According to Harnack, the essence of Christianity is Jesus’ preaching of the Father. The Son had no place in the Gospel as Jesus preached it. This “liberal” construction of the Gospel which Jesus preached about the Father differs substantially from the Gospel which Paul preached about Jesus. This thinking finds two religions in the New Testament, one in the Sermon on the Mount and the other in the Epistle to the Romans. In this vein, Professor Kirsopp Lake kept telling the Harvard students that every time he read Mark he was the more convinced that Jesus had nothing to say about himself. On the other hand, even Bultmann now says, “In any case Jesus’ preaching was taken up into Christian preaching and became a part of the proclamation in which the Proclaimed is at the same time present as the Proclaimer.”
Mark begins the gospel of Jesus Christ with Old Testament prophecies concerning the preparation of the Lord’s coming. John, the preparer, gathers these and points them directly to Jesus who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ own baptism the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends upon him, heaven’s Voice identifies him as God’s Son, and the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tempted of Satan.
ACTIVITY IN GOD’S STEAD
Following these things, Jesus begins his ministry, announcing the day of salvation, for he, the Saviour, is present. His mission is to be the Redeemer of his people, the Shepherd to gather the lost sheep of Israel, the Physician to heal the sick, the Messenger to summon guests to the banquet of salvation, the Fisherman to appoint fishers of men. He is fundamental to the revelation of God, to the coming of the Kingdom, and to the life of the Church.
From a study of Christ’s preaching, it is evident that his conduct is that of one who dares to act in God’s stead by calling to himself sinners who, apart from him, would have to flee from God. The parables are not primarily examples of timeless truths; they issue from the concrete situations of Jesus ministry in which he reveals the presence of salvation and God’s mercy to sinners. They describe God’s goodness, the goodness that is made effective by Jesus. When our Lord is attacked by the Pharisees for receiving sinners and eating with them, he defends himself by telling in parables (Luke 15) of the joy that there is in heaven when sinners come to repentance (v. 7). Jesus explains his behavior by drawing an analogy between his and God’s activity. His defense implies his heavenly origin and Deity; his conduct therefore cannot be reproved (v. 10), and his mission is to reveal to the sons of men the Heavenly Father.
The parable of the creditor and the two debtors in Luke 7 indicates that Jesus himself had offered forgiveness to sinners earlier that day. The woman of the city had received forgiveness and at the Pharisee’s feast poured out her thankfulness upon him who saved her. When challenged, Jesus proclaims that his forgiveness is nothing less than God’s forgiveness, and that God has forgiven her of her sins and the ointment is a sign of her thankfulness. The same truth is seen in Jesus’ forgiving and healing the paralytic (Mark 2).
In Matthew 20, the owner of the vineyard represents God graciously dealing with those whom he hires at every hour of the day who need work. This parable vindicates Jesus’ own Gospel of receiving publicans and sinners. In Luke 11 we read that as parents, being evil, give good food to their children, so the Heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to Jesus for his work of casting out demons, and also to those who, like Him, ask the Father for the Spirit.
According to Matthew 11:2–3, John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” And in verse 6 Jesus answers, “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk … the poor have the gospel preached to them.” In the light of Isaiah 35 and 61, these words mean that the long-awaited day of God’s salvation has come. It is the Synoptists who record the first two trophies of salvation won by the Cross, namely, the penitent thief and the confessing centurion. Jesus, in his ministries of mercy, reveals the fatherly goodness of God.
It is quite in keeping with these Synoptic accounts that John records Jesus as saying, “I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (20:17), and that the Epistles identify our Creator as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The whole New Testament declares that Jesus Christ, in making himself our gracious Lord, made God to be our merciful Heavenly Father.
Jesus’ ministry is principally the ushering in of the kingdom of God, himself the center of its proclamation. When a parable speaks of the Kingdom, then Jesus is hidden behind the word Kingdom as its secret content. Likewise, his Blitzkrieg of mercy banishes disease and death from Galilee during the days of his ministry and brings to Judea the first rays of the Kingdom before whose dynamis the basileia of Satan must yield. The kingdom of God is the whole new activity of God which was proceeding in the life and work of Jesus. He is the center of that field of heaven-sent force before which Satan must ultimately yield.
JESUS AND THE KINGDOM
The Gospels use the kingdom of God reciprocally with Jesus himself, his name, and his message. In the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, Mark records the praise of the coming kingdom of David, while Matthew and Luke give the praise to the person of the Messiah. “For my sake, and for the gospel’s” (Mark 10:29), or “for my name’s sake” (Matt. 19:29), becomes in Luke 18:29 “for the kingdom of God’s sake.” The preparation for this reciprocity is found in Daniel 7 where the Son of Man stands for the kingdom of the saints of God. While Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 speak of the coming of God’s kingdom in power, the parallel passage in Matthew 16:28 has the coming of the Son of man in his kingdom.
Accordingly, the Synoptists as well as John knew the reign of God in indissoluble relation with the person of Jesus, who revealed to them the mystery of God’s abundant grace. The kingdom of God is embodied in the Messiah himself. It is never an impersonal thing. It comes as Jesus performs God’s will for the salvation of men in a way of humiliation that only God’s grace could have wrought. It is not that the Kingdom could dawn somewhere and be severed from Jesus who brings it. Only in him can it be observed and met. Jesus has not only proclaimed the kingdom of God, he has created it. He is not only its Prophet but its King. The Kingdom is nowhere except where Jesus enters among us (Luke 17:21). Origen properly recognized that Christ is the Kingdom, autobasileia. And even Marcion had the insight that “in the Gospel Christ himself is the kingdom of God.” When, in his gracious love, the King became the obedient servant, the reign of God was present.
In the Epistles, the terminology changes with regard to the Kingdom. What is the kingdom of God or of heaven in the Gospels becomes the Lordship of Jesus by the pen of the Apostle. And here, with respect to the Kingdom, embodied in the Messiah, wrought out for men in his death for our sins and resurrection for our justification, and to be established in glory at the Parousia, current students of the kerygma are finding the true connection between the Gospel on the lips of Jesus and in the writings of Peter and Paul. Lake’s liberal contrast between the so-called gospel of Jesus and the gospel about Jesus vanished into thin air. Jesus sums up in his own person and work the meaning of the kingdom of God—that the message and the messenger are one. God has graciously translated us from the thralldom of Satan into the kingdom of the Son of his love, and there he has given us the blessed hope of his glorious appearing.
JESUS AND THE CHURCH
Moreover, the Church is not to be separated from the Jesus of the Gospels, as the liberals on the one hand and the dispensationalists on the other have done. Jesus as Messiah is central to the Church as he is the Kingdom. He builds his Church on that revelation of his own Messiahship which the Father makes to Peter. The messianic expectation of the Old Testament included the formation of a faithful new Israel. In Christ, the God of the Old Testament so speaks that the New Testament Church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament congregation.
As Jesus preaches repentance for the coming of the Kingdom, he draws disciples to himself, forgives them their sins, and heals their diseases. Those who accept him as the Messiah become the nucleus of the new Israel. As the shepherd leads the flock, as the hen gathers her chickens under her wings, as the Servant of the Lord justifies many, and as the Son of Man represents the Kingdom of the saints of the Most High, so the Messiah, the King, has the twelve disciples who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and the Lord has his Church. The Messiah and his people belong together, for in him they are a royal priesthood. Jesus directed the disciples not to the Torah of the rabbis nor to the ideas of Socrates but to himself.
Not only did Jesus, as John, come preaching, but like the Jewish rabbis each also instructed his disciples. The disciples learned by heart such things as their Teacher’s prayer. With a common prayer, a common meal with united praise, a common purse, an esoteric exposition of the parables, the school of Jesus and the Twelve was a worshiping community in which the Master’s teachings were “holy words.”
The formation of the new Israel of God includes the gathering of the sheep about their Shepherd, the confession of Peter and Christ’s declaration to him, the Last Supper, the kerygma as Jesus proclaimed it publicly and as he expounded it to the Twelve, the Cross and the Resurrection, Pentecost and the sending out of the apostles as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and as teachers to those who should believe. While we give all honor to the exalted Lord for the Holy Spirit which he gave to us at Pentecost, let us not neglect fellowship in his life of ministering when “he began to do and to teach.” It is in the interrelationship of the Spirit and the Word, or the exalted Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, that the Church lives.
SUMMARY IN JESUS’ WORDS
Jesus’ Gospel may be recapitulated in his own words. To be reviled “for my sake” is to stand beside the prophets who were persecuted causa Dei. As Jesus’ parables, defending his conduct in receiving sinners and eating with them, are “a witness to him,” so the account of his miracles concludes with the beatitude, “blessed is he who is not offended in me.” Jesus’ promise assures, “Everyone therefore who shall confess ME before men, him will the Son of man [or I] also confess before the angels of God; but whosoever shall deny ME before men, him will I also deny before the angels of God.” His woe condemns those who cast a stumbling block before the least of these little ones “who believe on ME.” In the light of Jahwe’s revelation of himself as I AM WHO [THAT] I AM (Exod. 3:14; cf. Isa. 43:10), and the Jewish festal usage of I AM GOD, I AM JAHWE, I AM HE, Jesus answers the High Priest’s question, “Art thou the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” with the theophany formula, I AM HE (Mark 14:62; cf. 13:6 and Jesus’ usage of “the sovereign I” in each Gospel and in every strata of his teachings—Matt. 5:22; 8:7; 10:16; 11:28, 30; 12:27 f.; 14:27; 20:22; 21:27; 23:34; 25:27; 26:39; 28:20; Mark 9:25; 14:58; Luke 8:46; 21:15; 22:32; 24:49; John 8:58; 4:25, 26; 13:19; 6:20; 8:21–28; 14:29).
Here is his architectonic plan for the Church: On this rock of disciples confessing MY Father’s revelation of MY Messiahship I will build MY Church and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. As MY words are taught, as men are baptized into MY Name, I carry onward MY Church through the nations, for “Lo, I, even I MYSELF, am with you always, until the completion of the age” (Matt. 16:17 f.; 28:18–20).
To those on his right hand, the King shall say: “Come ye blessed of MY Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for as ye ministered to the least of MY brethren ye ministered unto ME.” Here is Jesus’ own estimate of his unique height and his humble heart: “All things have been delivered unto ME of MY Father, and no one knows thoroughly the SON except the FATHER, neither does anyone know thoroughly the FATHER except the SON and him whom the SON wills to reveal him.” “Come unto ME all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke [of the Kingdom] upon you and learn of ME, because I am meek and lowly in heart and ye shall find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.”
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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