When we read the Gospels, it is helpful to remember that Israel was an occupied country. Its terror alert was always at red, and that the occupation forces and their collaborators in the government were constantly on the lookout for extremists.
The arrival of John the Baptist shook things up. He was the quintessential extremist. Think of his message, and how threatening it must have been to those who were in charge: A kingdom is about to arrive, led by someone with unimaginable power, and you had better get ready. He will do away with corruption. He will put this land through a baptism of fire, and if you are on the wrong side, you will get burned (Matthew 3:11-12).
As we might expect, his message did not sit well with the authorities, and John was eventually arrested. When that happened, Jesus went public. He had been teaching for many months, but now he took things to the next level. He climbed onto the stage that John had occupied. Verse 14: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee,” which was the land of political extremism, “proclaiming the good news of God.”
The groundwork had already been laid. Now Jesus began proclaiming the good news. The word translated good news (it is just one word in Greek) is the word used to proclaim the victory of a coming military conqueror (for instance, Caesar) in the ancient world, and the very word routinely translated gospel. Here it is called God’s gospel or the gospel about God. The triumph of the God Jesus told people about is good news.
But the god many people seem to believe in – then and now – is not good news at all. He is hesitant to get involved. He carries a chip around on his massive shoulder and is ready to punish people at the drop of a pin. He hates to see people happy. He only takes care of those who take care of themselves – in other words, those who don’t need him – while he turns his back on the rest of us.
But the God Jesus told people about really is good news. He loves both the just and the unjust. He cares about the poor, the sorrowing, the meek – the people others don’t even notice. He is absolutely just, perfectly good, and infinitely loving. The God about whom Jesus spoke wants people to be with him. He is involved; he pays attention: not even a sparrow falls to the ground without him knowing it. He is not just the heavenly Father; he is our Father, our Abba even (that was shocking language to use of God). He truly is good news.
The gospel Jesus proclaimed is the announcement that this good God’s good kingdom has come near. “The time,” verse 15, “has come [or literally, is fulfilled].” The promises dating back to the Garden, to Abraham, to Moses, to David had been gathered into a single strand. The moment has arrived. The time is now. “The kingdom of God – his rule, through his king – is near.” Sometimes we skip over this message so that we can get to the part about going to heaven, as if the only thing that matters is our entrance into heaven when we die. But you cannot reduce the gospel of God to a method for getting to heaven. Jesus spoke far more often about entering the kingdom than he did about getting into heaven. His refrain was: “The kingdom of God is near.” He was still saying it the week he was executed. In fact, he was still saying it after he rose from the dead (Acts 1:3)