How do you get through to a resistant culture? Wisdom from a master teacher’s experience.
Jesus faced a daunting task: sowing the kingdom of God in a world gone feral. Refusing our one true sovereign, earth was overrun by self-proclaimed rulers. Even back in Jesus’ time that was a long story: the powers of Rome, Greece, Babylon, Assyria, all the way back to the oppressive Pharaoh of Moses’ day.
Those powers conflict with the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord, that God’s anointed has been raised up as our global leader. Those who hold the political, social, and economic capital have little interest in yielding to him. You could say it would be easier to get a camel through a needle’s eye.
But Jesus wasn’t planning a war to rid us of these leaders. He used stories. His stories were not bombs to destroy existing power structures; they were seeds of what could be, opening people’s eyes and ears and hearts to the hope of life under God’s reign. Seeds can grow into trees. Living roots can crack hard rock. Life is more powerful than death. That’s why the sower went out to sow his seed (Matthew 13:3).
“Why don’t you deliver a clear, direct message that everyone can understand?” his disciples wondered (13:10). “Because they don’t understand,” was Jesus’ reply (13:13).
How do kingdom servants handle the dissonance between God’s authority and people’s unresponsiveness? They’re both real, as God showed Isaiah.
“Why speak in parables instead of explaining the kingdom clearly?” Jesus realized people want autonomy rather than authority. It’s why, “they close their eyes, block their ears, and obstruct their hearts so they won’t see, hear, and respond” (Matthew 13:10-17).
In mediating the heavenly king’s message to his earthly kingdom, prophets struggled with the same frustration. Calling Isaiah as his spokesman, God revealed to him both sides of the kingdom relationship:
the heavenly king, devoted to his people (Isaiah 6:1-8);
the earthly kingdom, with closed eyes, blocked ears, and obstructed hearts (Isaiah 6:9-13).
The second part only makes sense in the context of the first. Only if God is sovereign does it make sense to keep calling people to live as his kingdom. When Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in response to a question about the kingdom, the context of seeing God on his throne is assumed.
Jesus and Isaiah were kingdom proclaimers in different contexts. To handle this quotation well, I’d like to devote this post to Isaiah’s proclamation of the kingdom of God established by the Sinai covenant. Then we’ll do a follow up post on Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as a new covenant that includes Israel and the nations under God’s throne, and how we as kingdom proclaimers handle the same frustration that Jesus and Isaiah faced.
The Sower Parable is inspiring insight into the frustration we feel and the fruitfulness we anticipate for God’s farm.
Jesus’ kingdom stories are at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel. The lead story is one Jesus titled the parable of the sower (13:18). So, who was the sower? What was he planting? And why bother when many seeds don’t grow?
In Australia today we’re seeing Christianity shrink back towards being a minority religion. How should we respond? What does God want us to do? How can we help people discover the invisible God?
The Book of Acts traces the development of the church from 120 Jewish believers to Rome. Within 400 years, it had reached Britain, the edge of the Empire. What did Christians do that was so credible while they were still a minority religion? What can we learn from how they followed Jesus?
The Cyrus connection gives us accurate aim for the Great Commission.
“Great Commission” is the label we use for Matthew’s closing paragraph. Raised from tomb to throne, the Christ commissioned his followers to train the nations in his enduring presence.
The Old Testament also ended with a great commission in the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles was the final book of the Writings (after the Law and Prophets), so this is how the story of God’s reign ended before Christ:
How did Jesus respond as Pilate asked the ultimate question?
Pilate’s question goes to the heart of the gospel: Are you the king of the Jews?
From the very start, Matthew described Jesus as the anointed leaderdescended from King David (1:1). But Jesus has been less direct in claiming the regal title. Not until his crowning statement at the end do we hear the Christ claiming all authority in heaven and on earth (28:18).
Matthew treats this question as the focus of the investigation. The Jewish trial demands, Tell us if you are the anointed ruler (26:63). The gentile trial begins, Are you the king of the Jews? (27:11)
Jesus’ authority is the issue at stake. Seven times Matthew underscores Pilate’s official status as the governor (27:2, 11, 14, 15, 21, 27).
So how are we to understand the governor’s question and Jesus’ reply?
Matthew 27:11 (my translation, compare NIV) Jesus was placed before the governor and the governor questioned him, “You are the king of the Jews?”
Jesus responded, “Your words.”
Why did Jesus portray the Holy Spirit as his advocate from the Father?
In a previous podcast on John 14, we heard Jesus introducing us to the person of the Holy Spirit. In this podcast on John 15–16, Jesus introduces us to what the Holy Spirit does. Together, John 14–16 provide a theology of the Spirit (pneumatology): the person and work of the Holy Spirit, according to the founder of our faith.
So, what does the Holy Spirit do? What is his mission as the Advocate, the Spirit of truth? This 27-minute podcast was recorded at Riverview Joondalup, 26 September 2021:
My translation (compare NIV) highlights the courtroom metaphor that permeates these chapters, as Jesus was about to be put on trial by the powers that claim to run the world:
The great commission begins with all authority. Without understanding who is king and how he uses his authority, we’re likely to misuse that authority.
We’ve heard that it was said:
Go into all the world and convert everyone to Christianity.
What he said was more like this:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been entrusted to me. On that basis, everywhere you go you are to train the nations, plunging them into the leadership given by heaven for the earth: the authority of the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Your role is training the nations to obey what their king has commanded. And I promise you I will always be with you my servants, until the goal of the era is fully accomplished (i.e. heaven’s authority is fully restored to earth).
— paraphrase of Matthew 28:18-20.
Begin with his authority, and his commission takes meaningful shape.
Jesus spent no effort trying to persuade people he was their king.
That’s astounding when you compare the billions of dollars and person-hours of effect expended in the American presidential election, so one person can have partial power in one country for four years. How on earth did Jesus become the enduring king of the planet with a staff of twelve and a zero-shekel advertising budget?
The crucial difference is how Jesus became king. To become president, Biden had to convince the majority of Democrats he was their best choice, and then convince the rest of America that he was a better candidate than Trump. The huge spend of effort and finance was all about gaining acclaim from the people. That’s how power works: it’s given by the people (or taken from them in war).
By contrast, Jesus’ kingship is not derived from human recognition. It comes from divine appointment. That’s why Jesus spent no effort trying to convince people he was king. He believed God would give him the kingship, that this would happen by divine decree, that this would happen whether people acclaimed him or assassinated him.
How do we issue the gospel invitation? We agree the gospel is important, but we have different ways to get people to respond. Should we follow Billy Graham’s approach, inviting people to respond to an altar call to be saved?
Ephesians 5 14This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (NIV)
It’s not an Old Testament quotation. Was it a baptismal formula, something early churches said as they laid someone back in the water and raised them up in the Lord? That’s an attractive idea but it doesn’t really work: you is plural, even though sleeper is singular. It seems the sleeper is a corporate entity, not a baptismal candidate.
While not a direct quote, it could be a distillation of Isaiah’s extensive imagery of light and dark (Isaiah 54–62).
Who do Aussies trust? The ABC asked us, and our answers are revealing:
We trust: doctors/nurses (97%), scientists (93%), police (84%), judges (80%).
We mistrust: celebrities (8%), politicians (19%), corporate executives (20%), religious leaders (29%).
Celebrities are fake, of course. Actors are somebody they’re not. When Jesus spoke of hypocrites, his word literally meant an actor, someone playing a role in a Greek play. He called the religious leaders actors. Aussies agree.
If I made the kingdom of God the centre of my thought and activity as Jesus did, where does it lead me? As I began this journey seven years ago, I wondered out loud, “Would seeking the kingdom make me an activist?”
For some, the gospel is personal salvation (John 3:16). For others, the gospel calls for action: caring for the poor, seeking justice the powerless, protecting the environment. What does Jesus’ gospel — the gospel of the kingdom — call us to say or do?
What is the gospel? Ask many people in our churches and they’ll tell you it’s about how you get saved, by asking God to forgive your sins. Would it surprise you to know that that’s not what the gospel means in the Bible?
The word gospel (or good news) is used a lot in the New Testament — 125 times in the NIV translation. They’re all listed below so you can scan it and see. As you scan, ask:
If the gospel isn’t a message about personal guilt, why did Jesus commission his followers to announce “repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name?”
My friend Tim Healy has responded with a great question. We’ve been emphasizing that the gospel of the kingdom is good news of the restoration of God’s kingship, liberation of the earth through his anointed ruler (Christ, our Lord). Over the last 2000 years, the Western church has veered towards a message about individual guilt. We need to recover the blazingly good news Jesus announced and enacted.
“Goin’ to church twice in one weekend? Gees, you must be feelin’ guilty!” I have no idea what he thought church was — the kind where you go and confess to a priest, or the kind where you pray the Sinner’s Prayer.
What bothered me was his perception of church as people who struggle with guilt. Is that the message people hear from us? Not a message of hope for the world? Not a Saviour who resolves the injustice and sets all things right? What happened to the good news of a selfless ruler who gave his life for his people and now calls us to care for each other the way he cares for us? Continue reading “We need good news”