A gracEmail subscriber asks: “Jesus came preaching that the kingdom (rule) of God was at hand, apparently in contrast to the power of Caesar and of Rome. How would you respond to the claim that Jesus preached a political message and call to living under God’s rule rather than the traditional Christian message of avoiding hell in eternity by trusting Christ now?”
* * *
Mark’s Gospel summarizes Jesus’ preaching like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Many influential Christian teachers today, from the scholarly N. T. Wright to the popular author Brian McLaren, rightly point out the political implications of that announcement — not only the obvious (“kingdom”) but also the more subtle (in the first century the word translated “gospel” regularly referred to an announcement about the Emperor). We do miss Jesus’ full meaning if we hear his words and think only of some religious process that enables us individually to avoid hell when this life has ended.
Jesus expected his teaching to make a difference in the here-and-now (Luke 4:14-21). Jewish prophets before Jesus regularly spoke of a time when God would rescue his people from their earthly ills and enemies to live in peace and prosperity. Jesus announced that God was beginning to bring all this about. Jesus called people to “repent” (change their whole mental framework and outlook) and to “believe in the gospel” (trust the reality of Jesus’ announcement and begin to live accordingly). Taken seriously, this radical response shapes our entire lives as individuals and also as members of society. It changes how we think and act regarding money (economics), civil society (government), our neighbors both near and far (politics, war and international relations), even the physical world itself (ecology). Too often, those calling themselves Christians have stored Jesus safely away in a box labeled “Religion” instead of seeing him as lord over all of life.
Yet Jesus also looked beyond the continuum of present earthly history (Matt. 25:31-46). His message is for now — in view of the hereafter. This world and the present order do not constitute the final word. There does yet remain a final judgment — and eternal consequences of our sojourn here (Matt. 25:31-46). The gospel certainly has social implications, but a “social gospel” that looks no further than the grave is too short-sighted. Although God’s rule has begun, and although Jesus calls us to work and to pray for it to come in its fullness, only God can ultimately bring that about. The sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of humankind both warn us not to repeat the ancient mistake of those who once set out to construct a tower in Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Instead, like Abraham of old, we must live our lives trusting God to fulfill his own promises and to give us a lasting name (Gen. 12:1-3).