What Gospel Did Jesus Preach? Reflections on the Kingdom and the Church

I just ran across a challenging question:  “What is the gospel that Jesus preached?”  I immediately thought of Paul’s gospel, of “Christ and him crucified.”  I thought of the “amended” gospel that we hear so often today involving every inferred rule and stipulation that must be met judiciously if we are to have any hope of salvation.  But really, what was the gospel that Jesus preached?   

Of course, mention of Jesus preaching a gospel usually has attached to it the idea of the “kingdom of heaven” or “Kingdom of God” being “at hand.”  And our traditional view has been that the Kingdom of heaven equals the church.  I saw an article just yesterday that made that bold, unequivocal proclamation.  But is that truly an indisputable fact? 

So, I started thinking about that more.  I began with the beginning.  At least of the New Testament.  Matthew is the only writer of a synoptic gospel that uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” and he uses it liberally—over 30 times.  This is a very Jewish sort of phrase, and Matthew’s history was written expressly for the Jewish audience.  The writing is well-nuanced with Jewish details like a detailed listing of Jesus’s earthly ancestry.  As such, it is quite enlightening to people who are not of Jewish origin, but it would also be very significant to Jews.

For ages, I have heard that “the kingdom is the church.”  Full stop.  End of transmission.  In fact, on many occasions I recall being told that we must not pray the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” or model prayer, because we can’t authentically pray for God’s kingdom to come since it’s already here.  This doctrine has been preached with such authority that I worried that reciting this prayer would be a damnable offense.  I’ve wondered about that many times.  How can a prayer condemn you? 

Perhaps the most often appealed to passage in the New Testament that relates kingdom with church is in Matthew 16.19 : “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In verse 18, Jesus had made his pronouncement of the intent to establish his “church”, ekklesia, or perhaps better understood as a “community of followers or believers.”  Verse 18 is the first appearance of the word “church” in the New Testament.

While I am not a great linguistic scholar, I can read and I can determine what makes sense.  And while I am not a great fan of overly intense word study—you know the kind where the message gets lost in the grammar—it is sometimes quite important to dig deeper to understand the sense in the original written language.  (I say written because Jesus, as a son of the dusty hills, plains and shores of Judaea, spoke the language of his people, which at that point in time was Aramaic).  Why should we do this?  Because translation was done by committees of men, who were influenced by tradition.  If we accept the translation without question, we may be missing the true sense of the idea being communicated. 

The Greek words translated by the English phrase, “kingdom of heaven” are “basileia ton ouranos.”   Basileia, is translated as “kingdom”, which according to Strong’s Dictionary is “properly royalty, that is, (abstractly) rule, or (concretely) a realm (literally or figuratively): – kingdom, + reign.”  Reign may imply a “royal authority,” as well as “dominion.”   

Of ouranos, Strong says, “Perhaps from the same as [oros, a hill or mountain] (through the idea of elevation); the sky; by extension heaven (as the abode of God); by implication happiness, power, eternity; specifically the Gospel (Christianity): – air, heaven ([-ly]), sky.” 

So, here are some possible senses of the phrase, “kingdom of heaven”.  First, if basileia is taken as Strong calls “properly,”, i.e. as “royalty,” the sense becomes:   “kingship of heaven”;  “kingship of air”; “kingship of sky”; “kingship of happiness”;  kingship of power”; “kingship of eternity”.  From this, the sense is strained, and it appears that the most direct meaning is not quite the intent. 

Next, with “kingdom” as “realm” in the sense of “a place under rule”, we would see: “realm of heaven”;  “realm of air”; “realm of sky”; “realm of happiness”;  “realm of power”; “realm of eternity”.  It seems that the geographic sense may be better, but it does not quite work, because the “realm of heaven” had been long-established, and Jesus was looking into the future in Matthew 16.19.  Certainly, this could also be taken as the “dominion over” the geographic space, in which case, the sense actually becomes more like the following cases.

Now, let’s see what happens when we use the idea of a “rule” or a “reign.”  If “kingdom/basileia” is taken to mean “reign,” the sense becomes:   “reign of heaven”;  “reign of air”; “reign of sky”; “reign of happiness”;  “reign of power”; “reign of eternity”.  Now, the idea begins to make more sense: whereas humanity had been floundering without accepting or recognizing a proper authority, Jesus would give the apostles the authority (keys) to lead people into the “reign of heaven”; the community of called out believers (the church) would be under a benevolent “reign of power”, and that will be a “reign of eternity.”  The rudderless drifting in the unhappy realm of the world without God would be alleviated under such a “reign of happiness.” 

But, let’s take this a couple of steps farther back.  Basileia probably has its roots in basileus, which connotes a “foundation of power.”  Strong points out that either abstractly, relatively or figuratively, this refers to a “sovereign” or “king.”  Basileus probably arises from the root word, “basis,” from the Greek, “baino”, “to walk, and thereby implies “the foot.”  So, this appears to further support the concept of “kingdom” as a “foundation” or “basis” of or for a “rule” or “reign.”   

In the broader scope, the Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would rise up and throw off the shackles of Roman tyranny.  They had been a people in captivity.  They were now an occupied nation.  They were looking for a charismatic figure to vindicate their nationalism.  They longed for the freedom of self-determination.  A Messiah who would rally the people to freedom would obviously result in the restoration of a country with firm and defended geo-political borders.  Jesus didn’t offer that.  Instead, his liberty was that of the soul.  If people submit to his rule, reign, or authority, they would have freedom that transcends the physical.  With the advent of Christianity, the emphasis became less on physical geography and politics and more on the institutional concept of an organized body with definite form and function.  The view that the “kingdom” is the “church” is very strongly entrenched in the collective Christian psyche.  It is what we have been taught from the early days of the church, and indeed, it would make sense as the leadership of the church became more and more centralized.  In a very real sense, it carries over the idea that the Jews of Jesus’s day held.  

But still, we wrestle with our preachers and teachers embracing and pushing the idea that the “kingdom” as mentioned in Matthew is manifested solely in the organized structure of the institution we call the “church.”  If this is true, then it should be able to stand up to some rather simple analytical scrutiny: If the “kingdom of heaven” is the same thing as the “church,” wouldn’t substituting “church” in each instance retain the same sense?  Let’s find out.  I’ve put “church” in brackets “[ ]” every place that “kingdom of heaven” appears in the verses in Matthew.  Is the sense the same?

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [church], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [church].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [church], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [church],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [church] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [church] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [church]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [church], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [church] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [church] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [church]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [church], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [church]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [church] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [church]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [church].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [church] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [church] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [church] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [church] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

 

So again, is the sense the same?  Turns out, it isn’t.  In some places, it doesn’t even come close.

But what happens if we replace “kingdom of heaven” with “rule/reign/authority/dominion of heaven/power/eternity”?

 

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [dominion of heaven], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [reign of heaven], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [reign of heaven],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [dominion of heaven] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [reign of heaven] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [authority of heaven]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [dominion of eternity], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [dominion of heaven] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [dominion of heaven] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [authority of heaven]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [authority of power], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [rule of power] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [reign of heaven]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [dominion of heaven].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [reign of heaven] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [authority of heaven] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [dominion of heaven] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [reign of heaven] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

Granted, the sense is strained in a couple of places, but I have tried to be consistent and objective in the presentation.  Some instances would need a change of preposition, for example.   But in many places, the idea of “rule,” “reign,” or “dominion” makes far more sense.  For example, Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  If the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  According to standard church doctrine, that happened on Pentecost.  Either Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about or the kingdom is not the church in this instance.  Similarly, Jesus is speaking in the present tense in Matthew 23.13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”  Again, if the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  How could the Pharisees that Jesus addressed have been at that time preventing others from entering the “church” when it was not yet in existence? 

If we take “kingdom” to mean “rule,” the sense is far more understandable.  So where Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the [reign/rule/authority of heaven] has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  This connotes the idea of usurpation of power.  The violent have tried to subvert the reign of heaven by violent force.  In Matthew 7.21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Just because you say the words does not mean you truly submit to heaven’s authority.  In Matthew 8.11, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven….”  Here, those who submit to heaven’s rule are in good company, that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, three of the great heroes of faith, who in their time and in their way submitted to heaven’s authority.  They could not be made to enter the “church” as we have institutionalized it.  But they could be seen as part of the “universal community of believers.”

That idea, that the church is composed of people, is a point that many preachers in the churches of Christ are swift to make.  But in the same breath practically, they fully embrace and teach the institutional concept of the church by continuing to insist that the “kingdom” is the “church.”  If “church” refers to the organizational entity that is comprised of believers, then perhaps the sense holds in some cases.  However, by insisting that the “church” is people, or the collective of believers, the institutional view of “church” as organization makes less sense.    

So, how can we bring these ideas together?  Well, we can think of the “church” as one manifestation or perhaps more aptly, a consequence of the “reign of heaven.”  Those who submit to that reign will be gathered into the church.  I believe that is what is meant in Acts 2.47, where “…the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  Those who submitted to the authority of heaven were added to the community of believers, which are the “called-out people”, ekklesia, or as we know it, the church.

I realize this has been a lengthy and somewhat repetitious sort of rambling mental exercise.  (If you have made it this far with me, congratulations.)  This whole project began with the question, “What gospel did Jesus preach?”  The most succinct answer is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17)  This calls people to change their lives and repent of the obvious sins that they overtly, covertly, or habitually committed.  But Jesus was calling them to much more.  He was calling them to repentance for the shambles they had made of religion.  The Law of Moses was detailed enough, that keeping it well would take concentration and attention to detail.  The rabbis had added multiplied scores of their own laws on top of the Mosaic code.  Jesus wanted them to get back to basics.  Learn and practice the two greatest commandments, to free themselves of the burden they could never bear.

But the reason Jesus gave for that repentance was because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Now, that could mean a temporal proximity, to be sure, in the sense of “soon.”  On the other hand, as he was— or rather his disciples were— already baptizing disciples, how much more “at hand” could the kingdom be?  It was already there and waiting for willing followers if they did what he asked.  If they would submit to the “reign of heaven,” they would be under a new world order.  But if “kingdom” equals “church,” then why did Jesus tell the scribe in Mark 12.34, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”?  Was he just teasing him?  “Wait a few weeks or months or years and the “church” will be opened up for you.”  No, the new economy of the “reign of heaven” had begun.  It was available for the penitent believer.

And it is available now.  When we willingly submit to the authority of God, we will do what is asked of us—that’s what submission is.  We will be under that authority as a citizen of the kingdom.  We will then be welcomed into the church, the community of believers, the followers of the Way.  We will function as a family, the adopted sons and daughters of one Father.  We will help each other and make the world better, doing what we can to mitigate the effects of sin in the world, especially for those in the family of God, but for any and all in need.  In showing that love for neighbors, we channel the love God has for his creation.  There is no down-side to defecting to this “kingdom of heaven.” 

As the father of two children, I am frustrated and even angry when those two resolutely disobey me, or when they refuse to try to accomplish something and just give up and quit.  But I am so proud when they do their best, no matter what that best may be.  And with God as our Father, who is so much greater in his capacity for patience, and for love and understanding than I can ever imagine achieving, we can rest easy, knowing that when we have done our best, we will have made him proud.  That’s a reign of happy, loving power.  That’s the good news that my Brother, my Teacher, my Lord and my Friend, Jesus brought to this world.  And it is a far, far better place for it.

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