What Is The Gospel?
If you were to ask most Christians what "the Gospel" is, chances are they would say something to the effect that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead. The crux of the message, in the minds of most Christians, is the salvation that is available through what Jesus accomplished on the cross. But while this is certainly a crucial element, is it the entire gospel?
In What is the Gospel? – a tract published by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1980 – it is stated that Jesus "came to do three days work, to die, be buried and raised" and that "He came not primarily to preach the Gospel ... but He came rather that there might be a Gospel to preach." However, Jesus said that the prophecy of the one who was "anointed to preach the gospel to the poor" was fulfilled in him. In fact, he declared that the very reason he was commissioned was to preach the Kingdom of God.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than just the gospel about him. Jesus and his disciples are said to have "preached the gospel" for his entire three year ministry. Yet it wasn't until Matthew 16, Mark 10, and Luke 18, when he was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, that he "began" to talk to his disciples about the fact that he would suffer and die. And they didn't even understand it then. So if he hadn't mentioned his suffering and death before that, what was the "gospel" that he was preaching?
Many reformers, including Martin Luther himself, believed that the "gospel" is more in Paul's epistles than in the four Gospels. I Corinthians 15 is often quoted as proof that the gospel is primarily about Christ's suffering and death.
However, the phrase "first of all" is from the Greek en protois, literally "among things of primary importance." In this chapter, Paul is speaking about the resurrection, which some in Corinth were doubting, according to verse 12. In that context, Paul points out that the death and resurrection of Jesus were "among things of primary importance." But it would be a mistake to say that the gospel is only about Christ's death and resurrection, as this would contradict the many clear verses which state that Paul and the other disciples preached about the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did.
Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist announced the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God (Matthew 3:1-2). When Jesus began preaching, he announced that the kingdom was "at hand," or near (Matthew 4:17). He continued throughout his ministry, preaching the kingdom (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:14).
The twelve were sent to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 10:7) and later the seventy were sent with the same mission (Luke 10:1,9). After his resurrection, Jesus continued to speak concerning the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3). Philip went to Samaria preaching the Kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). Paul preached the Kingdom of God as well (Acts 14:22; 19:8; 20:25), right up to the end of Acts (Acts 28:23, 30-31).
If the main subject of Jesus' and his disciples' preaching was the Kingdom of God, why do we not hear more about it in mainstream churches? One reason may be that there is often a misunderstanding of what the Kingdom of God means. Often it is thought to be a general term for the things of God. Others think that it's the reign of God in our hearts. We will examine the Scriptures to determine what exactly is meant by the Kingdom of God.
Another common misconception about what Jesus preached is the idea that he offered "heaven" as the final destination of the believer. In Matthew, it says that he preached the Kingdom of Heaven, but we saw in a previous article that "Kingdom of Heaven" is a figurative way of saying "Kingdom of God" and does not refer to the location of the kingdom, but to its origin.
It may surprise you to know that nowhere does Jesus promise heaven as the ultimate destination of Christians. He never said our goal was to live forever in a "home beyond the blue" as a disembodied soul or spirit in "heaven." If you read through the Gospels, you find that he never said any such thing. He always referred to the coming Kingdom of God which, as we shall see, would be on earth. He said the meek would "inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5, quoting from Psalm 37:11), and he taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2).
Not only did he not speak of going to heaven, but he specifically stated that no one has ascended into heaven (John 3:13), and Peter said that David was not ascended to the heavens as well (Acts 2:34). Biblically, heaven is used either literally as the space above earth (as in "the fowls of heaven" in verses like Genesis 1:20 or Revelation 19:17), or figuratively as the abode of God (Ecclesiastes 5:2, for example). And as we saw in the above referenced article, heaven was sometimes used figuratively to refer to God Himself, hence the term "Kingdom of Heaven" being equivalent to "Kingdom of God." But nowhere in the Bible does it speak of the righteous going to heaven.
Now Jesus did refer to "heaven" as the place in which treasures are laid up (Matthew 6:20; 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 6:23; 12:33; 18:22). But he didn't say we would enjoy them there, just that they were stored there. Our reward is in heaven (Luke 6:23) but Jesus says, "Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be" (Revelation 22:12). Look through the Gospels, and in fact the whole New Testament. Nowhere does it say that the believer will "go to" heaven.
It is frequently thought that Jesus was here saying that he was going to prepare a home for us in heaven, and many hymns reflect this notion. But notice, it does not say "heaven." The phrase "my Father's house" can have a number of meanings, from the literal Temple, to the Household of God. "Heaven" is assumed, but that assumption is unwarranted. Further, in verse 3, Jesus says, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." Where is Jesus going to be? As we will see, many prophecies from both Old and New Testaments tell us he will be ruling in God's Kingdom on earth, and that the saints will rule with him. II Corinthians 5:1-2 also refers to a "building prepared in the heavens," but verse 2 refers to it as "from heaven," again referring to its origin, not its permanent location. And Revelation 21:1-4 describes "...the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven." Whether this is referring to a literal city coming down, or is a figure of the people of God, is the subject of some debate. But either way, the point is that it will be on earth, not remaining in heaven.
The Kingdom is heavenly, and God's gifts and the things of God are called heavenly, which is simply another way of saying they are from God. It must be remembered that "heavenly" refers to their origin and nature, not their location. The things of God, including His coming Kingdom, are of heaven, but that doesn't mean we will enjoy them in heaven. J. A. T. Robinson wrote in his book, In the End God, that "heaven in the Bible is nowhere the destination of the dying."
The idea that one goes to heaven when he dies stems from Greek philosophy, not from the Scriptures, as demonstrated in the Closer Look article on The State of The Dead. The great hope for all Israel was the resurrection, which would take place when Messiah came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. This was the same hope that Jesus taught, and all his disciples looked toward, including Paul in his epistles. But it is woefully lacking in the teaching of most churches, who nearly always speak of the dead being "in heaven" and the ultimate goal of eternity as "going to heaven." Many tracts and church billboards have messages like, "Where will you spend eternity? In heaven or in hell?" But the Bible never presents such a choice. The Bible says that it is a choice between "life and death"
Asking "where will you spend eternity" begins with the assumption that one has eternal life to spend somewhere. But the Bible tells us that eternal life is the gift of God. It is not inherent in man. When the Lord returns he will grant it to the faithful believers (Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53-54). In order for someone to spend eternity in "heaven" or "hell" he has to have eternal life.
For the most part, mainstream Christianity is vague about the future. When you die you go to heaven (whatever that means) and there is often no clearly defined purpose for the return of Christ to earth. What we do in heaven is equally nebulous. Western culture is full of images of flying around in the clouds, with wings and a halo, playing a harp. But Jesus taught no such thing. He always spoke of the coming Kingdom of God on earth, and promised those who were faithful a place in it. The parable of the nobleman going off to receive his kingdom illustrates this.
Notice, the nobleman returns, having received the Kingdom (verse 15) and gives the servants authority over cities. We shall see that reigning with him on earth is what Jesus promised, not going to heaven when we die.
The proper understanding of the Kingdom of God as Jesus and his disciples preached it depends to a large extent on the proper understanding of the nature of man and what happens when we die. If one believes one goes to heaven at death and has a peaceful existence with God, then there is no need for a resurrection or a return of Christ. Some even take that a step further by suggesting that Christians in fact don't have a need for the resurrection or return of Christ, but they will take place in fulfillment of prophecies regarding Israel. This is part of the theological system which I at one time embraced, and which I will discuss in the next article.