Open Matthew 4:23-25.
Does your pastor have a key theme you hear in most messages? Perhaps you hear how wonderful people are, an encouragement to be your best self. Perhaps you hear how depraved people are, and the importance of getting saved. Perhaps your church focuses on being kind and loving, or perhaps it calls you to act for justice. For some, exegeting the Bible is central, while for others church life is the focus. Most of us preachers and teachers have a core message.
So what was Jesus’ core message? If you had to summarize what Jesus wanted to say, what would it be? A single sentence: how would you describe it? Say it (out loud if you can) before reading on.
Okay, here’s how Matthew summarized Jesus’ message:
Matthew 4:23 (ESV)
He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
Each Saturday, Galilean Jews stopped work to gather with friends at the local synagogue. Jesus used that opportunity to proclaim his core message. And it was: the good news of the kingdom.
This is the first occurrence of gospel (good news) in the New Testament. Did Jesus preach the gospel? How could he? He hadn’t died yet, so he wasn’t telling the Galileans about him dying for them on a cross and inviting them to make decisions. That’s not what Jesus meant by the gospel.
The gospel Jesus preached was the gospel of the kingdom — the good news of God’s kingship. This term was already there in the Jewish Scriptures, particularly Isaiah 40–55. We know Matthew is thinking of this passage: he’s already referred to it (3:3 quoted Isaiah 40:3). This is how Isaiah 40:9 reads in the language Jesus spoke:
Isaiah 40:9 (Aramaic)
Get you up to a high mountain, prophets who herald good tidings to Zion; lift up your voice with force, you who herald good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up, fear not; say to the cities of the house of Judah, “The kingdom of your God is revealed!”
The good news Jesus proclaimed was the great announcement that the centuries-long oppression of his people was over, that God was to be their king again. No longer would they be ruled by the empires of the world: they would be God’s kingdom! It was the best news Galilee could imagine.
But how? How would God’s kingship be revealed? Around the time Jesus was born, several others announced that God was becoming king and gathered followers to resist their Roman oppressors. Among them were Judas, son of Hezekias (4 BC); Herod’s slave Simon (4 BC); and Athronges (4–2 BC). They all failed.
But Jesus was doing something different from what had ever been done before. In Palestine’s history, people came to power by killing their predecessors. But Jesus wasn’t training killers. He was acting as if God was already king. If things were already set right, disease would not cripple people or send them to the grave before their time. If God was sovereign, evil spirits would lose their grip. In healing people, Jesus enacted God’s kingship. Jesus’ plan was not to deal death to Israel’s enemies, but to deal life to Israel. Every person he healed was another portrait of God’s sovereign authority over human struggles!
Nothing can stop that kind of authority. Not even national borders: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria” (4:24). Jesus chose to work in Galilee with its history of being downtrodden by gentiles. Now the accounts of his life-dealing kingly work — setting things right — has spread to gentile territory, the northern extremity of King David’s kingdom. It’s also gone to the heart of Israel — Jerusalem and Judea (4:25).
No, Jesus isn’t dealing death to their enemies; he’s dealing life to oppressed people. Healing instead of killing. That’s the most radical kingdom agenda I ever heard of.
It’s what he does. It’s who he is. It’s God’s kingship. Is that how you understand the gospel?
What others are saying
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle location 2340:
The question that many are asking today reveals that there’s not enough Jesus in our gospel. The question is this: Did Jesus preach the gospel? If we are tempted for even a passing moment to wonder if the Gospels preach the gospel, then we have fallen from the apostolic gospel. Why? It was the apostolic generation that called Mark (and probably Matthew) the “gospel.” Why? Because the gospel is the completion of Israel’s Story in the Story of Jesus, and that is precisely what the Gospels in fact do. But if we are asking that question, it is probably because we have succumbed to the Plan of Salvation gospel in a reduced soterian form, as the one and only gospel.
Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 39:
The core message of Jesus, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” echoes the good news of Isaiah, as in 61:1: God “has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (NIV). Not only does Isaiah speak of “good news” (“good tidings,” “gospel”); the prophet also says it is the task of the one who has been “anointed,” from which we have the word “messiah.” Moreover, the proclaimer of the good news has been anointed by the “Spirit of the Lord God.” As we shall see shortly, this is why it was so important for Jesus to validate his proclamation by appeal to works of power, especially his casting out evil spirits. These works of power were demonstrations that the “Spirit of the Lord” was truly upon him.