Reposted with kind permission from the author:
The Gospel According to Jesus
Brian McLaren, the prolific writer and Emergent Church guru, recalls being asked what the Gospel is according to Jesus and not having a suficient answer. A “well-known Evangelical theologian” then turned McLaren’s attention to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. McLaren recalls:
My lunch mate was a well-know Evangelical theologian who quite rudely upset years of theological certainty with one provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked me how I would define the gospel, and I answered as any good Romans Protestant would, quoting Romans. He followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” When I gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, I mumbled something akin to “You tell me,” and he replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear. The Kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus, right?” I again mumbled something, maybe “I guess so.” Seeing my lack of conviction, he added “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”1
Certainly many Christians have neglected the importance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Aside from whatever the view of the Kingdom of God is according to the Emergent Church or this unnamed evangelical theologian with whom McLaren spoke, I agree that this Gospel of the Kingdom of God is the Gospel according to Jesus and the entire New Testament. Clothed in camel’s hair and wearing a leather belt, John the Baptist was a striking prophet with this startling message: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).2 This is the clear message that John the Baptist, Jesus’ predecessor was heralding.
What did Jesus preach? From the time John was cast into prison, “Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The moral imperative of repentance must not be overlooked in both John’s and Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent” (Luke 4:43). We read in Matthew 4:17 and 23: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. . . . And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.”
What did Jesus command His disciples to preach? The disciples likewise Jesus instructed, “As ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:1,2). Jesus also said, “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). Did Jesus’ glad tidings of the Kingdom change after His death and resurrection? No, Jesus showed Himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, “being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
What about the Apostle Paul? Some will argue that the Gospel of the Kingdom was for Israel, but that the message changed with Paul’s ministry to Gentiles. But this is not the case. Paul “went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). This message of the Kingdom of God was Paul’s message documented throughout the book of Acts. We read in the very last lines of the book of Acts: “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:30,31). Therefore, we should read Paul in light of Jesus as this evangelical theologian suggested to McLaren. However, by doing so, I think we will come to a much different conclusion about the Kingdom of God than that of the Emergent Church. This Gospel according to Jesus is no different than the Gospel of Paul.
First of all, Paul speaks of the “Gospel of the grace of God” and the “Gospel of the Kingdom of God” interchangeably proving that Paul’s good news was synonymous with Jesus’ good news of the Kingdom of God. Paul said, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more” (Acts 20:24,25).
It is evident from Paul’s previous statement that he received this message from the Lord Jesus Himself. He declared, “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11,12). Paul’s good news was the same good news that he received by the revelation of Jesus. The Lord appeared to Paul at Corinth and encouraged him to continue preaching the Gospel that He gave him: “Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:8-11).
What is the Kingdom of God?
But what is the Kingdom of God to new Emerging Christians? McLaren defines the Kingdom of God as “God’s new benevolent society . . . a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to people of every religion.”3 McLaren says, “the kingdom-oriented term ‘Christ’ means ‘liberating king,’ the one who will free God’s people from oppression, confront and humble their oppressors, and then lead both into a better day.”4 The Bible says that “Messiah” being interpreted is “Christ” (John 1:41). Indeed, Jesus was the promised deliverer and Savior prophesied in the Old Testament. But He did not come to deliver God’s people from their oppressors and then lead the oppressed and the oppressors into a better day as McLaren proclaimed. Says McLaren:
Even if only a few would practice this new way, many would benefit. Oppressed people would be free. Poor people would be liberated from poverty. Minorities would be treated with respect. Sinners would be loved, not resented. Industrialists would realize that God cares for sparrows and wildflowers—so their industries should respect, not rape, the environment.5
Like McLaren, many people within the Emergent movement express concern for what they consider to be the practical manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, by which they mean saving the planet and changing society. U2′s lead singer Bono becomes the ultimate Emergent Christian in this sense. Campolo writes:
Bono is using his wealth and celebrity status to do just that: increase the kingdom of God in the here and now. Even back in 1982 he was part of the Live Aid and Band-Aid concerts, whose earnings helped Ethiopians suffering through famine. . . .
He now works fiercely to change the policies of governments and of organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—in order that funding for public health, education, and essential social services will increase rather than decrease.6
But does Bono preach the Kingdom of God? Jesus did miraculously feed the hungry and heal the sick but this was primarily to confirm His message, namely, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God,7 a message that Bono and Emergent are not preaching. Certainly the Kingdom of God will impact society and turn the world upside down but not in the ways Emergent is advocating. Liberating oppressed and impoverished people, loving and respecting sinners are good deeds not to be neglected. Absolutely Jesus showed compassion on the poor and needy but neither Jesus nor the apostles politicized the Gospel or prioritized social justice, the environment, eradication of poverty and illiteracy. These are not the priorities of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Campolo continues:
Politicians with views as diverse as Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms have taken Bono seriously and joined him in successful efforts to reduce Third World debts. He has persuaded wealthy countries to lend their financial muscle to addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa, thus saving tens of thousands from death.8
Again, this is not the kind of “saving” that Jesus preached. In fact, Jesus called His disciples out of political involvement to follow Him, but Tony Jones argues that “Jesus was interested in . . . the machinations of human politics.”9 Jones says that “the emergents are activists—even political activists.”10 Jesus didn’t try to garner support from King Herod, Governor Pontius Pilate or Caesar Augustus in order to reduce poverty or address leprosy. The Gospel of Matthew states: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It is not a liberalized postmodern social gospel, but the Gospel of Christ is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16).
The Emergent idea of people being “saved” from poverty, famine, and oppression rather than sin sounds more like the contemporary Jewish anticipation of a politically-charged kingdom in Jesus’ day. They believed the Messiah would deliver them from Roman oppression and usher in a worldly kingdom. But Jesus had no interest in establishing a physical kingdom with the nation of Israel: “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone” (John 6:15). The inauguration of this kingdom is not to come at a future time but was in the midst of Jesus’ contemporaries as demonstrated by the power of God over sin and spiritual principalities of wickedness in high places. The Emergent view of the Kingdom of God consists of social justice rather than individual salvation from sin.
The Kingdom of God was not the physical king or dominion that many of the Jewish sects were looking for, but Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (John 18:36). Paul also defined how the Kingdom of God is “not meat and drink”, that is, not physical in nature, “but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). The Bible says of Christians that God has, “delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Colossians 1:13). For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power (1 Corinthians 4:20).
What is the true Gospel message of Kingdom of God? The Gospel of the Kingdom is the good news about the Kingdom of God, namely, that Jesus is Lord and the time was fulfilled for His kingdom to be established. A kingdom is simply a domain ruled over by a king. Jesus inaugurated this spiritual kingdom in which He rules and reigns as Lord in the hearts of His people.
While His Kingdom transcends this world’s geographical borders of continents and countries because His citizens are Christians scattered throughout the world, there remains spiritual boundaries for entrance. But the Emergent Church does not acknowledge such boundaries in the Kingdom of God by including people from all religions.
Consistently, Emergents view the Kingdom of God as all-inclusive to both Christians and unbelievers. McLaren says, “Maybe God’s plan is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one. If you want to stay out of the party, you can. Nobody will force you to enjoy it.”11 According to McLaren’s view, everybody is already in the Kingdom, but they can “opt-out” if they so choose, whereas the Bible says it is actually the other way around, that people are in darkness and must be translated into the Kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Thus, a person cannot opt-out of the Kingdom of God if they haven’t even entered the Kingdom of God through being born again. Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8). Yet the Emergent Church hijacks Jesus’ teaching and suggests instead that all religions are in the Kingdom of God. This view is inevitable with a postmodern view of subjective and relative truth. For instance, Samir Salmanovic writes in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope:
Is our religion the only one that understands the true meaning of life? Or does God place his truth in others too? Well, God decides, and not us. The gospel is not our gospel, but the gospel of the kingdom of God, and what belongs to the kingdom of God cannot be hijacked by Christianity. God is sovereign, like the wind. He blows wherever he chooses.12
The Bible makes clear distinctions between those who are in and those who are out of the Kingdom of God. Jesus likened the Kingdom to wheat and tares of which He said the reapers would be told, “Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30). He also made the following clear distinction: “the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one. . . The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:38,41,42). These verses do not stop Tony Jones from stating:
Some of my Christian friends made it clear that Jews could not possibly be involved in Kingdom of God work because they did not profess belief in Jesus. To emergents, this kind of thinking binds God’s work to the church and implies that outside the lives of professed Christians, God is handicapped.13
But Jesus specifically addressed whether or not unbelieving Jews would be a part of His Kingdom. Unfortunately, many of the the Jews to whom the Kingdom was originally promised rejected their Messiah Jesus and forfeited their inheritance in the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11,12). In a parable about the Messiah coming to the nation of Israel, Jesus said, “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:12-14). As a result of the Kingdom being generally rejected by all but the remnant of national Israel, Jesus spoke about the transfer of the Kingdom of God to a “nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Jesus said: “Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matthew 21:42-43). God is far from being “handicapped,” but His Kingdom, like any other Kingdom, has boundaries.
Though the Emergent definition of the Kingdom of God is off the mark, I do commend them for bringing focus upon this aspect of the Gospel as well as its here and now implications. One writer on the Emergent Village blog adequately summarizes the Emergent position, “The kingdom of God is now. Right now.”14 Many evangelicals believe that such an understanding of the Kingdom of God is at odds with premillennialism, but most early Church writers were premillennialists while they also believed in the Kingdom of God here and now. Where the Emergent Church differs with the early Church is their neglect to teach both aspects of the Kingdom of God. While affirming the here and now aspects of the Kingdom of God, they neglect the unfulfilled future significance of the Kingdom. This failure carries over into their views of heaven and hell in a more serious manner. For instance, Rob Bell describes heaven and hell as here and now on earth rather than eternal future judgment:
For Jesus, heaven and hell were present realities. Ways of living we can enter into here and now. He talked very little of the life beyond this one because he understood that the life beyond this one is a continuation of the kinds of choices we make here and now.
For Jesus, the question wasn’t how do I get into heaven? but how do I bring heaven here?…
The goal isn’t escaping this world but making this world the kind of place God can come to. And God is remaking us into the kind of people who can do this kind of work.15
Bell has the right idea of bringing God’s will in heaven to earth as Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth” (Luke 11:2). But heaven and hell are chiefly future and eternal realities, not here and now. While we must acknowledge the “already/not yet” aspects of the Kingdom of God, this is not to be confused with simply Heaven, our distinct future hope. While we await the New Heaven and New Earth, Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God nearly two thousand years ago. When Jesus was demanded of the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God should come, he answered them, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20,21). Jesus said the Kingdom had come upon them, and was in their midst. He also said, “If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Matthew 12:28). Jesus acknowledged in a mysterious way that the Kingdom of God had already come.
Yet Scriptures also reveal how the Kingdom will come in its fullness after all enemies are put under Christ’s feet. There is a future time when “all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The Kingdom of God exists in this earth but it does not have full dominion being in conflict with the kingdom of darkness until the end of the age (Matthew 13:24-30,38-43). Thus, in one sense the Kingdom has already come. In another sense, we anticipate its fullness.
Sadly, the Emergent Church is speaking the language of many Christians who are newly discovering the neglected truth of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, only to devour them as prey with their subsequent false teaching concerning the Kingdom. In conclusion, the Emergent Church deserves commendation in their attempt to bring this important aspect of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, back into focus and relevance here and now. However, any good that may come from their efforts are far outweighed by their tremendous disservice to the world and the church in re-defining the Kingdom’s King by preaching another Jesus, re-defining its laws by disregarding the King’s moral commandments, and re-defining its subjects or citizens by including everybody from all religions in the Kingdom.
1 Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 137-138.
2 The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is only found in the Gospel of Matthew who uses this term to cater to Jewish sensitivities of overusing the word “God.” The pious Jews avoided the revealed name of Yahweh and Elohim (God) by substituting Adonai (Lord), ha-shem (the Name) or mayim (heaven). This is found in the expression “kingdom of heaven” where Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God.” The prodigal son said, “I have sinned against heaven” (Luke 15:18) replacing “God” with “heaven.” Matthew uses these terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably within his own gospel saying, “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23,24). These two phrases refer to the exact same reality, namely, the rule of God in people’s hearts. When a study is done in comparing Matthew’s use of the “kingdom of heaven,” to the parallel accounts in other Gospels, the phrase is again synonymous with “kingdom of God.”
3 Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 138-139.
5 Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 111.
6 Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2003), 50.
7 Jesus said, “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14:10-12). The Gospel of Mark concludes, “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20).
8 Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point, 50.
9 Tony Jones, The New Christians (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2008), 82.
11 Brian McLaren, The Last Word After That (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 138.
12 Samir Salmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, eds. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, 194.
13 Jones, The New Christians,156.
14 Janel Apps Ramsey, “The Kingdom of God,” Emergent Village, February 22, 2012, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2012/02/the-kingdom-of-god/.
15 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 147,150.