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What Was Jesus’ Teaching? Rediscovering Jesus’ Primary Message

It would be a glaring understatement to say that the Church today is in deep crisis. And not just local churches and their leaders—but the whole enterprise of global Christianity. You don’t have to be a prophet to know something has gone terribly wrong somewhere along the way.

I was confronted with one aspect of this crisis some years ago while living in Southeast Asia, training cross-cultural mission candidates. It all started as I began compiling statistics from various mission fields and realized that, despite the work and witness of countless Protestant missionaries, the gospel hadn’t taken root in many places where these faithful ones had labored for centuries. Japan, Thailand, and the nations of the Arabian Peninsula are just a few examples. But this lack of measurable results wasn’t what really disturbed me.

From all my study and training, I understood the Great Commission to essentially mean, go everywhere with the gospel and make disciples by teaching people to believe and obey what Jesus taught. Apparently, Jesus wanted many to become His disciples, plant new faith communities, and reproduce His life in others. This message and multiplication process seems simple enough, but it wasn’t what I observed happening.

As a diligent mission trainer, I wanted to understand the obstacles to fruitful gospel sowing, disciple making, and church planting. In my research, I discovered several contributing factors. Surprisingly, I concluded that one of the key contributors to this calamity was (and still is) a general confusion surrounding the core message Jesus gave us.


“This message and multiplication process seems simple enough, but it wasn’t what I observed happening.”


As part of my research, I surveyed about twenty respected pastors and missionaries. My survey had only two questions. I wanted to know what they thought Jesus’ core message was and what He wanted them to do with it. As the responses trickled in, my concerns quickly deepened. For from the 18 who responded, I received 18 different answers. Shockingly, no one agreed on the most basic definition of what everyone called the “good news.”

Now, if Jesus is truly the Son of God, King of kings and Master of His Church, then His primary message must be understood and restored. Despite love and grace being God’s core attributes and the basis of His actions, these subjects were not the main thing Jesus preached.

So, I had to get to the bottom of this question: what was Jesus’ primary message?

The Gospel

An honest reading of the New Testament reveals that Jesus’ central teaching is something He called the gospel. Today, this message is typically presented as the story of God’s amazing love, unmerited grace, and free offer of eternal life. Well-meaning preachers tell us that by accepting Jesus as our personal Savior and praying a simple prayer, we can be “saved” and go to heaven. All that’s necessary to seal this salvation deal is to believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for our sins and rose again. This message is often called the “good news of Jesus Christ” or the “gospel of salvation.”

Granted, this message describes some of the amazing benefits of receiving the gospel. But is this really what Jesus preached? Did Jesus or any of the early apostles say anything like this?

In Mark 1:14-15, we find Jesus’ first reference to “the gospel.”

Now after John was taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, NASB)

Admittedly, Jesus’ one-line homily is remarkably short by any measure. I’m pretty sure His eager audience was expecting something a little meatier from the young, aspiring rabbi. So, what is this gospel Jesus asked His hearers to believe—and what did they understand Him to mean?


Jesus’ Teaching: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.'”


Surprisingly, we don’t find any mention of sin, forgiveness, or how to get to heaven. Neither did Jesus say anything about dying on a cross. Reflecting on this passage, I wondered why these cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith are so conspicuously missing from Jesus’ preaching. Could it be that Jesus’ use of the term “gospel” doesn’t primarily refer to salvation as we know it or even the means of going to heaven?

The Kingdom has Arrived

From examining these verses and many others, it’s apparent that Jesus’ gospel has everything to do with recognizing the arrival of something He called the Kingdom of God. His gospel was the gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14, Luke 16:16). In Luke 4:43, Jesus said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (NIV). Nearly all of Jesus’ parables are stories describing the nature and attributes of God’s Kingdom. After His resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days with His disciples, “speaking of things regarding the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, NASB).

Evidently, He expected His disciples to preach this message after His departure, for He prophesied concerning the advance of His Reign by saying,

“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, NASB)

Jesus commanded His disciples to proclaim the arrival of God’s reign everywhere. He said this assignment would be in effect until all nations heard and had the opportunity to respond, and then the end would come. Throughout the book of Acts, it is evident that this is what Jesus’ disciples thought He wanted them to do. For example, we see this in the message Philip preached in Samaria. “But when they believed Philip as he was preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were being baptized” (Acts 8:12, NASB).


Jesus’ Teaching: “After His resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days with His disciples, ‘speaking of the things concerning the Kingdom of God.'”


Paul also taught the gospel of the Kingdom of God as his primary message (See Acts 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 30-31). In Ephesus, Paul entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8). Even to the end of his life under house arrest in Rome, Paul continued, “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:31, NASB).

There is little room for dispute that the “gospel of the Kingdom” is the message Jesus preached and also the message He expected His followers to preach. According to Jesus and the apostles, the gospel and the Kingdom are inseparable. One is the official announcement of the other.

The Gospel Revealed

I learned from my trusty Strong’s Concordance that the word translated “gospel” used in the original Greek New Testament is euaggélion. It is a compound Greek word formed from eu, meaning good, and angellō, meaning announce. Thayer’s Greek lexicon defines euaggélion as “glad tidings.”

The word is commonly rendered as “good news” in English Bible translations, and so it is. God promised to bring good news to His people right from the beginning of His relationship with them. He regularly reminded His people of this promise through the Hebrew prophets (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 40:9, 52:7, 61:6, Nahum 1:15).

But the euaggélion that Jesus preached was not simply celestial good news spoken into a cultural vacuum. Neither was it a collection of abstract theological propositions about how God accomplished salvation. From surveying the Gospels, we must humbly concede that Jesus never spoke of four spiritual steps to peace with God, produced a doctrinal statement of faith, or even explained how to become a Christian. The early apostles never did these things, either. But they consistently spoke of the arrival of God’s kingly reign and described it in detail.

As the infamous thief hung on the cross next to Jesus, he cried, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” Jesus did not respond, “Well then, believe I am dying for your sins on this wretched cross.” Instead, He said something even more astonishing: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43, NASB).


Jesus’ Teaching: “The euaggélion that Jesus preached was not simply celestial good news spoken into a cultural vacuum.”


Obviously, this poor man had no idea of the spiritual transaction occurring on the cross next to him that fateful afternoon outside Jerusalem. Neither did he know anything of “God’s plan of salvation.” Yet, he did acknowledge Jesus as a King and humbly sought entrance into His Kingdom. Remarkably, expressing this conviction was altogether sufficient for Jesus to grant him the promise of paradise.

The Gospel: Regime Change Announcing a New King

From studying various ancient history sources, I learned that euaggélion was a familiar term to most people living under Roman rule. It did not refer to anything theological or religious but was primarily used to announce military victories by an occupying Roman army. It was also the decree issued by the official envoy of a newly crowned emperor proclaiming his ascension to the throne. Thus, hearing the euaggélion always had serious political implications.

Euaggélion was commonly understood to indicate a regime change at the highest level of the Roman government. This proclamation called people into allegiance to the new emperor in exchange for all the protection and provisions of his empire. In that day, only a raving fool would refuse to acknowledge the envoy’s authority or the emperor’s right to rule over their territory.

Additionally, the implications of euaggélion were inseparable from the belief that the Roman emperor was a god. To be sure, the Romans had no shortage of gods. Yet, at the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E., they elevated their supreme leader to divine status. The Romans built hundreds of temples throughout the Empire and dedicated them to their ruling emperors. These temples, served by pagan priests, were the official worship centers for the Imperial Cult. This Cult’s influence was ubiquitous throughout the Empire and was the main political backdrop for the tensions between Jesus and the Roman authorities. Paul had run-ins with the Roman authorities for the same reason (Acts 17:6-8).


“Euaggélion was commonly understood to indicate a regime change at the highest level of the Roman government.”


At the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. He was called CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, the son of divine Caesar. Most Christians today do not understand that the statement “Jesus is Lord,” found in Romans 10:9, was not primarily a religious confession. Paul took it from the Imperial Cult, which proudly professed, “Caesar is Lord,” and applied it to Jesus. In the first-century Roman Empire, declaring Jesus is Lord was tantamount to treason.

When Jesus proclaimed His euaggélion, He made an astounding claim of the highest order. Everyone who heard Him had no doubt that He was declaring Himself a King, challenging even the imperial power of Rome. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, acknowledged Jesus’ claim to a throne when he affirmed, “So, you are a king” (John 18:37, NASB). What Pilate probably didn’t realize was that this obscure carpenter from the backwater Jewish hamlet of Nazareth was announcing a global regime change that would affect the lives of every human being for all eternity.

It was not apparent then, but Jesus already held exclusive ownership rights to the planet. He had the full authority to issue this imperial decree, calling all into His glorious Empire as the Christ, the true Son of God (Psalm 2:8, Psalm 67, Daniel 7:14, Revelation 11:15).

According to the New Testament, the gospel is about a divine King who has arrived to lay claim to what is rightfully His. The euaggélion is the royal summons for all to come under His rule. As a conquering King, Lord Jesus called for complete surrender in exchange for enjoying all the power and extraordinary benefits of living under His benevolent Reign―both here and in the coming age.


Jesus’ Teaching: “According to the New Testament, the gospel is about a divine King who has arrived to lay claim to what is rightfully His.”


Kingdom Benefits

And speaking of benefits, they are literally out of this world. Paul wrote, “As it is written: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, NKJV). God’s provisions are above and beyond anything we could ask for, think of, or even imagine.

Yet, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus equated loving God with honoring Him and keeping His commands (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10). The early apostles affirmed this truth (Romans 1:5; 15:18; 1 Peter 1:2, 22; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 6). It is because Jesus is the King of kings, and we have placed our faith/allegiance in Him, that He gives us these benefits, which include forgiveness, redemption, healing, peace, joy, eternal life, and everything God promised in the New Covenant. This complete redemption package is what the gospel is all about and is freely provided by His extravagant generosity.

Tragically, many Christians claim salvation because they think that their mental agreement with a few key Bible verses will ensure their eternal place in heaven. However, Jesus never put this kind of salvation deal on the table. He was clear that true salvation belonged to those who voluntarily repented from their sinful lifestyle, adopted His teaching, and pledged allegiance to His throne. This allegiance flows from the awareness that God has, through Christ, rescued them from death, forgiven their sins, and transferred them into His royal family, purely by grace. And surprisingly, all these benefits come through no effort of their own.


“This allegiance flows from the awareness that God has, through Christ, rescued them from death, forgiven their sins, and transferred them into His royal family, purely by grace.”


Personal Reflection

Jesus’ euaggélion was not primarily about how to get God’s free forgiveness. His “good news” was a simple declaration―the Kingdom of God has arrived. Strange as it sounds, the euaggélion wasn’t about how earth-bound people could get to heaven but that the Reign of Heaven had come to invade Earth.

Thus, the gospel, rightly understood, should completely reorient our religious thinking.

As you consider Jesus’ teaching and the implications of euaggélion, pause and reflect on what gospel the church has been preaching and what gospel you have believed. God has offered humanity extraordinary benefits. However, the benefits of the gospel are only accessible to legal citizens of His Kingdom―those who have surrendered to King Jesus on His terms.

The Lord Jesus called His followers into a new way of life. Yes, for sure, they had to change their beliefs. However, the kind of practical discipleship Jesus offered also required a change of allegiance, leading to radically different values, motives, and behavior. He told His disciples, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17 NASB). The blessings are in the doing, not simply in the knowing.

So, maybe now is a good time to revisit your spiritual foundation. Have you responded to the euaggélion or simply prayed a prayer and joined a church? Are you “saved” in some abstract way, or have you truly entered God’s Kingdom, where Jesus is Lord, and His present reign affects every aspect of life?


“The blessings are in the doing, not simply in the knowing.”


And even if you believe Jesus is Lord, how exactly does Jesus exercise His lordship over you? What does that look and feel like day to day? How do your thoughts, actions, and decisions reflect the truth of your confession?

Remember, God loves you and has made an incredible provision for you to enjoy. His benefits are freely accessible, and He wants you to have them. So, just as Jesus did with the first disciples, He is calling you to believe the euaggélion and enter His Kingdom. And, just as He did with His first disciples, He is expecting a reasoned response.


Excerpted from G. W. Steel, For the Fame of His Name: Rethinking Church and Missions for the 21st Century (2022). Used with permission.

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