Key ideas for today's post:
1. Jesus was laser-focused on something he called "the kingdom of God."
2. If we are following Jesus, we must be focused on this kingdom as well.
So what is the "kingdom of God"?
Jesus started out his ministry preaching a very straightforward message: The kingdom of God is near you. Mark records his words this way: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news." (See Mark 1.) I've heard this idea loosely translated as "God is close to you, and he wants to do stuff." That may start to get us thinking in the right direction. This key idea of Jesus is incredibly difficult for us to understand fully.
Trouble is, over a couple thousand years of church history, we have made some of this language into code words. So we sometimes translate "good news" (the Greek word is "euanggelion" from which we get the words like "evangel" and "evangelism" and "evangelical") as "gospel." The literal translation of this word is "most excellent message" or something like that. Good news is pretty close. When Caesar would send out a proclamation about something that should be celebrated, he would call the proclamation by this same word -- "Good News." If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend NT Wright's book, Simply Good News. Wright asks in this book what is it about Jesus' message that is "good" and what is it about his message that is "news." Fair questions, and harder to answer than you might think.
What we do with this word "gospel" is we turn it into a loaded code phrase for "accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and you will go to heaven when you die." If this is what you assume Jesus is talking about, I strongly recommend that you go look for that idea in the gospels. You won't find it, and only by twisting Jesus' words and actions in the most unconscionable ways will you insert that idea into Jesus' ministry. Heaven and hell are important, but they were very, very minor ideas in Jesus' teaching and ministry. So be careful about forcing him, two thousand years later, to say something just because you've believed it.
What did Jesus mean by "good news"? Great question. It seems like for him, it had something to do with this idea of the kingdom of God arriving. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is "at hand." That was his first sermon. For roughly three years, he taught and acted in ways that helped people understand this "kingdom." Healing lepers, giving sight to blind people, feeding crowds on bread and fish, telling pithy stories about what it looks like to live in God's kingdom -- all these filled Jesus' days for three years. Very often Jesus started his parables with the words, "The kingdom of God is like ..." It seems like Jesus was constantly trying to answer the question, what does it look like to live under God's rule? At the end of his ministry, Jesus' disciples had gotten the idea that this kingdom he kept talking about was pretty important. Some of their last questions to him, both right before his crucifixion and right after his resurrection, involved the kingdom of God.
For us, because we are hung up on geography and political boundaries, it might be beneficial to think about it as "the kingship of God." What does it mean for God to be in charge?
So here's an exercise. Ask yourself, in what facets of your life is God most in charge? In what facets of your life is God least in charge? That starts to get in some ways at what Jesus meant by "the kingdom of God."
But it goes beyond that as well. It's not just about analyzing your life as an individual and figuring out where you're at spiritually. There are ingredients to this kingdom that Jesus includes, and we shouldn't miss them.
One of the main ways Jesus does this is he uses the Old Testament like crazy. So he's always quoting from or basing his actions on the Old Testament. There are some basic ideas we learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament takes these assumptions for granted. Here are a few examples:
1. God is not only creator, but also owner. He's in charge.
2. Humans are created to manage God's good creation. We have authority because God gives it to us.
3. Our stewardship -- our management -- includes dealing well with the natural world.
4. Our stewardship -- our management -- includes dealing well with human beings.
5. This kingdom is both individual and communal. In other words, human community is incredibly important.
6. God speaks, and what he says goes.
7. Our management needs to reflect God's character. We sometimes call this "justice" or "righteousness" or "love," though each of those words comes with some difficulty.
Remember, we're trying to get at the question of the church -- what is the church supposed to be and to do? Digging into these assumptions about God's rule, about his kingdom, is going to help us do exactly that.