The Church in Post-Christendom (Part 2): Understanding the 'Good News'
In the first part of this series I addressed the changing cultural context in which the contemporary American church exists by contrasting historic Christendom (that system, which arose under Constantine) with today’s post-Christian culture. I argued that despite its obvious eclipse, the American church still largely operates under the old assumptions of Christendom. Practically, this means that we continue to function as if Christianity — in its institutional forms — still occupies a central place in society.
These assumptions have maintained the Constantinian or church-centered understanding of mission. Under the institutionalized church-centric model, the church’s de facto mission was focused mostly on recruiting “members” through evangelism while “mission” was understood to be a program of the church. The goal or mission really settled on the institutional maintenance of the local church, whose success or failure was inevitably, and I dare say exclusively, measured by the number of members. However, as I pointed out earlier, “the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness.” This brings us to our second question: What exactly is the church’s mission?
In order to answer this question, we must first accurately define the gospel or “good news.” I say accurately because I think many Christians, particularly in our highly individualized culture, have come to view the gospel as simply the personal plan of salvation. The modern emphasis tends toward “fixing the sin problem” in terms that are entirely personal. However, the Scriptures speak in a much more comprehensive way that goes beyond the private version of the gospel that we have come to know in the West.
Matthew records the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and message with these words, “Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). In Matthew 24:14 Jesus himself describes the gospel in relation to “the kingdom” when he says “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world….” Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry as follows: “And Jesus went about all Galilee … preaching the gospel of the kingdom…” (4:23). Matthew reiterates this theme again in chapter 9 verse 35 when he writes, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages … preaching the gospel of the kingdom….” Jesus told his disciples to “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 10:7). Mark writes, “after John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus came…preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (1:14). Philip “preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). Paul and Barnabas encouraged new believers to “continue in the faith…saying ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (14:22). Paul appeared in the synagogue in Ephesus “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (19:8). Paul, writing about his own ministry said, “I have gone preaching the kingdom of God” (20:25). While under house arrest, Paul received many visitors to whom he “testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus…” (28:23, 31). (Emphasis mine; NKJV.)
In fact, the New Testament record reveals that Jesus mentions the kingdom 108 times while only mentioning being born again once. This single occurrence took place during his conversation with Nicodemus when he was explaining the spiritual transformation that must occur in order to see the kingdom of God.
As Norman Perrin points out is his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, “The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was that concerning the Kingdom of God. Of this there can be no doubt. ... Jesus appeared as one who proclaimed the Kingdom; all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it.”
Clearly, by his own words and the testimony of the apostles, Jesus was preaching the good news that through him God’s reign has come. The gospel or good news is the fact that in Christ the reign of God is at hand and is now breaking into the world. His kingdom, which has come, continues to come forth and will be fully consummated on the day of Christ’s return. This is the good news, which offers both a future and present hope to sinners and the whole of God’s creation!
This may raise more questions than it answers, most notably, “What is the kingdom or reign of God?” While a definitive answer to this question is not given in Scripture, we are given some insight through the teachings of Jesus. First, Jesus makes clear that the kingdom has come; when speaking to the Pharisees he said “…the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28 NKJV). Again, the commission given to the apostles was to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7 NKJV). This statement is taken to mean that kingdom of the Messiah, who is the Lord, is now to be set up according to the Scriptures.
Throughout the parables, Jesus uses the preface, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” to describe the character and nature of God’s ruling reign, which offers a sign and foretaste of the world to come. The Old Testament’s prophetic forecast of the coming day of God envisions a world characterized by peace, justice, and celebration in which the full prosperity of the people of God living under the covenant of God’s demanding care and compassionate rule is realized. The picture given is one of a world full of peace grounded in justice.
In Jesus’ very first sermon, recorded by Luke, he enters the synagogue in Nazareth where he had been raised and, taking the book of Isaiah, quotes the following passage:
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 ESV).
Upon conclusion he closes the book, sits down, and when every eye is “fixed on Him” he says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 NKJV). Jesus is describing the kingdom of God in which all that has resulted from sin and the fall is being restored. The call upon humanity is to repent of their sins and accept the Lordship of Christ that they might enter the kingdom and be saved.
It is the reign of God — this full gospel — that the church is sent into the world to bring forth as God’s instrument, and to which it bears witness in its life and community. The reign of God applies to the whole of creation, including society and culture, in which the church demonstrates life under the reign of God within a distinct community, serves the world through compassion and mercy, and proclaims the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter the kingdom of God.
Next week we will wrestle with the question of the church’s mission — but under a theocentric or God-centered perspective, now that we have broadened our definition of the gospel.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven. Permission granted for non-commercial use.
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