If a stranger came up to you off the street and said to you, “Sir or ma’am, I see that you are obviously a Christian. Could you answer a question about the one for whom you place all your faith in? Could you please tell me, in a word or short phrase, what is the absolute essential teaching of your Lord, Jesus Christ?”
How would you answer this curious pedestrian’s question? Would you tell them that Jesus’s central teaching was summarized in the word “love”? Or would you say that Jesus’s central teaching is best captured by the Golden Rule? Or better still, as a good Protestant, would you tell them that Jesus went around teaching and preaching salvation by faith? What would your answer be….?
To determine what defines the essential teaching of Jesus let’s examine the evidence in the Gospels. We can start with the account of the Gospel writer Mark:
“Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced.
“The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:14-15
This is Mark’s summary of the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Mark is saying that if you were to take the whole of Jesus’s teaching and the entirety of his ministry and encapsulate it, this is it: “The time promised by God has come at last! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” This is what Jesus was all about. He went throughout the synagogues of Galilee proclaiming this one single message.
Matthew also summarizes the core message of Jesus’s ministry in two places in his Gospel:
“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Matthew 4:23
“Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness.” Matthew 9:35
Whenever the Gospel writers summarize the ministry of Jesus they do so in terms of the Kingdom of God. The same thing is also true for Jesus’s own instructions to his disciples. On two different occasions, Jesus sent out disciples ahead of him to announce his coming as heralds along the way. On one occasion it is the sending out of the twelve. After instructing them where to go and where not to go, in the process of telling them what to do and other things, he only tells them to say one thing, and announce as they go:
“Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Matthew 10:7
That is the only thing he told them to say. He did not send them out to announce sins forgiven or justification by faith. All he told them to do was announce the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The same is also true when he sent out the seventy-two. After giving them instructions on what to take with them and how to conduct themselves as they go, he says:
“Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’” Luke 10:9
This is the proclamation that is always on Jesus’s lips. It is what all his teachings and parables are about. His ministry is all about the urgency of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is the crucial thing.
Now let’s go back to the question we started with. If someone were to ask you to summarize the central teaching of Jesus, what would you say? What was your answer before we examined the Gospel evidence? Would your answer be different now? Do you feel prepared to give a confident answer if a stranger walked up to you on the street and asked you what is this Good News you believe in?
Hopefully, it has been established in your mind that Jesus’s message was principally about the Kingdom of God. You may next be asking yourself what is the Kingdom of God? Well, that is a big question and it is unpacked throughout the entire narrative of the Bible. It took Jesus three and a half years of his earthly ministry, through his teachings, actions, healings, and miracles, to explain and show all the ramifications of God’s Kingdom coming to Earth.
To briefly summarize the long narrative of the Bible, in the beginning God created a good world and he placed man in this world, as his representative, through whom God’s will was to be implemented. Man was to govern creation with justice and righteousness, but ultimately, through the temptation of the serpent, man rebelled against God, and all creation fell under the dominion of sin and the forces of darkness. The scriptures are the long story of the ramifications that came about as a result of man’s rebellion. They describe God’s patient efforts of drawing man and creation back under his authority. Resisting God’s kingship in this world are spiritual principalities and powers, and man’s rebellious rule over Earth as typified by Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the unjust and wicked Israeli kings.
As the psalmists, scribes, and prophets of Israel surveyed the history of their nation’s failures and the world’s injustices, they longed for and pointed forward to a new age of a Messianic king who would rule justly, shepherding in a new era, a return to Eden, where God walked with man, where the poor and oppressed rest in God’s bosom, where the lamb lays down with the lion, where swords are pounded into plowshares, and the sting of death is known no more. The ultimate culmination of this restoration will take place when Jesus returns a second time, but we have a work to do in the meantime. We are to live out in community, in this life, what it looks like to be included in the Kingdom of God now.
Through the Spirit, our stony hearts are to be transformed into hearts of flesh, empowering us to be living testimonies, demonstrating to the world what justice and righteousness looks like under the reign of the Lord Jesus in his Kingdom. Just as Jesus was a living demonstration of what life in the Kingdom of God looks like, the baton has been passed to us, as his body on Earth, to live out his Kingdom now. --Michael Humphrey