What’s with the gospel, the Gospels and the kingdom?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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QuestionI understand the word gospel to mean good news. I understand there are 4 gospel accounts by apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. What I don’t fully understand is that some people dwell on and insist the gospels are about the issue of salvation while others insist that the gospels are about God’s coming kingdoms on earth & in heaven. I tend to want to believe that the gospels concern both of these together. Could you please help me understand better? 

Answer: This is a good question… one I had myself. You see, I did not grow up in an evangelical household. So, when I came to Christ, started reading the Bible and living the Christian life, I often ran across the term “the gospel” … but the phrase always got caught in my brain. There were four books known as “the Gospels.” These must have had something to do with the gospel with a name like that... but these were not “the gospel” per se.

That being said, the Gospels contain gospel elements. The Gospel of John has the so-called “gospel in a nutshell” — John 3:16! But the gospels had a definite kingdom emphasis... which seemed to be a Jewish thing, not a Christian thing.

It didn’t help that in my early days I studied Scripture through a dispensationalist template. In that environment, confusing the Church with Israel was a high crime, so I tended to separate “kingdom” business from “Church” business. But this did not serve me well. There was no denying that the kingdom was all over “our” section of the Bible — the New Testament. But it was not quite “the Church,” so what was it?

To make matters worse, Jesus wasn’t a Christian! He was a Jew who spent a lot of time talking to other Jews about the kingdom. And in doing so, he talked a lot about the law. This was challenging for a man who was settling into the idea that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone — and where “good works” had no part in the salvific algorithm. As you can see, I felt your pain.

But we don’t have a Bible problem. We have a word definition problem. So, how do we proceed? We disambiguate… a process not limited to the Bible.

In any undertaking — not just Bible study — when we have terms and definitions that are being confused, it is senseless to proceed without first disambiguating. We have to find out what all terms mean... and we have to agree to use those definitions going forward. So, let’s do that.

There are four books in the Bible called “the Gospels.” These books are not “the gospel”... and if you think about what types of objects these words represent, you can see that they are not the same type of thing. “The Gospels” are books which we can point at, read and count their words. This is not a spongy concept. We know exactly what the Gospels are: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and we know where to find them: in the front of the New Testament.

By way of contrast, “the gospel” is a message, not a single piece of writing… and the message is told differently by different people. What we aim for, however, is a Christ-focused and biblically faithful description of how a person gets saved — and the process is easily accomplished. The process is not structurally simple, however, because salvation is the process by which God returns people to himself… and processes are (by definition) complex.

So, although John 3:16 gives us an overarching view of the salvation process, there is much more involved. We have to come to grips with our personal sins. We have to understand what the Bible said Jesus did to atone for our sins. We have to engage with the Holy Spirit to be born again (John 3:3) and to become new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is easy to understand, but it’s a complex message in that it has several parts. It is not a single Bible verse — or even a single doctrine! It is supported by a collection of doctrines.

For instance, to be saved, I need to understand that I have offended God, and I need to repent of my sins. At a minimum, this includes the doctrines of soteriology and anthropology. But Jesus is the one who does all the heavy lifting in my salvation, so it would be useful to know the doctrine of the atonement, have a high Christology, understand the Trinity… the dual nature of Christ, the hypostatic union, etc.

All those things are “involved” in the gospel. But different people have different ways of organizing the ideas and explaining how a person gets saved. I didn’t mean to unfairly “load” the gospel by calling it complex. It simply is. But there is nothing complex about the Gospels. We know exactly what they are, where they are and how many words they have.

I don’t know if you have ever read my take on the gospel. I have an article called An Alternative to Death. Click on the title if you’d like to see it.

Let’s move over to the Gospels and talk about the kingdom for a few minutes. Most scholars say that the gospel of Mark was the first gospel written... even though Matthew was the first book in the New Testament. So, look at the first declaration in the New Testament by Jesus Christ.

“After John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14–15, NIV, emphasis mine).

Jesus equates the coming of the “kingdom of God” with the good news... and in biblical Greek, the term “gospel” means “good news.”

So, think about what was happening in world history during Jesus’ ministry. First of all, the Western world decided to zero out the calendar dates so that all time before Jesus counted down to him and all time after Jesus counted up from him. If you picture that graphically as an hourglass whose middle point will only pass a Jesus-sized grain of sand, you have the right idea. Jesus was the pinch point of history.

This is why the Gospels have such a kingdom emphasis. The ancient Jews knew nothing about the Church, the Trinity, the indwelling Holy Spirit — all the things we take for granted. They expected a kingdom... and Jesus gave them one! The problem is, it was not the kingdom they expected. It was not one of this world.

“Jesus said [to Pilate], “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV)

So, although many Jews came to Christ, the “rulers of the Jews” (the religious establishment) did not. Since they “spoke for” the Jewish nation, it was the nation that rejected Jesus and had him crucified. The Jews expected their Messiah to establish a kingdom on earth and overthrow Rome — and all other takers!

Now, some say this will still occur in the future... but that is beside the point. It didn’t happen then. But God knew what he was doing. The fact that the Jews crushed their own Messiah was like crushing myrrh... and that was the fragrance God was waiting for.

After the Church was born in Acts chapter 2, talk about earthly kingdoms nearly disappeared. Most references to kingdoms were now the kingdom of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1). For the Christians, the “happy ever after” was in heaven with Christ — not on earth. In fact, life on earth was kind of a bummer in light of Paul’s teachings (Philippians 1:22-24). So, here’s my take on the kingdom of God.

First of all, the term is open rather than restrictive. All of God’s people throughout all time are in God’s kingdom. Second, every classification of “God’s people” is in his kingdom. This means Jews, Gentiles and all the non-classified believers throughout history like Noah, Job and Abraham. (Remember, there were no “Jews” until the patriarch Jacob… but God still had “his people.”)

Believers who take the dispensational view aver that God will establish an earthly kingdom with the Jews and that we Christians will be in heaven with Christ. I no longer believe this… but this is a secondary issue. (By secondary I mean that no one is being kept from heaven because of what they believe about this.) But it’s related to the issue of kingdoms, so I wanted to put it out there.

I think the main contributor to the confusion about the terms is the pinch point factor — that we had the Gospels, the gospel — and the person of the gospel — coming onto the scene all at once. This is very much like the big bang singularity in the standard model of the universe. The whole universe found itself squeezed into a singularity — and now look at it!

Thanks again for asking. God bless you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: TBA??).

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