The Catastrophic Incompleteness of Our Gospel
In Matthew 13:44-46, Matthew records these two related parables of Jesus:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
I started going to church regularly in the summer of 1988 — and by “regularly”, I mean that I was there literally every time the doors were open. It was that way for over 30 years. Heck, it had even gotten to the point where I was actually the one opening the doors.
In all that time, including almost two decades of teaching the Bible, I had never made much of the hidden treasure and pearl of great value. I had heard the parables plenty, and could quote them basically verbatim, but they just didn’t mean very much to me.
Which seems astonishingly odd to me now.
I mean, think about it: Jesus says there is something of such monumental worth that a person would joyfully give up all he has to obtain it. If that was true, what person in their right mind wouldn’t stop to figure out what, exactly, he was talking about?
I never did, though, and now I know why.
In 30+ years of going to church regularly, and teaching the Bible almost 2/3 of that time, I can’t remember ever really thinking about the “kingdom” at all. I know for sure I couldn’t have told you what it was.
That all changed in December of 2018 when I started reading The Divine Conspiracy for the first time. As I read it, I felt exactly like Apollos in Acts 18:
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
I had taught and preached with great excitement, but I absolutely did not understand the way of God as adequately as I thought I did. Dallas Willard did for me what Priscilla and Aquila did for Apollos.
This passage sums up where my personal understanding fell short:
When all is said and done, for many “the gospel” is that Christ made “the arrangement” that can get us into heaven. In the Gospels, by contrast, “the gospel” is the good news of the presence and availability of life in the kingdom, now and forever, through reliance on Jesus the Anointed.
The particular faith tradition I had spent three decades in focused heavily on our need for salvation. We were going to spend eternity one of two places, and we couldn’t make it to the good one on our own. Once we let Jesus save us, it was then a matter of being as good as possible until we got to go to Heaven. That was “the gospel”. Despite the fact that the New Testament is full of good news about the life we’re living right now, we never spent much time on that part.
Because of that, for us, passages like Matthew 13:44-46 are what Scot McKnight calls a blue parakeet: Something in the Bible that doesn’t fit at all into our established understanding, so we have to figure out what to do with it. Usually, we end up either ignoring it or interpreting it in a way that forces it to fit.
That’s what I did, unknowingly, with all mentions of “the kingdom”. They just blended into the text and I never really thought about them — which was mind-blowing when I began to realize how absolutely foundational the concept is. It shows up over and over and over again, even in passages that I was very familiar with. Here are just a few:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10)
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (Matthew 11:12)
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28)
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (Matthew 13:10-11)
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19)
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:52)
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
That’s just a handful of the passages from Matthew’s Gospel alone. “Kingdom” is mentioned 119 times across the four Gospels and 36 more times in the rest of the New Testament. How do you understand the gospel without understanding the kingdom?? How could I have had such a colossal blind spot?
As I began to fill in that massive gap in my understanding, other blind spots starting clearing up too. Things like the fact that Jesus said the reason he came was so that we could have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance — to the full, till it overflows (John 10:10). That he said he had told us “these things” so that his joy would be in us and that our joy would be complete (John 15:11).
In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul writes “If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” It has been devastating to realize that so many of us have done just the reverse! Our hope in Christ is for the next life only. No wonder so many Christians are just as miserable as everyone else and have lives that look no different — we don’t know any better!
We’ve somehow turned the good news for here and hereafter into good news about the hereafter alone. That’s not at all the way God wants it to be.
The incompleteness of our gospel is killing us. And as the salt and light fade away, the world goes down with us.
Photo by Osman Rana