What did Jesus actually teach?
If you were to distill the teaching and preaching of Jesus into a few words or a short phrase, what would come up with? Love? Forgive others? Care for the poor?
Let me put the question like this: What theme in Jesus’s teaching and preaching is so crucial to understanding him that if you removed it from his lips, you wouldn’t have the biblical Jesus anymore?
You still like the answer of love?
Did you know Jesus only mentions love two times in the synoptic Gospels? He tells his disciples to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (referred to together as the greatest commandment; parallel accounts in Matthew 22.37-39 / Mark 12:30-31 / Luke 10:2) and love your enemies (also in two accounts, Matthew 5.44 / Luke 6.27). [BTW, you can use BibleGateway or Bible Hub to look up verses.]
Out of all the recorded words of Jesus, he devotes two lines to the topic of love.
Evidently, Jesus didn’t make love the hallmark of his preaching. Similar points can be made with other big themes we think are at the core of Jesus’ teaching: forgiveness, serving others, trusting God, helping the poor, defending the oppressed, etc.
Not that these themes are absent from the teaching of Jesus. Not at all. But they aren’t the core, they don’t summarize what is at the heart of the proclamation of Jesus. They actually flow out of his primary message.
Which is? For the biblical answer, we need to simply read what the Gospel writers wrote as their summaries of what Jesus was all about.
Let’s start with the Gospel of Matthew.
- Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matthew 4.23)
- Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 9.35)
- He then tells his disciples: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 10.7)
What is the Kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God (or, often in Matthew, the kingdom of Heaven, same thing) is simply God’s reign. It’s not a realm (a place, like a physical dominion with borders), nor is the kingdom a particular people. The kingdom of God is God’s ruling power or authority present in this world.
Now this kingdom creates a people (those who submit to God’s rule) and impacts a place (where a particular location demonstrates the attributes of the God’s rule). But again, simply put, God’s kingdom equals God’s reign.
Let’s Continue with Luke’s Summary
From Luke 4.16-21, 43.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
… He said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”
- See also Luke 8.1 – Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.
- And in Luke 10.8-9 Jesus authorizes his disciples to do what he has been doing: Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Finally, the Gospel of Mark
The most succinct summary of Jesus’s teaching is in the Gospel of Mark. He tells us right at the outset what the ministry of Jesus is all about.
Mark 1.14-15 – 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.”
Three point message, the first and last highlight the core: The kingdom of God has come near.
Yes, love, forgiveness, care for the poor, serving others, etc. are part of Jesus’s message, but they flow from the heart of his teaching and preaching, which is the kingdom of God.
It’s still the core message of the church today: repent and believe the good news that the time is fulfilled and God’s reign is at hand.
For a better understanding of what Jesus was all about, watch the first 12 to 15 minutes of Gordon Fee’s lecture on the Kingdom of God. He explains it better than I just did. In fact, I basically summarized Fee’s points in this blog post. Thanks for reading.