Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
A Kingdom for the Nations
When we take Christianity around the globe, are we exporting American values?
That question arises quite often in discussions about Christian missions. The honest answer is that sometimes people will make use of Christian institutions to proclaim a message of greed or a specific political agenda to people around the globe. To be candid, we should stop doing that.
However, the fact that it happens does not mean that global missions are a fundamentally flawed concept. In fact, the underlying question is a much better question about the Christian gospel at home and abroad.
How does the gospel relate to “business as usual” - the “real world” of national politics, secular institutions, human cultures, and normal life?
This question is at the heart of stories in Matthew 3 and 4.
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3:1-2). The gospel is the announcement of a kingdom, the rule of heaven in human hearts. But what sort of kingdom is this?
It is not a kingdom endorsing the status quo but instead calling it to repentance. This is evident when the status quo shows up to be baptized by John. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8).
For John, neither of the religious and political constructions of his day could be accepted as they stood. The Pharisees were the populist conservatives, traditionalists who believed their past needed defending at all costs. The Sadducees were the elitist progressives, arguing that Israel’s survival depended on accommodating the spirit of the age. The gospel of the kingdom is not business as usual. It is a refutation and repudiation of business as usual.
The kingdom demanded that both religious or political parties repent or face judgment. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
This judgment of the age was not just a hypothetical possibility. Judgment was real and imminent with the arrival of the Messiah. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
The gospel of the kingdom proclaims the end of business as usual.
Having set the stage for the kingdom with John, Matthew uses the scenes to draw a straight line from John’s message to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus, the long-awaited king, arrives and is baptized by John. The moment cements the connection to John’s message, and heaven offers its ringing endorsement of both the new king and his new kingdom. A dove descends, and a voice shouts the message.
With the declaration made, the king goes to war. However, his war is not in Rome against politicians or in Jerusalem against priests, but in the wilderness against Satan himself. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Specifically, the devil tempts Jesus with three perversions of the kingdom concept.
The first temptation is, on the surface, just a call to turn stones into bread during a fast. But behind the temptation is a kingdom-sized challenge. What is the nature of Christ’s kingdom? Will he solve obvious problems with obvious solutions? People are hungry out there, and here stands God Almighty, able to feed them all with overt miraculous power. Snap your fingers and feed the world. That is the temptation.
Jesus responds by saying that the problem of global hunger is deeper than a lack of bread. Humans need the word of God to escape greed and consumption. Unless God’s Word feeds the soul, no amount of bread will solve human hunger. The kingdom of Christ will not offer another half-measure or mere welfare program but rather a reformation of economics and a rejection of the causes of poverty and hunger alike.
The kingdom will not be built with business as usual.
The second temptation is for Jesus to cast himself off a pinnacle and be saved from harm by avenging angels. In sum, the temptation is for Jesus to live as Satan himself would live if he commanded angel legions and limitless power. Become Superman. Be Nietsche’s ubermensch and lead the world with overt acts of power. Jesus rejects this notion as well. The angels would answer his call, no doubt, but he would not call on them. He would suffer on the cross as one of us and die as one powerless. He would not call legions of angels. He would build his kingdom with sacrifice, not heroics.
Again, the kingdom will not be built with business as usual.
At last, the third temptation is the most overtly political. “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’” (Matthew 4:8-9). Satan shows him the kingdoms of the earth and offers them to Jesus in exchange for his service. This is the same bargain that Satan had made with every conqueror of human history. Accept the methods and values of Satan, and the world can be yours.
The temptation for Jesus is to build a better human kingdom rather than a uniquely heavenly one. Build an empire the way Satan would if it were up to him. Enforce justice with the blood of others rather than offering up to the nations his own blood. It is to this suggestion that Jesus gives his most vocal and forceful and final rejection of Satan: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). God’s kingdom would be built in God’s way.
Later in Matthew, Jesus insists that his work was to travel to Jerusalem and die. Peter takes up the temptation of the wilderness. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus immediately recognizes the temptation of Satan and rejects it again. “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
The kingdom will not be built with business as usual!
Jesus will not yield to Peter’s good intentions any more than to Satan’s evil ones. The kingdom will be God’s way or not at all.
Accordingly, it is not accidental that Matthew follows the temptation story with an immediate reference to the cost of building God’s kingdom God’s way.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee” (Matthew 4:12).
The gospel of the kingdom is threatening to “business as usual.” The powers that be reacted as such powers always do. They silenced John with force. Jesus himself was threatened many times during his ministry.
Of course, had Jesus accepted the temptation of building an empire, he would not have needed to be concerned with Roman soldiers. Jesus’ troops could have marched against the prison, liberated John, and headed to Jerusalem to begin a new era. Instead, Jesus heads in the opposite direction, both literally and figuratively.
“And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13-16). In the days of Isaiah long ago, these northern lands had been sacked and conquered by the Assyrian conquerers. The northern tribes never fully recovered. Isaiah had promised that someday light would come even to those desolate regions, and then they would know what God’s kingdom looked like: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1-7).
Instead of heading to the seat of government to build a nation, Jesus turns to the site of national defeat and failure. The kingdom will go to the places where business as usual has done its worst. And there, standing in the ruins of centuries of oppression and failure, Jesus would do the unthinkable.
”From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). In response to John’s arrest and in response to the temptation of Satan, Jesus once again rejects the politics of Satan in favor of the gospel of heaven. Rather than advancing an army, he proclaims the very same message that got John arrested. The gospel of the kingdom will not be silenced by business as usual.
To the nations of earth, Jesus says bring it on. Do your worst.
There in those very lands, Jesus begins to draw disciples to himself, calling them quite literally out of business as usual. Leave your nets and boats and enterprise, he says. “Follow me” (Matthew 4:18-22). No draft, just an invitation. Leave behind what you have known for something new. And unbelievably, without any of the tools a nation uses, Jesus built a kingdom.
How does the gospel relate to business as usual - the “real world” of national politics, secular institutions, human cultures, and normal life? The kingdom of Jesus is the end of business as usual in every nation.
The spread of the gospel is not an exporting of any nation’s values because it is from the start a rejection of every human political paradigm. It is a rebuke of all the tools of national power. It is a confounding of human injustice and instead the proclamation of a king and a kingdom like no other.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.