What Was the Message of Jesus Christ?
Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish carpenter began to preach. He was popular with some people, but he made others angry. Officials said he was a threat to national security, and they arranged for his death. His only weapon was his message. Bad people liked it, but “good” people didn’t. He said it was about love – so why did anyone hate it? What was the message that got Jesus killed?
Here’s another puzzle: If this message got Jesus killed, why did other people take up the message and preach it, too? Were they trying to get themselves killed? Why were they so bold with the message?
Let’s examine what the Bible says about the message of Jesus. Let’s see the words he used to describe it, and the words his followers used.
The gospel of the kingdom
Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ preaching career: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17, New Revised Standard Version).
Verse 23 adds: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
From these verses, we see that Jesus taught:
- good news (older translations say “gospel,” which means the same thing)
- about “the kingdom” – the kingdom of heaven, or the reign of God
- the kingdom had come “near” and
- people should therefore repent, or turn toward God.
What is this “kingdom” of God? How was it near – in time or in location? How are people supposed to turn toward God? And if all this is good news, why did it create such a controversy among first-century Jews? Why would anyone kill the messenger of good news?
We need to keep reading.
In the Roman empire, the word for “good news” was used for official announcements. Jesus was announcing something about God’s empire. Some government officials thought that his message was dangerous because he was preaching about a kingdom. But they didn’t understand what Jesus meant.
How did Jesus use the word for “good news”? In the Gospels, the word is usually on its own – Jesus preached “the good news.” The readers knew what it was – it was a shorthand way of saying “the message of Jesus.”
But sometimes we are given a brief description of the good news. Once it is called “the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). But it is more often called “the gospel of the kingdom.” The first three Gospels tell us that Jesus often preached about “the kingdom of God.”
What is the most common way to describe the good news? Here's how the word is most often used:
The Bible does not require any particular label for the message of Jesus and the message of the church. We can convey the meaning without insisting on any particular word.
This is not the only way to describe the message. The Gospel of John, for example, doesn’t use the word for “good news.” John describes the message in other ways. As we go forward in the Bible, the word “kingdom” becomes less common. The message is more commonly called “the good news of Jesus Christ.” It can also be called the good news of salvation, the good news of God’s grace, and the good news of peace.
This creates another puzzle: The words “grace” and “kingdom,” for example, are not normally interchangeable. Is the message about a kingdom, or is it about grace, or is it about Jesus Christ?
What did Jesus preach?
The Gospels use the word “preach” or “proclaim” more than 40 times. If we survey these, we will see that Jesus not only preached the good news about the kingdom, he also preached about repentance, forgiveness, justice, and rescue for the poor (Luke 4:18; 24:47).
Was Jesus leading some sort of poor-people’s revolt? No, Jesus was not a political leader – he was a religious leader, a rabbi. His message was about God, repentance and forgiveness. But his message was especially good news for the poor – not to lift their economic burdens, but to lift their religious burdens. They were carrying a heavy load, and it wasn’t fair.
Jesus preached justice for the poor, freedom for the oppressed. But the people who were doing the oppression didn’t like the message. The religious leaders didn’t like the message of Jesus. It disturbed the peace, and threatened the status quo (Matthew 10:34).
Religion (even certain forms of Christianity) can be used to oppress people, to keep them in line, to burden them with guilt that they don’t need to carry. But the message of Jesus can lift those burdens. It can help people see clearly, can help them be freed from religious bondage. Even today, people who oppress others do not like the message. Religious leaders who use religion as a tool of power do not like the message of Jesus.
The time is at hand
“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). What did Jesus mean by saying that the time was fulfilled? He meant that the time had arrived for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is near, and in this passage Jesus is talking about nearness in terms of time. Jesus told his disciples to preach the same thing (Matthew 10:7).
The kingdom of God had been predicted hundreds of years earlier; it had been hoped for and prayed for. The Jewish people wanted the kingdom to come, and Jesus said, “I have good news! It’s time for the kingdom of God!”
Today, we might have all sorts of ideas as to what a kingdom is, and what the kingdom of God might be. But if we have the wrong idea, then we will conclude that Jesus was a false prophet, because he did not bring the kind of kingdom that we expected. If we do that, we are judging Jesus even before we give him a chance to explain what he means.
First-century Jews had their ideas about the kingdom, too, but Jesus did not bring what they expected. Many were disappointed – even his own disciples were disappointed. That’s because they were hoping for a political kingdom, but Jesus did not bring a political kingdom. He brought a spiritual kingdom.
Jesus not only announced that the kingdom was near – he also had to explain what the kingdom was. The people had their ideas about it, but Jesus had to correct them. “The kingdom of God is like this…,” Jesus often said, and he would give an illustration. The reason he had to teach so much about the kingdom is because the people had so many wrong ideas about it.
First-century Jews thought the kingdom would be a time of agricultural abundance, economic prosperity, military superiority and glory for the Jewish people. But Jesus never described the kingdom of God in these ways. He had something much better in mind.
Responding to the message
Jesus expected people to respond to his message. He urged them to believe it and to repent. But Jesus wants more than a simple acceptance that what he said was true – he wants them to believe that it is good! He wants them to receive it with joy.
The kingdom of God is bad news for people who oppress others. But if you are a victim of religious oppression, then the kingdom of God is good news. If you have been turned off to religion, then the message of Jesus is good news.
Jesus wanted people to repent. What does it mean to repent? In simple terms, it means a change of mind, a change of attitude. It means a change from not trusting God to trusting God. It means a change from not believing God to believing God. Since the kingdom is at hand, Jesus was saying, people need to have their hearts right with God.
Repentance is the flip side of believing the gospel. To have an attitude of faith is to believe that the news is good. We want the King to reign and rule. We trust that he will rule us well. We want to please him, rather than simply trying to avoid his anger. We rejoice that God’s kingdom is near. With joy, we give our allegiance and loyalty to him. That is what it means to repent and believe the good news of the kingdom of God.
When Jesus announced the gospel, there was an urgency about the message. Jesus didn’t tell anyone to repent later. He told them to repent right away. The kingdom of God was at hand!
The message is just as urgent today. Jesus wants us to believe the gospel.
A Jewish kingdom?
What did first-century Jews think when they heard the phrase “kingdom of God”? They probably thought in terms of a normal human kingdom – a king, giving laws and ruling over people in a certain territory.
The Jews were ruled by Romans, but they wanted to be independent. They wanted God to restore the kingdom to Israel. They searched the Old Testament prophecies that promised Israel national greatness. They speculated about how and when God would rescue his people. They looked for a golden age in which Israel would be the richest and most powerful nation on earth.
The Dead Sea scrolls and other writings of the time show that the Jews wanted a Messiah, a person sent by God who would lead the nation to greatness again. The overall hope was that God would intervene and restore the Jewish nation to greatness.
Not what Jesus meant
When Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God,” many people would have thought of a nation like the kingdoms of this world. But this is not what Jesus meant. He did not lead or predict a revolt against Rome. The people wanted Jesus to be a military leader, but Jesus went out of his way to avoid their wishes (John 6:15). He told people to obey the Roman rulers and pay their taxes.
Jesus did not resist the government even when soldiers came to arrest him and crucify him. Jesus conquered spiritual enemies, not military ones. That is because spiritual enemies are far more oppressive than military ones. Spiritual freedom is far more important than political freedom.
Jesus’ kingdom was not like the popular expectation. He used the phrase “kingdom of God” with a different meaning. His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). It was not like the kingdoms of this world. It was the kingdom of God, a supernatural kingdom. It was invisible to most people (John 3:3) – it could not be understood or experienced without the Holy Spirit (verse 6). God is Spirit, and the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom.
The disciples often misunderstood
But Jesus’ disciples were ordinary Jews of first-century Jewish culture. The disciples had wrong ideas about the kingdom, too, and they often misunderstood what Jesus was teaching. Jesus asked them, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?… Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-21).
Some people even stopped following Jesus because they couldn’t understand what he was talking about (John 6:66). Others stayed even though they didn’t understand (Mark 6:52). He asked Peter, “Are you also still without understanding?” (Matthew 15:16).
Christians today might find it encouraging that the disciples weren’t particularly bright, and yet Jesus was patient with their mistakes. We make mistakes, too, and we don’t always understand Jesus correctly, but we are in good company. We don’t have to be super-smart to follow Jesus. He will lead us and teach us at the speed we need.
The wrong kind of Messiah
Matthew 16 tells us the story of how Peter had a moment of wisdom, and then almost immediately stumbled into a horrible heresy. It begins with Jesus asking his disciples what the people thought of him (verse 13). Then he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verses 15-16).
Great answer!, said Jesus. You aren’t smart enough to figure that out for yourself – no one is – God must have helped you (verse 17). So Jesus admitted to being the Messiah, the leader the Jewish people were waiting for. But wait, Jesus said. Don’t tell anybody who I am (verse 20).
Surely this puzzled the disciples! Jesus told everyone that the kingdom of God was near. He just admitted to being the Messiah, the person everyone believed would bring the kingdom in. Why announce one truth but not the other?
We will see why if we keep reading: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (verse 21). This did not match the disciples’ ideas about a Messiah. Messiahs aren’t supposed to suffer and be killed. So Peter took Jesus aside “and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’” (verse 22).
Peter had just called Jesus the Messiah, the God-appointed national leader. Now he began to rebuke his own leader, as if he could teach him a thing or two. Peter’s idea of a Messiah was not the same as Jesus’ idea.
Jesus had the right idea, and Peter and everybody else in Judea had the wrong idea. That’s why Jesus didn’t want the disciples to tell anybody he was the Messiah. They had the right word (it means someone anointed by God to do a certain task), but the wrong idea. Their understanding of “kingdom” probably wasn’t much better than their understanding of Messiah.
That’s why Jesus had to teach so much about the kingdom. It wasn’t enough just to announce it – he had to explain what it was. The kingdom, like the Messiah, wasn’t the way that people expected it would be. It was not the sort of kingdom that Greeks and Romans and Jews were familiar with.
Disciples would understand later
Jesus told the disciples to keep some things secret until after he had been raised back to life. They did not understand (Mark 9:9-10). He predicted his own death and resurrection, but they still didn’t understand (verses 31-32). These ideas didn’t fit into their concept of what Jesus was all about. The disciples were perplexed at the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:24), and after more explanation, they were still perplexed (verse 26). They did not know what he meant (John 16:18). But Jesus said that the time would come when they would understand (verse 13).
Although Jesus had told them several times that he would be raised to life after being killed, they were devastated by his death and perplexed by the empty tomb. They did not understand, because it was all so different from what they had assumed.
Didn’t Jesus preach that the kingdom of God was near? Didn’t he say he was the Messiah? But when your Messiah is dead in the tomb, the kingdom of God seems a long way off. It didn’t make any sense. The disciples were afraid. They fled and locked the doors.
Shortly after Jesus was resurrected, he chided the disciples for how slow they were to believe (Luke 24:25). But they would soon understand. Near the end of his ministry, Jesus predicted that his gospel would continue to be preached (Matthew 24:14). It would not be a different gospel, but the same good news, now going to all nations.