Some urge a “social” gospel—one that promotes social justice, claiming that this is what Jesus preached and what the church needs to recover. Many point to the fact that Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom,” healing and relieving people from affliction (Matthew 4:23). It is claimed that the church has since lost the “of the kingdom” definition of the gospel. Some go so far as to say that what evangelical churches preach as the gospel—that Jesus died on the cross for sinners—is a modern invention. Brian McLaren says that “the book of Romans is the wrong place to go to get a definition of the gospel, I think that we have to get a definition of the gospel from Jesus.” Deconstructionists frame their argument against the evangelical church by insisting that Jesus preached a gospel different from the one preached today. Is the gospel about the overthrow of evil government powers? Is it about lifting up the poor and oppressed? Is the gospel a message of earthly justice? Is the church responsible to transform society? Should we preach a “gospel” of a new social kingdom? Is this what Jesus did? Is this the meaning of “the gospel of the kingdom”? A careful exposition through Matthew helps significantly.
THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM AND THE CRUCIFIED KING
Let us not confuse the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:17, 23) with the gospel of the King and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3-4). The former is only possible through the latter and is part of its blessing. But this too was a mystery—a secret of the kingdom revealed only through and after the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Read Luke 24:44-48. Not even the closest disciples understood this secret of the kingdom during Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 16:21-23), so let us not assume that the gospel we now know was the gospel that Jesus preached to Israel before the cross (Matthew 9:35; 10:5-7).
WHAT WAS THE GOSPEL JESUS PREACHED?
So what was the “good news” that Jesus preached? He preached the coming of the kingdom of God in and through Him (Mark 1:15; Matthew 12:28; see also Matthew 6:10, 33; 13:31-33; 19:28). Both the gospel that Jesus preached and the gospel preached after the cross announce “good news” according to God’s promises. The key distinction is that the gospel of the kingdom depends on the gospel of the crucified King, which was a secret of the kingdom—a mystery revealed only after the fact.
The gospel of the kingdom comes through a new covenant. Just as at the exodus the “promised land” represented a kingdom under God for Israel through His covenant with them at Mount Sinai, so later the prophets would promise a glorious new kingdom through a new covenant. The promise of this kingdom could only come through the promise of the new covenant. The new covenant was the only covenant to promise forgiveness of sins and a corresponding new birth (Jeremiah 31:33-34; 33:8; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:25-26). These promises were only possible through the atonement of sins in a radically new fulfillment (Hebrews 10:1-4). In Jesus’ day, none were expecting the blood of the Messiah to ratify the promised new covenant and thereby inaugurate His kingdom on earth (Hebrews 10:5-10; Matthew 26:27-28; Luke 22:20). But the new kingdom could only come through the new covenant. This is precisely why Jesus would respond to Nicodemus by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). When Nicodemus replied by asking, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). These truths were in Scripture. But they were secrets of the kingdom—truths that were hidden from the understanding of the proud (Matthew 13:11-17, 34-35).
We who now possess in Scripture the full revelation of God’s redemption story have different lenses through which we may more precisely understand the gospel. We must not confuse the redemptive-historical dimensions of these two proclamations or their relationship with one another. The historical unfolding of the secrets of the kingdom must be respected, lest we be guilty of anachronistic recklessness in our thinking and interpretation.
ONLY ONE GOSPEL
A final important factor remains. Through the doctrine of the apostles (Acts 2:42; Ephesians 2:20), once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), the church preaches one and only one gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). That gospel is the message of Christ and Him crucified and risen on behalf of guilty sinners (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 17; Romans 4:25). It alone is sufficient, being the deliberately exclusive focal point of the church’s proclamation (1 Corinthians 2:2). What about the gospel of the kingdom? It is the promise of the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Romans 8:21; Revelation 21:1-5)—the final stage of the kingdom of heaven come to earth (Matthew 6:10; 19:28; Revelation 11:15). The promised kingdom is the glory and hope of the gospel now made full in the revelation of Jesus Christ, His cross, and His resurrection (Acts 3:18-21). Though there is a sense in which these blessed realities have begun in the new birth (2 Corinthians 5:17), the kingdom itself is a glorious reality yet future (Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5). The gospel of the King and Him crucified and risen includes the hope of His kingdom (Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:1-2). But the proclamation of the kingdom and its ways is not itself the gospel. You can only see the kingdom of God through the cross of Christ. A good kingdom cannot be justly given to bad people. The hope of a changed world given to unchanged people is not what Jesus preached (Matthew 21:43). The call to repentance was preparatory for the cross and all that it would open (Matthew 4:17; 27:50-51). The coming of the kingdom of God is only good news for those who are reconciled to God through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). For these reasons, we preach the word of the cross unashamedly, for God’s glory and man’s joy (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24).