Reflections on the gospel of the kingdom

This year our family has spent considerable time contemplating the kingdom of heaven. For several years, I’ve been pondering what it all means: reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and re-reading the gospel narratives to deepen my understanding of what Jesus meant by the phrase. Late last year my husband and I decided that in the new year we would read through the gospels slowly as a family, and that along the way we would keep notes of mentions of the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” so we could better identify patterns and discover a richer understanding of what exactly that means. It’s been a thought-provoking and life changing experience. 

All through the gospel narratives, we are told that Jesus “proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom.” But what exactly is the kingdom? And what was the gospel that he preached?

For most of my life, if you had asked me, “what is the kingdom of heaven?” I would have responded that it was a term that meant heaven as a place or that sometimes it meant the church. If you’d asked what is the gospel, I would have responded that it’s “the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus,” per 1 Corinthians 15. But I was flummoxed a few years back when I heard the question posed, “what was the gospel that Jesus preached?” The thought had never occurred to me before, but now I couldn’t shake it. When Jesus walked the earth, before he died and rose again, what was the “gospel of the kingdom” that he proclaimed everywhere he went?

Now Jesus began to go all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Matthew 4:23 NASB

At the start of his public ministry in Luke 4, Jesus lays out his mission plan rather directly by reading the prophet Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’ And He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all the people in the synagogue were intently directed at Him. Now He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:18-21)

The good news of Jesus’ first sermon is for the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed. The good news is freedom as the reign of the Lord begins and the tyranny of evil is put on notice that its days are drawing to an end. 

Jesus also provides a strong picture of the kingdom of heaven using parables. As he preached, Jesus mentioned “the kingdom” dozens of times. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast hidden in flour, it’s like a treasure hidden in a field. It’s like a man planting seeds, it’s like a generous employer shattering expectations, and many, many more head-scratching and subversive stories. 

As we read through these stories to parse out what Jesus envisioned this kingdom to be, it becomes clear that the kingdom of heaven is certainly not a far off realm that we are striving to reach when we die. The parables of the kingdom are rooted right here with examples from the dirt, from plants, and from flawed human beings. The kingdom of heaven is not distant and hazy; the kingdom of heaven is at hand

So yes: the death, burial, and resurrection is good news! But if we don’t understand the full depths of the gospel of the kingdom, I think we miss a really key point of why it’s good news. It’s good news not just because Jesus is a heavenly Savior who wipes away our sins through his death so we can someday go to heaven, but because he is a new KING who has come to redeem the world from all its darkness and brokenness and win it back to himself. The good news is not just for tomorrow; it is also for today. 

The kingdom that we find in the parables and the gospel narrative accounts is surprising. It pushes the boundaries of what we find comfortable, and it asks us to reexamine the way we see the world. The gospel of the kingdom is not a flash in the pan event from the past that secures our future; instead it is an invitation to join the movement of those who submit to the reign of a king who both turned and is still turning the world upside down. It’s an invitation to be changed and to be part of the change that this king is bringing to our world. That is good news indeed.

This post was originally posted on my Substack, Living Upside Down.