Good news: the kingdom is here/near
Gospel is an Old English word translated from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, which literally means 'reward for good tidings'. Gospel means 'good news'. The good news, we learn early on, is the coming of the kingdom, as announced by John the Baptist and repeated by Jesus:
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3: 1-2)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel [good news] of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel [good news].” (Mark 1: 14-15)
What this kingdom is, and how it changes the way we see the world and our relationship with God was part of the 'good news' spread by Jesus and his followers. And it is good news, regardless of one's understanding of the cross. It wasn't until much later that εὐαγγέλιον came to mean the entire narrative of Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection.
John the Baptist preached the 'coming of the kingdom' and prepared the Jewish people by 'washing them clean' symbolically through baptism in the waters of the Jordan. He didn't understand much about what this 'kingdom' was, but he knew that:
- it would be coming in his lifetime,
- it involved taking one's focus off worldly pleasures or comfort, and
- it offered a 'clean slate' (to the Jewish people in particular) in their relationship with God.
John the Baptist lived this higher level of understanding (including fasting and wearing a hair shirt) which was similar to the Old Testament prophets. But even he knew his level of awareness was just the beginning. As Jesus stated:
"I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is >least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7: 28)
This comment points to a difference between those 'born of women' and those 'in the kingdom of God' - of whom Jesus was the first. This distinction is explained further by Paul, who wrote to the Romans about living 'in the spirit' rather than 'by the flesh'. It's not about Jesus' genetic origins, though but about the focus of his awareness. But this level of understanding only came to Paul many years after the cross.
Jesus not only developed an understanding of what this kingdom of God is, but he also spent his last three years actually living it. Unlike John, who preached specifically about the coming of the kingdom, Jesus also tried to explain what the kingdom is and how to live it. More importantly, he was a living example to follow.
But if the disciples had really understood what Jesus was teaching them, then surely the written gospels wouldn't be so confusing! Luke 9 and 10 showed that 'the twelve' who were chosen, who were physically shown and told so much more than the others, were less able to carry out their mission than the 72 faithful 'babes' who followed. This awareness of what the 'kingdom of God' is, and how we live it, continues to develop even today.
What is the kingdom of God?
If it were possible to reduce an explanation of what the 'kingdom of God' is down to a written definition, then there would be no need for the bible. A 'kingdom' typically encompasses not just where people live but also how they live: not just the laws they live by, but their customs, how they treat others, and generally how they tend to see and think about the world. It also includes where they've come from and where they're headed collectively.
But we're also not talking about a physical kingdom: the possession of land and people by a wealthy king. Such kingdoms are temporary, subject to the ravages of nature, politics and time, and eventually reduced to nothing. The kingdom we're talking about is an entire realm of awareness, an ideology or way of life. It is what remains if everything material 'passes away' (Matthew 24: 34-35).
Jesus said the kingdom of God is not of this (physical) world (John 18:36). That it is within us (Luke 17: 20-21). He said its potential is like that of a mustard seed (Matthew 13: 31-32). He said it is simultaneously immediate (here now) and imminent (close) (Mark 1:15). He tells us to remain focused on what is yet to be actualised, even as those around us fall asleep or divert their focus to their own present and tangible (physical) needs (Matthew 24: 36-51; 25: 1-13)
Like a treasure hidden in a field or a single pearl, the kingdom of God also has a value that is not obvious (Matthew 13: 44-45). Those who are aware of it will sacrifice everything they once valued for it, and onlookers will think them crazy.
All of these descriptions point to 'awareness' rather than physical existence, and of a way of living and being rather than a place.
So how would we describe the kingdom of God today?
The 'real world' we currently live in is built on thousands of years of humanity experiencing and developing awareness of a physical connection to the world through their senses, sharing and communicating those experiences with others and choosing to interact with the world at this higher level of awareness or knowledge. This is how we see the physical world: with its distances of space and time, its languages of sight, sound or touch, and its many barriers, divisions and definitions.
The kingdom of God is an awareness beyond the physical world of our senses, that enables us to experience and develop our spiritual connection to the world. Jesus tried to demonstrate how to become aware of this spiritual connection through the Jewish people's experience of a relationship with God in scripture. He tried to teach his followers by example to share or communicate this awareness with others, and to choose to always interact at this higher level of awareness: beyond the physical - with compassion, peace, joy and hope - transcending space and time, languages, barriers, divisions and definitions...
As we have brought about our current physical reality, so we can bring about the kingdom of God in the same way, by focusing on our spiritual awareness.
Jesus also said that both Abraham and Moses will be in this kingdom, suggesting that the kingdom of God has always been present, but that awareness of it has been elusive.
What about the cross?
The cross is a sign - it offers no good news without an awareness of the kingdom. It is also the next step for those who have become aware. The cross is a call to action, a demonstration to not just become aware of the kingdom, but to strive to fully live it - to take the focus off worldly pleasures, comfort or survival and fix our sights completely on the kingdom: enabling a fully spiritual relationship with the world and with God.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself >and take up his cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24)
It's not an easy way, but one that suffers violence and must be seized with eagerness (Luke 16:16). Like Jesus' announcement of the arrival of Judas in the garden (Matthew 26:45), the cross is a sign, even for non-believers, that the kingdom of God is engiken - it is only our awareness that lags behind. And each one who eagerly takes up the cross further demonstrates this truth for their generation.