Christ, The Kingdom & The Church
In my last post, I mentioned the importance of to the New Testament church, being alluded to, paraphrased, referenced, echoed or quoted around 600 times by NT writers. For Mark, the gospel of Jesus was Isaianic, as seen in his introduction, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah...” (Mark 1:1-2). For Luke, Isaiah serves as his hermeneutical organizing principle, as well as a guide for life. It seems that Jesus too, understood his ministry in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, making over 20 Isaianic quotes or references in the synoptic gospels. This is important because it suggests that the four gospels ought to be read in light of (if not alongside) Isaiah. The authors certainly wrote them that way. So, our task isn’t just to determine who Jesus is, but how he understood his own life and ministry in light of Isaiah’s prophecy.
One thing that I have always loved about Jesus is that he is consistent, reflecting the character of a God who is faithful and unchanging. He didn’t wait until he began his ministry to reflect his calling; his life reflected his mission right from his birth. When Jesus was born, the first people to hear about it (outside of his family) were the shepherds.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
There are two things that I want to bring attention to in this passage. The first is the sign that the angels gave the shepherds. God could have chosen to give them any sign. If angels appeared to announce the birth of the Messiah-King, God could have had angels appear before them again as a sign. Instead they are given signs of poverty: swaddling cloth and a manger. This should ring at least two questions in the mind of readers. Why were these the signs that God chose to give? And why was Jesus born into such a humble situation? It’s not as though the Father forgot to make Jesus’ reservation at Hilton Bethlehem before he left Heaven. This humble birth, along with the signs given to the shepherds were purposeful and intentionally chosen.
If I try to put myself into the shepherd’s sandals, I can imagine what they might have been thinking when the angels told them to go stand before God in the flesh. My bet is that they were terrified. I mean, they were nobody’s. Even worse, they were shameful – outcasts to even the common people in their society. How could they stand before the holiest and mightiest of kings? How could they be worthy? Just as they begin to think that there’s no way that they could go see Jesus, they are given a sign. This King of kings would be wrapped in rags, maybe even the same sort of rags that they used to wrap their sheep and their own newborns. And this king wasn’t in a palace; he was lying in the manger that the animals eat from. This king was accessible to them. In fact, this king was like them. If it weren’t enough that the incarnation itself was a radical identification with humanity, Jesus’ humble birth places him in solidarity with the lowly of society.
The second thing that I want to point out is the way that Jesus was announced. Considering that shepherds were considered to be dirty, unimportant and untrustworthy in Jesus’ day, it’s already surprising that they are the first recipients of the good news of Christ, but the form that the announcement took is significant as well. At the time, in the Roman empire, when an emperor-to-be was born, the emperor would invite kings, nobles, and other important figures in his empire to bear witness to a joyful celebration, at which orators would announce prosperity over the child and the people of the empire. The angel’s announcement of Christ is shockingly similar, singing a song of peace and prosperity for the whole of Christ’s kingdom as they announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah-King. But, instead of inviting kings and nobles, the most prominent people in Jesus’ kingdom were those on the margins of society.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’
Not only does Jesus’ birth reflect his concern for the poor and downtrodden in society, his life and ministry did also. Jesus was born in Bethlehem but he grew up and began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was considered to be an unimportant region of the country (John 7:52), and was considered to be a district full of the Gentiles (Isaiah 9:1). Considering Galilee’s reputation, it’s shocking that Jesus spends so much of his ministry focused there. When it comes to Jesus’ ministry, Luke’s account is particularly important. Luke has a loose chronological method of storytelling. At times, he forgoes chronology all together to draw the reader’s attention to his point. You see this in Luke 4, where Luke places Nazareth as the start of Jesus’ ministry, then immediately afterwards, tells us about Capernaum. Chronologically, these events are out of place. Jesus started his ministry in Capernaum before going to Nazareth, but programmatically, it makes sense. We see Jesus ministering in Capernaum, but in Nazareth, he defines his ministry. For Luke, his account is in just the right order.
As mentioned earlier, Jesus defined his ministry in light of Isaiah’s prophecy. So, when he defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, he opened up the scroll to Isaiah 61 and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Afterwards he told the listeners that he’d fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. Immediately after Luke finishes telling us about the rest of what happened in Nazareth, he moves backwards in time to Capernaum. He doesn’t give a long and detailed account of what happened there. We get a few details about what Jesus was doing, then we’re told about what happens when Jesus was preparing to leave. The people of Capernaum didn’t want him to leave, and Jesus told them, “I must preach the good news of God’s kingdom in other towns also, for this is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43).
Here in lies Luke’s program. In this one, 19-word sentence, Jesus reveals the mystery of his earthly mission – the reason that the Father sent him. Jesus came to earth to preach the gospel of God’s kingdom, and Luke decided that the program superseded the timeline to ensure that his readers didn’t miss the point. By saying that he had to preach the good news of the Kingdom in other towns also, Jesus reveals that what he had been doing in Capernaum was just that. Luke’s point is that in Capernaum, Jesus was doing the very things that he said he’d come to do in Nazareth: casting out demons, healing the sick, and bringing tangible good news to the poor and oppressed. Through Jesus, outcasts were healed, not only of their physical ailments, but of their social marginality. Those who were considered to be unclean and were cast aside, were brought back into the graces of community. This was Jesus’ mission; this was what it meant for Jesus to preach the gospel of God’s Kingdom, and Luke didn’t want us to miss it.
Since Luke's Gospel account uses Isaiah as his hermeneutical organizing principle, and especially since Jesus understood his ministry in light of Isaiah, we too must seek to understand Christ's message of the Kingdom of God through the lens of Isaiah’s prophecy. The establishment of the kingdom of God is an important theme in Isaiah. When he talks about God’s future kingdom, those words “justice” and “righteousness” are always there, but where that word pair is used in light of Christ, a third important word is introduced: shalom. Shalom is often translated as “peace” in English, but the Hebrew meaning is far thicker in meaning than ours. Shalom is the word most used when the Bible speaks about things being right in the world. It is the defining word of a truly Godly society where Christ is reigning over all things, and everything is as it should be. It is representative of a world that God would look at and say, “It is very good,” just as he did in the beginning.
Shalom isn’t foreign to the ministry of Jesus, after all he is the prince of Shalom (Isaiah 9:6). In Isaiah 9, Isaiah outlines the shalom kingdom of Jesus as one without distress or anguish (v.1). A kingdom in which the hopeless find hope (v.2). A kingdom where the citizens are full of joy and rejoice in the presence of their King (v.3). It is a kingdom unstained by injustice or bloodshed (vv.4-5). This is the good news of God’s kingdom of shalom that Jesus came to fulfill (vv.6-7).
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish...The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The connection between justice, righteousness and shalom is made clear in verse 6, which says that God’s shalom kingdom is established through justice, and upheld by righteousness. For Isaiah, the Gospel is about the establishment of God’s shalom kingdom, in which pain and suffering are gone, and all is restored to its proper state, including the relationship between God and man (In Isaiah 52:7, the gospel is portrayed as the good news of God’s shalom Kingdom, as well as the good news of salvation. It is both personal and communal). For Jesus, preaching this message meant using words, but also bringing truth to those words in the personal and social lives of the afflicted. This kingdom message doesn’t get replaced by the cross. For Isaiah, it’s the cross that accomplishes God’s kingdom agenda. Through the cross comes the salvation of God’s beloved creation, and the everlasting reign of Christ (52:7). The end result of Christ’s work on the cross was Shalom (53:5), and it is in that Shalom that we are healed and counted as righteous.
“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us Shalom, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Through Christ, the Shalom kingdom of God has come, yet it isn’t fully realized in all of its eschatological significance. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand, it is true because the kingdom’s king was in the world, doing the work of the kingdom. When Jesus ascended, the kingdom didn’t ascend with him. It remained present in the world through the church – the earthly embodiment of the king who is now in heaven. If we are to proclaim the message of Christ as truth, then the church must do as Jesus did, and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed; we must do the work of the kingdom, which involves both personal salvation and justice for the community. If we are to be like Christ, then we have no choice but to address the systems of oppression that silence the voices of the powerless and put people on the margins of society, for where there is no justice, there is no shalom.
Since Jesus is the embodiment of God’s voice and presence in the world, and the church is the embodiment of Christ, we can no longer simply speak the truth of God’s word; we must we be its embodiment. The only way for the Gospel to truly be good news for everyone is, as Mark Labberton says, to make the church a place of tangible hope in the context of suffering. We like Christ, must embody God’s word, indwelling the world around us with the reality of His truth through both our words and our deeds.
Something to reflect on:
When an ethnically homogeneous group looks to maintain or pursue"excellence," they will almost always digress into exceptionalism, as they shape the standards of excellence according to their image.
I hope that you've found this series to be pertinent and insightful. I know that the last two posts may have seemed to be less about race, reconciliation and diversity than they are about justice and righteousness, but to talk about untokenizing diversity, the conversation must be had upon a Biblical foundation of justice. Until the church recognizes that justice and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin, our efforts to diversify will continue to end in frustration, hurt and further inequity. God honoring diversity starts by not only believing that all people are created equal, but by living equitably with one another.
My hope and my prayer for anyone reading, is that you don't become discouraged and lose hope that reconciliation can take place. Through the cross, God has torn down the walls of hostility and enmity between groups (Eph. 2:14-16). Now, it's up to us, through the power of the Spirit, to maintain the unity that the Spirit has already established (Eph. 4:3). That's easier said than done, yet, it's what God has called us to.
Lastly, for those of you who, like myself, have been called to be bridge builders in the church, learn as much as you can learn. Study the life and writings of practitioners like John Perkins. Supplement your theological study with readings from the many perspectives of minorities and others on the margins of society. But be careful that you don't allow your knowledge to puff you up, rather, in love, build up the church. Be wise as a serpent, yet gentle as a dove. Listen before you speak, and know when to stay silent. Remember that there is a time to be bold and a time to be meek. Even in your meekness, be strong and courageous. Don't fear anyone; our God is strong and mighty, and he won't forget you in times of trouble. Listen to his voice and do as he commands. Don't fear what might happen to you, for God is faithful. Walk in wisdom, but remember that obedience is never foolish. No human can close the doors that God has opened. Most importantly, don't go it alone. Surround yourself with brothers and sisters who share your calling, who can encourage, challenge, and teach you. Learn from their successes and their mistakes. Trade tips, ideas and insights. Create an open space of vulnerability to vent frustrations and begin healing hurts. Finally, don't pretend; lament and go before God honestly. It's okay to not be okay. God can handle your pain and isn't thrown off by your questions. Ask for what you need and persist in prayer. You may just find that God is more than able to exceed your expectations.