What is the Gospel? Part Two: Kingdom
Note: From September 9–11, a large chunk of Westgate Church traveled up to Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire for our annual Sandy Island retreat. The focus of our time was “What is the Gospel?” Since not all were able to attend (and not every reader attends Westgate), I’m posting the sessions here—one per day for the next four days. Click here for Part One: News, Part Three: Cross, and Part Four: Grace.
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? PART TWO: KINGDOM
“For without the Old Testament, Jesus quickly loses reality and either becomes a stained-glass window figure—colourful but static and undemanding, or a tailor’s dummy that can be twisted and dressed to suit the current fashion.” – C. J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 251.
Jesus is the heart of the gospel, but we cannot assume that people know who Jesus is. Secularization and pluralism have had there effect on western civilization (watch this video for a sampling of how Bostonians answer the question, Who is Jesus?). Gone are the days when you can share an illustration like the “Four Spiritual Laws” or the “Bridge Illustration” with the assumption that people know who you’re talking about when you say the name Jesus. We need to see the bigger picture—to help others see it and to understand it ourselves—the broader story of Scripture. Only then can we make proper sense of Jesus, and thus the gospel.
A common and very helpful way of summarizing the whole Bible story is to see it unfolding in four basic movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation. In part two we’re going to trace briefly the contours of the biblical story along these lines.
Our key word here is KINGDOM. The gospel is the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom. By kingdom, we mean the realm over which God exercises his rightful rule and reign. We’re not talking about a castle and fairy tales with knights and fair maidens; we’re talking about the realm of God’s rule and reign—that’s God’s kingdom. And it’s one of the key themes that pulls the whole Bible story together, from creation to new creation. It’s what God is after in the gospel: his plan to establish his kingdom.
Let’s start with Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What do we learn about God from this first verse?
- God was there in the beginning, before anything else. He is eternal (cf. Psa. 90:2, 4), self-existent, and self-sustaining (Acts 17:24-25). Everything depends on God, but God depends on no one but himself.
- God is the creator of everything there is (heavens and earth = everything). He is supremely powerful (cf. Psa. 33:6-9).
- By implication, God is the owner of everything. If he made it, then in belongs to him (cf. Psa. 24:1; 95:3-7; Rev. 4:11). He has sovereign authority over creation as the proper Ruler and King. Creation is the realm of his Kingdom.
- Similarly, if we keep reading we see a phrase pop up repeatedly in this chapter: “God saw that it was good.” Verses 3-4: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. . . .” Verse 10: “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” And again in vv. 12, 18, 21, 25, God sees that it is good, and in v. 31, very good. So God is an evaluator, or we might say a judge. He’s the one who sees what is good. As Creator, King, and Judge, he has the authority to decide what is good and what is evil, and the authority to judge those who disagree or rebel against his rule.
- As since he alone is Creator and King, he alone is worthy of our undivided allegiance, affection, and worship. Revelation 4:11 says, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
So Genesis introduces God to us King over all the universe. He made it, he owns it, he rules over it, he has the authority to judge it, and he deserves its worship. God is king, and his creation is his kingdom—the place of his reign and rule.
But God also has an intentional purpose in his creation—a vision for his kingdom. And central to that purpose is humanity, whom he made in his image.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God made humanity in his own image. Unlike any other part of creation, humans were made not “according to their kind” (as with the rest of the creatures, cf. Gen. 1:11-12, 21, 24-25), but in the very image of God, which in the context here likely means a few things:
First, it’s relationship. In Genesis 5:3 Adam has a son in his own likeness, after his image. It is language of relationship—father-child filial relationship. So God made humans to be his children, to have relationship with him.
Second, being made in God’s image means reflection. Just like a child looks like their parent, so we were made to look like God. Our job as humans is to show the world what God is like—how worthy and beautiful he is. Think of humanity as an angled mirror—one of those long stand up mirrors, but tilted upward so that when you look at it you see upward. That’s what people are supposed to be like: when someone looks at us, they should see a reflection of God.
Third, being made in God’s image means representation—royal representation, to be precise. God, the king of the universe, has taken humanity, made in his image, and as Psalm 8 puts it, crowned him with glory and honor, and given him dominion over all creation. That’s the substance of God’s blessing in Genesis 1:28—to be his royal representatives over all the earth, exercising his rule on his behalf, filling every corner of this world—every cubicle, every classroom, every living room, everything—with his image and worthy reputation. To be a faithful presence for God in this world, displaying his glory, and showing the world what God is like. We were made to be servants of God’s kingdom.
So God’s vision for creation is to establish his kingdom, which we might summarize like this:
God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule, enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory.1
This is life as it was meant to be lived. The glory of God, the joy of his people, the nearness of his presence, the fullness of his blessing, the kindness of his rule. And we see it expressed with Adam and Eve in the Garden. As pastor and author Vaughan Roberts notes, Genesis 1-2 shows us the ideal of God’s kingdom: “God’s people, Adam and Eve, live in God’s place, the garden of Eden, under God’s rule, and as a result enjoy God’s blessing” which makes much of God’s glory.2
But the biblical story doesn’t make it too far before things turn south, which brings us to the next major theme: Fall.
God had given his people his rule for their protection and blessing. Genesis 2:16-17: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” But Satan, God’s enemy, took advantage of that rule in order to tempt the man and woman into rebelling against God.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
What’s ironic about the serpent’s temptation is that the very thing he held before Adam and Eve was already true of them, though in a different way. Though they already bore God’s image, they wanted to be “like God in knowing good and evil.”
To know good and evil in the sense it’s used here in Genesis is not merely to know the difference, but to decide the difference—to choose for ourselves what is good and what is evil. In essence, what Adam and Eve were tempted to do and in fact did was to commit high treason against God. They wanted to be the king. They thought they could do a better job of running the universe than God. They wanted to be able to call the shots, to decide for themselves between right and wrong. And so they rebelled, as if to knock God off his throne. The Bible calls this sin, and every human being ever since then has run into the same problem. In some corner of our hearts, we all think we could do a better job as king than God and so we live by our own rules instead of his. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”
This is the problem of humanity. We have rebelled against God and his kingdom, seeking to replace it with our own, and giving the glory he deserves to something else. We exchanged our worship of God for the worship of something created (Rom. 1:22-23)—whether wood, stone, or metal, money, sex, or power. All sin and rebellion is ultimately a worship problem. We’re worshiping something else instead of God—usually ourselves. Instead of being servants of God we became servants of sin, servants of self. We exchanged life for death, God for idols, joy for despair, blessing for curse. We spoiled God’s image in us. Humanity still bears the image, but it’s now been distorted and marred, as if someone took a hammer to that angled mirror. When you look at it, you still see elements of the image, but it’s all messed up. That’s what humanity is in our sin—messed up. And we’ve made a mess of everything else. All the death, pain, sin, sorrow, and brokenness in this world—all of it stems from our rebellion against God (cf. Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20-22).
Our relationships disappoint. Our dreams and desires go unmet. We get taken advantage of, and we take advantage of others. Life begins to feel meaningless. Good things, like food, people, or sex, are misused, turning them into bad things, or even worse, ultimate things, which take the place of God in our life—demanding our allegiance but unable to make good on any of their promises. Worst of all,
we stand guilty of treason before our Creator and King. The punishment for treason on earth is death; the punishment for treason against heaven is eternal death (Rom. 6:23; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). God is a good king, but he’s also a just king, who has the authority and the responsibility to punish rebellion against his throne.
So God’s vision for his creation and kingdom has been compromised. We have rebelled against his rule, forfeited his blessing, profaned his glory, and are consequently sent away from his place and his presence.
So what hope is there for sinners such as us? Happily, the Bible doesn’t end after Genesis 3, either. It moves forward in the promise of redemption, the next phase of the story, which takes up the bulk of the Bible.
The word redemption means to purchase back something that was lost. To regain or recover it. So here in this context, it’s to purchase back God’s vision for his kingdom and the role his people are to play in it. And the Bible’s portrait of redemption is displayed in both promise and fulfillment. The Old Testament moves forward in promise. The New Testament unpacks the fulfillment, which is centered in Jesus and ultimately takes shape in the final movement of the story—new creation, or consummation.
And here we’ll simply trace some of the key points of the story of God’s promise of redemption leading up to Jesus, the climax and center. Part three will be devoted to Jesus, the heart of the story. But here we want to get a feel for how the story moves forward toward Jesus, and then say a few things about the story ends, with the ultimate fulfillment of a new creation—what we’re all looking forward to.
Before we’re even out of chapter 3 of Genesis, God already promises to set things right. He already gives a hint of his plan to make good on his purpose in creation to establish his kingdom, by defeating the serpent himself through a descendant of the woman. As God describes the serpent’s punishment, he says in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In other words, the serpent doesn’t win. And neither does his program of sin and rebellion. God will win. And he’ll win by raising up one of the woman’s descendents to defeat the serpent.
God promises to make right all that went wrong in the beginning. Humanity will participate in the blessing of being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth with God’s image, bringing all of creation under his rightful rule for the sake of his glory. God’s kingdom will be established on earth as it is in heaven.
And here I want to highlight four key waypoints as the promise of God’s redemption unfolds through his covenant people—the people he chooses for himself to have a special relationship with him and through whom he moves forward his promised blessing and kingdom. The first one is Abraham.
Genesis 12:1-3: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Can you hear an echo of Genesis 1:26-28 there? The language of blessing, filling the earth (all nations). God moves his plan of redemption forward through Abraham and his descendents, through whom all peoples of the earth will be blessed (will share joyfully in God’s kingdom). And so the blessing moves on from Abraham to Isaac (e.g. Gen. 26:2-5, 22-24), from Isaac to Jacob (e.g. Gen. 28:1-4; 35:9-12), and from Jacob to his twelve sons, who become the twelve tribes of Israel. That’s our second waypoint: Israel.
Exodus 19:4-6: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak
to the people of Israel.”
Israel was God’s redeemed covenant people. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai where he made a covenant with them—a special arrangement, that he would be their God, and they would be his people. Not because of anything they had done, but because of his love for them and his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 7:6-10). Israel would be the people through whom God accomplishes his promise of redemption for the whole world. To this end he gave them his law—his rule—so they would know how to live as his people (e.g. Exod. 20; Lev. 26; Deut. 28). He gave them his special presence in the tabernacle and later the temple (e.g. Exod. 25-40; 1 Kgs. 8). He gave them prophets to instruct them, priests to mediate for them when they sinned, and leaders to guide and shepherd them. Eventually, God gave them a king, David, who is our third waypoint.
2 Samuel 7:12-14: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. . . .”
David was the great shepherd king of Israel, taken from the folds and anointed as king over God’s people—he was to be God’s king ruling over God’s people on God’s behalf. And he was the one with whom God made a special covenant in 2 Samuel 7, promising that when David’s days are over, God will raise up his offspring and establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Though David would die and see decay and dust, along with many of his descendants after him, God
promised that one of them would one day sit on his throne and rule God’s people forever. That king would shepherd God’s people to be what God created them to be: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory forever (e.g. Isa. 9:5-6; 11:1-9; Psa. 2; 89; Jer. 23:5-6).
But the problem of humanity remains. The same sin that dwelt in Adam’s heart dwelt in Israel’s heart, and in the heart of her kings. And therefore the same problems plagued them: idolatry and rebellion (e.g. Isa. 1:2-20; 5:1-7). And so the same fate befalls them: judgment and exile. That is our fourth waypoint: exile.
Daniel 9:11-12: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 12He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done againstJerusalem.”
And so Israel brought the curse of God’s covenant law upon themselves, and the garden was played out all over again. God’s place was destroyed—Jerusalem, the temple. God’s people were sent away into exile in Babylon, being under God’s curse for breaking God’s rule and profaning his glory. And all of a sudden we’re back to where we started. And though by the end of the Old Testament, Israel is back in the land, not only do many of the promises remained unfulfilled, Israel’s sin remains unresolved, as do the sins of all humanity. God’s just judgment still stands over all the earth.
But the story doesn’t end here either. The Lord casts a prophetic hope looking forward through Israel’s prophets to a new exodus (Jer. 23:5-8), ushered in through a new, anointed King—a Messiah who will sit on David’s throne forever, just as God promised (Isa. 61:1-4; Ezek. 34:25-31), and who will bring about salvation for all nations, even a new creation (Isa. 49:1-6; 65:17-25), by laying his life down as God’s suffering servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12). God’s vision and plan end ultimately in a new creation; consummation. Let’s finish with a glimpse at where this whole story is heading before looking at how those prophetic hopes were fulfilled in Jesus (part three).
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
There you have it: God’s Kingdom fulfilled. God’s people are in God’s place under God’s rule enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory FOREVER. All is finally as it should be. What went wrong in the beginning is made right. We even see access to the tree of life again in Revelation 22:2.
So what is it that takes us from the partially realized kingdomof Israel, which plummeted back into judgment in exile, to the gloriously perfected kingdom at the end of the Bible? What is the heart of the story?
Now we can begin to make better sense of Jesus—the heart of the gospel. Check back tomorrow for part three: Cross.
- This summary is adapted from Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 21, who in turn borrows it from Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Exeter: Paternoster, 1981), 47.
- Roberts, 32.
For further reading: Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002).