“What Is the Gospel?”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
In last week’s article, we examined the Scriptures that tell us to obey the gospel, and arrived at the realization that, while it’s fair to pin that obedience to a particular moment in time—one’s baptism—we should also acknowledge that obedience to the gospel is meant to be an ongoing process! But how can that be? Well, what exactly is the gospel?
Try as we might, we will never find in any passage of Scripture a clearly-marked, concise definition of the gospel. Therefore, our own efforts to define it will involve searching, pondering, and hand-waving. We should start with the caveat that the Spirit of God is bigger than our own minds; but at the same time, God has told us everything we truly need to know. “Gospel” means good news. It’s not just any good news, though; it’s the good news about Jesus Christ. Thus, four books of the Bible are named, “The Gospel According to” one of the Apostles or their associates. Each of these books tells a narrative of Jesus’ life on earth, with a particular focus and goal in mind. John’s Gospel tells us why he wrote:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
It was never about teaching us history or science. Rather, John selected particular episodes in Jesus’ earthly life, with a view toward fostering belief. What does John want us to believe? That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Why is belief in that proposition a goal worth pursuing? Because it leads to eternal life, in Jesus’ name!
Is that the same as believing in the gospel? After all, the message Jesus himself preached on earth was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15). In fact, Mark the evangelist—the bearer of good news—introduced his book just a few verses earlier by labeling it, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v1). But then he prefaced Jesus’ preaching by calling his message “the gospel of God” (v14)! So, Jesus preached the gospel, which amounted to,“Believe in the gospel.” Do you get the feeling we’re chasing our own proverbial tail?
But we’re skipping the rest of what Jesus said. One important detail is that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Now we’re getting somewhere! The kingdom of God—alternately called the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel—has its roots in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Daniel.
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed…
“Those kings” are the Roman emperors, and when Jesus began to herald the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Tiberius Caesar, the second Roman emperor, reigned. The good news was that the God of heaven would come down to earth and establish his eternal kingdom, which would be far better, in every way, than the tumultuous kingdoms of earth. Much of Jesus’ preaching dealt with the question of entry into the kingdom.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
But this leaves open the question, how are we supposed to obey the good news of God’s kingdom come down to earth? Jesus already told us to “repent,” among other things; but there’s still more! Is this eternal kingdom, which Jesus said “is not of this world” (Jn 18.36), supposed to remain on earth, in our midst, forever? Paul tells us that, at the time of Jesus’ return, after he raises the dead,
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
(1 Corinthians 15.24)
This is about more than an improved earthly life, under the dominion of the only righteous and merciful king, whose reign will never come to an end due to his death or defeat. God’s kingdom—as John told us in his Gospel’s purpose statement—comes with eternal promises. The good news is that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, and will return to heaven again, someday soon.
But God’s kingdom is bordered by “a great high wall” (Re 21.12), and no one gets in, except as the King allows. Furthermore, in the present age, while the kingdom of heaven pervades the earth, but Satan’s kingdom still holds sway here, there is a real danger of those who have once entered the kingdom, being cast out.
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Obeying the gospel isn’t just about getting in the door of the kingdom of heaven. It’s about staying there, now and forever.