(Why the gospel of the kingdom really is good news)
Many years ago we persuaded our daughter – a strong-willed five-year-old – to make a personal response to Jesus. She phrased her new status in this way, “I asked Jesus into my heart – he’s the boss of me now. You’re not the boss of me any more!” From this little cameo you may make several deductions! First about her misguided motivations, second about the inadequacy of her parents’ strategy for handling her strong will. But the third deduction is what concerns us here – and that is about her parents’ theological preoccupation.
We were in strong reaction to an easy-believism that presented the gospel as a ticket to heaven with no strings attached. (Stick it in your back pocket for use when the time comes.) It was abhorrent to me. I had on my shelf a copy of Bonheoffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” (SCM edition, complete with a picture of a hangman’s noose on the front cover). I could not bear the idea that people should be allowed to respond to the gospel without a serious contemplation of the cost attached first. A popular preach of the day went like this: “You have made Jesus Saviour, but have you made him Lord?” In truth this was a bit wishy-washy for me. How could he ever be your Saviour if he was not your Lord? Surely making him Lord was a precondition to his being your Saviour? And making him Lord meant that he could and possibly would ask you to do some pretty difficult and sacrificial things.
Now there was never any conflict with the idea of grace. It was of course all of his grace that we were not condemned. But grace was not the important thing to talk about. The real issue was his supreme lordship in our lives. We were proud to be “kingdom-minded” people who put his kingship (and our subjection) right up front. It was not a message that sat easily under the title of “good news”. Come to Jesus and surrender your rights to him! It was a message more concerned with “truth” than with people. Our five-year-old’s tortured response reflected how divorced our thinking had become from the love of God.
So Matthew 4:23 presented something of a challenge to me:
“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.” (ESV)
You see, I knew that the word gospel meant “good news”, which right next to the word “kingdom” is pretty oxymoronic, like postal-worker or military intelligence. (With apologies to hard working postmen and clever soldiers everywhere.) How can the news of our rightful position as subjects of an absolute monarch be “good”? All the more so in an age when individual freedom is highly prized, and concentration of political power regarded with great suspicion. Of course God is good and can be trusted not to abuse his authority over us, and any sacrifices required of us will surely be for the greater good. But it is still a tall order to sell as “good news”.
The commentators help us with the original meaning, by explaining the Jewish expectation of the restoration of national sovereignty to Israel, through freedom from Roman domination. So it would have sounded like good news to Jewish 1st century hearers. But the original meaning doesn’t help us with the application of preaching the gospel of the kingdom today, since 1st century Jewish political expectations have little relevance to most people’s lives. In any case Jesus clearly had something more in mind since he said that his kingdom was “not of this world”.
And here we come to the small matter of prepositions, hinges upon which whole worlds revolve. Some twenty years of reflection upon the matter of the kingdom of God have drawn my attention to a fundamental misapprehension. The kingdom of God is presented biblically not so much as something over us as it is something for us. The kingdom of God is something he has chosen gladly to “give to us” (Luke 12:32). The kingdom of God was something in which the disciples clearly expected to do some reigning (Mk 10:37) and Jesus did not deny this idea. The kingdom of God is something in which the wicked have “no inheritance” Eph 5:5 (with the clear implication that the righteous do have an inheritance in the kingdom). Eph 1:22 tells us that Christ’s headship over all things is for the benefit of the church.
None of this is to deny that we should obey him! But that is not the message of the good news. The good news is that there is a kingdom coming that is hugely for our benefit. It is a kingdom of ever-increasing peace (meaning not inner tranquillity, but the vibrant social fulfilment of shalom). It is a kingdom of wholeness where there is no more sickness or death. It is a kingdom where sorrow no longer has any part to play. It is seriously good news.
Contemporaries of Jesus (apart from the Jewish zealots) often aspired to Roman citizenship. We read in Acts 22:28 of a Roman tribune who had purchased his citizenship “for a large sum of money”. Why would anyone pay a fortune to become a subject of an autocratic emperor? The answer quite simply is that to be a subject was overwhelmingly for the benefit of the individual. It conferred on him dignity, status and above all the protection of the full might of the Roman military machine. The cry of “civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) was a kind of “touch me if you dare!” (Which Paul put to good use a couple of times!)
The gospel of the kingdom is quite simply the best news we could ever imagine. It is the offer of citizenship in a far greater, far more enduring, far more glorious kingdom, in comparison to which the Roman empire had feet of clay. It is a kingdom for us.