Promoting Simplicity, Part Two: The Kingdom Gospel

In part two of the Advance series ‘Promoting Simplicity’, Ben Jack explores ‘The Kingdom Gospel’.

Anti-authority

I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious side. If I was cool enough to pull off the biker jacket and toothpick look I would have been that guy (I’m not, I’m pretty sure that in the history of the world only James Dean and Steve McQueen were), nonchalantly standing around doing my own thing, cold-eyeing any and all authority figures that came by and daring them to tell me to ‘move along’.

I remember as a teenager getting into an extended power struggle with my chemistry teacher over the course of one school term. For some reason, I assumed she was out to get me, so I did everything I could to undermine her authority as a teacher, to belittle her and to build myself up in front of my classmates. This involved everything from basic teenage sassing, through to an unfortunate incident with a VHS tape that I decided to hide from her during one lesson (in the goggles box for safety, which I thought was quite witty), only to then return it to the video player after she left the room to get the tech guy to help her. Cue red-faced teacher when the tech guy walked in and simply pressed play.

Why she left the room a second time I will never know. At the time, I just thought it was the universe confirming that I was the hero of this particular story, and affording me another opportunity to get one over on her. I took the tape out again, and much to her frustration when she returned, once again the video didn’t play. Take that, authority![1]

I got caught of course, and the consequences were unpleasant for my lunchtime social activities for quite some time after that. The problem was not actually my teacher, but me. My fear that she didn’t like me drove me to reject any help, wisdom or knowledge that she tried to share with me as part of my studies. I thought she was unworthy of my respect, and so I rejected her as a suitable teacher and authority figure.

Sometimes it is appropriate to reject or challenge an authority figure or system. The elected leader who has failed to make good on their promises or lead with integrity, for example; the legal system that exists to protect all equally, yet favours the strong and the rich; the dictator who forces their way to power by exploiting their own people for personal gain.

Interestingly we have moved from the anti-authority rebel being the cool outsider in society to a time now where ‘authority scepticism’ is more or less the standard position. We’ve become wary of the concept of authority due to its abuses. History is littered with tales of kings and queens who have abused their power and their people, and so we can now breathe a sigh of relief that we live in enlightened, democratic times in the west, free from the tyrannous authority of old, to which the average person had no choice but to submit.[2] But, ultimately, this is misguided thinking. While we have created a democratic system where the average person can have a say in choosing their own leaders, we have not yet solved the problem of authority abuse and power corruption. It’s almost as if human beings aren’t perfect…

Anti-authoritarianism could pose a big problem for faithful gospel preaching today. The central message of the gospel hinges on an important truth: you are not the centre of the universe, you were created by the king, you were created for the king. Explanations of rebellion against God (sin), the saving work of Christ and the perfection of God’s eternal kingdom all hinge around this truth and only truly make sense when set within this proper context of the gospel.

I know what you’re thinking: this evangelism thing is already challenging enough, Ben. Are you suggesting we make it harder by deliberately presenting it in such a way that will make western culture sceptical and dismissive?

Okay, so preaching the gospel of the kingdom to contemporary western audiences can sometimes feel somewhat like attempting to swim the English Channel with lead weights strapped to all four of your limbs while a huge yacht glides alongside you, full of people enjoying a great party, taunting you with insults every stroke of the way.[3] But, irrespective of whether we think it will make our task more challenging, we must be primarily concerned with the content of our message. We must not settle for palatable but empty versions of the gospel that do not match up with Jesus’ own understanding of the good news.

The good news according to Jesus

Mark’s gospel records Jesus leading the preaching charge at the outset of his ministry with a simple message,

‘“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”’ (Mark 1:15, NIV)

This is the simplest summary we have of Jesus’ general message, the message of the coming kingdom.[4] In other words, ‘Change direction! You are going the wrong way and the world is about to be forever changed by my life, ministry, death and resurrection. The king is here’.[5]

By general message I mean that, whether addressing the crowds in the sermon on the mount, dealing with the Pharisees, through one-to-one encounters with those who sought him out, the telling of parables, or intimately conversing with his disciples, Jesus remained consistent in his kingdom focus.

‘Jesus is shown so consistently proclaiming the kingdom that it was undeniably central to his message.’[6]

Clearly the announcement of the coming kingdom was core to Jesus’ message, but how much importance does that hold for us today? After all, the message the disciples proclaimed was much less focused on the kingdom, and more on Jesus himself (more on that next time). Some would argue that the kingdom language Jesus used was specifically for his Jewish audience – it would have been particularly subversive in his contemporary context, and therefore not immediately relevant to present-day preaching.[7]

This blog series is concerned with helping us get back to a simple expression of the gospel so that we can effectively share it in any context – back to basics if you will. For Jesus, ‘basics’ meant helping his audience understand something of God’s kingdom, its imminence and significance. To strip the announcement of the king and his kingdom from the story of the gospel is like trying to explain the plot of Harry Potter without mention of wizards and magic: it loses both context and substance; the story becomes a shadow of its true self. In literature, this is problematic – but when explaining the truth of life itself (and the consequences of rejecting God’s rule) context and substance are not just tools for understanding the truth, they are very truth we are sharing. Our message will be deeply – possibly fatally – compromised if we fail to engage with the truth.

The message of the kingdom is not merely an aspect of the good news, it is the way by which we make sense of everything about the good news! Keeping kingdom truth at the centre of the good news is not only important to the integrity of the gospel message, it is essential if we are to help people to understand why the gospel is not simply a nice idea, but the truth that will bring freedom to all who accept it as such.

Reclaiming authority

Rejection of authority is nothing new. Perhaps the most famous of all the parables, and certainly the most frequently used in gospel preaching (including my own), is that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus tells the story of a young man who is no longer satisfied with living under the authority of his father. Graciously (but no doubt heartbroken) his father grants his request for early inheritance and the young man strikes out on his own authority-free path. When the man inevitably hits rock bottom, it is the grace and love of the father that allows the man to return not as a slave, but as a son.

This is a wonderful parable from which to preach the gospel, but it only fully makes sense when understood in kingdom terms. We do not return to the household of our father to continue in the rebellious behaviour that left us in the pigsty!

We return from our rebellion in the hope that we will not be rejected, only to find that our reception is better than we could hope for: we are given the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). But God remains the head of the household – the king – and we submit to his rule and reign over our lives so that we do not return to the pigsty from which we have been saved. This submission brings freedom, security, restoration, and intimacy with our father, the king. It is the life we were created for, and fulfilment is found nowhere else.

In an anti-authoritarian culture, preaching the authority of the king need not be a painful exercise. In fact, I wonder if we have an amazing opportunity today to contrast the perfection of Christ’s rule and reign against society’s frustration at the imperfect rule and reign of our leaders, and even our inability to successfully lead our own lives much of the time. Rejection of God’s authority often comes down to the (idolatrous) belief that we know better, that we are the best leaders of our own lives. I’ve even hear it said in these terms: ‘God doesn’t deserve my respect, what’s he ever done for me?’ And suddenly we find ourselves in the chemistry classroom again, rebelling against the idea of someone, rather than the truth of who they are and how they feel about us.

Here are five aspects of God’s rule and reign that could be highly impactful when attempting to share the gospel today. These will help people to understand why he alone is worthy of lordship in their lives.

  1. Our king is powerful (God is logical)God is the creator of the universe, and therefore the only one worthy of ultimate authority over creation. God as first cause is more logical and plausible than the ‘something from nothing’ alternative proposed by naturalism. (Genesis 1:1)
  1. Our king is good (God is morally satisfying)God does not abuse his power or his people. However frustrated you might be about injustice, God is infinitely more so! Unlike earthly leaders, God’s character can be trusted. He always keeps his promises. Conversations around morality, ethics, injustice and righteousness speak to the reality of our good king. (Psalm 100)
  1. Our king is a servant (God has revealed himself)Jesus lays aside his crown of glory in heaven to step into our world and serve the very humanity that has rejected him, that they may turn from rebellion to life. He is the servant king, the most compelling and influential figure in all of human history. Posing the question ‘who is Jesus Christ?’ is a compelling conversation starter. (Matthew 20:25-28)
  1. Our king is gracious (God changes lives)God will not force his kingship upon you, he will allow you to choose it for yourself. But, like all choices, a rejection of his kingdom brings consequences. Looking at the world, from war to suicide, self-harm to extreme poverty, it’s easy to see we live in troubling times. But this is the world we should expect if the Bible is right about the consequences of rebellion against God, about making ourselves king instead of submitting to God’s rightful reign. The king offers hope to his people even in their rebellion – a life can be transformed and the world can be transformed because of what Jesus has done. (1 John 4:7-19)
  1. Our king is returning (God is the answer)God’s rule will one day be perfectly realised in his eternal kingdom. Whatever fear you have about the immediate future, or about what lies beyond this life, the perfection of God’s kingdom offers hope for living right today and assurance of what is to come. The two common fundamental questions, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and, ‘What happens when I die?’ are answered by knowing the king. (Acts 3:19-21)

To return to a simple gospel, we must return to a simple truth: God is king. The gospel is the story of how a perfect king could love an imperfect and rebellious people back into his perfect kingdom. It is understandable that people may reject human authoritarianism in this broken world, but they have surely yet to meet the one true perfect king of the universe. It is only because the perfect king exists that we can feel so let down by the imperfect substitutes that jockey for his reign in our lives.

How we present this truth is a matter for further discussion, and we will talk about contextualisation in part four of this series. So let’s wrap things up with a question: do we have a suitable understanding of the kingdom truth at the heart of the gospel, from which our preaching will be constructed? Once again, we come back to the core issue raised in part one of this series, to preach simply we must have a sufficiently deep understanding of what the good news really is.

‘Whatever the gospel is, it enters on the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. Hence, the gospel is not first and foremost about a network of moral injunctions, nor about this or that kind of religious experience, nor about the arrival of the church, nor about some scheme of political liberation, nor about some magic formula to gain health and wealth, nor about a quick and easy way to find celestial fire insurance. It is constituted by those extraordinary events in and through Jesus of Nazareth, through which God acted in history by his Holy Spirit to establish his rule in the world.’[8]

Back to the analogy of swimming the English Channel: perhaps we can start to see the preaching of the kingdom message not as weights around our arms, but as a new stroke style. While at first it may look cumbersome and appear difficult to master, it turns out to be the best and most natural way to successfully complete the challenging swim to the other side.

In part three we will explore how supernatural-scepticism may impact our gospel preaching, and take a look at the gospel message as preached by Peter and Paul.

Discussion

  • Do you recognise anti-authoritarianism in your culture?
  • How would you explain the gospel in kingdom terms?
  • What are the challenges of the kingdom message today?
  • How might prioritising the message of the kingdom help our gospel-preaching and disciple-making?
  • How important is an exploration of Jesus’ preaching for our own preaching today?

Quotations

‘His is the kingdom; he reigns in heaven, and he manifests his reign on earth and through his church. When we have accomplished our mission, he will return and establish his kingdom in glory. To us it is given not only to wait for but also to hasten the coming of the day of God. This is the mission of the gospel of the kingdom, and this is our mission.’[9] – George Eldon Ladd

‘The call to enter the kingdom is not merely a welcome to all its privileges, but is also a summons to serve all its interests, and its most vital interest in the proclamation to all the world of Jesus as saviour and Lord. Evangelism, accordingly, is the business of every Christian.’[10] – T.B Kilpatrick


[1] That is the best anti-authority story I have – hiding a VHS tape from my chemistry teacher. This is why the biker jacket/toothpick combo was always going to be a distant anti-authority pipe dream.

[2] Recent history of the democratic processes and outcomes of UK and US political systems would perhaps throw some ironic light onto this ultimately misguided thought process.

[3] And with REALLY tasty looking canapés.

[4] The kingdom of God is most simply understood as God’s reign and rule. However, the Bible also uses language to describe both a current realm where we can experience something of his blessings today, and a future realm where we will experience the fullness of his reign eternally. Both ideas are also to be understood as God’s kingdom.

[5] ‘The characteristic features of Jesus’ [message] are… (1) the proclamation of the kingdom of God, both its imminence and its presence… (2) the call for repentance and faith in face of the end time power and claim of God… (3) the offer of forgiveness and a share in the messianic feast of the new age, with its ethical corollary of love.’ James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1977) p. 16.

[6] For insightful discussion of Jesus’ kingdom preaching see William Brosend, The Preaching of Jesus (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p. 70ff.

[7] N.T. Wright helpfully explains Jesus’ message to his Jewish audience while maintaining its relevance for us today in Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996) and in a simplified and highly readable form in Simply Good News, (London: SPCK, 2015).

[8] William J. Abraham, ‘A Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter’ in Chilcote, Paul W., and Laceye C. Warner (eds.), The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) p. 24.

[9] George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel Of The Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) p. 140.

[10] Thomas B. Kilpatrick, New Testament Evangelism (London: Hodder, 1901) p. 19.