Part 4 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my last post in this series, I began to clarify the core message of Jesus: “The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). Our word “kingdom,” it turns out, misses the precise sense of Jesus’ own language. What he proclaimed was not the approach of a place where God rules (our typical sense of “kingdom”), but rather the dawning of God’s kingly authority on earth. Thus, when we read the phrase “kingdom of God” in the Gospels, we need to think in terms of God’s reign, rule, authority, or sovereignty. This, according to Jesus, is what has come near.
In his proclamation of the reign of God, Jesus echoes the language and hopes of the Hebrew prophets. I have known this for over 20 years, but it was strongly impressed upon me three years ago as I was writing my book, Jesus Revealed. In preparation for this project, I re-read the Hebrew prophets, beginning with Isaiah and ending with Malachi. Time and again, I ran into the language of God’s kingdom as the Lord promised that, someday, he would return to rule over his people.
Consider, for example, the following passage from Zephaniah, who prophesied in the latter half of the seventh century B.C.:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel! . . .
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; . . .
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love; . . .
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD. (Zeph 3:14-20, emphasis added)
According to this prophecy, at the right time the LORD himself will be the “king of Israel.” In this role, he will give victory to his people, removing their oppressors, gathering their scattered exiles, and restoring their fortunes.
Consider one other passage from the Hebrew prophets, this one from Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10, emphasis added)
In this prophecy, God’s reign includes peace, the return of the LORD to Jerusalem, joyful singing, comfort and redemption for Judah, and the impact of God’s salvation upon the whole earth. The announcement of God’s reign will be, indeed, “good news.”
Now, with Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s prophecies ringing in your ears, listen again to Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The prophetic echoes are unmistakable. But there are differences too. Whereas the prophets looked ahead to an undetermined time in the future when God would return to rule over his people, Jesus says, “The time is now. The reign of God has now come near. So turn your life around and live in light of this truth.”
Now that we’ve identified the core message of Jesus – the proclamation of the kingdom – and clarified the basic meaning of this proclamation, we should pursue a bit further the means by which Jesus delivered his message. Yes, upon occasion he stood up and said, simply, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” But that was just the beginning. In my next post I will answer the question: How did Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God?