“Gospel” means, “Good news!” Does the gospel you believe bring good news for the life you’re actually living today?
For many Christians their good news is waiting for them in heaven when they die and in the meantime they’re just holding on. They’re missing out on God’s life today. If you wan’t to go to heaven, don’t wait! Get more of heaven into you now and heaven when you die will take care of itself. If you learn to live the gospel Jesus preached then you’ll become a heavenly person. (Many of the insights that follow I have learned from Dallas Willard and his book, Divine Conspiracy.)
Enemies Came Against Me
Some time ago out of nowhere some people rose up against me like thunderstorms drenching me in public criticism. I was repeatedly slandered in the front page of newspapers for my association with a church that was going through bankruptcy. Separately, two Christian leaders posted articles on their websites condemning me as a heretic for teaching that ordinary people could actually become more like Jesus, the Son of God. They ridiculed me for practicing “contemplative spirituality.” Worst of all, they made disparaging remarks about my wife Kristi and posted these next to our picture. Then someone who owed me a large sum of money for ministry services insisted that I didn’t deserve to be paid and found a legal way to refuse payment.
I realized that I had enemies. I was giving my all to serve Jesus Christ and help people but these attackers maligned me. Most of them were self-identified Christians. They didn’t like me and would be quite upset if when they got to heaven they found out that I was living next door!
How did I react to being harshly judged in public forums? How did it affect me knowing that these bad reports about me were going out to many people, including those in my social circle and people I minister to? Was the Gospel I believe good news for me in these situations of injustice?
Before I tell you the end of the story I want to tell you how I would have reacted in the past as determined by the gospels I believed.
Common Christian Gospels
I was raised with the conservative gospel: “Believe that Jesus died on the cross to take the beating that we deserve for our sins and he rose from the dead so that we could be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” I learned good doctrine from church and Bible study. I don’t doubt that God was prepared to let me into heaven when I died, but there wasn’t much of heaven inside of me! When I was criticized I felt bad and pressured to fix whatever was wrong with me so I wouldn’t come under attack again.
Later as I progressed in my studies of Christian psychology I came to adopt the social gospel: “Love other people, especially the poor and needy, and God will be pleased with you being a good person.” I learned that Jesus gave his life to love the oppressed and to liberate them to participate in the fullness of God’s life. Ministering the compassion of Jesus was the purpose of my life now and for eternity.
Furthermore, all the while, without realizing it the consumeristic mentality so prevalent in American culture was influencing my gospel. This consumer gospel often came through the large church we were attending and the popular Christian media: “Ask God and he’ll bless you like you want. He’ll help make your project of a successful life turn out. Go to church to get your needs met and feel better. Take care of your church and it will take care of you.” In some ways I was using God to help me feel better and looking to my church and the larger Christian culture like a spiritual shopping mall where I could buy the services and products I wanted.
Each of these gospels has truth to them. Looking to Jesus to forgive our sins is essential. So is loving the poor and needy. And a church should be concerned with the needs of people. But the heart of Jesus’s Gospel of the Kingdom of God is missing in these three gospels: submit yourself to Jesus Christ the Lord, in all that you do, abandoning all outcomes to him, trusting his good purposes for you. In the other gospels I am still in charge of my daily life activities. It’s all about me — I am fixing what’s wrong with my doctrine, my good works, or my approach to get my needs met.
But all of these gospels are incomplete. They offered me little or no help for overcoming my sin and problems today; they didn’t enable me to glorify God and become like Jesus. Improving my doctrine and learning Bible facts, trying to show compassion to those in need, or doing things to get God’s blessings didn’t help me remain at peace when I was harshly judged nor did they enable me to bless those cursed me.
Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom of God
Jesus’ gospel includes what is true and good in the conservative, social, and consumer gospels, but omits what is wrong and goes far beyond them in proclaiming good news that is the best news! Jesus launched his public ministry announcing his gospel: “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). But most Christians today don’t understand what this gospel means.
When we hear the word “repent” we might think that it means beating our head against the floor and wailing! But that has nothing to do with repentance. You might feel like doing that after you repent from your sin that has caused so much pain but it won’t help you — it’ll just give you a headache and cause a spectacle! To repent actually means, “re-think” or “turn around” in view of a true and better opportunity.
And when we hear about the “kingdom of God” we’re likely to think its about when Jesus comes back to earth in bodily form or when we go to heaven. In fact, when I was in seminary I was taught that since the people of the first century rejected Jesus’ kingdom now we all have to wait until we go to heaven or when Jesus returns to earth to enter his kingdom. Many Christians have been taught this. So in this life we’re left to “hang on” in our struggle with sin and keep going to God for his forgiveness while we wait with hope for future peace and glory. It’s like we’ve had car trouble and we had to pull off to the side of the highway while we wait for the heavenly AAA to come get us and take us home to heaven.
The kingdom of God is simply God in action; it’s where what God wants done is done. This is why Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). You and I have a kingdom or queendom –things, activities, and even people that we’re in charge of. For instance, if someone starts rummaging through your purse or your wallet you’ll feel violated, “Hey that’s mine! What are you doing?” That’s because it is a part of your kingdom that you’ve been given responsibility for. The opportunity of Jesus’ gospel is to bring all that we are responsible for under the government of God, to submit all that we are, all that we have, all that we do, and how we do what we do to the rule of Christ.
The other misunderstood word in Matthew 4:17 that we need to define clearly is “heaven.” Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heavens” rather than the “kingdom of God” to emphasize the direct and immediately availability of the Lord’s rule — he is always right beside us and his Spirit lives within us who trust in him! Note that we are speaking of heavens in the plural, which is the better translation in Matthew and in most uses throughout the Bible. (See Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible at BibleGateway.com.) The Hebrew concept is that there are seven levels in the heavens and the lowest level is immediately present in the air we breathe. So Jesus is inviting us now to live with him, the angels, and the saints in the beautiful, glorious heavenly realm that he is in charge of.
So what is Jesus saying to us in his invitation, “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand”? (Matthew 4:17). To paraphrase, his offer is: “Re-think your strategy for life in light of your opportunity to live your life under God’s loving rule in the kingdom of the heavens.”
The King is kind. The Holy One overcame sin, death, and hell and rose from the dead. The risen Christ is our Master and in Spirit he is here now to embrace us in Abba’s love, empower us with his Spirit, and to guide us into real, abundant, eternal living. So let go of life on your own terms, stop trying to make your life a success or to get all the blessings you want and instead simply submit to his loving, righteous rule. You’ll learn how to live your ordinary life today in the reality of the heavenly realms, loving God and your neighbor as he loves you.
The Gospel of the Kingdom is the New Testament Gospel
Over one hundred times in the Gospels Jesus invited people to participate in God’s kingdom. He communicates this through parables, healing, and teaching. Of course, he varies his wording, but his theme does not change. When he was resurrected and appeared to his disciples over forty days he continued to talk to them about life in the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
Furthermore, Jesus trained his disciples to preach and manifest his gospel of the Kingdom in the same way that he did: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:5-8).
Some theologians say that the Apostle Paul did not preach a Gospel of the Kingdom. But Acts records him talking to people “persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8) and “welcoming all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31). Fourteen times in his epistles Paul teaches explicitly on the kingdom of God and equates this with the redemption we have in Christ. Paul teaches, “For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). He says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
The End of the Story
So when I went through a series of persecutions what difference did Jesus’ gospel of the availability of God’s kingdom make in my life? Instead of reacting with anger or scurrying to fix my public reputation as I would’ve done before apprenticing myself to Jesus I was sustained in God’s kingdom. The hurt and stress I was experiencing didn’t hold sway over me because I was drawing my strength and joy from the risen Christ. “You, O Lord, are a shield around me. You bestow glory on me and lift up my head” (Psalm 3:3). I remained at peace.
By God’s grace I thanked God that I was being persecuted for Christ and I blessed those who cursed me. For instance, in the case of the Christian leaders who slandered Kristi and I as heretics I thanked God that they had devoted themselves to teaching others Biblical doctrine as best they could. I prayed for God’s blessing on them and their ministries, that God would draw them closer to Christ, encourage and help them in their study of Christian doctrine, and use them to bring more and more people into God’s truth and life. I had opportunity to send one of these people an e-mail of encouragement.
Of course, sometimes the love of Christ doesn’t come out of my heart for my enemies or when I’m in other stressful situations. I am still learning to become more like Jesus. But over time I can see that more and more evidences that I am learning with God’s help to be at peace in trials and to love those those around me, even if they’re hurting me.
The Gospel for You
How can you live today in the kingdom of the heavens? How can you keep your peace in stressful situations and love difficult people?
Don’t try — train. Apprentice yourself to Jesus and learn how to live submitted to him in all things as you draw upon the resources being part of his kingdom. An apprentice is becoming like his or her leader. To become like Jesus you need to go into training with him through practicing the disciplines for the spiritual life, including the ones he himself practiced. When you have difficulty with your training program get help from someone who can serve as Christ’s ambassador to you (2 Corinthians 5:20) and minister the counseling, healing prayer, or spiritual mentoring you need.
This article was adapted from material in my book, You Can Live in Jesus’ Easy Yoke. Through Scripture, real life examples of transformation, and spiritual exercises I teach you how to live in the Lord’s rhythms of grace in the midst of your daily stress.