Posts Tagged ‘Kingdom of God’

SubversiveI was almost immediately turned off by this book when one of the first things I saw was a quote by Shane Claiborne. I pressed on because that's the deal and eventually arrived at page 24-25. What I read on those two pages inspired me to press on further:

From the time of the murder of every young boy after Jesus' birth to the day of his crucifixion, Jesus was opposed by an empire intent on maintaining the status quo. This kingdom labeled Jesus a troublemaker, rabble-rouser, dissident, community organizer, agitator, nonviolent revolutionary, renegade, rebel, and traitor. But none of this was a surprise to God, for God was preparing the world for the coming revolution.

Many of our Sunday schools continue to encourage followers of Jesus to embrace a respectable Jesus, an agreeable teacher with pleasant stories to tell about how to be good. But no one would crucify this Jesus. No one would be threatened by such bland personal morality. Instead, they'd invite this Jesus over for a cup of tea and a chat about the weather. (24-25)

At this point, I was fairly well hooked. I mean, if this was the basis for everything else Greenfield was going to write in the book, then how could it go wrong?

Greefield goes on over the next eleven short chapters to explain to his readers all the various ways that he and his friends believe Jesus is subversive. Jesus is subversive in sharing, parenting, charity, suffering, and vocation among others. And, sure enough, Greenfield and his followers have all managed to flesh these various subversions rather well. It is very compelling the way he and his family have lived out these subversive behaviors that Jesus evidently taught, lived, and advocated. "He came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He came to subvert the world as we know it" (27).

I'm torn, frankly, as to whether or not I like this book. There are times when I was all over it and marking up my pages, underlining sentences, posting quotes on Twitter. When Greenfield talks about money and power and how the birth of Jesus took place in that shadow and then goes on to talk about Jesus preaching an alternative to empire–wow, I was hooting and hollering and jumping up and down on my couch.When he poked the bear and said, "Today, too many of our churches have concocted a dozen ingenious reasons why these stories no longer mean what they say," (78) I was again stunned that someone had the nerve to say it, and mean it.

Then there were other times when I was fairly well convinced that I was reading the party platform of the liberal wing of the American government. There were times when I felt as though Greenfield was loudly condescending towards those reading the book who might take exception with his particular understanding of what kingdom means and how we might go about being subversive. There were times when I deeply disagreed with his particular take on something Jesus said or did (for example, his conclusion that the feeding of the 5,000 was a mere 'beautiful miracle of sharing and abundance', 51.) And there were times when I felt that his activism bordered on the absurd (for example, the Pirate Flash Mob is something I seriously doubt Jesus would participate in precisely because it is absurd. See chapter 9, 'Subversive Citizenship.')

In the end, I came down on the side of liking the book. It seems to me that what I heard him saying is that what really matters is Jesus and love in Jesus' name. We need not be divided by our binary code of political opinions if we are united in our passion for the Lord's heart.

I think there is a lot about this book to commend and I do recommend it to my readers who want their faith to be challenged and who want to start living a more Jesus driven, Kingdom oriented life.

There are parts of this book that people are going to like. There are parts of this book that people are going to hate. As I noted above, I'm not sold on all of his exegetical points and I'm not sold on all his practical applications of said exegesis. At the end of the day, however, this is a book that tells the story of how one family decided to live out their vocation among the poor of the world. I think they do it well and I think it would be great if more people could live in such a way. That's not, necessarily, Greenfield's ambition though: "You must resist the temptation to do nothing because you can do only a little or because you can't like someone else who seems more radical. It takes many candles to overcome the darkness" (164). He goes on, "There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book. The stories are merely demonstrations of how God has worked in my life and the lives of those around me" (164-165).

That is a helpful caveat and helped bring the book to a good close for me. Each of us is called to a place in life and we struggle to live out that life faithfully in the place God has called us. The Lord called Greenfield to live among the poor and enrich their lives. He called me to educate children with special educational needs–many of whom are poor and living in single-parent environments. Others will have their own calling to be faithful to. It's not always easy. Greenfield's book, despite my reservations, is a helpful corrective and a powerfully prophetic word to the church in America that has grown too Conservative, too Binary, and too wealthy to mount any formidable offense against the powers of darkness that prevail in this land. Prophets like this are necessary for the church to wake us up. One only hopes it's not too late.

I love the quote he includes on page 27 from Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador: "A church that doesn't provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is proclaimed–what gospel is that?"

Herein is the challenge for Christians–especially American Christians–who live in a sterile environment where faith amounts to a mere tithe on the first day of the week. I think this book is a wonderful example of a radical alternative to the empire of this world, a counter-cultural challenge to be exactly the opposite of what this world expects Christians to be: white, clean, tidy, and full of all the right answers. This book got under my skin, it unsettled me, it challenged my privilege, and my values.

Let's hope that the provocation continues in me and begins in others.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $11.40)
  • Author: Craig Greenfield
  • On the Web: Alongsiders
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Pages: 182
  • Year: 2016
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the BookLook bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
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I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.

The Kingdom of God

Sermon Text: Matthew 13

One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.

So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?

But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.

We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.

But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.

And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.

And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?

It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.

And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.

Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.

And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.

Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)

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Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.

We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.

It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.

Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.

On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.

And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.

In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.

I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.

The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.

Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:  'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.

This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:

"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)

So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.

John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.

John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

That is power!

I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.'  Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?

Or is the church devoid of prophets?

How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?

How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?

What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.

So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.

Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?

I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!

Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!

Part 1: What the Church Should be Doing. Now.

Part 2: What the Church Should be Preaching. Now.

Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.

In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).  Funny that Peter said this to the Church!

My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.

So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.

For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.

Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:

Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)

He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)

A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).

There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.

A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')

What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?

Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.

We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.

In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?

We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.

What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.

I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.

So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Just Jesus.

978-1-63146-516-1Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?

That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.

This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.

I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.

He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.

The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.

The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master. 

I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.

It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.

Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)

This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.

I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
  • Author: Michael Frost
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: Michael Frost
  • Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: NavPress
  • Pages: 125
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)

This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.

Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.

But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.

Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.

He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?

He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?

He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?

Are you prepared to take up your cross?

Are you prepared to lose your life?

The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.

I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.

Where are you?

Let. Life. Go.

Read: Matthew 6

Let's be short today. Maybe.

Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.

I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.

Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.

So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?

Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?

I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.

This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.

Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.

That's all.

Read: Matthew 4; Daniel 7; Isaiah 52-53; Romans 10

"Nowhere in scripture is it set out more clearly that the kingdom of the one true God stands over against the kingdoms of the world, judging them, calling them to account, condemning them, and vindicating God's people" than in the Book of Daniel. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, 158)

After Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the 'wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (4:1). Jesus stands his ground by remembering Scripture. This is probably something I suppose we all ought to do instead of relying on all the tricks and methods that modern pulpiteers created and package and encourage us to practice. But I digress.

But maybe I do not. You see, here's what I see. I see Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry going about with the Word of God on his lips, in his mouth, rolling off his tongue to whoever would listen and perhaps to some who would not listen willingly. I'm sure the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness was not happy to hear the word of God thrown into his face. Remember when he tempted Adam and Eve? They too hurled Scripture back to the devil, but something went wrong and they gave in to the temptation to sin anyhow.

I wonder how Jesus succeeded where they failed? I wonder if anyone of us noticed that Jesus succeeded where they failed? That third temptation always bowls me over too, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" (4:8-9). Then we note, again flashing forward to the end of the book, that Jesus gets these kingdoms anyhow doesn't he? All authority in heaven and earth, he says, has been given to Me.

Let me get back to that part where Jesus quotes Scripture because this is the part that I find most instructional. Jesus knew the Scripture. He quoted Scripture. In my mind, then, I think what Jesus is saying is that this battle he was fighting against the temptations of the devil was theological. It was about far more than simply not doing something that the devil thought would be sinful or otherwise. It was about honoring the Lord God who gave the Scripture in the first place. Jesus, in quoting the Scripture in the face of temptation, is not just 'warding off the devil.' No. He's honoring God first in his life and trusting that it is God's order of things that matters and that the devil's order of things matters not.

Like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael: We know our God will protect us, but even if he doesn't, know this: we will not bow down and worship your idol.

But we do not live like that, mostly. I know my own tendency is to not trust the Word of God first–even though I know it fairly well. I'm often like Adam and Eve: I quote it well and then rush right into the devil's hands. Ultimately, Jesus trusted God and was not about to usurp God's place for his own pleasure which is exactly what Adam and Eve. Trusting God's Word means, I think, trusting that the devil will leave on his own when he sees that we mean to practice what we are quoting back to him. It doesn't mean he will not be back later; he will. But it does mean for now there is a victory found not in winning, but in trusting God.

Jesus trusted that God's Word was sufficient. It was this very paradigm of ministry and preaching that Jesus practiced. We see it from the very beginning: in battles with the enemy, he trusted the Word of God. When preaching the kingdom of God, he spoke the word of God (4:17). When he went teaching throughout Galilee, 'proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom', he preached the Word of God (4:23). His preaching of the Kingdom and healing of people in cooperation with his preaching told us what the Kingdom is about: It's about God's Word finally being fulfilled among the people.

There's nothing fancy about it. No special techniques involved. He simply went about doing the things that the Word taught: resisting temptation, preaching the kingdom, healing the broken people of the world. Jesus is telling us: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

What's that mean for us at Advent in 2015? It means that maybe Jesus ought to be our paradigm for doing the work of ministry. But even more important that that, is, I think, what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is about. First, those who belong to it will, inevitably, face the same obstructions that Jesus faced from the satan. We will be tempted to think that the kingdom is about his ideas instead of God's ideas. We must resist him with the word of God and constantly remind ourselves or be reminded, what God's kingdom looks like–a Scriptural picture. The kingdom is shaped by God's word, not by our vision of it.

Second, the Kingdom of God will reach into unlikely places in this world. Jesus began his Kingdom preaching in 'Galilee of the Gentiles'…something terribly dangerous. It is a dangerous thing to announce to our congregations that it is imperative that we take the kingdom into places people consider unlikely. This might mean that we are sharing the Gospel, too, with unlikely people. At Advent, how unlikely was it that God himself came down and tabernacled among us? Yeah. That's the kind of unlikely I'm talking about.

Third, the Kingdom of God partners with unlikely people to get into the hearts and hands of people. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think some people simply cannot be partners with Jesus. But this is the key: we are not calling people to follow me, or you, or the church, or the religion. Jesus called people unto himself: "Follow me!" he said. The key of our kingdom message is that we are inviting people to follow Jesus. Nothing else. Jesus called strange people, fishermen. Who calls fishermen to the climactic act of God in his world? Jesus. Who calls people like you and me? Jesus. We should try not to think so highly of ourselves.

Fourth, the Kingdom of God reaches into the lives of broken people in this world. Jesus did two things. He proclaimed; he healed. This is the essence of the kingdom: bringing new life to the broken people of this world. And Jesus' fame spread throughout all Syria. I see a lot of 'ministries' who do a lot of stuff, but the only people who gain any fame are those miracle workers. It's not Jesus. Here, it was Jesus whose fame spread. In our Kingdom preaching, the only one who should be noticed, or gain fame, or be exalted is Jesus.

In our kingdom work, whatever we do, we do it for the fame of Jesus. Always. Only. Jesus.

Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12

It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life. 

But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).

This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.

There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.

The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.

I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.

John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.

Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:

    1. The coming wrath (v 7)

    2. The coming kingdom (v 2)

    3. The coming Lord (v 3)

    4. The coming Spirit (v 11)

    5. The coming King (v 17)

We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.

The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.

During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!

John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?

Kigndom_conspiracyTitle: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church

Author: Scot McKnight

Publisher: Brazos Press

Year: 2014

Pages: 289

Kingdom Conspiracy

I read a lot of books and I write reviews for most of the books I read. Most of the books I read are kind of popular level books written for the general Christian population among us and they are thus not too deep or theologically hefty. Mostly they are boring.

Every now and again I come across a book that radically alters the way I think about things or the way I believe or understand things. Sometimes a book utterly rebuilds the landscape. Kingdom Conspiracy is one such book. I say this without the slightest hint of hyperbole: this might be one of the most important and significant books written during my generation. That is how important this book is and that is why this book should be read by every Christian–pastor, preacher, and parishioner alike. I think the Pope should read this book–maybe he has. Seminary professors ought to read this book. In a world where words often mean nothing, it's important that we are also careful not to make words mean anything or everything. This, I think, is key to understanding McKnight's ideas in Kingdom Conspiracy. 

Not everyone who reads this book is going to wholly agree with all of his ideas of what the kingdom of God is (sometimes I thought the hair he was splitting was a little too fine) or his understanding of certain passages of Scripture. But one thing I think everyone can and should agree upon is that whatever we think of the kingdom of God we need to be very careful not to define it too loosely or casually. That is to say: not everything people label as 'kingdom' work is, in fact, kingdom work. (To put a finer point on it: merely calling something 'kingdom' work does not necessarily make it kingdom work or sacred and when we call something kingdom work, even if it is, it is not ours to bypass the church in the process.) Definitions matter as much as articulation. Thus his opening salvo: "Precision begins with defining terms" he writes quoting Marilyn McEntyre. Yes. It does. He goes on: "I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, that we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense to Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we  to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told" (22).

Definitions and articulation matter. What I continue to see and hear–both from pulpits and in the books being published–is that we get it wrong on both marks most of the time. The Americanized gospel of 'join the club, go to church, and follow the rules so you can also go to heaven' is the result of unclear definitions and poor articulation. It's the result of thinking democracy=kingdom. That is decidedly not the kingdom articulated in the Scripture. Again, I see it in the books I read for review and in the sermons I hear and read. I am grateful for preachers like McKnight, N.T. Wright, and others who refuse to take shortcuts around the Bible to make a gospel that Jesus fits into. Frankly, I think if we asked a group of 100 Christians to articulate the Kingdom story, 99 would fail because it simply is not preached in the pulpits: "Until we can articulate the Bible's kingdom story, we can't do kingdom mission" (23). I agree.

I was in his grip after 3 chapters and he never let go.

What has most amazed me since I started (and finished) the book is how aware I have become of kingdom language in the Bible. Don't get me wrong: I think McKnight nails it most of the time when it comes to understanding what Kingdom is and is not. My point is that as I read through the Bible–I am currently teaching through the book of Daniel–I am amazed at the language that is used: kings and kingdoms, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, and so on. It's all over the place. It's amazing and it is there from front to back, Genesis to Revelation, and all places in between. Maybe someday some fine theologian will do a comprehensive study of the Kingdom of God from the beginning to the end of the Bible. I think it would be a fascinating study. (I'm currently reading a book called The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts by Karl Allen Kuhn which is exploring Kingdom in a small part of the Bible, but he is also nicely tying that story in with the meta-narrative of the entire Bible.)

I'd like to note what I think is probably the most significant aspect of the book for me insofar as giving readers something to practice. I belong to a generation of people who have by and large given up on the church. Let me be honest: I'm on the edge. I'm on the edge because of my experiences as a pastor with churches that have refused to move forward and who found that getting rid of me would make their lives easier. But I haven't given up entirely for two reasons. First, the church hasn't given up on me. If one church has gotten rid of me for their own convenience, another church has taken me in and bathed my wounds. I still love the church; the church still loves me. Second, because the McKnight solidified for me something I have already and always believed: the church and the kingdom are synonymous. Thus: "…kingdom mission is church mission and that kingdom mission is not working for the common good…" (115). Further,

What I am not in favor of is assigning the word 'kingdom' to such actions [as public action or social justice or compassion for the poor or feeding the homeless] in order to render that action sacred or to justify that action as supernatural or to give one the sense that what she or he is doing is ultimately significant. When we assign the word 'kingdom' to good deeds in the public sector for the common good, we take a word that belongs in one place (the church) and apply it in another (the world). In so doing we run the risk of diminishing church at the expense of the world. (115, his emphasis.)

And he's correct. For the Christian, the church should be a significant priority. "Kingdom is the realm of redemption and the redeemed, not what followers of Jesus did in the public sector" (114). Yes. His argument is, admittedly, complex and being able to draw that line in minds that are already persuaded is difficult. Nevertheless, we must indeed have our minds open and our hearts rent so that we can clearly define and articulate bible things. In the tradition I have belonged to for most of my life, this has been a part of our 'doctrine'–that we should call bible things by bible names. This is good. Now my tradition just needs to start defining Kingdom with more accuracy and clarity and then begin articulating it from the pulpits of our churches with more frequency, more duration, and more intensity.

I am glad that McKnight takes up for the church. I am guilty, but I get tired of people running down the church, the body of Christ, the Bride for whom Jesus died. So often people are so busy running the church down that we might think christians can get along with it. We cannot. We need the church. All of us. Yet we struggle.

"It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, in involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and no where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rarely leads to the highs of 'short-term mission' experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church's mission shapes kingdom mission" (97).

We can do better.We need the church. We need one another. McKnight helped stoke the fires of affection in me for the church again. Maybe I have been too critical; perhaps unfair. With a prophet's insight and conviction, McKnight confronted my own church angst and now restoration has begun in me.

This book asks some difficult, soul-searching questions. It challenges time honored traditions concerning definitions. While I get the point of demarcating this book along lines of 'skinny-jeans christians' and 'pleated-pants christians', I think even McKnight would acknowledge there is a lot of room for frilly-dress and bonnet christians, overalls christians, sweat-pants christians, polyester slacks and silk shirts christians, and many more besides.  In other words, his categories help us see the differences but all of us have this problem of definition. His clear point is this: be careful how you define words because your definition directly affects your articulation. I agree.

The book is heavily researched and, as per usual, given that it is written for a popular audience, notes have been relegated to the end of the book. It is deeply exegetical and contextual–in other words, he doesn't prooftext his readers but thoughtfully engages in exegesis of large swaths of scripture to give context and clarity to his ideas. It contains a substantial subject index which will be helpful for preachers and teachers alike. Sadly, there are no references except what is found in the end notes so following up with his research might prove to be a bit of a chore. This is a book that will not disappoint the thoughtful reader–the person wholly engaged in trying to understand what Scripture says about a particular theological subject.

I simply cannot say enough good about this book. Please read it.

5*/5

Grounding Text: Daniel 2:44-45; Hebrews 12:28-29

  Download The Church in Exile 3 February 4 2007 Daniel 2 1 49

This is part of a sermon I preached from Daniel 2. I think it is still relevant and still carries some weight. If you would like to read the text of the entire sermon, click the link above.

The Kingdom of God will come upon when we least expect it, when we most fear it, when we are least prepared for it. It does not come upon those who have done all things right, prayed all things well, and said all things. It comes upon those who are ignorant and secure. It comes upon those who are sleeping or naked. It comes like a thief in the night or like a bridegroom arriving home to take his bride away. It comes like a seed that is planted small and grows beyond measure. The Kingdom of God—this unshakable, unquenchable, this undeniable Kingdom of God—will come upon those who are indifferent and looking the other way; we do well to keep an eye on the sky.

Walter Kaiser states, in his most emphatic voice: “The Kingdom of God will come into the midst of this world’s kingdoms with irresistible and unstoppable power. It will alter history forever. Christ will come into this world and destroy all kingdoms. He is calling us to action.” We are progressing not in some evolutionary sense of ‘getting betterism’ or ‘improvingism’. We are progressing rather towards the theological goal, the teleological goal, the eschatological Kingdom of God when all things will be enveloped in His power and ruled by his righteousness, when all tongues will confess His Name, when all knees will bow, when people willingly and unwillingly will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that there is none But Him. And what shall be our response? To what action are we called? But what else can we possibly do?

What did Daniel do when the mystery was made known to him? He broke out in a grand doxology. Not some cheap imitation of a praise song that merely extols the feelings and virtues of the hearts of men, but a doxology that cannot contain the truth that fills it: Here is Our King, He rules, He reigns, He does what He wants and asks for no opinion of the way He does it, He is God who is in control and not under the influence of any, He is God to Whom this world is and is going. Daniel, in other words, broke out in praise of God: Daniel Worshiped the Lord because when such information is given, there is, frankly, nothing else we can do, there is no other response, there is no other action that is appropriate. He broke out in wonder at the work of God. This is no action of man: The Rock was cut out by a hand that was not a human hand.

And when Nebuchadnezzar finally heard the truth of what God was doing, what God was revealing in his dreams, what did Nebuchadnezzar do? “Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The King said to Daniel, ‘Surely your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.’” What else could Nebuchadnezzar do? When you hear and know and believe in the God whose Kingdom is one of power, one that is undeniably unshakable, when you are convinced of the action and work and providence of God, what other response is humanly possible? You fall prostrate before the God who condescends and reveals to man what He is doing and will do: We fail to worship at our own peril.

The book of Hebrews says: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”

So we go through all this to make the point that when we come into an awareness of the Work God is doing, the goals of His Providence, and the Majesty of His Kingdom that cannot be shaken, that will last forever, that will not be destroyed, but that lays waste to all other Kingdoms, there is only one response: Worship. Annie Dillard wrote a little book called Teaching a Stone to Talk. In it, she writes about her experiences at worship with a couple of different congregations: a Catholic congregation and Congregational congregation. She compares worship of a Holy God to an expedition to the arctic pole. She writes,

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (58-59)

“In my hand I discover a tambourine. Ahead as far as the bright horizon, I see icebergs among the floes. I see tabular bergs and floe-bergs and dark cracks in the water between them. Low overhead on the underside of the thickening cloud cover are dark colorless stripes reflecting pools of open water in the distance. I am banging on the tambourine, and singing whatever the piano player plays; now it is ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’ I am banging the tambourine and belting the song so loudly that people are edging away. But how can any of us tone it down? For we are nearing the Pole.” (70)

We worship the King without fear because we belong to a Kingdom that will not fail, that will not falter, that will not be unseated or defeated. We belong to Him: Let us worship with the sort of reckless abandon that is required of the subjects of a Kingdom such as this!

One of the last acts I performed as a member of Facebook was to follow a link to a blog post and read the blog post. It had something to do with Daniel 11 so I thought this would be a good thing–given that I am currently neck deep in a study of Daniel in preparation for weekly Bible school lessons and, further down the road, teaching it at a small undergraduate college nearby.

Then I got there.

I'm sure the blogger's intentions were good. Maybe not. Personally I think that if a person has to go to that much trouble to understand what Scripture is saying then the person probably has no idea what Scripture is saying. That's my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that the Bible can be understood on its own terms without the help of charts and graphs and overlays and all other such 'helpful' things. Take Daniel 11 for example which should be read closely on the heels of chapter 10 of Daniel.

Chapter 10 is a conversation between Daniel and one who 'looked like a man.' This one strengthens Daniel. Speaks to Daniel. And reveals things to Daniel. Chapter 10 is a prelude to what he says in chapter 11. It may well be helpful when reading Daniel 11 to think in big pictures instead of small pictures…that is, see the forest through the trees. There are trees and if we like it may prove a fun exercise to wander through the woods and attempt to identify all the different species of trees that we see, but there is a bigger picture in chapter 11 that the identity of one small tree cannot overshadow.

The cycle in chapter 11 goes something like this:

  • A king will rise up somewhere in the world.
  • This king will do as he pleases. He or she will do whatever necessary to gain and consolidate power for themselves.
  • This king will wreck the holy people of God.
  • This king will come to an end.

It is there. Over and over again it is there. 11:4. 11:6. 11:17-19. 11:20. 11:24. 11:26-27. 11:45. Everyone of these verses speaks to the downfall of some king who thought he was the cat's meow. Every single verse. Every king who has ever lived, every kingdom ever established on earth–all of them from the greatest to the least–comes to ruin.

It seems to me that this ought to give us pause for more than a moment. It seems to me that our reaction ought to be more in line with that of Daniel who 'trembled', who 'was overcome with anguish because of the vision,' and who 'mourned for three weeks, ate no choice food, drank no wine, and used no lotions.' I'm not sure this is our christian response when we see the world afire. Ours is typically not a response of repentance, but one of indifference. It starts with me.

I repent.

It seems to me it ought to give us pause to think about our own situation here in the United States because many Christians seem to think that somehow or other our kingdom is different. I think this is why we are fond of seeing the trees instead of the forest when we read Daniel. That is, if we can learn the true identity of the 'king of the North,' or the 'king of deception,' or the 'king of the South' as people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago then, well, think about it: if that is the only thing true about Daniel's prophecy then it must not apply to our kingdom here in the USA, right? I'm sure it's important to know about Antiochus and Alexander and Ptolemy and the rest. That's the trees.

But don't you think it's also important to know who these people are in our world? That's the forest. And it seems to me that it is far more important to see the forest just now than it is to see the trees since, of course, we are living now and not then. Don't you think it is important, right now, today, to understand the fate of every single kingdom that has ever arisen on this earth? Doesn't this help us understand why now, even now, the world is afire with death, destruction, and hatred?

I'm thinking about my allegiance to Jesus. I'm thinking about how being a citizen of the USA affects my counter-cultural identity as a citizen of heaven–a much better country (Hebrews 11:16). I'm thinking that during this Lenten season, I need to reorient my eyes, my mind, and my heart so I will be guided by three passages of Scripture.

First, Hebrews 12:2: "…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." My vision needs to be clarified. My focus needs to be fixed. If the world is afire, I need to have a steady gaze. There is a greater joy than the shame of suffering. Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of God. All the kings of the world will come and go, but Jesus remains. (Which is a key to understand the entire book of Daniel.)

Second, Romans 12:1-2: "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to daily  offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will." My mind needs to be clear and sober. My body needs to be holy and pleasing. If the world is afire, I must be ready to endure. Giving my body and mind to Jesus every day is the best way to be ready.

Third, Mark 8:34-35: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it." I think we have to make up our minds whether or not we want to be Jesus' disciple. If we want to then Jesus tells us what being a disciple entails. Give up your life. Deny what the world tries to tell us our body needs. Take up your cross–which does not mean to simply endure the burdens and drudgery of life, although it means that as well–taking up your cross means head to Calvary with Jesus. Daily. Make the sacrifice. Daily. Give your life for something more than yourself. Lose your life for Jesus as he gave his life for you.

If the world is afire, I had better make up my mind right now whether or not I want to be Jesus' disciple. And if I want to, then here's what I had best be prepared to do and how I best plan to live. Like Rick said in Sunday evening's episode of The Walking Dead, "we are the walking dead." We are.

So this Lenten season there is a lot of turmoil in the world. There's a lot of death. There's a lot of hatred. Kings are coming; kings are going. Empires are rising; empires are falling. Look at the forest…what looms on the horizon of our own nation? What preparations are you making should this great empire we live in here in the USA be the next kingdom to collapse under the weight of its own hubris?

Fix your eyes.

Offer yourselves.

Die with Jesus.

Daily.

God bless you on your Lenten journey. Come back often for more updates and reflections on this life with Jesus.

ImagesTitle: Simply Jesus:  A New Vision of Who He was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

Author: N.T. Wright

Publisher: HarperOne

Year: 2011

Pages: 240

I am typically disinclined to give an N.T.Wright book a poor review. I'm not going to start doing so here. That's not to say I have no criticisms; I do. But I really have a difficult time understanding why so many folks get their pants in a wad when it comes to Wright's work.

Every now and again an author comes along on our planet who understands that deep inside the human heart there is a profound emptiness–an emptiness that cannot and will not ever be filled by the things this world has to offer or withhold. What I think N.T. Wright does is points his readers in the direction where that emptiness, that intellectual, spiritual, psychological void, can be filled. But he doesn't do so in the way of so many other authors–where Jesus is a mere helper who teaches folks how to be a good American. Many theologians are just that: therapists or counselors. That is, they have an eye for the great God of the universe, but very little idea of how that great God has effectively taken back this world. Oh, yes, God is sovereign, they say, but only in some sort of strange and controlling way that most folks can scarcely relate to or understand. Thus the stories of the Gospels, the Old Testament, Acts, and the Epistles are merely the stories a good counselor might tell a patient: here's how to pray, here's how to be compassionate, here's how to have a good marriage, or here's what Jesus said about conservative (or liberal!) American politics.

Wright will have none of that. His is the voice not of a counselor or therapist who sics Jesus on a would be patient who is having a bad day or a bad year or a bad life. N.T. Wright is the voice of the prophet crying out in the wilderness: here is your King! So the subtitle, a 'new vision,' is not entirely accurate because what Wright is really doing is pointing us back to what has always been there but what has been covered over by so much encrustation and (wrong) theology in the 2,000 or so years since Jesus walked among us. If Wright is doing anything he is chiseling away the barnacles that have been built up around the Scripture–barnacles I suppose that may have at one time been designed to protect the Bible but that in more recent years have been thickened over in order to protect a theological and/or political system from scrutiny. It is this action of Wright that I suspect lends many folks to label him a theological liberal. To wit:

We have reduced the Kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself. (5)

This is the point in a nutshell. And sermons that do little more than teach me how to be a good Christian or worse a good American (complete with the requisite 'special worship services' on significant holidays) do nothing for me. I want to hear about Jesus and what he has and is doing to upbraid the world and bring about his rule and reign. This is why I read N.T. Wright over and over and over again. He shows me Jesus. "We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!" (5) And so right he is.

Wright has a way of making God understandable, but certainly not palatable in the 'I'm now comfortable with this God' kind of way, to everyone and I don't really care if you are reading his lofty theologies or if you are reading his 'made for the popular reader' books. He challenges readers at every step of their presuppositions. He confounds them at every point of their preconceptions. He unravels every blanket of theological safety they believe they have wrapped themselves up into. He does this in such a way that, you might not believe me unless you read it, neither political (or theological) conservatives nor liberals come out unscathed. And, frankly, this is so because Jesus spared no such pain to anyone either. Jesus is the King. God is taking back the world. Get on board or get left behind, but there is nothing anyone can do to stop Jesus from being King and, in Wright's words, 'setting things to rights.'

Simply Jesus is another of Wright's books that does so much the same. He places Jesus firmly in the context of his culture and is quite content to interpret the New Testament within that context. And let me be frank: that's exactly where Jesus ought to be interpreted. Preachers spend far, far too much time trying making Jesus 'relevant.' I say leave Jesus in the first century, understand what his words and actions meant then and there, and then figure out how that works out in words and actions in our own time and place. But here's the key: Jesus' words and actions really have one meaning and purpose. Preachers around about our times have made Jesus far too predictable. "Blessed are those who can see this, who can spot what's going on, who are prepared to go with Jesus rather than with the princelings of the earth, even though what Jesus wasn't what they had expected" (84).

The only quibble I have with Wright, in general (and as it particularly pertains to Simply Jesus), is his take on the event of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent war afterwards. I fully understand that, ultimately, our battle is against the satan. Yes! (See pp 126ff.) With this I find no disagreement. I have no doubt that the satan uses people and powers to his/her own end. Yes! But he writes, "It is the battle against the satan himself. And, though the satan no doubt uses Rome, uses Herod, uses even the chief priests themselves, Jesus keeps his eye on the fact that the satan is not identified with any of these, and that to make such an identification is already to give up, and so to lose the real battle" (126). But Wright appears to mitigate human responsibility when he says such things. Maybe I'm not reading closely enough; maybe I'm reading too closely. I'm not sure.

That is, I'm not sure how to understand Wright when he accuses (!) the U.S. government in power during 9/11 (a conservative government, to be sure; yet a government that passed bi-partisan legislation authorizing the sword) and fails to see what those who might otherwise be labeled 'enemies' did to provoke the U.S. government (and many nations around the world besides, including his own!) He is fond of Romans 8; not so fond of Romans 13. I think this is bothersome. He is fond of criticizing the United States (and not so subtly George W. Bush) but eschews criticism of other governments who were also involved in action against those who attacked the U.S.A on September 11, 2001. Here I think Wright is unable to make the correct theological connection and fails to understand the difference between a secular government charged with responsibility to protect its citizens (Romans 13 and elsewhere) and an ecclesial authority not authorized to use the sword ('put your sword away', Jesus said to Peter).

In my opinion, Wright makes a serious error here. Yes, war is bad. Yes, we should avoid it. But the truth is this: in international politics, in global politics, the ethics of the kingdom of God are not always so neat and tidy or evenly applied or understood or appreciated or cared for. Ask one of the folks who flew an airplane into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if he cares a lick about what Jesus said about war, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. I'm not sure what the answer is; I'm not sure Wright's ongoing criticism of the United States government (he rarely says anything about the current government of Barack Obama) is wholly justified. I do know this: the radicals who continue to kill (women, children), main, murder, and provoke wars in the name of God are not the same as those folks who take up the sword to defend women, children, the weak, and others whose daily goal is simply to live life. Is it fair to apply a biblical standard of ethics (loving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc.) to a secular government?

The reality of this life is this: sometimes evil does have a face. Sometimes evil is more than an invisible being or force. Sometimes evil does have a name and we do well to name it as such. I'm not suggesting I have all this worked out, and at times (like when Jesus looked at Peter and commanded Satan to get behind) I am stretched too thin to wholly justify my position. What I am suggesting is that Wright's position at this point is weak and, in my opinion, mitigates human culpability. Suggesting there are no evil people really fails to understand the full workings of evil and the evil one in this world.

I can go on and on telling you how important this book, along with any other by Wright, is. I could tell you that Wright is at his best when he is engaging the text and tying together all the threads he is remarkably twisted from so much ancient history and text. I could tell you of his masterful understanding and application of Daniel, Isaiah, and Zechariah. I could tell you about his superior interpretation of the historical events from the time of Jesus. But to what end? Those who have read Wright already know and those who haven't will not be disappointed.

I have read enough of Wright's work to see and know that a lot of what is in this book is repetitive. How God Became King is a similar, and in my opinion, superior book by Wright. His monumental Jesus and the Victory of God is a much expanded and academic version of Simply Jesus that may appeal to more detail oriented readers. Simply Jesus kind of distills a lot of what is written in the academic volumes to a more popular level; it is no less potent.

The person who knows Jesus will appreciate very much Wright's work to interpret Jesus within his own context. The historical details Wright brings to our attention, the cultural phenomena of the time, the complexities of would be messiahs, revolutionaries, and temple authorities, and the sophistication and intrigue of secular politics are all woven together nicely and interpreted brilliantly to help the reader see that God's plan has always been the same: to reclaim the earth for himself through his appointed Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God.

And God wins.

4/5 stars (because he has written better versions of these thoughts elsewhere and it gets repetitive, and because I struggle with his interpretation of evil and his seeming inability to distinguish the role of a secular government in protecting innocent people from the forces of evil at play in this world.)

I went to Sunday School this past Sunday for the first time in a long, long time. I also stayed for worship and was delighted that at the end of the two hours or so I was in the building the roof managed to stay attached to whatever the roof is attached to. In other words, it didn't fall on my head. That is always happiness.

As it turns out, we were talking about Matthew chapter 18 on Sunday. I will quote it in full before offering a few comments:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Causing to Stumble

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11] 

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Dealing With Sin in the Church

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is a great section of teaching by Jesus, but there is a problem that is easily identifiable by the little numbers scratched between sentences. The problem with these little numbers is that they make the section fairly incomprehensible to most people reading the section. I say this because the little numbers (along with the section divisions) make this section out to be a collection of smaller teachings instead of one large section of teaching addressing one particular 'subject' which, in this particular instance, is found in verse 1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

So strip away all the verses and section dividers (things like, "Causing to Stumble" or "Dealing With Sin in the Church"). These are all artificial and, frankly, meaningless precisely because they do absolutely nothing to help us understand what Jesus was getting at and, to be sure, do everything to obfuscate what he is talking about. He is answering the question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Everything in chapter 18 that follows this question is designed to answer this question–all 34 verses. I know this peculiar teaching section of Jesus ends at 18:35 because in 19:1 we read this: "When Jesus had finished saying these things…." This marks the end of one section and the beginning of another.

If we look at it this way, without verse divisions and the like, we can see that Jesus' intent in all of these seemingly disconnected stories is actually a singular cohesive point: The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who refuses to stand on his/her own rights. That is, we are less concerned about ourselves than we are of others. In other words, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who thinks of others first, foremost, always. So chapter 18 is a collection of five stories all, in different ways, telling us that same exact thing.

He begins by telling us about a child: "Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I know what people have traditionally said about this: children are quiet and humble and unassuming. Well, of course, raising three sons has taught me that this is absolute balderdash. I think what it means is something like this: a child has nothing to stand on, nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. They cannot demand justice. They have no rights to demand or stand upon at all. If this is true now, it was especially true when Jesus had the child stand in his midst. Children are dependent upon others for everything, yes, but I think the issue here is, really, this idea that children essentially have nothing and can make no demands upon anyone.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be like a person who lays no claim to personal justice, personal safety, or the lives of others. This is his thought. This is what Jesus is driving at in 'chapter 18.'

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Deal with your own sin first (6-9). This is important in today's world because many, many people are concerned about the sins of others.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be willing to put your own safety at risk for the sake of others (10-14). This is ties everything together by use of the phrase 'these little ones' (18:4, 6, 10, & 14).

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Forgive. I think that's what Jesus was talking about in verses (15-20) because that's how Peter understood Jesus: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?" (21) Why would Peter ask this question if Jesus was talking about something else? Again, I think there's a clue to be found in the verses. Look at verse 17: "If they still refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Well…well. How do we interpret this? How should we treat a pagan? How should we treat a tax collector? Well, how did Jesus treat them? "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples" (Matthew 9:10). And, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). That is how we are to treat tax collectors and sinners. We are to treat them the way Jesus treated them: with grace, forgiveness, deference, and welcoming. How much forgiveness are we to offer? Endless amounts. In other words, when it comes to other people, we are to forget about our rights. We have no rights to stand upon when it comes to others in the kingdom of heaven.

Being a Christian means that we no longer demand our rights. Being a Christian means we have no right to withhold forgiveness from the person who asks. Being a Christian means we have no rights. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who understands these things and puts them into practice. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who knowing their rights abandons them in favor of grace, in favor of reconciliation, in favor of healing and peace in the kingdom of God. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who knowing their own value abandons it in favor of preserving the lives of others. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who has a legitimate beef with another person and yet utterly forsakes their own demands for justice, their own claims to righteousness, and forgives–frequently, often, much.

It is unreasonable, frankly, that Jesus demands such hyperbolic levels of forgiveness, but that's what he does. 70×7. 77 times. Doesn't matter how we look at it, Jesus demands it. The kingdom demands it. The kingdom principle demands that we relinquish our claim to justice in favor of forgiveness, grace, and love. And frankly, there are some people we may have to wake up and forgive every day for the rest of our lives. Jesus demands it. Greatness demands it. Look what Jesus did. 

Forgiveness is not a matter of law or steps or procedures. Forgiveness is a matter of grace. It's a matter of the kingdom. Forgiveness is the ultimate abandonment of our rights. Forgiveness is our way of saying, "I relinquish my claim on your life. You owe me nothing. I make no demands of you." Forgiveness is our way of saying, "This is the way things operate in the kingdom of heaven. This is what life in the kingdom of God is all about, every day, all the time."

This is what it means to be a Christian.

 A long time ago, when I was studying Hebrews for the first or second time, I 'discovered' a way to understand the book that has stuck with me and continues to provide guidance. Now I don't know if the author was writing to answer questions posed to him or what the circumstances were, but this theological book–weighty as any in the New Testament–provides us with a healthy and robust portrait of Jesus, the Son of God, who is our salvation. 

So about this way of reading Hebrews. The pattern is very easy to see and very easy to understand:

  1. The author introduces a subject or a topic that he feels needs to be addressed. So, for example, 1:1-4 and the revelation of Jesus as God's son and his supremacy over the angels.
  2. The author continues by demonstrating from the Old Testament Scriptures the point he has just introduced. So, for example, 1:5-14 where he shows us that Jesus is far superior in every way imaginable to the angelic host.
  3. The author provides his readers with an application of a sort at the end of each section usually marked off by the word 'therefore.' So, for example, the 'end' of chapter 1:1-14 is actually chapter 2:1-4 where we see the 'therefore.'
  4. This pattern repeats itself over and over again in the book of Hebrews and helps make the boo much easier to understand.

Therefore, if 1:1-14 is about Jesus, about his perfect reflection of the invisible God, and his ultimate supremacy over the angelic beings then what is the conclusion the author comes to and wants us to understand? That is, what is the practical application of 1:1-14?

Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.

The practical application is that we need to pay attention to what we have heard–not to what Howard Marshall calls 'lesser messengers' whether those 'lesser messengers' are angelic beings or otherwise. Or maybe he's concerned about a 'lesser message.' I think the lesser message is easy to spot even if the lesser messengers are not–and believe me when I say that lesser messages abound in our culture. Jesus warned us that many would come claiming this or that or saying 'look there he is' when there he's not (Matthew 24-25). And interestingly enough, Jesus' message in Matthew 24-25 is just about the same as it is here in Hebrews 2:1-4: Pay attention or you will be deceived. It is possible, suggests the author, to 'drift' away and not even know it. We sit content in our boat and before long we are 100 yards from shore and we can't explain how it happened.

I think the real application here is this: if we are not diligent we will drift away from salvation. God has confirmed his message about Jesus through signs and wonders and miracles. This is how the message was confirmed to us. This is the message of the apostles, this is the message about Jesus. The point of the author of Hebrews is that there is one message about Jesus and if we are not diligent and careful to pay close attention to what 'God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son' we will most assuredly drift away from our salvation.

So what? I think this means that we need to constantly be evaluating what we hear. Too many Christians are content to take in everything they hear unfiltered. And what has happened is that the church ends up being led off in directions never intended and individual christians end up being led off in directions they aren't even aware are leading them further and further away from Jesus. So we must pay attention to what we heard lest we drift away. We must pay attention lest our salvation become tainted or corrupt or at least impotent.

And it seems to me that this Gospel message is found in these first 14 verses of the letter to the Hebrews–God spoke through Jesus, Jesus is the appointed heir of all things, Jesus is the Creator; Jesus is God's radiance and sustainer of the world; Jesus is the atonement for our sins; Jesus is the rightful king of the Majesty of heaven, the Kingdom of God, who will reign in righteousness.

And no one, not even an angel from heaven, can make those claims. Only Jesus.

_______________________

There's probably more to say about this than I am getting at right now and perhaps I will say more later. For introductory purposes, I hope this provides a good start.