The Gospel of the Kingdom or the Gospel of Christ Crucified ... Revisited

by Rick Love

In my series on Biblical Holism I have defined the gospel as Old Testament promises of good news fulfilled in Jesus. This good news was fulfilled in Jesus and demonstrated by Jesus when he healed the sick, fed the hungry, or forgave sinners.

It is true that the cross and resurrection describe the focal point of the gospels. Mark’s gospel, for example, has been described as a Passion story with an extended introduction. This is where traditional evangelicals have it right. But I argue that Jesus’s virgin birth, compassionate life, supernatural works, profound teaching, saving death and victorious resurrection must all be viewed through the lens of the kingdom. Why? Because the kingdom of God is the dominant theme of Jesus’s life. The kingdom of God provides the context and thus the interpretive key for Jesus's life, death and resurrection.

So let me take a minute to unpack the meaning of the kingdom.

It is common among New Testament scholars to understand the kingdom of God as a two-stage coming. In the person and mission of Jesus there is present fulfillment (the first coming of Christ) without consummation (the second coming of Christ); the kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.”

This two-stage coming of the kingdom of God is described as a “mystery” in the New Testament (Romans 16:25-26). People in Jesus’s time understood the kingdom of God as an event in the future - a cataclysmic in-breaking of the reign of God (Daniel 2:44). The mystery of the kingdom, however, is this: the kingdom is not coming in crushing power. It comes like a mustard seed or like yeast (see Jesus’ parables in Mark 4 and Matthew 13.) This present manifestation of the kingdom is in hidden form, working secretly within and among men prior to its future manifestation in crushing power, splendor and glory.

In what ways, then, is the kingdom present in the ministry of Jesus and how does the kingdom of God come through us today? There are at least four signs of the present manifestation of the kingdom. First of all, it is manifested in the presence of the King. Jesus points to himself as the King:

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them and said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:20- 21 NASB).

The key to interpreting this passage is the phrase, “in your midst.” The New International Version translates this phrase as “within you,” while the New American Standard Bible translates it as “in your midst.” Which one is correct?

The kingdom has an “inner dimension.” Jesus’s focus is on the transformation of the heart. However, I don’t believe that Jesus saw the kingdom “within” the heart of the Pharisees! He spent virtually his whole ministry exposing their hypocrisy and bemoaning their lack of heart transformation. So the context of this passage, along with the rest of Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom, clearly indicates that “in your midst” is the best interpretation.

Wherever Christ reigns, the kingdom has come. Jesus is the king! Jesus IS the gospel.

The presence of the kingdom is manifested, second, through gospel planting (or the preaching of the gospel). This is clearest in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23), which Jesus describes as “the mystery of the kingdom” (v. 11). The power of the kingdom often comes in unspectacular ways - quietly and secretly. This is the mystery that the Old Testament did not reveal! The kingdom is presently manifested as we share the gospel.

Third, according to Matthew 12:28, signs and wonders are proof of the presence of the kingdom. Jesus said, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom has come!” Healing, exorcism and miracles demonstrate the power of the kingdom and illustrate what the future kingdom will be like: no sickness, no bondage, no pain, no hunger.

Fourth, Jesus’s messianic mission includes what we would call social action: works of righteousness, peacemaking, justice and mercy. The Sermon on the Mount puts a strong emphasis on righteousness and reconciled relationships. Jesus defines his ministry in terms of justice to the nations (Matthew12:17-20) and teaches that justice is one of the “weightier provisions” of the law (Matthew 23:23 NASB). In addition, Jesus’s followers are commanded to “desire mercy” (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7). Mercy too is described as one of the weightier provisions of the law (Matthew 23:23 NASB).

So when we share the good news of King Jesus, when we heal the sick or cast out demons, when we do works of righteousness, peacemaking, justice and mercy in Jesus’s name, the kingdom comes. This is the “already” of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom is not just about getting people into heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to earth.

But the question still lingers. How does the gospel of Christ crucified relate to the gospel of the kingdom? Is Paul’s gospel the same as Jesus’s gospel? Let me point out four important connections.

First, both refer to the same “gospel,” that is, the good news promised in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. Second, the gospel of the kingdom points forward to Christ’s climactic death and victorious resurrection (as does the gospel of Christ crucified). Third, the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of Christ crucified both refer to an assault on the kingdom of darkness. The ministry of Jesus makes this clear. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38). Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). The epistles also portray the death and resurrection of Christ as an assault on the kingdom of darkness.

  • And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:15).
  • Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14).
  • He raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:20-21).
  • It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him (1 Peter 3:21-22).

The focus of Jesus’s ministry, and passages in the epistles like those noted above, point out the unity between the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of Christ crucified. This has led the prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright to conclude, “I am inclined to see the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of evil and darkness, as the central theme in atonement theology, around which all the other varied meanings of the cross find their particular niche” (Evil and the Justice of God, p 114).

Fourth, the vital connection between the gospel of Christ crucified and the gospel of the kingdom becomes more apparent if we revisit how Paul describes the gospel in light of Old Testament promises.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

We tend to read the word “Christ” as Jesus’s last name, when in fact it means “messiah.” Thus, Paul says the gospel is about the messiah who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. And this gospel took place “according to the Scriptures,” that is, according to the Old Testament promises of the future kingdom. So there it is in plain sight! Jesus is the promised messianic king. Implicit in Paul’s summary of the gospel is the rich fullness of Old Testament kingdom promises.

In other words, a careful analysis of how Paul understood the gospel indicates that the gospel of Christ crucified and the gospel of the kingdom are one! According to Paul, the gospel of Christ crucified is as broad as the gospel of the kingdom. It is not to be equated only with salvation, as evangelicals often affirm.

In a previous blog I said that Carl Medearis preaches the gospel of the kingdom, while John Piper the gospel of Christ crucified. Clearly neither Carl Medearis nor John Piper preach a gospel “light.” And I think they would agree with most of the things I wrote. But I personally favor an approach that gives greater weight to the four gospels than it does to the epistles, and uses stories (especially biblical stories) more than logical argumentation. This helps keep me more Jesus-centered and fits better in a postmodern world and a world where orality trumps literacy in a majority of cases. I want to be like Carl, but I write and think more like John!