It has often been the case that the teachings of Jesus haven’t figured largely in our own emphasis. There are various reasons for this. The work of Christ on the cross, as essential as it is, has been at the forefront. And that is how it should be. His cross though highlights what Jesus taught. The cross is Jesus saying, “Follow as I do, not just as I teach.” What is needed today is an emphasis that merges the teachings of Jesus with his cross. It isn’t the case that we should emphasise the importance of his teachings, rather than his cross, or visaversa. We need an understanding of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that sees the teachings and the cross of Christ as explaining, commenting on and proving each other.
It has also often been the case that we have suggested that the real gospel message is found in Paul. It is claimed that Jesus taught prior to the gospel age, and was ministering under the law. It wasn’t until after his resurrection that the gospel began and was then revealed to the church, most notably, to Paul. Or, it has been said that Jesus ministered to Israel and not to the church. Passages like the Sermon on the Mount, then, do not apply to the church age. The passage would then apply to some future age, when Israel is returned to Gods favour, say, in the coming millennial reign of Christ in Jerusalem. This reasoning is not correct.
There is a range of ideas used to support our ignoring, or relativising the things that Jesus taught, making them less important than other things we would like to emphasise instead. Someone said that theology is the art of getting around discipleship, meaning making up ideas that allow us to change or ignore what Jesus taught. This is clearly a wrong practice. Jesus is our Lord. What Jesus taught should be the corner stone of how we interpret everything else. It is through Jesus that we interpret the Old Testament and through him that we interpret Paul. So how do we bring Jesus’ teachings back into the middle of our understanding of the will and gospel of Christ?
The clear teachings of Jesus have always been the greatest challenge for the church, or to what we call Christendom. We can have faith, teach the doctrines of Christ, stand against heretics, evangelise and build churches, but whether or not we look like Jesus, whether we are his disciples in regard to what he taught us, is often another matter. It reminds us of what Mahatma Ghandi once said, after he read the Sermon on the Mount, “Christianity looks like a good idea. Someone should try it.” And he added, “Jesus I like, Christians I don’t like.” In his day, it was difficult for Ghandi to find Christians who believed and followed what Jesus taught.
Let’s point out two things here, both from the Hebrew, or Jewish, background to Jesus’ ministry.
First, what was the nature of the Hebrew faith (the promises of God) which Jesus was coming to fulfil? The Hebrew gospel was holistic. It wasn’t just a gospel about spiritual salvation. Their gospel was very much a gospel about land. It went like this: “When God gives you a new heat, your lives will change. You will begin to treat your fellow man with mercy and justice. You will even take wrong from people and not retaliate, in a desire to love others and build a better community.” The Hebrew gospel was very much about the land the Hebrew people lived in. Beginning from the Law Israel received at Sinai, the purpose of God for them was to live right, in order that their community life in their land would be blessed.
This was the gospel Jesus was coming to fulfil, when he taught in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the Old Testament it was called the Promised Land. Jesus was coming to fulfil Gods promises to Israel, and to the world about the good land he had promised us. It goes like this: “We need redemption and reconciliation, not only to God, but also to each other. When our hearts are changed and we treat people differently, our land, and the nation’s lands in the world as a whole, can be blessed.” It ends up looking like the vision of Revelation 21:22 a blessed world.
This is how the Promised Land comes about, and this is the content of Jesus’ teachings. This is his subject matter. The Promised Land doesn’t come about through military prowess. It doesn’t come about by displacing others. It doesn’t come about the way we see it in Old Testament models, which existed before Christ’s kingdom was established. The Promised Land doesn’t come about through winning against others, or having God bless us to dominate over our enemies. The prophetic scriptures use that language, but in Jesus’ teaching we find the enemies we dominate over are in our nature – fear, aggression, unforgiveness of others, injustice towards others. The enemies are not other people. Understanding this from Jesus’ teaching was monumental in Jesus’s day, just as it is today.
The Promised Land comes about through the teachings of Christ in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. How did Jesus’ teachings relate to God’s promise about the Promised Land? What is the relevance of Promised Land to our time today? Is this still the gospel message? How do we understand Jesus’s gospel in relation to the land and world we live in?
2 The Kingdom of God
For the most part Jewish people at the time of Jesus were not expecting to go to heaven when they died. They were expecting the resurrection of their bodies. They were expecting the promise of God concerning their land to be fulfilled. This expectation was known as the coming of the kingdom of God.
There were different versions of how they thought this kingdom would come. Largely, they believed it meant God’s presence returning to Israel and this would give them victory over their enemies. they would then have dominion throughout the nations. This scenario would be included in what was known as “the age to come”, the Messianic age, when all faithful believers (Torah keepers) would be raised from the dead to enjoy eternal dominion throughout the earth.
The Jewish hope in those days wasn’t to go to heaven when they die, to have eternity in heaven, while the world was destroyed or became otherwise insignificant to them in the ages to come. The earth was central to their faith and future. Their hope was that when God’s kingdom comes to this world, that is, when heaven and earth are joined through God’s presence among us (this is what they often termed the New Heavens and New Earth), then the worthy would enter this eternal age in their resurrected bodies, and the unrighteous would be burned up, destroyed.
The Greek version of the gospel developed later. In the Greek version, the saved go to heaven forever, and the unsaved are tormented in the lake of fire forever, and the earth is destroyed or otherwise becomes insignificant to us eternally. This is primarily a spiritual only version of the faith, which was not accepted by most of the Jews. The spiritual only version of the faith was apparently not the Jewish version, or expectation, of things that would happen when Messiah’s kingdom came. Hebrews believed in a holistic creation, where heaven and earth are reconciled and joined in eternal restoration, along with our resurrected bodies. The lake of fire represented the destruction of the wicked, that is, the expulsion of the wicked from the everlasting kingdom. The everlasting torment was a symbol of the everlasting punishment. The punishment was everlasting, meaning irreversible death, not actual eternal conscious torment that the Greek believed in.
Let’s say this again so the difference is clear. In the Greek gospel the future is either eternal life in heaven, or eternal torment in the lake of fire. The main Jewish view at the time of Jesus was either entry into God’s eternal kingdom, which united a restored heaven and earth; or expulsion from this eternal kingdom by eternal death: destruction. This latter view was the general view of God’s promises when Jesus came.
According to this latter view, the book of Revelation depicts all things that are not good for the eternal kingdom being destroyed in the lake of fire. This includes death itself. Death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire. This means death is forever banished. Death is not an entity or literally a person that can be tormented in fire. Death is simply death, and the Revelation depicts death being forever destroyed. In God’s everlasting kingdom there is no death. Death is destroyed. The lake of fire is a symbol that describes a reality and the reality is what Revelation calls the second death, from which there is no resurrection. It is the destruction of all that is outside, all that cannot enter God’s kingdom.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus opened their ministries with the message that “the kingdom of heaven (of or God) is at hand.” There is no difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven, for God rules in heaven. To the Jews, the terms “God’s rule” and “heaven” meant the same thing.
It is clear what the Jewish people understood when they heard the announcement of the imminent arrival of the kingdom. They understood that the promise of God about delivering Israel from their enemies was at hand. The promise of God about returning them to their Promised Land was at hand. The promise of God about his coming to live among them was at hand. There is no uncertainty about what this kingdom meant to the Jewish people at that time, in terms of what God had promised them. The only uncertainty is how Jesus fulfilled these promises. How did Jesus bring about this kingdom at that time as he said he was then doing?
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So began Jesus’s ministry. That is, the whole of Jesus ministry, his acts, and his teachings, his cross and his resurrection, can be summarised and understood by this one announcement that started his ministry.
This means we are not to interpret Jesus’ teachings in isolation from this announcement. What we mean is this: Jesus’ teachings are not just spiritual lessons for us. They are not just about our personal piety, to show us to be good, to lead us safely to heaven when we die. On the other hand, they are not just a perfect representation of the law of God so that we know we are sinners,
and come to him by faith to be saved. That is, the teachings of Jesus are not just about us as individuals. On the contrary, his teachings were about community.
Jesus was teaching in line with the Jewish expectations of his time; in line with the promise of God to his covenant people in the Old Testament. He had come to fulfill their law, their promises and their covenant.
Jesus was teaching them two things, in accordance with the two things they expected then:
1. How the Promised Land comes about. How the land is blessed. How they will live in the good land and overcome their enemies, as God had promised. His teachings were all about how the Promised Land comes into being, not just for Israel, but for all who repent, for all who believe, and for all who follow him. His answer to the “how does the good land come?” question was the cross: his cross and our cross, which we take up. That wasn’t the answer that most people wanted, so they rejected it. But the question he was answering was clear and his answer in his teachings was also clear.
2. Jesus was answering the question about how the kingdom of God comes. It comes through his death and resurrection, but is also comes more and more among us as we live his way. He is the king of a new kingdom. As we become his subjects, and follow what he says, then his kingdom comes more and more among us as a community, and spreads through us to our nations. This is what Jesus was teaching about. He wasn’t teaching us about how to go to heaven, but how to enter his kingdom and then to manifest his kingdom to our world. All his teachings were about his kingdom, this world renewal that we are a part of today. He was teaching us how to recognize this kingdom, how to live in this kingdom and to spread it to our neighbours and even to our enemies.
The call of Jesus to the church isn’t just to spread the gospel of personal salvation, though it includes that. It isn’t just to call people to Christ, to live well and then to go to heaven when we die. This would have been completely foreign to the Jews at that time, to whom Jesus came to fulfill the promises. The gospel is a call to us to repent from worldly ways, not just in relation to our personal faith and piety/morality, but in terms of our neighbours: how we relate to the world around us. His teachings are about building a new world. They aren’t just about us as individuals. His teachings are about God’s New Creation program, to renew the world through his new people. This was the promise to the Jews, but as a surprise to them and even to us today, these promises are fulfilled by our service to others and through our suffering, not through the conquering of our enemies. The cross is central to our call. Not just the cross that saves us, but the cross that calls us.
Jesus’ ministry wasn’t a personal call to us to heaven. It was, and still is, a call to us to refashion our world. This is the kingdom that God promised, and this is what Jesus declared was at hand.