Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some thoughts on the kingdom of heaven

The Basics of the Gospel

Today there are many who use the word gospel and as we use the word we assume that each other is speaking about the same thing, when in fact we might not be speaking about the same thing at all. Therefore, it makes sense to examine what the gospel is. The word gospel simply means “good news”. So what is the good news that Jesus preached?

The good news Jesus preached is the present availability of the kingdom of God. Carful examination of Jesus words will show that the good news he came to preach is the kingdom of heaven. “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Jesus self identifies his purpose on Earth as the proclamation of the kingdom of God. “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). “From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Notice the implied continuance of the language “from that time on”. Jesus continued throughout his ministry to preach, teach, live and usher in the kingdom of heaven. The present availability of the kingdom of God or heaven (the mean the same thing) is the good news that Jesus preached.

We need to get it clear in our understanding the central importance of the kingdom of God because very little in the scriptures will make any clear sense or be born out through lived experience outside of the present availability of the kingdom of God. Without a living interaction with the kingdom Jesus proclaims we will either: moralize, legalize, tame, distort or dismiss Jesus and his teaching.

In the setting in which I work (the Lutheran church) we tend to reduce the gospel to either social justice or forgiveness of sins alone. The former lacks any real spiritual power and Jesus is only necessary as an example of goodness. One of the prayer services used by Lutherans says that Jesus came to proclaim his gospel of “justice and peace”. Not so, Jesus proclaimed the availability of the kingdom of heaven.

Justice and peace are deeply important and have a solid grounding in the Bible throughout the prophetic books but they are not the gospel Jesus came to preach. Many of the people in the Old Testament did not hear God messages through the prophets as good news. Many of the messages contain what scholars call “curses” or “woes”. Living in the kingdom is good news because it alone can produce people whose hearts are shaped by agape love and therefore live from and make choices consistent with agape love as taught by Jesus. It is these people who can truly do the good God desires, which will resemble closely the social justice desired.

The gospel of forgiveness only is dangerous because it turns Jesus’ teaching into a ticket punching for a trip that happens at death. We hear sermons that are the fact that we are sinners and God forgives sinners so don’t worry about. It is true that we are sinners and it is also true that God forgives sinners through Jesus but forgiveness is not the ultimate purpose of Christ. Making available life in the kingdom is what Jesus came to preach and give his life for.

Forgiveness of sins in an integral and essential part of the kingdom, one might say that it is the entry point into the kingdom; it is part of repenting, or rethinking our lives in light of the present availability of the kingdom of God. God’s forgiveness in Christ shows to what extent God would go to make this kingdom available. Even our sin is no longer a barrier to our entry into the kingdom. There are no states of life that are a barrier to entry into the kingdom, perhaps only our lack of desire to turn to Christ. The wide availability of the kingdom angered the opponents of Christ and is one of the reasons he was crucified. To reduce the gospel to something manageable is to miss the point of Jesus teaching entirely.

A disciple is a person who is learning from Christ about life in the kingdom. S/He is a person who is learning in the very place that is their life what it means to live from the resourcing and power of the kingdom. It is a person whose life has come under the gentle rule and reign of God.

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