In our study thus far, we have seen how the Gospel — the Good News — of John the Immerser, Jesus, the Apostles (represented by Peter) and Paul are all in agreement as to its basic content. The Gospel first proclaimed by John pointed to a coming King who held judgment in his hands. Of him, John said,
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11–12)
John was asked, “Who are you? … What do you say about yourself?” His response was, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:22–23). John believed that in order to “make straight the way of the Lord” — i.e., “get things ready for His appearing” — he must prepare the hearts of those who would receive Him. He did so by preaching his sermon of repentance and the coming Kingdom, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We have to recognize his gospel message was effective and succeeded in its directive. It pointed people to Jesus and made them fit to to be his disciples. We know that several of John’s disciples ended up becoming disciples of the Master.12 In fact; one of the requirements to qualify a replacement for Judas was that he underwent John’s immersion. 3 John’s Gospel was the initial torch which was picked up by Jesus and was eventually passed on to the Disciples, all of which pointed to Jesus as the key to this Gospel proclamation. When Jesus began preaching his Gospel, it was identical to John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He called his listeners to forsake sin and to return to the standard of righteousness set forth in the Torah. He pointed to himself as the long awaited Messiah-King and called his disciples to live with daily anticipation of the physical restoration of Israel and the coming Messianic Kingdom.
The torch was then passed to the Disciples who proclaimed repentance and the coming Kingdom in the light of the resurrected Messiah. They urged those who heard the Gospel to turn from their sins and come under the Kingship of the Divine Messiah. In Acts 2 Peter closes his Gospel sermon by stating:
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)
When he encounters Cornelius, however, he realizes that this subjugation to the Kingship of Jesus was not just limited to the Jewish nation. He tells Cornelius:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)… And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34–6,42–43)
The examples we see of the proclamation of the Gospel found within the Apostolic Scriptures begin with a call to repentance and end with a call to discipleship, with an emphasis on the subjugation of this world to that of Heavenly reign. The Good News for the Apostles was that the time had been fulfilled that God had sent His Messiah in the person of Jesus. It was all about him and his coming Kingdom. This proclamation was not concerned about justification through faith. It was not concerned with praying the Sinner’s Prayer. It was not concerned about getting to heaven or avoiding hell. It was not concerned about questions over proper baptismal rituals or church membership. The biblical Gospel is about the fulfillment of a promise made to the patriarchs. This Gospel proclaimed the arrival of the King of the Jews and his coming Kingdom and called for a response in a life of discipleship to the long-awaited King. This is why the central message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It may have been verbalized differently, but the essence was the same.
These examples are quite different from most of our modern theological gymnastics in which the Gospel is reduced to a formula for salvation. It is ironic, however, in that a system in which “legalism” is held in contempt, we are thoroughly legalistic in regard to salvation. The evidence of the acceptance of the Gospel during the days of the Apostles was repentance and submission. Today the evidence is doctrinal confession, church attendance and tithing.
Jesus desired that the Kingdom of Heaven infuse the hearts and lives of mortal men. In his model prayer he tells his disciples to pray,
Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
He expounds upon this by later telling us, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33). In other words, our lives should be consumed with the things of the Kingdom, rather than the things of the world. His kingship should be working in our lives in such a way that the world around us is being transformed through our submission and obedience to the King. All of his teachings, all of his parables somehow tie back to the principle of the Kingdom at work in the lives of men and women. If this is the case, why does our Gospel begin with salvation rather than Jesus as King?
Scot McKnight says,
“When we can find hardly any instances of our favorite theological category in the whole of the four Gospels, we need to be wary of how important our own interpretations and theological favorites are.” 4
Are we looking to produce converts — those who check the word “Christian” in surveys regarding religious affiliation — or disciples — those whose lives are completely governed by the Kingship of Messiah? A salvation-focused Gospel will always produce converts, rather than disciples. To be fair, in a few cases, however, it will be the spark needed to produce a whole-hearted follower of our Messiah. But until we hear the Gospel of the Kingdom, the one Jesus and all of the Disciples preached, we will never fully understand our responsibility to the King.
On the opposite end, merely hearing the Gospel of the Kingdom does not produce instant disciples either. However, its acceptance does include a call to discipleship as an integral component. I would have to agree with D.T. Lancaster when he says that if the Gospel is reduced down to merely a message of salvation, then we should wonder if it even retains the power to save anyone. Why? Because it requires people to ask Jesus to forgive them of their sins, but yet does not require them to denounce those same sins and come under the Kingship of the Messiah.5 Rather than being a means to purchase a ticket for a place in the world to come without any sort of personal transformation, the biblical Gospel is about transforming lives of individuals into citizens fit for the Kingdom of the Living God. It is about His rule over His subjects and creating a Kingdom over which the King is able to reign. What good is a kingdom in which the subjects live in apathy or rebellion to the king? The Apostolic Gospel is designed to produce disciples who will be like their Master and eventually inherit the world to come, whereas our conventional Gospel is designed to bypass discipleship and personal transformation and give a person the security that they have a place in heaven. Let’s begin preaching the Apostolic Gospel so that our world can be transformed into the image of our Messiah.