Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 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 (New Revised Standard Version)
I first learned those verses in the older Revised Standard Version, which said that Jesus came preaching “the Gospel of God,” and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
I interpreted that to mean three separate things:
1. He preached the Gospel.
2. He said that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
3. He called his listeners to repent and believe in the Gospel.
I assumed that the “Gospel” he called them to believe in was the story of his life and death and resurrection.
Of course, I was wrong. The Gospel is the Good News. And the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is among us. Jesus wasn’t saying three different things. He was preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God and calling his listeners to repent and believe it. That is the clear and unmistakable meaning of the text. I interpreted it differently because I brought prior assumptions to it.
My mistake was that I assumed that the Bible and the Gospel were about personal faith. I wasn’t completely wrong. The Bible has a lot to say about personal faith, but it has a lot more to say about social issues, about how we treat one another, about the meaning of justice, and especially about economic justice.
Jesus’ message was about the Kingdom of God. He invited his disciples to live in that strange place where the oppressed are set free, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear, where the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down, where the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed, where enemies are loved and strangers are welcomed, where everyone has enough and no one has too much.
But personal faith is always the popular favorite.
A recent study of Bible verses shared on the internet shows that the most shared verses are Proverbs 3:5-6, Philippians 4:6-7, Joshua 1:9, Romans 12:2, and Romans 15:13.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is striking, though it probably should not be surprising, is that all of the popular verses are about personal faith. There is nothing wrong with that. We all need it. The chosen verses are all inspiring. Romans 12:2 has always been a personal favorite or mine. We all want “tidings of comfort and joy.” And that is an important part of the biblical message. But it is not the whole message. And it is not the center of the message.
Sometimes when I listen to Christians say hurtful or vengeful or violent or selfish things in the name of their faith I cannot help wondering if we are reading the same Bible. Certainly they read the Bible differently. One suspects that it is possible to read all those verses about personal faith and come away with one’s prejudices unchallenged and one’s bigotry fully intact.