The Gospel of the Kingdom of God
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14).
Jesus’ ministry focused on the gospel of the Kingdom of God. But what does the term ‘gospel’ mean? Did you know that this word was used before Jesus’ ministry began?
The English word gospel comes from two old German words: god meaning good and spel meaning message. The underlying Greek word translated as gospel is euangelion (pronounced yoo-angelion). It comes from two root words – eu, meaning good, and angelos, meaning messenger (the English word angel derives from this Greek word).
To understand the history of the term gospel, we will look at some Roman history just before the time of Jesus.
In 48 BC, Julius Caesar was serving as Dictator of Rome. He gradually combined the political and religious systems of Rome into his control. He was very popular and was called “the god made manifest, offspring of Ares and Aphrodite, and common saviour of human life” (Deissmann, p 344). Just a few years later, he was assassinated. His death triggered a long civil war which would determine the future of Roman dominions.
In 30 BC, Caesar’s nephew Octavian became the victor of this war and sole ruler of what would be called the Roman Empire. He took the title Augustus and power was gradually centralized into his hands. Because he ended a time of strife and initiated a time of plenty, he was extolled by many contemporary writers.
The poet Horace called him: “Father, and guardian of our race…” (Odes, 1.12)
The writer Virgil wrote: “…Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will again establish a golden age…he will advance his empire beyond Garamant (modern-day Libya) and India, to a land which lies beyond the stars…” (Aeneid, 6.791-793).
Octavian was called the ‘son of a god’ and later given the title ‘god of god’ (Deissmann, 344-345). An inscription was made during his reign at the ancient city of Pergamum. It reads: “The Emperor, Caesar, son of a god, the god Augustus, of every land and sea the overseer” (ibid, 347).
The idea of the Roman Empire meant the preservation of human life; peace and plenty were promised for all through this leader. Things improved so much from the years of civil war that the birth of Augustus was viewed as an ominous sign for the Roman world.
One archaeological find that illustrates the veneration shown to him is the Priene Calendar Inscription. It was written in Greek about 9 BC. We have a picture of part of it below and an excerpt translated into English.
“…Since Providence…has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus…sending him as a saviour, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things…the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world…” (Deissmann, p 366; Evans).
The underlying Greek word translated as ‘good tidings’ is euangelion. Augustus, like his great uncle, was also called savior. This revolutionizes the way that we read the New Testament!
When Jesus and the early disciples proclaimed the good news or euangelion of the Kingdom of God, it carried political implications! This Good News pointed people away from the Roman kingdom. Instead, the Kingdom of God was the way to bring true peace, prosperity, and order to the world. This message challenges humanity not to look not upon earthly kingdoms to meet our needs, but instead to look upward to God Almighty (Matthew 6:25-34).
As mentioned earlier, Augustus was given the title of lord. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), there was an increase in the number of references to the emperor as ‘lord’ or kyrios in Greek. This was especially true in the East. On one marble tablet from Greece, he was called “lord of the whole world…” (Deissmann, p 354-355). In Acts 25:26, Festus, the Roman proconsul of Judea, called Nero ‘lord’ or kyrio.
It was during Nero’s reign that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “…If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, NIV). Later Jude called Jesus “…our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4, NIV).
The proclamation that the Roman Emperor was lord and the teaching that Jesus is Lord were ideas destined to clash. Already in the late 60s AD, Jewish people were put to death for refusing to confess the emperor as their lord (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 7.10.1).
To my knowledge, Polycarp is the earliest Christian to be persecuted in a similar manner. He was an early Christian leader who was ordained by the Apostle John as the bishop of Smyrna. He was martyred in about 157 AD because he refused to acknowledge Caesar as his lord and offer incense to his image. We have an excerpt from his martyrdom below:
“…there the chief of the police, Herod, and his father, Nicetas, met him and transferred him to their carriage, and tried to persuade him, as they sat beside him, saying, “What harm is there to say ‘Lord Caesar,’ and to offer incense…and to save yourself?”…
Polycarp said: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp)
CLICK here to read an article Polycarp’s life and CLICK here to read a book about his life. There are other examples of this kind of test in the second century, such as the Scillitan Martyrs North Africa (180 AD). At times, people in the empire were forced to confess that Caesar was lord or suffer the consequences.
While we as Christians belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world, we still live in this world. Most of us are citizens of some country that carries duties and responsibilities. While the Apostle Paul described our citizenship as being in Heaven (Phil. 3:20), he also discussed our responsibility as ambassadors in this present world in 2 Cor. 5:20.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (NIV).
We are ambassadors who represent the Kingdom of God on earth. That carries the weight of responsibility and a duty to share with others the True Gospel message. We show people the Kingdom of God with our lives and point people towards the reconciliation to God that comes through Jesus Christ.
Making the Stand
As part of our balancing act, we must learn to hold to Kingdom principles despite the culture and country around us. There are times when certain subjects come into the public sphere that intersect with our beliefs in God. When this occurs, we are required to make a stand for our Kingdom. Such subjects that have recently arisen include the right to life for the unborn, the Biblical definition of marriage, and others. This requires us to make stands that are not popular. Consider how Daniel stood for God while in Babylon. This is the same kind of stand we must make – but remember that when we stand for God, we never stand alone (Romans 14:4).
How Does the Story End?
The Roman government continued to proclaim itself as the good news for centuries after Augustus. They continued to proclaim themselves lords. In 238 AD, an Egyptian official wrote:
“Forasmuch as I have become aware of the good news (euangeliou) concerning the proclaiming of the Emperor Gaius Julius Verus Maximus Augustus, the son of our lord, most dear to the gods, the Emperor Caesar Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus…it is necessary, O most honorable that the goddesses be celebrated in festal procession” (Deissmann, p 367).
For the first three hundred years of Christian history, there were periodic persecutions in the Roman Empire. While most of these occurred on a local or regional level, some of them occurred on an empire-wide scale.
Countries and empires through the centuries, especially in Europe, have tried to imitate and revive the Roman kingdom from ancient times until now (which we will discuss in a future article). The influence of the good news of the Roman Empire has lasted into modern times through various means, including but not limited to: Roman law, architecture, the Latin language, Greco-Roman gods, and the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the centuries, non-conformist Christians have been persecuted by these revivals of the Roman power.
The Roman Empire has viewed the Kingdom of God as competition. But make no mistake – there is no competition. God’s Kingdom will triumph over all other Kingdoms, including the remnants of the Roman Empire, at Christ’s return (Daniel 2:40-42).
Remember that Christ’s message about the Kingdom of God had political implications. It challenged the idea that a human government could provide for all our needs. He taught us to seek God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness. This will keep our focus on heavenly things so that we are not distracted by the agendas of earthly kingdoms, which are destined to fail. Christians belong to an unshakable kingdom (Hebrews 12:26-28).
When Jesus returns, He will end this current age and conclude previous ages (see Hebrews 9:26; Matthew chapter 24). He will rule the earth with righteousness and the glorified children of God will rule with Him (Rev. 20:4-6). He will initiate a new age where there will be true peace, prosperity, and plenty for all. This is the true Gospel message that no earthly kingdom could fulfill.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Deissmann, Adolf. Light From the Ancient East. Translated by Lionel R. M. Strachan. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922. pp 344-347, 354-355, 366-367
Evans, Craig. “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000. pp 67-81.
“Gospel.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gospel. Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.
Horace, Odes, 1.12. Translated by William Hathorn Mills. Berkeley, California: Lederer Street & Zeus Company. 1924. p 21.
Josephus. Wars of the Jews, 7.10.1. Whiston’s Translation revised by Rev. A.R. Shilleto, Vol. 5, London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, 1889. pp 168-169.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 8-9. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. pp 39-44.
Virgil, Aeneid. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough. vol. 1. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1925. pp 561, 563.