I’m afraid I may mess with some sacred cows on this post, but I’ve been wanting to write about this for quite some time. When Jesus declared the gospel he didn’t say the sort of things we say today about the promises of going to heaven when we die, the need to say a sinner’s prayer, or even the imperative to “ask Jesus into your heart.” As true as all of these things may be they miss the essence of the gospel, which of course is the Kingdom. Notice Jesus’ declaration of the gospel:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)
With only eight words, that’s a pretty concise message. But what the heck does it mean? First off, most of us evangelicals have grown up with a narrow, parochial understanding of repentance. We’ve been steeped in the doctrine that this Greek word, matanoia is limited pretty much to the idea of turning from sin, often with tears and time spent at an alter. Although there’s an element of truth in this, it’s not even close to the full meaning of the word. And the resulting problem is that the whole affair becomes focused on sin and getting released from sin, rather than on receiving the Kingdom.
In the original Greek, (in which the Gospel of Matthew was written), metanoia meant changing one’s mind or heart about someone or something, and in the context of Jesus’ declaration it meant that we are commanded to look at the whole world with new eyes. He, the King, has arrived on the scene. He has redeemed the entire cosmos, (Col. 1:20), and nothing can ever be the same again.
My experience over these past few years is that seeking the kingdom involves a continuous, lifelong process of rethinking everything, asking continuous questions and receiving an ever-refined prescription for my fuzzy, clouded vision and silly ideas about God and his world.
But here’s where it gets interesting: Some of that rethinking has been in regard to my evangelical heritage. I’ve realized that much of what I received when I came to Christ was not a kingdom, (I spent about twenty five years with no understanding of that), but ideas and notions I inherited from a feeble Americanized evangelical church.
It feels great to be on the journey, the quest for the Kingdom as it is. But the moment I stop questioning, the journey comes to a screeching halt. In order to receive the kingdom we have to first lay down our notions of what we’ve always believed. We must repent and rethink everything.
After two exciting weeks of teaching in Romania I’ve returned home to Maryland and am enjoying time with family and friends. My schedule in the coming months will be pretty full of travel, but I expect to do it from this side of the ocean rather than from Europe.
7 thoughts on “Seeking the Kingdom, part two”
I have been reading a book on church history of late. It seems to tell the story more of “Churchianity” than “Christianity”. I categorically reject the notion that the story of the church throughout history is characterized by primarily by doctrines and divisions. The followers of Jesus have always been characterized by the simplicity of devotion to Him evidenced by their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ, and their service to “the least of these” both inside and outside the faith. Their names may not have made the pages of church history books, but their lives of devotion to Jesus tell the true story how the kingdom of God is advancing in the world. I resonate with what you have written…our westernized version of Christianity needs to be challenged. We need to humble ourselves and learn from each other as the Lord leads us into post-denominational Christianity. Thanks for continually provoking our thinking through your blog. The grace and peace of the Lord Jesus be with you, Don.
Don, I love it when you mess up with sacred cows (oh, I do remember that day!). Lately I was meditating on the goodness of God and His 10 commandments. I think that much of our going-to-heaven oriented theology and devotional life has to do with the idea of gaining something, anything. Sometimes repentance becomes nothing else than gaining divine favor (adding a bit of guilt and the feeling of doing something in order to make it right). And so, living with this kind of mentality, leads us to think that all this life has to offer (and God also) is a well deserved (one way) ticket to heaven or moon or whatever. I think that metanoia also implies a shift in our thinking towards God’s commandments. Usually we obey cause otherwise we loose something (ups! the same thinking). But looking at the commandments in the Old Testament I think they were given because God is good. And he knew that as long as we do something that it is against the way he designed us, that very something will do us harm. I had a twisted thinking related to “be holy as I, your God, am holy”. In my understanding, even this is God’s way of displaying his goodness: “be like Me as this is the best thing you can ever be like.” Sill, we walk as, pardon my expression, constipated kind of disciples, in a desperate need of revolutionizing our understanding of God and his wonderful kingdom of shalom.
Changing your perspective: i.e. looking with God’s eyes at what He looks at, asking his thoughts on any subject and listening to his reply… going wherever and doing whatever he instructs. My definition of his kingdom being within you. Hope to see you in Florence soon, Don.
Thanks for pushing the enevlope again, even if I don’t always agree with you! It seems you are speaking about the ways churches *express* their feelings of worship (alter calls, baptisms, prayers, memory verses) but I don’t necessarily deserves a dismissal from the game. Maybe just a yellow card 🙂
Sometimes I think of the church universal through the ages less as a word or picture, but as a video. I think of boiling lava! Like that footage you see on educational tv when it it bubbling up and spilling over. When it hits the cold air, it hardens into that exact shape, for all time, as a piece of rock. Just like our churches can be! But underneath is the living, moving, burning hot energy of the Holy Spirit that keeps pushing us up and out.
Don’t be too hard on those sacred cows – they once were radical movements of their day – and the jewels of Israel!
BTW … You keep mentioning “just starting” to learn about the kingdom. Come on Don! You were teaching me these lessons in 1985! And I loved every minute of it 🙂
Thanks Oeland. I can always count on you to tell me the truth. I’ll never have enough honest friends like that.
I like your Lava illustration. In Hawaii there are these massive lava tubes that honeycomb the island. They’re often big enough to walk through, like a cave. They once channeled molten lava, but now they’re empty and fun to explore.
It makes me sad that I must be coming across critical and dismissive again. I’m actually very grateful for my heritage. It’s shaped me and made me who I am. But I also think our non-critical assumptions often short-circuit Life and the true reality of Jesus. Hopefully its clear I embrace baptism, prayer and memorizing scripture. But I do have an issue with alter calls and “sinner’s prayers” when they become the central methodology of a turn-or-burn “gospel” built around the question of where we’ll spend eternity. That’s simply foreign to both Jesus’ message and his methodology. Still… lets keep the conversation going.
You’re also right about me talking about the kingdom for years. But it hasn’t been until the past decade that I’ve had an “Aha!” experience about what it actually IS. I think a lot of my talk in the past was an expression of my heart-yearning to understand the Kingdom. But the moment it began to fall into place for me was in 1997 at a Worldview seminar in Kona, and then through a growing understanding of the Trinity. That’s when the bones of the kingdom received flesh and stood up in my heart.
Love you, Pal. Just thinking of you still inspires me and makes me smile.
Don, the words of your last comment made me smile. It reminded me of a preacher that I heard once. He kept telling us about the Bible and the words contained in it and how we should live out by the book and how our methods should be forged by the book. And also about the fact that, yes, the wold has changed but our approach of culture and church and faith and God should be faithful to the Book. And the same guy expressed a deep concern about people’s lack of authenticity in repentance and… well their decision to give their heart to Jesus. One’s conversion is validated by tears and begging and bitterly supplications (usually done because people are confronted with a holy God and also the perspective of eternal burning into hell – you know the pattern).
Anyway, what struck me was the fact that he was so convinced that this was the way of Jesus and the “method” of the first-century (and a bit later) church. It sounds more like Great Revivals times and Jonathan Edwards and Sinners in the Hands of a Angry God to me. We implemented this ideas in our practice because they worked back then. I’m not denying what happened back then nor the fact that people started to mass-follow Jesus. I only wonder… where are the results of those huge Revivals (others than “brim-stone and hellfire” denominations, a sense of self-flagellation kind of repentance… ok, maybe I push it too far)? Most of those denomination went to legalism and stiffness (probably as a result of the lava-effect described in one of these replies).
It’s just funny that while we are refuting cultural approach in our churches, we theologize and practice something that popped up as a cultural side-effect. Not mentioning that they are pretty far from the practice of the ancient church and… well Jesus’ subversive message.
Just a note about these two guys:
Oeland is one of my oldest friends. He was a part of the youth ministry twenty years ago in Florence, South Carolina, and he’s always been a role model to me of creativity, joy, and honesty. And he’s one of the best examples of Jesus I know. Currently he’s a youth pastor in the southern part of the state.
Gabi is a relatively new friend. He’s a Romanian University student I met last year at camp. As you can see, he expresses himself better in English, (his SECOND language), than many of us who speak it as a first language. I find his writing gift delightful. Gabi has shiny eyes. He’s also a joyous person, a thinker, and an amazing translator.
I wish I had the time and energy to introduce all these friends personally. Each one of you here is a priceless gift.