FIRST-PERSON: Evangelism & the Kingdom of God
DALLAS (BP)--While the Kingdom of God was the central theme of all preaching in the New Testament, it has been virtually ignored by modern-day evangelists. This absence of Kingdom-centered evangelism has had devastating effects on the Western church and has now reached critical mass. An anthropocentric gospel of American individualism, which traces its roots back no farther than to the American frontier, has replaced the God-centered “gospel of the kingdom.” The deficiency is so great that most evangelists and professors of evangelism would be hard-pressed even to define the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 24:14; Mark 1:14). The result has been a watered-down message that has no power to change lives.
THE BASIS FOR PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM
When John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2), his hearers understood he was referring to the eschatological age foretold by Old Testament prophets, a time when God would send a promised messianic king to defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a new age of universal peace. John called people to break with the past as a requirement to enter the Kingdom and escape the coming judgment.
After John’s arrest, “Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Mark 1:14-15). Luke tells us that when Jesus stood in the synagogue and read a messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah, he concluded by saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Later, when asked if he were the promised messiah, Jesus replied, “I am” (Mark 14:62). The waiting period was over. The Kingdom had arrived in Jesus. It was no longer a distant hope, but it now had a name and a face connected with it.
Soon after his synagogue discourse, Jesus told the crowds, “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43). Everywhere He went He proclaimed the “glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). The 12 apostles traveled with Him.
Is it any wonder as He sent them out, He commissioned them “to preach the kingdom” (Luke 9:1-2)? Mark’s parallel account of the event says, “So they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), showing the link between the Kingdom and the call to repentance. Jesus then appointed 70 others to “heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:1, 9).
Prior to His ascension, the resurrected Lord spent 40 days with the apostles “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Thus, He ended His earthly ministry the way He began it -- declaring the Gospel of the Kingdom!
On the mount, after assuring His followers that there would be a future dimension to the Kingdom, He told them that in the interim they were to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). Therefore, it is not surprising to find them preaching “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus” (Acts 8:12). The Apostle Paul, likewise, taught “concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). He reminded the elders at Ephesus that he spent three years “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25, 31). While under house arrest in Rome, “Many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23). The Book of Acts closes, significantly, with these words, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31).
There can be little doubt that the Good News of the Kingdom was the central theme of first-century evangelistic preaching. Consequently, it should be our focus as well.
THE NATURE OF THE KINGDOM MESSAGE
The Gospel is not an invitation to “invite Christ into your heart,” although His Spirit indwells every believer. Neither does the Gospel center on the eternal bliss that awaits believers at death, although every follower of Christ will depart to be with the Lord. Few, if any, New Testament sermons deal with heaven. Rather they focus on the Kingdom and what it means to be part of it, now and in the future.
The New Testament kerygma announces what God has ultimately done in and through Jesus and invites the hearers to become part of God’s great plan for history. It is primarily about God, not us.
Additionally, the authentic Gospel is an historical, not an ahistorical or existential message. Through the Old Testament prophets, God foretold a time when He would send a mighty deliverer to establish a new covenant with Israel and bring all things in subjection to Himself. All independent kingdoms to which people give their allegiance, both spiritual and material, will be destroyed. The incarnate Jesus announced that God’s Kingdom had arrived, and then He called people to submit to His rule. On the cross He defeated Satan, offered His life as an atonement for sin, and regained dominion over God’s creation which Adam had relinquished at the fall.
Calvary was God’s death blow to Satan’s rule, sin’s power and death’s victory and, hence, it became the “hinge of history.”
At His resurrection, Christ emerged from the cosmic battle victorious, proving that God, not the rebels, was in charge. After all, if Jesus could enter the heart of enemy territory and not be defeated, then their days are numbered!
From His exalted position at God’s right hand, Christ now rules from His throne until His enemies become his footstool (Acts 2:35; 1 Corinthians 15:23-24). The powers of evil may still function, but only under the authority of Christ (Colossians 2:15; 1:15-16; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8). As one theologian remarks, “All kingdoms are confronted with their rightful overlord.”
As sovereign Lord, Christ now directs the course of history toward its victorious completion, i.e. the future establishment of His Kingdom on earth and the judgment of all nations, which will take place at His coming.
Finally the Gospel is corporate in scope as well as individualistic. The Kingdom now finds root in the church. Becoming a citizen of the Kingdom cannot be done in a vacuum, any more than a foreigner can become a citizen of the United States without rubbing shoulders with other Americans. There is a corporate or community aspect to citizenship. It includes responsibility and privileges that cannot be found by living in isolation. Likewise, it is incoherent to say one can enter that reign of Christ and remain outside the church.
The church in turn, spreads the Gospel of the Kingdom to the entire world and summons humanity to submit to God’s rule in Christ and align themselves with other believers in His Kingdom. Whenever and wherever the victory of Christ is proclaimed and obeyed, Satan must retreat. As God’s rule expands, Satan’s recedes.
When asked what would be the sign of His coming and the end of the age, Jesus replied, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
As we implement the Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative, it is essential that we as Southern Baptists re-examine the message we proclaim. Is it the same “gospel of the kingdom” preached by Jesus and the apostles?
R. Alan Streett is chairman and professor of evangelism at Criswell College in Dallas.