Entries in discipleship (33)
I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel. One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin. My sin. I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.
Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God. His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.
Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:
- John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
- The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
- Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
- He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
- The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
- The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
- The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
- Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today. Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom. Heaven is a great place. I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now. I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added) Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33) Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?
Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry. Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.
The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship. No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom. Yes: demonstration. Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God. Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God. The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus. In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today. To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.
Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom. In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans. Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward. He wants us to join him in the family business.
If you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else. You should pick someone who is widely respected and is recognized as an authority: the kind of person that would make others think twice before they disagree. I think I have a quote like that. Here goes:
“Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ.” ~ Dallas Willard
Dallas Willard is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, PhD., and professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is the author of numerous books on spiritual formation. His work, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God won Christianity Today’s book of the year award in 1999. He would win every year he writes a book except the people at C.T. feel the need to share with others.
Christians in the United States are more charitable than any other demographic group. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we divorce, go bankrupt, cheat on our taxes, engage in extra-martial sex, and generally live life at the same level as everyone else in society. Christians—those who take the name of Jesus Christ as their prime identity—do not follow him in any significant way. We have taken his name, but we have not taken his yoke.
Worse still, a large section of the American church has presented the gospel message as exclusively a matter of going to heaven when you die. While this is a wonderful benefit of following Jesus the fact remains that the gospel message proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles was the “gospel of the Kingdom of God.” In most churches this phrase is altogether foreign even though there are more than a hundred New Testament references to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is hard to miss in the New Testament, but we have somehow found a way. It’s right out in the open: for example, the first request of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Closely related to the message of the Kingdom of God is the need for Christians to heed the call to be Christ-followers. The Biblical word for this is discipleship, an idea that is nearly always omitted in evangelistic presentations. Our outreach efforts highlight the promise of heaven to exclusion of following Jesus. In his book, The Great Omission, Willard points out that following Jesus and teaching others to do the same is the mission of the church. This is accomplished through discipleship:
Eternal life is the Kingdom Walk, where in seamless unity, we “Do justice, love kindness, and walk carefully with our God.” (Micah 6: 8) We learn to walk this way through apprenticeship to Jesus. His school is always in session. We need to emphasize that the Great Omission from the Great Commission is not obedience to Christ, but discipleship, apprenticeship to him. (The Great Omission, p. xiv)
Is it any surprise that our churches are filled with people who do not demonstrate a significant difference from the rest of society? Is it possible that by concentrating exclusively on “eternal life,” the American church has largely gotten the message wrong? We are a church that has made following Jesus optional, while the words, “follow me” were the very ones Jesus used to call the disciples.
Of course, Dallas Willard didn’t make this stuff up. Willard knows that if you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else:
A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"
"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"
"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." (Luke 18: 18 – 30)
Jesus connected eternal life with the call to come and follow. Do we dare to do the same? I’m just glad that I didn’t say it. He did.