w e e k l y w o r d
28 January 2002
#7 RECOVER! …the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Here follows a draft of the seventh chapter of part two of a book in progress, provisionally entitled “Brave New Europe”.
The first part explains why Europe may be headed for a neo-pagan future as it jettisons its remaining “baggage” of Christendom.
The second suggests 10 imperatives for God’s people to recover faith, hope and vision for the Prodigal Continent.
The first was to: ASK! … what is God’s will for Europe?
The second: REJECT! … the enemy’s disinformation
The third: REMEMBER! … what God has done in the past
The fourth: ADMIT! … honestly the sins and mistakes of the Church
The fifth: FACE UP! …to the truth about the present.
The sixth: LOOK! … what God is up to.
The seventh imperative is to: RECOVER! … the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Suppose a friend asked you to explain to them the gospel in a nutshell. You would surely say that Jesus died for our sins, and was raised from the dead to give us eternal life. Right? But the Gospels themselves talk about Jesus preaching the ‘gospel’ three years before he went to the cross! Matthew says Jesus started his ministry going throughout Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom (chapter 4: 23). Mark writes in his opening chapter that Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God (verse 14). Luke quotes Jesus at the start of his work saying, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…” (chapter 4: 43).
The word ‘gospel’ itself is derived from the old English godspel, meaning good news. Here is Jesus spreading good news about something long before he died and rose from the grave.
So what was this good news? this gospel?
The truth is, the God-man had a burning message to communicate during his short sojourn on planet earth. This message was the whole theme of his life and ministry, from start to finish. He constantly harped on this same subject throughout his teaching. Yet somehow, despite our commitment to biblical truth, we evangelicals seem to have lost sight of this central message.
How did Jesus begin his ministry? Matthew relates that his opening message ministry, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” (chapter 4:17). Right from the start, Jesus was anxious to tell people good news about something called God’s kingdom. Mark gives us a parallel version: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (see Mark 1: 15).
Next Matthew records for us Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, delivered in the open air to the disciples, with a large crowd eavesdropping. How does the Sermon begin? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There’s that phrase again. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5: 3,10)
Jesus goes on to teach the crowd: “This is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…'” (Mt 6: 9,10)
Later in the same sermon, Jesus tells his listeners not to make a priority of food and clothing, but rather to “seek first (the Father’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6: 33)
This Kingdom of God obviously is a significant theme both of Jesus’ opening declarations and also of the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew then takes us on to the parables, stories of everyday objects and events told to communicate spiritual truths. Jesus is an astute story teller, and we can almost hear him thinking, ‘Now, how can I best illustrate this truth?’ But note the point of many of these parables. Jesus often begins with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven (or God) is like…” By telling stories about the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the valuable pearl, the fishing net, the vineyard workers, the wedding feast, and so on, Jesus explains truths about God’s kingdom.
Barely a week before the crucifixion itself, Jesus makes another very significant reference to the kingdom. He is sitting with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, looking out over Jerusalem City with the temple rising above the city walls and gates. His disciples are agitated and confused. Jesus has just predicted the destruction of the very building which had inspired nationalistic pride and hope among the Jews. How could this be so? The Messiah surely was coming to restore Israel’s glory, and to usher in a new Golden Age when the nations would come to Israel’s light?! So they ask Jesus for signs of his coming and of the end of the age.
I can imagine Jesus shaking his head and saying, “Hey guys, I know the sort of paperbacks you are reading – written by those sensationalist apocalypticists, about end-time disasters. But my warning to you is this: don’t preoccupy yourselves with such speculation. Yes, there will be wars, famines, persecutions and earthquakes. False messiahs will come and go. But watch out! Don’t get sidetracked. Don’t be deceived. Be on your guard. Only those who stay firm to the end will be saved.”
This is my paraphrase of the Olivet Discourse, recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke, and which I feel has often been misread as a sort-of Christian horoscope. I believe we can easily miss the main thrust of what Jesus is saying here. Rather than listing tell-tale signs of The End, Jesus explains that these hardships are merely birth pangs of the new era, and that the end is yet to come.
In Matthew’s version (chapter 24), Jesus finally gives the one sign that must herald the end: “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (verse 14). Here is the only place in the whole Bible where Jesus utters these words: “and then the end will come.” What needs to happen first? The gospel of the kingdom has to be preached to all nations.
So not only does Jesus open his ministry talking about something called the kingdom of God. Not only is the kingdom of God a major theme of the Sermon on the Mount. Not only are most of the parables explaining truths about the kingdom of God. But now Jesus explains the Great Commission and the end times in terms of the kingdom of God!
And there’s more. After Jesus rises from the dead, he appears to his disciples over a period of forty days. And what does Luke tell us he discussed with them? Why, of course, the kingdom of God! (Acts 1: 3). Unfortunately Luke gives no clue as to the content of these talks. But it is very clear that Jesus considered this topic to be of utmost importance. It was his opening message, the theme of the Sermon on the Mount, the point of the parables, the locus of the Great Commission, and the subject of his final instructions.
During his ministry, in fact, Jesus spoke some 142 times about this kingdom of God.
How often did he speak about the church? Surprisingly, Mark, Luke and John never record Jesus making any reference to the church at all! Only Matthew puts the word ‘church’ on Jesus’ lips – a mere two times! (Matt. 16:18; 18:17)
What then can we conclude from this quick survey of Jesus’ teaching and ministry? That Jesus is not interested in the church? No! He loves the church. He is the head of the church. He gave himself for it. He is coming back for his bride, the church.
But Jesus never told us to build the church, or even to make the church central in our lives. He said, “You seek the kingdom first, and I’ll build my church.”
Now, I believe in the local church, and in church planting. I have been actively promoting the DAWN church planting strategy and believe we need many thousands of new local churches across Europe. But we need to recognise that, surprising as it may sound, the church was not the end focus of Jesus
‘ ministry. Of course, he ch
ose and trained the disciples, who became the pillars of the church. But he sent them out to witness to something called the kingdom of God. They were to share the gospel of the kingdom among all peoples. That was the focus of Jesus’ ministry.
E. Stanley Jones, missionary statesman in India last century, once said, “If the kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus’ ministry, then the rediscovery of the kingdom of God is the greatest human need.”
What is this Kingdom?
What then is the kingdom of God? And what are we praying for when we say, ‘May your kingdom come’? What is the good news we are to take to all peoples before the end can come?
Our first clue comes from the opening chapter of the Bible, where we read the original instructions God gave to Adam and Eve: “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over the fish, the birds and the animals.”
Here we learn something of God’s original intention for this planet, and for the human race. He wanted his will to be done – on earth as it was in heaven. He wanted humans to be his regents to govern over the creation. Adam and Eve and their offspring were to be agents of his kingdom, his rule, his government. They were to ensure that God’s shalom reigned – on earth as in heaven.
The Hebrew word shalom is far richer than the English ‘peace’. It conveys the idea of everything being in right relationship and functioning as God originally intended – full, cosmic harmony. This was God’s original plan. But of course Adam and Eve’s choice to do things their own way produced terrible disaster – nothing short of cosmic alienation. God however has not given up on his plan. Starting with Abraham, he begins to shape a creative minority through whom he will work to restore his government, his shalom, his kingdom.
The words kingdom, government, rule and shalom are closely related concepts. Isaiah foretold of the child who would one day shoulder the government, who would be called Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and that “of the increase of his government and shalom there [would] be no end.” (Isaiah 9:7)
The prophet Daniel kept expectations alive of God’s kingdom one day spreading throughout the whole earth (chapter 2: 35,44). Daniel is sometimes called the prophet of the kingdom because of the recurring theme of the kingdom in his book, written in Babylon, the den of paganism. He tells the stirring story of how the world’s most powerful ruler of the day, Nebuchadnezzar, was humbled to confess the God of Israel, the nation he himself had conquered, as the Most High God: “His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (chapter 4: 34).
So by the time we come to the New Testament, and the opening of Jesus’ ministry, we already have picked up much understanding about God’s kingdom: it is universal, everlasting, a rule of righteousness, the ultimate state of shalom. Briefly defined, the kingdom of God is where God’s will is being done.
No wonder the crowds began to follow Jesus! He began to tell everyone everywhere that what the prophets had foretold was now on its way! God’s kingdom was near. That was great news, something they had been waiting centuries to hear. Their forefathers had suffered under the Babylonians and the Persians. Two centuries earlier, the Greeks had desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem with a statue of Zeus, provoking the Maccabean rebellion. And now they themselves lived under the yoke of the Roman occupiers.
Besides, Jesus was not just talking about the coming rule of God. People were being healed. Lepers were being cleansed. Blind people were seeing again. The demon-possessed were being freed. Shalom was breaking through! God’s kingdom was already coming. God’s will was being done in individual lives.
This was the evidence Jesus told John’s disciples to take back to their master when they came with his question, “Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7: 19). It was indeed very good news!
Jesus instructed his disciples to spread this same good news of the kingdom. They too went out into the villages – and to their amazement demons obeyed their commands. They too saw healings! God’s new order was breaking through – even before Jesus had gone to the cross!
Over the next three years, Jesus continued to demonstrate and to teach about life in God’s kingdom. Much, however, seemed to go over the disciples’ heads. And they were certainly a bewildered lot when all their hopes and dreams were crushed by the arrest, trial and execution of their master.
So when he appeared to them repeatedly after the resurrection, over a period of nearly six weeks, there were still many loose ends in their understanding.
“Master, is this the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” they asked on one occasion. The disciples had not yet grasped the big picture. They did not yet see that Israel had been chosen to be a blessing for all peoples, not for their own sakes. They probably had not at all registered what Jesus had told the crowd in the temple court just a few weeks earlier: that the kingdom of God would be taken away from Israel to be given to a people who would produce its fruit (Matthew 21: 43).
They were still expecting Messiah to restore Israel’s glory and zap her nasty enemies, starting with the Romans.
Perhaps because of these huge gaps in their understanding, Jesus took this time to instruct them about the kingdom over these six weeks before the ascension. Maybe the reason Luke gives no hint of the content of these sessions is that it was perhaps was a recap of what Jesus had already taught in his parables: that the kingdom would start small and grow slowly and in hidden ways; that the kingdom would grow side by side with evil in the world, like wheat growing among weeds; that the kingdom was the greatest treasure to be found and should be top priority for everyone; that, conversely, wrong priorites could strangle kingdom life – the cares of this world and especially the deceitfulness of wealth.
Jesus possibly reviewed the three easy-to-remember instructions about the kingdom, to be passed on to followers of all generations:
seek God’s kingdom first;
pray for God’s kingdom to come; and,
go and share this gospel of the kingdom with all peoples.
When Jesus finally did leave the disciples, his last words mirrored God’s first instructions to Adam and Eve: the disciples too were to spread out into all the world, spreading the good news of God’s rule. They were to make disciples and teach them to do exactly the same, starting a chain reaction.
The difference was that this world was now a broken, sinful world. Yet the very movement these disciples were starting was to be God’s rescue plan for an alienated world. Jesus’ followers were called to be witnesses to God’s shalom breaking into human affairs, to the advance of a new order of things. It would start slowly, but eventually would spread like leaven throughout the whole world. The events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had confirmed that not even death could shake God’s kingdom. Jesus was tougher than hell!
Later John would describe the final scenario in which “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ” (Rev 11: 15). Paul would develop a theology for the early church which saw history coming to a climax when God would reconcile all things under heaven and on earth to himself through his son Jesus (Col 1: 20). God’s shalom, when everything was restored back into right relationship, was the future.
This is the point at which, somewhere along the line, we lost sight of God’s purposes. Just as Israel became ethno-centric, and forgot their broader calling, so we Christians have often become church-centred, and lost sight of our calling to be witnesses to God’s new order, the kingdom.
God’s plan is to reconcile all things unde
r heaven and on earth under the lordship of Christ – the only thing left out of this category of “all things” is hell! His purpose is to see every area of life reconciled to his original intention: church and family, school and business, recreation and relationships, law and government, arts and entertainment, sport and healthcare, science and technology… you name it, it comes under the category of ‘all things under heaven and on earth’.
The good news is that God has a purpose for every area of life, and we will live life to the full when we discover that purpose. This is a task for every believer in every walk of life, not just for an elite caste of ‘priests’.
God has not abandoned his original purpose to see his kingdom come on earth, despite the major setback of the Fall. God’s people, firstly in the Old Testament, and then in the New Testament, were to be his kingdom agents, witnesses to the new order, and agents of transformation here on earth! In teaching us to pray, “May your kingdom come”, Jesus was not referring to a heavenly reality; he was arousing our expectation that this is what God wanted for planet earth! The very next line of the prayer unfolds the meaning of the line before: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Ask yourself: is it God’s will for God’s will to be done on earth? and in Europe? Is it God’s will to reconcile all things under heaven and on earth to himself through Jesus?
If the answer is yes, then why in our churches do we concentrate on coming out of the world, getting saved, and going to heaven? Why is our ultimate focus on church programmes, church attendance figures, and the size of our congregations, when Jesus told us to seek God’s kingdom first?
Shouldn’t we be focussing on seeing God’s kingdom come in greater and greater measure here on planet earth? here in Europe? Shouldn’t we be concerned with the impact our congregation or cell of believers is having in transforming our neighbourhood or district? Shouldn’t we be embracing our responsibility and role in being witnesses of the kingdom and agents of transformation, starting with the transformation of individual’s hearts?
Personal salvation is of course essential. Jesus told Nicodemus that it was impossible even to enter God’s kingdom without being born again (John 3: 3). But the end goal was not salvation – the goal was life in the kingdom! Why then have we whittled the gospel down to the message of salvation? That’s merely the threshold.
The message that burned in Jesus’ heart was not simply about getting saved. It was good news about living under God’s rule. The gospel Jesus proclaimed throughout his life and ministry was the gospel of the kingdom, not just the gospel of salvation. We have indeed shrunken the gospel.
Church & kingdom
But, I hear some say, are not the church and the kingdom the same thing? Simply try this test: substitute the word “church” for “kingdom” in the Lord’s prayer, or any other verse. Are we to pray for God’s church to come? Was it the good news of the church that Jesus went about preaching? Will the church of this world one day become the church of our God and of his Christ?! No, we simply cannot exchange these words without changing the meaning of the text.
What then is the relation between the church and the kingdom? We have already seen how Jesus sent his disciples – the embryonic church – into the villages to witness to the good news of the coming of God’s government, and to demonstrate its reality. God’s people are called to witness to what they have seen and experienced of the rule of God in their own lives, and to demonstrate its power as they minister wholeness and healing, reconciliation and restoration. In their daily lives, God’s people are to be agents extending God’s shalom into every sphere of human life. Their aim is to seek God’s kingdom first, to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and to share the gospel of the kingdom with everyone everywhere.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that it is through the church that God displays his wisdom to the spiritual powers and principalities (chapter 3: 10). God’s people are kingdom agents. But the church is not the kingdom itself. The kingdom is where God’s will is being done. Insofar as God’s will is being done in our churches, there is the kingdom. But you and I know that that is not always the case in our churches. Insofar as God’s will is being done in other spheres of life – politics, education, law, etc, etc, so too is the kingdom advancing in these lifespheres.
Ideally the church should be a colony of the kingdom, a pilot project of the coming kingdom. Paul describes the role leadership gifts should play in the community of God’s people as equipping the believers for their task out in the broader community (Ephesians 4: 11).
But we have picked up much baggage over the centuries, accumulating many non-biblical ideas about church. Church has come to mean a building where formal ceremonies occur under the leadership of an elite clergy; where people hear about getting saved, going to heaven and being taken out of this world. Yet three whole centuries of the early church passed before a building was ever built for the purpose of Christian worship. But once there were walls to hide behind, the concept of church changed. Instead of being in the world but not of the world, the church increasingly became of the world but not in the world.
So when we place the church central instead seeking the kingdom first, we are guilty of doing what Israel did: we forget we are chosen to bless others, not simply to be blessed.
Already & not yet
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus declared the kingdom was near. What do we then make of the mess we see around us in the world at the start of the third millennium? Was Jesus’ mission an heroic failure? Was it all a misunderstanding? Has the church failed in her mission?
Think back to the parable about the wheat and the tares; and the mustard seed; and the yeast. From small inauspicious beginnings, the kingdom would grow, and grow, and grow. Yet evil would also abound until harvest time.
As we look back over the 20th century, we see the greatest century ever in terms of the expansion of the church – and the worst century ever in terms of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow humans – this is the wheat and tares of Jesus’ parable. As we enter the new century we can also expect to see continuing growth of God’s kingdom, and increase of evil.
Yes, there is a sense in which the kingdom of God has already come, at least partially. God’s will is being done in increasing numbers of believers on this globe.
Yet on the other hand, there is still much more to come. Obviously God’s shalom has not yet been universally established. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, many hoped for a new reign of international harmony. Some talked of the ‘end of history’. But events in Bosnia and Kosovo have dispelled any such euphoria.
There is clearly a tension between the ‘already’ dimension of the kingdom and the ‘not yet’ dimension. How much can we expect the kingdom to come before Jesus returns? We know from what Jesus said that the good news of the kingdom must reach all peoples before he does return. But we also know from his parables that the tares in this world will not be dealt with until the final harvest.
That is not to discourage us from expecting ongoing expansion of God’s kingdom. It is clearly God’s will for his Kingdom to expand. We are to pray for it. Just as none of us expect to achieve full Christlikeness in our present lives, we strive towards that goal. So too we are to seek God’s kingdom first, and strive towards the goal of seeing his shalom established on earth, in Europe, as it is in heaven.
God’s people therefore are called to a role of shaping the future. We share a responsibility for tomorrow’s Europe. More about that next week.