The Christian who desires to properly understand the church’s purpose and mission in the world must understand the centrality of the kingdom. The gospel (or “good news”) cannot be fully understood and applied apart from the kingdom of God. Once properly connected to the kingdom, we can then understand and recover the full scope and meaning of the gospel. The fact is, we think we understand the gospel in America—but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that most of us simply do not understand this most fundamental aspect of the Christian faith.
In a tragic turn of events that began in the nineteenth century with the rise of Revivalism, the gospel of the kingdom has suffered a gradual reduction to merely “the gospel,” a term meant to emphasize only the personal plan of salvation. This reduction stripped the gospel of its cosmic dimensions, which transcend one’s personal salvation to include the whole of God’s redemptive mission in the world (i.e., the missio Dei) in which He is making all things new through Christ.
George Hunsberger makes the point, “This separation has made salvation a private event by dividing ‘my personal salvation’ from the advent of God’s healing reign over all the world” In the wake of this reduction, the proclamation of the church went from “Repent, receive Christ, and enter the kingdom of God” to “Invite Jesus into your life.” The great fallacy is that we do not invite Jesus into our life—He is inviting us into His: His purpose, His work, and His kingdom!
The advance of Christ’s kingdom should never be understood as Christian sharia to be brought about by force or coercion.
In highly individualized and narcissistic America, the gospel has come to mean “fixing the sin problem” in terms that are almost entirely personal. This would also explain why so few Christians have a consciously Christian Worldview of anything beyond church and religion. The result has been a privatization of the gospel, which has little or no public effect and whose only practical implication is eschatological.
In other words, when you die you get to go to heaven. This is not the gospel according to the Scriptures. In the light of this gospel, I’m not sure what the Christian thinks he or she is supposed to do between now and then except behave better and recruit others. The fact is, the Bible speaks in a much more comprehensive way that goes far beyond the private version of the gospel that we have come to know in the West.
Matthew records the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and message with these words: “Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). In Matthew 24:14, Jesus himself describes the gospel in relation to the kingdom when He says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world…” Matthew again describes Jesus’ ministry by saying: “And Jesus went about all Galilee … preaching the gospel of the kingdom…” (4:23). Matthew reiterates this theme again in chapter 9 verse 35 when he writes, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages…preaching the gospel of the kingdom…”
Jesus told His disciples to “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7). Mark writes, “after John (the Baptist) was put in prison, Jesus came…preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15). Philip “preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). Paul and Barnabas encouraged new believers to “continue in the faith…saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:22). Paul appeared in the synagogue in Ephesus “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Paul, writing about his own ministry said, “I have gone preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25). While under house arrest, Paul received many visitors to whom he “testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus…” (Acts 28:23).
Clearly, by Jesus’ own words and the testimony of the apostles, Jesus was preaching the “good news” that through Him God’s reign has been initiated. The gospel is the fact that in Christ, the reign of God is at hand and is now breaking into the world. His kingdom, which has come, continues to come forth and will be fully consummated on the day of Christ’s return. This is the good news, which offers both a present and future hope that touches all of God’s creation! In addition, this kingdom gospel expands the mission and purpose of the church.
So, what is the kingdom (or reign) of God?
A definitive answer to this question is simply not given in Scripture, but we are given insight through the teachings of Jesus. First, Jesus makes clear that the kingdom has come—when speaking to the Pharisees, He said “…the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). Again, the commission given to the apostles was to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). This statement is taken to mean that the kingdom of the Messiah, who is the Lord, is now to be set up according to the Scriptures. To be clear, this “setting up” is entirely the work of God and the church, His instruments. The advance of Christ’s kingdom should never be understood as Christian sharia to be brought about by force or coercion.
The mission of the church is not reducible to simply maintaining the institutional church; being missional is not a program of the church, and it is not an activity that only occurs only on foreign fields.
Throughout the parables, Jesus uses the preface, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Through parabolic teaching, Jesus is describing the character and nature of God’s ruling reign that stands in stark contrast to the fallen world. In Jesus’ very first sermon recorded by Luke, He enters the synagogue in Nazareth where He had been raised; taking the book of Isaiah, He quotes the following passage:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18, 19, ESV).
When Jesus finished speaking, He closed the book, sat down, and when every eye was “fixed on Him,” He said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, NKJV). Imagine their reaction. Jesus is describing the kingdom of God in which all that has resulted from sin and the Fall is being restored by Him! The call upon humanity in the wake of this pronouncement is to repent of their sins and forsake them so that they might enter the kingdom and be saved. It is the reign of God—this full gospel—that the church is sent into the world to bring forth as God’s instrument and to which it bears witness. It is only in light of the kingdom that we can recover a proper understanding of the church’s purpose and mission.
In order for the church to be a relevant instrument and faithful witness of the gospel, we must recover this kingdom-centered understanding of the church’s mission. The church is not the kingdom; it represents the kingdom. The mission of the church is not reducible to simply maintaining the institutional church; being missional is not a program of the church, and it is not an activity that only occurs only on foreign fields. The church is a body of people who are called together and sent (by God) into the world to represent His rule and reign—Christ’s ambassadors. The church exists for the mission of God and not for itself!
A pastor friend of mine describes the in-breaking reign of God well when he says:
There is a great conversation in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Samwise is talking to Gandalf and he asks Gandalf a great question: “Will everything sad come untrue?” The Kingdom message is Christ (because of his death and resurrection) setting things right again—making everything sad come untrue.
In essence, the church bears witness to the in-breaking reign of God and serves as the instrument by which God is making “everything sad come untrue.”
There is an optimism that should naturally flow from the realization that “our God reigns” (see Isaiah 52:7). Sadly, this optimism is, in my estimation, largely absent from the evangelical church in America. Many Christians seem to live and think as if Christ has been overcome by the world rather than vice versa (see John 16:33), or that the gates of Hell do indeed prevail against the church. Perhaps by recovering the biblical mission of the church as participation in God’s unrelenting reign, we can, once again, be a people who live as more than those who seem to be barely surviving!
Adapted from S. Michael Craven, Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming our Culturalized Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008). Used with permission.
S. Michael Craven is the Associate Director for the Colson Fellows Program with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview