were the greatest intimation of the kingdom of God on earth that we can find in the Old Testament. It was such good news left ringing in the ears of the Israelites that a king and the kingdom had been established.
But, not learning from the past, things quickly spun out of control, ultimately leading to exile upon those who had been called to submit to the messianic-Davidic rule. Yet, we begin to hear rumblings from the voices of quite a few prophets, each and all letting us know that a special one is coming. His kingdom would both increase and have no end (Isa 9:7). His rule would be in form with David’s rule, but would be even more significant.
This king and his kingdom would truly be of peace, justice, righteousness, redemption, restoration, strength, mercy, covenant faithfulness and on and on. For God would actually take up shepherding His people Himself. Good idea! The King would get things done in a much better way.
Now, fastforward to the arrival of the Messiah, God’s Son, the ruler-shepherd-king, who is Jesus. He arrives on the scene and, in summarising his first words, we find his call to people to repent, believe the gospel, for the kingdom of God has come near (i.e. Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17). The very first words of the King himself!
Ah, the anticipation and expectation was ending and the arrival of the good news of God’s kingdom was here. And it was good news! This was sweet music in the ears of a people once again exiled (for they saw themselves in exile, or really never having been restored from exile).
Of course, they thought they were under the rule of harsh Rome. But the kingdom had not come, at least yet, to make sure Rome was out of the way. Another enemy stood at bay – that of the adversary, Satan, and the grip of sin.
But the king and His rule was powerful enough to break such a bondage.
Now true, there are many central themes to the whole of Scripture: God, God’s Messiah, salvation, and others. But I believe all these fall under the reality that Yahweh was King before our ‘in the beginning’ and God has always looked to see on earth what was already in heaven, that being His rule. And it was His Son, the Messianic King, who came proclaiming that God was doing just what He had intended from the beginning, of which we had only tasted hints before. And with His rule truly present amongst us in the King (and now the empowering Spirit of the King), we would see salvation proclaimed, captives set free, the oppressed liberated, sin judged, peace and justice extended, and a recreated humanity in God’s Son, with a recreated universe to come one day.
That is truly good news. That is gospel.