by Anthony F. Buzzard
The central question in any investigation of salvation is the issue of the Gospel. The Gospel is offered in the Bible as the unique vehicle for gaining immortality. Nothing, as Paul argued passionately in Galatians 1, must be subtracted from the saving Message and nothing must be added. Distorting the Gospel means an inevitable loss of saving Truth, an unparalleled disaster.
Amazingly, churchgoers seem confident that the Gospel involves belief simply in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It seems not to have occurred to them that Jesus preached the Gospel for a large portion of his ministry without any mention at all of his death and resurrection. Jesus, in other words, laid the foundation of the Gospel with the Good News about the Kingdom of God which is coming. This fact can be investigated and verified easily. Simply take a Bible and start at Mark 1:14, 15 or Matthew 4:17, 23 or Luke 4:43, where it is plainly stated that Jesus urged repentance and belief in the Kingdom of God as the primary item on his saving agenda.
There are some 26 chapters of Gospel preaching by Jesus, the twelve and the seventy, in which the sole subject is the Kingdom of God and how it may be entered in the future (not at death), when Jesus comes back to inaugurate the promised Kingdom on the renewed earth. Only later were the death and resurrection of Jesus incorporated into the existing Kingdom Gospel. This completed Gospel gives us, for example, the early creedal statement in Acts 8:12 where belief in the Kingdom of God is still the first and fundamental element in the Gospel.
But today things are different. No one speaks of the “Gospel about the Kingdom” and the historical Jesus seems thus to have been deprived of his own saving message. What counts today is almost exclusively a decision in favor of the death of Jesus for sins. The shift is part of the confusion which began to overtake the faith in the second century. At that time the Kingdom of God began to lose ground as the term to describe Jesus’ own Gospel preaching. “Kingdom of God,” rather than being the objective of world history — a real government (Dan. 2:44; 7:18, 22, 27; Micah 4:1-8; Zech. 14:9) to be established in Jerusalem with the Messiah present as world-ruler — was replaced by “heaven” as a place removed from the earth and the destination of departed “souls.” “Heaven” has ever since maintained an unshakable dominance in the language of churchgoers, though Jesus never spoke of “heaven” as the objective of faith. By contrast he promised his followers the inheritance of the earth (Matt. 5:5, Rev. 5:10).
It is remarkable that the earliest church fathers (whatever degree of clarity they lost in their definition of God and His Son) did manage to maintain the Kingdom of God on earth as the goal of salvation, but with Origen, who imported a heavy dose of philosophy and mysticism into the faith, “heaven” at the moment of death overwhelmed the “concrete” hope of a renewed earth about which the Bible has so much to say.
Later with Constantine a further development made the Bible less and less comprehensible. Constantine’s followers actually equated the Kingdom of God with the Roman state, although there was no evidence of worldwide peace in the presence of a returned Messiah! A final stage in the collapse of the Kingdom of God as the term to describe the event of the future connected with Jesus’ return occurred when the Roman Catholic Church appropriated Jesus’ favorite term to designate the Church worldwide. Bishops were then “enthroned” to give the impression — very false to the New Testament — that they were already reigning with Christ on earth.
It seems to us that most churchgoers are not actively studying and analyzing the Bible. This task is not an impossible one. One may start with the term “Kingdom of God” and trace it through the Gospel of Mark. It will quickly become clear that Jesus had in mind a new world order based in Jerusalem to be initiated only when he returned in power and glory to suppress opposition to his rightful rule on the restored throne of David, as all the prophets of Israel had foreseen. The crowds knew well what was entailed in the explosive term Kingdom of God. They cried out with enthusiasm for the one they recognized as the Messiah: “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:10).
Jesus spoke of his ministry and thus of the Christian faith as “the preaching of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 16:16). He urged the young convert to “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God everywhere” (Luke 9:60). Jesus was the destined Davidic ruler of the coming Kingdom (Luke 1:32) He opened his ministry with the call to repentance and commitment to belief in the Kingdom (Mark 1:14, 15). He spoke of the Kingdom as the pearl of great price, the field which must be purchased at all costs. He described his followers as “disciples of the Kingdom” and products of the Kingdom Gospel. A Christian scribe is one who is apprenticed to the Kingdom and brings to his understanding insights from both Testaments. Jesus prayed for the Kingdom, looked forward to reunion in the Kingdom with his disciples and inspired others to be waiting for the Kingdom. Finally, Jesus expected Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to be assembled at the banquet in the Kingdom (Matt. 8:11). In view of this “magnificent obsession” with the Kingdom Jesus gave daily seminars, after his resurrection, to his body of followers: the topic was invariably the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). The burden of his teaching obviously involved the prospect of a restored Davidic empire in Jerusalem (Acts 1:6). He and his followers anticipated ruling the world (I Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26; 3:21; 20:1-4; 5:10; Matt. 19:28).
The mind of Jesus was Kingdom-centered. It was to the worldwide spread of the Kingdom of God Gospel that he directed all his efforts (Luke 4:43), before commissioning his followers to continue with the same work (Matt. 28:19, 20). With the return of a clear proclamation of the Kingdom of God there will come a corresponding unity amongst now divided believers.