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The Whole Gospel of the Kingdom

by Bryant Myers

From time to time it is useful to ask the question, what is the gospel!? We donít need to do this because we think the gospel changes; it doesnít. But we may have changed and so may our understanding of the Bible. Jesus repeatedly reminded us that we have a problem with our eyes and ears. Apparently if we truly are seeking him our seeing and hearing can improve.

So what is the gospel?

Who believes what?

For many evangelicals, a response comes quickly: forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ came, died, and was resurrected so those who say yes to Christís offer might have eternal life.

For many from mainline traditions, the answer is: Christ and his kingdom. Less concerned with the historicity of Christ, these brothers and sisters say that Jesus came to establish a different kind of social order characterized by justice, peace, and reconciliation.

For many from the Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition, the answer is different still: Jesus came that we might know Christ and his power in our daily lives. We no longer have to be slaves to our fears, addictions, and inner pain.

Whatís the problem?

Ron Sider insists that for our understanding of the gospel to be biblical, our definition must reflect the kinds of things Jesus spoke of when he talked about the gospel. Ron notes that, "virtually every time Jesus spoke the gospel, he talked about the kingdom of God."

The kingdom of God was the subject of Christís first sermon (Mark 1:14). The kingdom of God was the only thing Jesus called the gospel (Matt. 4:23) and the topic on which he focused his teaching to the disciples during his last 40 days on earth (Acts 1:3).

Jesus said the kingdom was the key to understanding his teaching (Luke 8:10). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that the kingdom of God was the first thing we should seek and that everything else will follow (Matt. 6:33). The coming of the kingdom is the first petition in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:10).

Luke closes the book of Acts by telling us that Paul "boldly and without hindrance preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 28:31). Jesus even said that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).

If Jesus associated the idea of the kingdom of God with the gospel, then so must we. This calls into question all three of the admittedly overdrawn caricatures I described earlier. The gospel as kingdom is forgiveness of sins, and it is the call to a different social order, and it is about spiritual power.

However, before I develop this further, there is one additional observation that we must make about the kingdom of God.

The person and the kingdom

E. Stanley Jones, the missionary to India who shaped the missiology of Lesslie Newbigin, insisted that we must never separate the person of Christ and the kingdom of god. Why? Because Jesus is the embodiment of Godís kingdom.

The best news is that the kingdom of God is not a theological concept but a name with a human face. Better yet, this person came and dwelt among us, "tempted in every way, just as we are" (Heb. 4:15). Jonesí point is that the kingdom of God has indeed drawn near but has done so in the form of a person. "Jesus is the kingdom of God taking sandals and walking," Jones said.

Toward a holistic understanding

So how might we think about Jesus and the kingdom of God? What kind of frame would avoid the incompleteness of the caricatures I described previously? I think there are some important clues in the calling of the disciples as recorded in Markís gospel.

Mark tells us that Jesus, "appointed twelve - designating them apostles - that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mark 3:14-15). When the apostles are sent on their first solo ministry outing, Mark reports, "They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them" (Mark 6:12-13).

Mission activists are quick to pick up on the preaching, the healing, and the casting our stuff. We want to go and do likewise. What we do is shaped by our Christian tradition.

The evangelical, deeply concerned with the truth of the gospel, tends to focus on preaching, the gospel-as-word. The socially concerned, shocked by the disregard that too many Christians show for justice, migrate quickly to the healing part and the doing of good deeds, the gospel-as-deed. The Pentecostal, concerned for the willingness of both evangelicals and mainline folks to assume that the gifts of the Spirit gave out in the first century, find themselves preoccupied with casting out, the gospel-as-sign.

The two stories of the apostles in Mark suggest that all are right and wrong at the same time. For Jesus, the gospel is linked to the kingdom of God which extends to all areas of life. The whole gospel of the living Christ is gospel-as-word, gospel-as-deed, and gospel-as-sign.

Broken and lost

Kwame Bediako, a friend and Ghanaian theologian, sat with me one evening in Accra. "You Western folk do something silly. You think that if you cut up a dog and study its parts, you now understand what a dog is. Even worse, you sometimes sound like you believe that by putting the part back together in their proper places, you now have a dog again. But you donít. You have a dead dog. When you took the dog apart, you lost the most important piece - the fact that the dog is a living thing!"

Living things lose their lives when we take them apart. When we separate Jesus from the kingdom, we lose the life of the gospel and reduce the kingdom to an ideology. This is Jonesí [E. Stanley] point. When we separate gospel-as-deed from gospel-as-word or gospel-as-sign, the life and truth of the gospel are lost too. Why?

No aspect of the whole gospel equals the gospel in its completeness. Words are ambiguous until deeds clarify the meaning of our words. After all, in America four out of five people say they are Christians. Only when they act like Christians do we know for sure what their words mean.

Deeds are ambiguous until words identify the motive and the meaning behind the deeds. Good Buddhists and good atheists can work for justice and be environmentalists. Only words explain that we seek justice and the well being of the environment because we follow a Lord who commands this of us. And signs are ambiguous in the same way. Satan can counterfeit miracles too.

Word, deed, and sign must work together as a living message, pointing to a living Lord. This is why a holistic understanding of the gospel, a kingdom understanding of the gospel, is so critical.

Uniting being and doing

Remember the importance of never separating the person of Jesus from the idea of the kingdom of God? This is the most important piece of this conversation.

When I quoted Markís account of the calling of the apostles by Jesus, did you notice the reason for the calling, the words I skipped over so quickly so I could comment on the doing of the gospel?

Jesus said he called the disciples so they could be with him. Being with him precedes the casting out, the preaching, and the healing.

The kingdom of God is a call to a relationship, not a program or ideology, regardless of whether the program is evangelism, social action, or spiritual warfare. We are called to be with the living Christ.

This is the best news there is. Christ provides for our being before he asks us to be obedient by doing. There is no dichotomy of being and doing in the gospel.

It can be no other way. We cannot do that which we are not ourselves. Being is always the prerequisite of doing. No evangelist can be used by the Spirit if she is not alive in Christ. No social activist can love the love-starved unless he is in relationship with the one who is Love to us. No healer or exorist can name the name of One whom she does not know and whose power she has never experienced.

The gospel of the kingdom

I find it helpful to picture the gospel message as a pyramid. The top of the pyramid is being with Jesus, life in and with the living Lord. This relationship gives life to all that lies below it.

Each of the corners of the pyramid is one dimension of the gospel: preaching or the gospel-as-word, healing or the gospel-as-deed, casting out or the gospel-as-sign.

Gospel-as-word includes teaching, preaching, and doing theology. Gospel-as-deed means working for the physical, social, and psychological well being of the world that God created. Gospel-as-sign means praying for signs and wonders, those things that only God can do, as well as the church serving as a living sign of a kingdom that is and has not yet fully come.

If we break the pyramid into pieces, it is no longer a pyramid, just as a dog cut into parts no longer is a dog. For the gospel to be the gospel, all four aspects have to be present. They are inseparable.

The metaphor works in another way. You can lead with whatever aspect of the gospel most directly addresses the need of the person to whom you are witnessing. If that person suffers from poverty of being, you can offer life with the living Christ. If the person hungers for truth, words may be best. If the person suffers from hunger or injustice, we should begin with the social action that addresses the need most directly. If the person lives in fear of the spirits or feels disempowered to the point of giving up, then the power of God over the spirits would seem like the place to start. In this way, the gospel begins wherever people are.

The only sin is if we stop there. While the gospel begins where people are, it always has more to say. Everyone, regardless of where their gospel journey starts, is entitled to encounter the whole of the gospel in time. All of us need to know the Jesus who is word, deed, and sign, the Christ who is the kingdom walking in sandals among us.

Bryant Myers, "The Whole Gospel of the Kingdom," MARC Newsletter, #99-1, February 1999, pp. 3,4.

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