Repent and Believe…
… for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
This short statement is the concise version of the Gospel message.
The Gospel of Mark (1:14-15) tells us:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”
As much as we so ardently try to define the word “Gospel” in fancy philosophical and theological language today, we too often forget that it is so succinctly and powerfully described by Jesus at the very beginning of His ministry. Instead of explicating the magnificent nature of sin, atonement, crucifixion, resurrection, perseverance, and any other doctrinal term, Jesus’ initial message to the people is that the Kingdom is at hand. This is the Gospel, this is the literal “good news.” That Jesus was the Son of God, died, and was raised from the dead as propitiation for our sin is of course vitally important to the solid understanding we have of Christianity, but even those concepts in themselves are only integral symptoms of the larger implication: God’s kingdom rule is at work within the world.
After Jesus proclaims the Gospel, He expounds upon it, gives teaching, heals the sick, stands up for the poor and needy, casts out demons, etc. Each and every miracle, each and every teaching, was in essence a foreshadowing of the Kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Parables, and all other moral teachings of Jesus, illustrate what He expects this Kingdom reign to look like and how we as His followers are to live under its rule. Each version of the “Gospel” (that is, the written New Testament book) gives a different slant on the ideal… Mark is focused on giving a subtle portrayal of Jesus’ divine messiah status which is shown very much through His actions, to the extent that not even His disciples are able to understand His true identity, at least not until the crucifixion. Matthew’s slant is very Jewish, painting Jesus as very much the Messiah promised to Israel in the Old Testament, heaping up scriptural quotes in the story to accentuate this reality. Luke’s focus is on Jesus’ social ethic, having Him proclaim justice and freedom to the oppressed and need (Luke 4:16-21) and institute a new political ethic based on the redistribution of wealth. This would come by means of “Jubilee”, the Mosaic mandate in which farmed land was to lie fallow in the Sabbatical year, and every seventh Sabbatical (49 years) slaves would be released and each worker would be free to return to his family property. The cancellation of debts on the Sabbath year was also essential to this law. I shall be speaking more about what I have learned of Jubilee in a future post, but for now it is sufficient to say that Jesus expected this kind of socio-economic justice to be delivered and manifested by His followers in the here-and-now; “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
If we are to place our faith in a holistic portrait of Jesus Christ, then it is necessary to incorporate all of these individual focuses; Jesus is the Messiah, He is also the Son of God who demonstrates His divine identity through work as well as preaching, who desires justice to be executed on earth by those who believe in Him, and upon whose power justice of this kind is even possible. Just as the remission of sins was made possible by the resurrection power, so too it is from the same source that Christians are to free the oppressed and feed the hungry in much the same manner our Saviour did. In essence, the power of God, the Holy Spirit, is the one who drives this Kingdom rule into effect; through Her, God’s supreme reign is gradually and certainly being established upon the earth, one day to find complete sovereignty over all creation.
1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (ESV)
24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
27For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.
28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
The first two verses in this passage are especially interesting to me. The entire chapter is devoted to the beautiful picture of God’s Kingdom when it has been fully established on earth. Obviously no one living now is capable of understanding or even imagining what this event will look like, or even if it will remotely resemble anything comparable to that which is perceived by the human senses in this world. What Paul assures us of, however, is that “every ruler, authority, and power” will be destroyed before the Kingdom can come in its fullness, with death being the final conquered enemy. In verse 24, the descriptive terms apply to both heavenly (that is, Satanic) and earthly systems of rule. No distinction is made between them, and the passage is clear. The human institutions of government do not survive the transformation of this world any more so than the powers of death and demon. We see this explained a little by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels:
20 Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor.
21 “What is your request?” he asked.
She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”
22 But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?”
“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”
23 Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”
24 When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant.
25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.
26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,
27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.
28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We see that the disciples were asking something of Jesus of which they did not comprehend the full reality. To drink from the same cup as Jesus is the fate of suffering just as Jesus did. Not every disciple will suffer in quite the same way or to exactly the same extent that the Lord did, but when we are awakened to the reality of God in Christ we become aware of an inner despair that haunts our humanity – the condition of mortality and all that it entails, the depressing realisation that pain is an integral quality of earthly life even as we so long to be with our loving Father in Heaven. To stop there, however, would be also to largely misunderstand the Gospel. Because though we were initially slaves to Sin, and though we might be decaying as the rest of the Creation is, we are likewise also being set free from those mortal conditions. To hold on to the idea of resurrection is imperative since we ourselves are in a state of being resurrected along with Christ, by exactly the same universal power that made His victory possible!
Where Peter and John perhaps failed in this instance, was not realising that the joy of sharing in this resurrection also means the renunciation of personal glory. The disciples wanted greatness in addition to knowing Jesus, but He affirmed to them rather that if they wish to have greatness then they in turn must be servants just as Jesus Himself was. And in a large sense, He means this very literally; to “take up one’s cross” not only means to die to self and be raised in newness of life (and let it be known that I do dislike speaking so flippantly in these kinds of Christian-ese clichés), but also to show the same kind of sacrificial love that Jesus Himself showed toward us. Paul says that even while we were still sinners, Christ showed His love by dying for those very sins. Were we not ourselves enemies of God before we found the true revelation of Her nature in Christ? So too, servant hood to the Gospel infers a willingness to lay down our lives for the sake of the world’s salvation if need be. Not because we are capable of saving the world on our own power, but because God makes His salvation known through the manifestation of the church. We as Christians ought to be operating in this world, now, today, as though we are working for the wages of the Kingdom of God. With every righteous action that the Almighty achieves through our works, His sovereign reign comes all the more closer to being fully established upon the earth.
And with that continual establishment, what else does Jesus tell His disciples?
“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.”
The position of governing authority, quite simply, is not meant for the Christian! The one who has found Christ is instead awakened to the position of both greatness and servant hood; greatness in that we have been chosen to share in the magnificent inheritance that the Father has prepared for His Son, servant hood in that we are equals in the eyes of the Lord. The Kingdom is one with God alone as its sole authority, no other. Jesus may not necessarily have been an “anarchist,” lest we label Him with an anachronistic term, but rather He saw no place for the rule of any other human authority within the sphere of His own. A closer scrutiny of the New Testament will show the reader that the State is not seen as an entity which can be redeemed, and Christ never attempted to direct His Gospel message toward any type of collective government. His message was for the poor, the peasants, the masses… it was good news to them, that the justice and freedom for their situation would be upon them, and also an awakening to the rich that their material wealth wasn’t as much of a blessing as they thought it might be. Indeed, if the one with wealth had any hope of entering the Kingdom, then he would be obligated to redistribute his material wealth among those of the poor and needy (Luke 19:1-10 as just one of the many New Testament examples of this stipulation). With riches come power, and the type of corruption which came with this accumulation of power was not one which would be spiritually beneficial. In this sense, it is as if Jesus is speaking not just to the rich, but also to those in elevated positions of human authority: “The power you have accumulated in this life is corruptive and will one day perish with you. But the Kingdom I am setting up will have a perfect authority at its head.”
Jesus was not alien to the ways of the world. Were it so, there would have been no need to sacrifice Himself upon that cross. Likewise, the Christian ought to appreciate that systems of power are a reality of the world, and that they will continue in their places up until the judgement of God transforms the whole of reality. That, however, is the entire point. God alone is capable of doing this, and just it is only God who can instil the Kingdom in fullness, so likewise it is only God who can bring the rulers and authorities of this earth to an end. Jesus knew, just as we now know, that there will continue to be wars and rumours of war. But because we are in the world yet not of it, we also must appreciate that the Christian has no place participating in war. Similarly, the Christian has no place being part of a system of government or entering into any profession which would require him or her to swear an oath of allegiance to any system of power inferior to the Almighty God.
33″Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
34But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
Let your yes be yes, let your no be no, says our Lord. We cannot separate ourselves from the State if we proclaim that we have allegiance to it. The Christian has an allegiance, and it is to God alone; and this is not something he had to swear for, because God knows the person’s heart from beginning to end. To declare allegiance to a governing authority which is coming to an imminent end is akin to the practise of idolatry. A Christian has no place either being in a position of coercive authority, or being coerced himself by that same authority.
Does this mean we have nothing to do with government? Not by any means. We pay taxes, just as Jesus instructed, and we respect the laws under which we happen to be living. We do not, however, involve ourselves in violence nor in oppression, which are both tools for any system of earthly power. A Christian does not participate in military action, or in any position whereby he is obligated to use fatal force, but this does not dull the sense of compulsion he has from God to stand up for the weak, poor, defenceless, and needy. He simply knows that if he truly wishes to be a vessel for divine change in the world around him, he relies on the weapons bestowed upon him by God Almighty rather than the weapons by which the world endeavours to forcefully achieve its desired changes. Similarly, though the Christian has no business being in direct alliance with a government, this does not invalidate the obligation he has to do that which is in his power to bring that government to repentance. The church is separate from the State, but a potential vessel for change made manifest to the State nonetheless. God does not ignore our need to provide love, compassion, and practical help to those in the world who need Him; but let us not forget that He demands of us very different ways of operation than those deemed necessary by the earthly authorities. We are in the world, but not of it.
Of course, this opens up a whole can of worms for the concerned Christ-follower, and so it should. If we were left with rigid ethics of living, then there would be no room for debate and growth. But the immediate concern is, to what end does separation from State aspire? Simply this: the Kingdom of God in fullness. Let us not envisage a utopia that is within our grasp to achieve, or set our sights in a direct objective for affirmative godly action in the world around us, save for that upon which we set our ultimate hope. Our ultimate hope is the resurrection of the dead into glory, and with the final defeat of all evil that this will bring.
The Christian, the one who sees God’s objectives, yet who knows that he is as fallible and changing as any other human being, says this:
“I know that wars will continue to rage. I know that decadence will always be a part of this world until its end. I know that earthly systems of power will remain seated, and that they will exercise their influence in ways which is often destructive, oppressive, and immoral. I know that they will rely upon weapons, armaments, military, and every other manner of policing and keeping the peace in the narrow manner they deem necessary. I know that these States will continue to demand obedience, allegiance, and loyalty from their people. I know very well that it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to bring an end to these systems, and I know that I cannot ever be certain of whether the church will provide the witness God expects it to in order for these systems to find repentance. And until the day He comes in glory, I know that people of the world will continue relying upon violence, war, and subversive authority in order to gain the sense of protection and security they feel they need, which for all I know may not even be as pernicious as I believe them to be. However, as one who is in the world and yet not of it, I am awakened to the fact that I am simply not called to be a part of these earthly dynamics. I will not call you immoral, but I will witness to you the hope present in my life which is accorded to me by God in Christ Jesus, whose resurrection assures me of the defeat of evil and provides me with the source of power by which I face this dying world in the same manner of non-violent action He preached and practised. Do as you will, and I will do as I will. Though these systems exist, I am not called to be a part of them, and instead root myself firmly in the Kingdom of God.”