In my last post, Being Disciples: Jesus and Me?, we learned that a disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces. That learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory. That Jesus chose us for his purposes and the ‘Jesus and me’ tone that pervades the church is misleading, damaging, and wrong. If Jesus didn’t come to be my life coach - and he didn’t - then why did he come?
The public ministry of Jesus begins with the clear and unequivocal message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk.1:15 NIV)
In another place Jesus was asked about the kingdom of God, and replied, “The kingdom of God is among you...” (Luke 17:21 ESV) Some translations (NIV, NCV, KJV) have, “The kingdom of God is within you.” But this doesn't make sense in the context, i.e. he is speaking to the Pharisees. The ESV and the NASB translate correctly, “the kingdom of God is among you,” in your midst, within your reach, right here where the king is.
The kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and his whole person and ministry can only be understood in terms of the kingdom.
Jesus set himself up a rival authority to the Jewish Law. For example, in Mark 2:23-28 when his disciples were criticised for plucking and eating corn on the Sabbath Jesus defended himself by giving the example of King David (1 Sam.212:1-6). The point, however, is not that his disciples were doing what David’s men did, but that the Messianic king that David’s reign foreshadowed was here among them. If David could set himself above the Law how much more could Jesus?
When quizzed about divorce in Mark 10:2-12 Jesus didn’t argue the finer points of the Law but appealed to God’s original intention in the Creation narrative, that marriage was the union of one man and one woman for a lifetime. Jesus made it clear that his priority was the renewal of creation according to God’s original purposes.
This was the day so many had longed to see but that was now here (Mt.13:16-17; Lk.10:23) and it is marked by Jesus’ exercising kingdom authority over sickness, death and evil spirits. Peter declares that his “healing of all who were under the power of the devil” was a sign that God was with Jesus (Acts 10:38)
Jesus, answering the disciples of John the Baptist, declared that the miracles and the preaching of the kingdom are living proclamations that the long-awaited king has come (Lk.7:22)
A kingdom is where a king rules and a member of that kingdom lives by the laws and principles of that kingdom to serve the king's purposes. By extension, the kingdom of God is wherever God rules and reigns and, if he rules and reigns in and among us then that is where the kingdom is. If we are Christians then the kingdom of God is among us and the king has chosen us for his purposes. So, if we are chosen disciples for his purpose, what is his purpose?
Church as Community
When God made mankind in the beginning, “...he blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and...rule...” Genesis 1:28 gives us a picture of God's plan from the beginning. It speaks of community, growth and stewardship.
Later, in Gen. 2:24 we read, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife...” so we learn of family, father, mother, children, wife, husband. Earlier in Gen.2:1 we are told that creation was completed in and by the establishment of this community in correct relationship. It is a simple arrangement with God as Creator, mankind as his steward, charged with caring for the world as we grow and establish community and as God rules and walks among us (Gen.2:8)
Genesis 3:4-5 tells us how this all began to fail when mankind chose to change the order of things and make themselves god of their own lives. We read:
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable in gaining wisdom, she took it and ate.” You see, the serpent had promised that by eating the fruit mankind would, “be like God, knowing good and evil.”
To “know good and evil” in these verses doesn't mean a fall from naïve innocence, as though they didn’t know right from wrong until they did wrong. That would be perverse and unjust. Rather, it is a conscious decision to ignore God's command and determine what is good and evil for themselves. To “be like God” and judge good and evil; “I know what God says, but I think…”
God knows good and evil as an omniscient being, knowing everything; man's knowledge is finite, a subset of God's knowledge. To set ourselves up as judge from such a position is fatal. We are living with the consequences to this day but we are so used to me being the measure of all things we don't notice.
In the 17th century the French philosopher Rene Descartes tried to find a fundamental statement, an irreducible truth with which everyone, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Secularist, could agree. He came up with, “I think, therefore I am.” Can you see why a Christian can't agree with that statement? “I think, therefore I am.” This is the original sin, making me the measure of all things. A disciple of Jesus doesn't begin with, “I think...” or, “I feel...” A disciple of Jesus understands, God is, therefore I am. God knows everything and is in the perfect place to be the judge and measure of all things; that is how it was meant to be.
Genesis 12 tells us that God began to put this right by calling a man named Abram out of the rebellious world and into a relationship with God. “The LORD said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing...and all the people on the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
In effect, this was a family for God again. Hold onto that thought.
In Exodus we read of how that family, now grown to great size, indeed a nation as God had promised, is called out of slavery in Egypt and led by Moses to a land God has prepared for them. In effect, this is a people, a community for God, and God made plain his purposes,
“You yourselves have seen what I did in Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself...Although the whole earth is mine, you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6) In other words a kingdom for God.
Through Moses God gives them the commandments, effectively saying, “This is how a called-out people of God live in relation to God and to each other.” You see, the choosing of Abraham begins with God. The calling out of Israel from Egypt begins with God. Abraham was the father of nations because of God. Israel were a people because God made them a people. As in the Creation, God is the prime mover here.
In the rest of the Old Testament story we see these people of God rebelling and then returning to him. God sent prophets to warn them, guide them, speak to them for God. But God had promised Abraham, long before, that through him and his people all the kingdoms of the earth would be blessed, through his seed (Gen.12:7)
This promise begins to be fulfilled in the gospels as Jesus, the seed of Abraham, arrives on the scene. Paul explains it this way in his letter to the Galatians:
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but, ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Gal.3:15-16)
That one person, Christ, declared he had come, “to preach good news to the poor...to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Those held captive to sin, to me-centredness, because of man's rebellion in the beginning are to be freed. He died for your sins and mine so that, through faith in him “we” might be saved. You see, though we are saved individually, we are saved into community, family, the family of God; this is the church.
Disciples go where Jesus tells them, see Jesus at work in the world and worship him, struggle and doubt but trust Jesus, not letting doubts stop them; disciples are a work in progress, working in partnership, being discipled and discipling others. All to the end that God's purposes in making us disciples are fulfilled in the extension of his kingdom rule in this world.
That work goes on daily, but secretly, in people’s hearts and minds. Just like a seed growing in secret, whether we sleep or get up, (Mk.4:26-29) so the kingdom extends its borders until that last day when all will recognise his kingly rule (Philip. 2:9-11) Just like a mustard seed that seems so small and insignificant, the kingdom will grow to great size unobserved except by those working for the good of the kingdom.
Similarly, just as the growth of a seed to a great tree is elemental, something with which man has nothing to do, so the kingdom grows by the power of God and we will look at that. Some Christians have only a vague idea of the purposes of God beyond our being saved by grace and looking forward to a heavenly home prepared for us by Jesus. But our place in God’s plan is so much more and next time I will look at Jesus and the new humanity.