Just What Was Jesus Preaching?

The Gospel of Mark provides a handy nutshell summary.

Rembrandt,_Christ_Preaching_(La_Petite_Tombe),_circa_1652,_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam
Jesus peaching, a drypoint etching by Rembrandt, 1652.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he launched his preaching ministry in Galilee. Mark also gives a thumbnail summary of that preaching. He summarizes it this way:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1-14-15)

In his ministry, Jesus will say and teach many things. But for Mark the core of Jesus’ preaching is this proclamation. And it should, I believe, remain at the foundation of the Christian proclamation even today.

But just what is Jesus saying? It is easy to misunderstand, especially if we bring our own presuppositions to the words. To better grasp what Jesus is saying, I find it important to return to the original Greek words. Let me try to unpack them.

  • The time is fulfilled

Greek has two words for time. One is chronos. Chronos refers to time as a period of time. The emphasis is on duration or flow. So if we were to talk about the succession of days, months, and years, we would use the word chronos. It is the source word for the English word chronology.

That is not the word Mark uses. He uses instead the other Greek word for time. That word is kairos.  What Mark says is that the kairos is fulfilled.

The focus of kairos is not on a period of time. Rather it designates a point in time. In English, when we say we have an appointment with a doctor, we would talk in Greek about our kairos time with the doctor.

When Jesus is saying that the kairos is fulfilled, he is referring to a specified time, a date that has been fixed in advance. We might take it as the appointment date when something is to happen.

The question is: What is to happen on that appointment date that Jesus has in mind?

A hint to the answer is the word translated fulfilled. The Greek word is the verb plēroō, used in this sentence in the perfect passive tense. In Greek this verb conveys the meaning of something that becomes full. From that we get the extended meaning of bringing a completion or finish to something. Also it could have the association of something that has become fully mature.

Plēroō is the word New Testament writers use to refer to the fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament, especially through the prophets. When Jesus says the kairos is fulfilled, then he is looking back to the Old Testament promises and saying that the appointed time for their fulfillment has come.

  • …the kingdom of God has come near.

What specific Old Testament promises does Jesus seem to have in mind? That is suggested by the next sentence, when Jesus says the kingdom of God has come near. The promises Jesus has in mind are those in the Old Testament that look forward to a time when God is fully established as king over the earth.

Notice I place the emphasis on God’s kingship. That’s because the word we translate kingdom is the Greek word basileia. The prime focus of basileia is not the land over which a king rules. That tends to be the primary focus of the English word kingdom. Rather basileia focuses more on the king being king, exercising his powers as king. We would be more accurate to translate it by the English word kingship or royal rule.

What Jesus is saying is that the kairos when God becomes the unchallenged king over all the earth has come very near. And if we look at how the Old Testament describes kingship, we understand that that means the time is coming when God completely establishes God’s order over the earth, when God sets all things right that have become disordered, corrupt, and broken. God will establish the condition of shalom (Hebrew for peace) in the earth.

An important part of that task of setting things right is God championing the rights and dignities of the poor, the oppressed in society, the marginalized. That will involve establishing equity in society. The privileges of the rich and powerful will be abolished. All will share equally in the participation in and in the rewards of society.

We see this understanding of the duties of kings expressed in Psalm 72, a psalm that pictures the ideal king. Foremost among the king’s concerns must be his championing of the rights of the poor and marginalized. He is to establish justice in the land.

So what has drawn so close, according to Jesus? It is that appointed time, that time that the faithful have been longing for and praying for for a very long time. It is the time when God sets things completely right in the world.

For Jesus that time has come near. These two English words translate the Greek word engizo.  This Greek verb refers to the action of approaching or come near. So Jesus is saying that that time when God will set things completely right, that time so longed for in the Old Testament promises, has come very close. You might say it is right on the doorstep, just before the knock on the door is made.

This message–that the kairos has been fulfilled, the time when the kingship of God will be fully established on earth has drawn near–is the news Jesus is proclaiming. For anyone who has longed for a better world, a more just order for society and life, this will come as good news.

  • Repent

How should people react to this good news? Jesus offers two responses.

The first response: He calls on his audience to repent.

Now here is where it is very easy to misunderstand Jesus’ call. The reason is that the English word repent has the primary meaning of feeling sorry about something one has done in the past and resolving to do better. The emphasis is on the emotional feeling of contrition or regret about something one has done. Here the English word carries a wealth of associations that come from medieval Catholic practices of penitence.

But the Greek word that the translators translate as repent has a different meaning. The Greek word is metanoia. And metanoia does not refer primarily to an emotional feeling. Rather it means more precisely a change of mind.

Jesus is calling his audience to change the way they think. His concern is not the floating ideas that pass continuously through our mind as the day goes on. His concern is with the fundamental beliefs or convictions that determine the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves, and at God. A more accurate word might be the word mindset.

Our mindset governs how we behave and operate as we live our lives. It often has its roots in our childhood experiences. Its ideas are often firmly settled in our consciousness and not easily dislodged.

Our mindset determines:

  • whether we look upon the world as a dangerous place or a place of great opportunities,
  • whether our first reaction with strangers is a stance of hospitable welcome or a stance of suspicion,
  • whether we approach life with great self-confidence or with great self-doubt,
  • whether we regard God as a capricious tyrant or as a gracious lover.

Jesus calls us to change the operating system in our minds on which we approach our life. He calls us to change it in the light of this good news that he brings that the long-awaited time has come and the kingship of God is about to be established. The whole world will be soon changing radically.

  • …and believe in the good news.

What we are to change in our mindset is our fundamental operating belief. We are now to operate our lives on the conviction that the good news Jesus is announcing is true. This is the focus of the word believe, which translates the Greek verb pisteuo. It is the second response Jesus calls from his audience.

Here is a sense of intellectual conviction, but much more. It implies a confidence and trust in the truth proclaimed so that that conviction starts to govern the way we live.

The message we are to believe is a message Jesus calls good news. The English words translate the Greek euangelion. This is the Greek word from which we derive the English words evangelism and evangelical. That good news message is the one declared in the previous two sentences: The time is fulfilled. The kingship of God has come near.

If this message proclaimed by Jesus is true, then a fundamental change in our attitudes, in our mindset, in our way of living is called for. Everything is about to change dramatically in the world. We need to get ready.

How are we to change? We need to read the rest of the gospel and listen to Jesus as he teaches to get a sense of what kind of different behavior he is inviting us into. Maybe that is why the Gospel of Matthew follows his nutshell presentation of Jesus’ preaching with the much more extended Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is drawing out the behavior implications of that nutshell declaration.

Jesus’ message today

How are we to take this proclamation of Jesus today?  One stance is to say that Jesus was wrong. The kingship of God was not established in a very short time back there in the first century. The disordered, corrupt, and oppressive order of the world has continued on for the past 2,000 years. I can respect the attitude of those who take this stance. For in many ways the Christian gospel can seem unbelievable in its claims.

Yet countless Christians have found Jesus’s proclamation believable and compelling, believable and compelling enough that they have been motivated to respond to it by becoming Jesus’ disciples.

Their experience suggests that that there is a perennial quality to Jesus’ proclamation. The kingship of God is always drawing near and is knocking on our doors. And when we live by that conviction authentically, it can indeed cause us to live our lives dramatically different. Their testimony is that it leads them into a deep experience of a kind of shalom, a well-being that nothing else can deliver.

Like Jesus’ first audiences, we, too, when we read Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching must decide if we find it believable and compelling or not. Whatever we decide will, however, have an impact on how we choose to live. We will change our fundamental mindset or we will not.

 

 

Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?

How would you express the core message of the Christian gospel?

Job counselors often advise job seekers to boil down their experience, skills, and job objective into a short two-minute presentation. That is the length of a short elevator ride. It may be all the time a job seeker has to make his or her pitch to a potential employer that they meet at a networking event.

It’s a useful exercise because it helps to separate the core of one’s appeal from its elaborations. And the focal point of that elevator speech is the benefit you can provide to this employer.

Recently I took part in a workshop at a national conference on Christian education. The speaker was Dr. John Vest, Assistant Professor for Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In an adaptation on that tool of the elevator speech, he challenged us to summarize the gospel in one or two sentences.

A newspaper reporter is reputed to have given that challenge to Karl Barth, whose systematic theology runs for several volumes. How, the reporter asked, would Barth summarize his massive theology in one short statement? Barth responded by quoting the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so.”

A biblical condensation of the gospel

So it should be easy to take up Vest’s challenge. But it is not, especially for Presbyterians like me who value a full-bodied theological education. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing with this challenge.

What is the core message of the Christian gospel? After turning over several alternative ways of expressing that core in my own mind, ways that invariably trapped me into a swamp of words, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel of John has done the job for me already. It does it in the classic words of John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 I am reluctant to use this verse in any discussion of the gospel because of how so many Christians, even well-intentioned Christians, have abused it. For example, I don’t hear the author of John saying: “You better believe in Jesus because if you don’t, God will be angry with you and damn you to hell. But if you do believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die. So give your life to Jesus right now before it’s too late.”

I read the verse in a different way. First of all, I hear John announcing good news in the very first words: God loved the world. John’s gospel is not about an angry God who is so enraged at sinful humanity that God will damn every one of them if they don’t repent. John’s gospel is about a God whose character and motives are all about love, love for the creation that God has made. Compassion drives God’s actions.

That love is not reserved just for the select few he has chosen (what traditional Reformed theology has labeled “the elect”). The object of God’s love is the world (in Greek the word cosmos). I read that as every human being, indeed the whole cosmos. What lies at the heart of the gospel message is good news that God is a God of love, not wrath.

A message for the world of the walking dead

Now it is also a given for John, as well as the other New Testament writers, that the world that God loves is a flawed world. It is a world of frustrated potential. All life is born just to begin its journey to death.

Human beings particularly fall short of their potential. We dream of a life of health, abundance, harmony, and peace. But our dreams are never fulfilled to the degree we dream them. That’s why I like the way Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, describes our lives as a kind of zombie life, a life of the walking dead.* This is how I understand John when he talks of perishing. It is to live life without hope of it ever getting better.

God sent his only son, Jesus, to address this dilemma. Jesus does so not by a gory death that will somehow appease God’s bloodthirsty anger. Jesus does so by opening a pathway into that potential we dream about. By his teaching, by his actions, by his example, including his submissive death by crucifixion, Jesus manifests the way of God’s love, and then invites us to enter into that same way. This requires a radical re-orientation of our attitudes as well as our behavior.

For John, eternal life is much more than just going to heaven when we die. Yes, there is a promise in the gospel of something glorious coming after death. But the concern of John is more with life here and now.

That comes through clearly if you pay close attention to the seven miracles that John labels as “signs of Christ’s glory.” They begin with the miracle at the Cana wedding when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). This signals the mission of Jesus to transform our ordinary, routine lives into something rich and Spirit-intoxicated. It is a wonderful affirmation of the goodness and potentiality of earthly life as we live it.

The signs continue with the healing of the royal official’s son (John 4:46-54), then the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-9). Jesus’ mission is about healing, both of our bodies and souls. Following these two miracles we get the sign of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) and then the sign of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16-24). Jesus addresses our physical needs as well as our fears and anxieties.

Then follows the two most astonishing miracles, the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of dead Lazarus (John 11:1-44). I call them the most astonishing, because although all the signs have double meanings (both literal as well as metaphorical), the spiritual references of these two last miracles become especially clear.

What all of these signs are pointing to is the rich and complex meaning of eternal life as we encounter it in John’s gospel. All of them are about entering into a depth of life here and now that begins to fulfill God’s creative intention. Jesus will call this living life abundantly (John 10:10).

John will bring this complex meaning of eternal life to a peak where John quotes Jesus as saying: This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). Eternal life is about a living relationship with the loving Creator. That relationship becomes a spring of living water within the believer’s heart (John 7:37-39).

For John, this focus on life is the core message of the gospel and its purpose, as John makes explicit in the concluding words of his gospel: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

 What makes the gospel message persuasive?

 The persuasiveness of this message comes, however, from the reality of the lives that Christians who accept this gospel live. If their lives manifest a sense of being more fully alive, of being people who are breaking out of the mass of the walking dead, who seem to experience enhanced living through knowing God in spite of whatever conditions of life they are living in, then their gospel will capture and attract the attention of others.

But when Christians live lives that seem to deny the love of God for humanity, lives that seem constricted, narrow, and judgmental, then their gospel will be drained of any attractiveness or power, no matter what scare tactics they may employ.

In conclusion, John 3:16 may be a superb summary of the gospel. But as my unpacking that verse shows, this summary is dense. I am stuck having to use a lot of words to explain what its means.

Which leads to my final point. I believe the simplest and clearest explanation of the gospel comes not from our words, but from the lives we live.

But now let me throw out John Vest’s challenge to you. How would you summarize the gospel in one or two sentences?

______________

* I picked up this wonderful image from Brian Blount’s 2011 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School. The lectures were published in the book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).