I've mentioned in a previous post that I liked Scott McKnight's book, The King Jesus Gospel. In that book McKnight marks the distinct difference between a gospel message that focuses primarily on personal salvation from the consequences of sin, and one that focuses primarily on the kingdom of God. McKnight says we in the West have too heavily weighted things toward the first (what McKnight calls the “soteriological gospel”), and that this imbalance has led to many problems.
I think he's dead on. As you read the Gospel of Mark, you can't help but notice that, in the early chapters at least, the “good news” has everything to do with a kingdom coming. There is a kingdom “at hand,” a kingdom that seems small and insignificant, that grows in secret, but that is destined to become great. This good news about the kingdom of God is the starting place of Jesus' ministry.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15
And clearly this message struck a responsive chord in his listeners. The Jewish people had in fact been speaking of such a kingdom and waiting for it for centuries. Jesus wasn't introducing some entirely new concept. The very fact that Jesus begins his message with those words, “the time is fulfilled,” indicates that what has come before has led inevitably to this.
What we know is that it is that in the context of Jewish culture and expectation, this announcement is, to put it mildly, a momentous claim. More attention-grabbing and eye-opening than it would probably be to the average person-on-the-street in our day.
Now, there is much, much more that can be said about the gospel, but Jesus began his exposition with this news about a kingdom. As we read the four accounts of Jesus in our New Testament, we will see that this announcement about a kingdom will meet with enmity among some, and they will actively conspire to prevent Jesus from preaching it. The story of the message, and of the messenger, will reach a kind of crisis-point. Mighty forces of empire will array themselves against Jesus, and near the end he will be nailed to a cross, under a sign painted with words intended as sneeringly ironic epitaph: “King of the Jews.”
The bloody cross was intended to snuff out the message about a kingdom which it turns out was a message about Jesus. Putting the messenger to public humiliation and death should have done the trick, but it was all along the purpose of Jesus to go to that death, for he knew that what was about to take place was not simply a confrontation between himself and some local authorities in a side-lot of the Roman Empire, but between the Kingdom of God and all other kingdoms. Would death reign, or would God?
Well, that's the story of Easter, which we are about to celebrate. The victory in this confrontation is won by Jesus. The message of the Kingdom, it turns out, is not stopped in its tracks, as was intended, but in the glorious light of the cross it is able to be understood with a kind of final comprehension. The cross does not undermine the message of the Kingdom, as even Jesus' closest followers expected it would, but confirms it and fulfills it.
In other words, the message that Jesus began with – “the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” – remains the message of his followers after the cross, because the king of that Kingdom is not dead but is in fact reigning. This was so evident to his once-frightened followers that soon they were preaching this controversial good news about Jesus (and writing it down) throughout the known world, even despite the same adversity and enmity that brought Jesus to his cross.
These are things I hope to say more about here at the Gospel Chronicles. You can already tell that in this little word, gospel, there resides a kind of matrix of meanings, having to do with fulfillment, having to do with power and authority, having to do with repentance and faith, and having to do, we might say, with a new world order. But we will quickly lose our bearings if we focus on any one of these things apart from Jesus. As the gospel chronicler Mark stated at the very start, the good news is first and foremost the good news about Jesus. We shouldn't ever forget that.