The Louisiana Superdome. Exactly twenty years ago. Biggest game of the year. The New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams are tied at 17 points with only a few seconds remaining on the clock in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Tom Brady spikes the ball to stop the clock at the St. Louis 33-yard line. On the final play of the game, New England kicker Adam Vinatieri boots the ball through the uprights, giving New England its very first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Here’s the following day’s headline in the Boston Globe:
CHAMPIONS! In big, bold letters.
Yes, Vinatieri’s game-winning kick was a thing of beauty. And the Patriots’ singular victory over St. Louis was quite impressive. But the big headline was not VINATIERI BOOTS GAME-WINNER or PATS BEAT RAMS. There was an even larger story to proclaim. The Patriots have won the championship. CHAMPIONS!
For much of the broader evangelical world, we have our headlines confused. We’ve lost the big story. We’ve taken one piece of the story and made it the entire story. We’re missing out on the big headline. Mark gives it to us in the opening sentences of his gospel account:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”Mark 1:14-15
According to Mark, what is the good news (or gospel)? What was the big headline that Jesus went around proclaiming? It’s right there in the passage, as clear and obvious as can be.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
In other words, in the midst of a world gone desperately wrong, God is now intervening in human affairs through the person of Jesus Christ, and will now begin to set things right. This is the message that the prophets foretold–that there will come a time when God will rescue and redeem his people and establish his reign over the entire world, ushering in an era of eternal peace and justice.
And through the person of Jesus Christ, this era was now beginning. Somehow through Jesus, God’s kingdom was being inaugurated. This is the gospel announcement Jesus began to proclaim at the launch of his ministry.
And as he proclaimed this good news, Jesus began to demonstrate the validity of this announcement by doing kingdom of God stuff: healing the sick, driving out demons, and raising the dead. If sickness, oppression, and death have no place in God’s eternal kingdom, what better way to demonstrate that God’s kingdom was now being launched than to perform these miraculous acts?
However, if you ask the random evangelical Christian, What is the gospel? I suspect you will probably get a very different response. Of course, they will agree that Jesus came to preach the kingdom of God (whatever they might assume that means).
But in all likelihood, they will fast-forward to the very end of the Jesus story (to the final play of the game, if you will) and tell you about how Jesus’ death and resurrection rescues us from sin and makes it possible for us to receive eternal life through Christ.
Indeed, these statements are true. But for many, it is assumed that this is the big headline of the Gospel. They don’t see the connection between the events of Jesus’ final week and the announcement Jesus made at the beginning of his ministry.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I feel I must say this explicitly. The good news of the Gospel is not simply that Jesus died and rose again (with the ensuing personal benefits). This would be like the Boston Globe plastering VINATIERI NAILS GAME-WINNER on its front page the morning after the Super Bowl. Is this statement true? Of course it is. But it’s connected to a much larger story.
The earth-shaking Gospel announcement is that through the death and resurrection of Israel’s messiah, GOD HAS BECOME KING. Perhaps the following passage will be helpful.
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.”
36 “What is your request?” he asked.
37 They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”
38 But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”
39 “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”
Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering. 40 But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”Mark 10:35-40
James and John correctly perceive that Jesus is about to become king. But of course, at this point they have a very different idea of what kind of kingdom this will be. So they ask Jesus if they can sit at the honored positions to his right and left when he sits on his throne (and they mean this quite literally).
But the reign of Jesus will come about much differently than they imagine. Jesus responds that when he comes into his kingdom, he has “no right to say who will sit on [his] right or [his] left.” What is this crowning moment he’s referring to? This:
Jesus is King. That’s the big headline. And the cross is his crowning moment.
And the significance of this fact goes waaaaaaaay beyond personal forgiveness of sins. Do I receive that? Of course. Without a doubt. But if Jesus is now ruling and reigning as king over all, I am now invited to live as a citizen of this kingdom right now, carrying out his heavenly agenda now as heaven and earth collide.
If Jesus is now king, then our job is not to simply hand out tickets to heaven. Our responsibility is to participate in his vision for the world right now.
For more reading, check out How God Became King by N.T. Wright and Jesus People by yours truly.
If you’re more of an auditory learner, here’s a recent sermon I preached that may be helpful.
Thanks for reading! May we all be sensitive and obedient to the leadership of our heavenly King today.
And go Joe Burrow & the Cincinnatti Bengals.