I was talking with an evangelical minister recently, about social justice and the mission of the church. He felt evangelism should be clearly our highest priority, because it has “eternal consequences”.
I suggested that wasn’t how Jesus saw things – his main message and highest priority seemed to be the kingdom of God. But the minister’s response was: “But Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world.” In other words, getting people into heaven was Jesus’ highest priority, and should be ours too.
I must admit I was flabbergasted. So I decided to look again at the gospel Jesus taught.
The gospel Jesus taught
In The gospel Jesus proclaimed, I look at how Jesus’ message is summed up in several of the gospels (e.g. Mark 1:14-15) as the good news of the kingdom of God.
I examine the places (86 in all across the four gospels) where Jesus teaches about the kingdom, and consider why it is good news. He taught:
- God’s kingdom or rule is defined by those who submit to God and follow Jesus. The choice is ours, and we should make it our highest priority.
- We should be praying for the kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
- The kingdom comes quietly and subtly, because it is within us, but it will nevertheless grow and grow.
- Entering the kingdom requires humble repentance, obedience to God’s commands (not just talk) and trusting acceptance of God’s authority. Jesus gave his life to give us this opportunity.
- In the kingdom of God, people’s lives are put right, especially via healing and freedom from the power of evil.
- When Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36), it is clear he was discussing where its authority came from: “my kingdom is from another place”.
This is good news!
It is fairly obvious that the world isn’t in a good state, and it could be much better for all. But Jesus, through his people, is putting things right, and will one day complete the job. If we trust him, we can receive eternal life, and be part of his mission.
A ticket to heaven?
So clearly being a christian is much more than receiving a free ticket to heaven. And it is certainly more than sitting back and enjoying our status as sons and daughters of God.
When we receive eternal life, where do we go after we die? Traditionally, we go to heaven, a spirit existence somewhere “out there” in another dimension. But it isn’t so clear that this is the Bible’s teaching.
- We won’t exist as spirit beings, but will live in resurrected bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-44).
- It appears that the whole universe will be resurrected (Romans 8:18-23).
- We will live on a “new earth”, or perhaps a new universe (Revelation 21:1-5).
So it seems that our salvation will be to live a new life in a resurrected universe. We don’t need a ticket to anywhere else.
Life on earth matters
So many of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom are about how we live now. He knows nothing of giving priority to getting to heaven. In fact he teaches quite clearly that if we try to save our lives, we’re in danger of losing them. The way to save our lives is to take up our cross of serving others everyday (Luke 9:23-25).
In one of his most challenging parables (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus said quite clearly that those who will enter his resurrection kingdom would be those who cared for the poor and under-privileged, while those who didn’t care will miss out.
Is salvation by faith or works?
But, you may be wondering, isn’t this getting close to a gospel of works, not faith? Doesn’t Ephesians 2:8-10 tell us very clearly our salvation is not by works, but by grace through faith?
Well yes. But I am just reporting here what Jesus taught. We surely cannot ignore this. So how can we put the two together?
Jesus and Paul both make very clear that forgiveness by God and salvation are gifts of grace which we cannot earn. But we do have to receive them, not take them for granted.
And it seems that Jesus is saying that receiving them requires us to live lives of humility (Luke 18:9-14), repentance, righteousness and obedience (Matthew 21:28-32), of sacrificial service (Matthew 25:31-46), and of forgiving others (Matthew 6:12, 18:21-35).
I’m not pretending I fully understand all this, but I can read what is plainly in scripture, and I can’t see how we can ignore Jesus’ teaching.
Bringing in the kingdom now
So Jesus calls us to assist in bringing his kingdom to earth now, in our lives and in our neighbourhoods. His is the kingdom, and he will lead us, but we need to follow.
So what should we be doing? The possibilities are almost endless.
- We can care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners and the oppressed.
- We can forgive others as we want God to forgive us.
- We can work for peace and love our enemies.
- We can share the good news of God’s kingdom and make disciples.
- We can pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as more people do his will.
- We can care for God’s earth and all creatures in it.
- We can stand against evil and work for justice.
- In fact, whatever God’s Spirit leads us to do in Jesus’ name.
A ticket to ride
So in Jesus’ eyes, we can’t say evangelism is more important than caring for the poor. We can only say whatever he calls us to do for the sake of the kingdom, we should give it priority.
And I suspect that in this postmodern age, our evangelism will more likely to be successful if we are caring for our neighbours and serving the poor.
We indeed have a ticket, and the ride starts now. Let’s not waste any time.