Category Archives: Kingdom

The Center of the Gospel: Cross or Kingdom?

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:8-14

Part 12 (5:1-7)  ΑΩ  Part 14 (6:1-8) →

Have you seen the musical Wicked? How about Blue Man Group?

I know there are people out there who are fanatical about Wicked. In fact, it seems that most people who see it end up thinking it’s the best thing ever to grace the stage. And it may very well be. But I guess I missed whatever it is that has made it such a sensation.

I actually had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway and… I fell asleep. I couldn’t help it. I recall having slept just fine the night before, and I’m not one that has much of a problem staying awake if I need to. But I was just. so. bored.

And that’s not to say that the musical isn’t great. It probably is great, as far as musicals go. I’m in no position to be an informed critic. I just couldn’t stay awake. I so much prefer situations in which I feel like I’m participating. Which is why I’ve never had more fun as a part of an audience than I did at Blue Man Group, a stage show in which individual audience members—and at times the entire audience—is involved in the show. I won’t wreck the surprise for those of you who haven’t been. For those of you who have: I caught the marshmallow in my mouth. [High-fives all around]

I think this dynamic might explain, in part, why I’ve always had trouble with the traditional evangelical formulation of the gospel. It makes the audience completely passive. They play no role whatsoever. Typically it goes something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven and go to heaven.

Is that statement true? Of course it is. It’s just that it leaves so much out. And to call it “the gospel” is not to condense the gospel into a brief statement that faithfully encapsulates the whole, it is to represent one strand of the gospel as the whole of the gospel. It would almost be like saying that Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. …Well, yeah, that is a very key thread in the story. But let’s be careful about saying that Star Wars is about that. Star Wars is not easily summarized or condensed, and neither is the gospel.

An intra-evangelical debate has gone on for some time—and intensified in the last few years—about whether the gospel is mostly about Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, or Jesus inaugurating the Kingdom of God on earth. And while there are exceptions, generally speaking the more conservative evangelicals speak as though the Cross is the core of the gospel, and the Kingdom is an add-on that you mention if you have time (or not at all). The Cross is what you talk about with an unbeliever. The Kingdom is something you can talk about while you’re discipling/mentoring someone if you happen to take them through the books where the Kingdom is a central theme… What are those books called again?… Oh yeah… The Gospels. More progressive evangelicals generally flip that: God’s work to establish his Kingdom on earth—and our participation in that work—is the central message of the gospel, and Christ’s work on the Cross is (at best) something we need to cherish but keep in the background or (at worst) something we need to rethink and possibly further downplay in significance.

It seems to me that Revelation 5 has a useful response to the mistaken tendencies of both conservative and progressive evangelicals.

In Revelation 5, three songs are sung to the Lion-like Lamb that has just been revealed as worthy to open the scroll—God’s battle and renovation plan for the world. The first song goes like this:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

Do you see what I’m seeing? Read it again. What do you notice?

Verse 9 is the “gospel” of the conservatives and verse 10 is the “gospel” of the progressives. I guess I’m wondering why modern evangelicals feel the need to pick one or the other, or even to emphasize or prioritize one piece over the other. The earliest believers clearly didn’t. Verses 9-10 are one sentence in the original. If you’re reading an NIV or NLT translation, they put a period at the end of verse 9, and they’re wrong to do so because it’s a misleading error.

Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed himself so that by his death he could rescue his people, anointing them to act as his vice-regents to rule with him, and his worship leaders to point people to him. That’s the gospel. And all I did was paraphrase verses 9-10.

Jesus did not come to die to make you a passive participant in his salvific work, who receives the gift of his sacrifice and then sits around just waiting to die and go to heaven, like someone watching (or falling asleep at) a play. And Jesus did not come with his Kingdom-inaugurating message, inviting well-intentioned, basically good people to get on board and help him, without a thought as to how it’s possible for people to do any good at all when they are, biblically speaking, enemies of God, filled with darkness and enslaved to sin under the rule of the Evil One.

The gospel is not either about the Cross or the Kingdom of God. We don’t need to emphasize one over the other. One does not need to be prior to the other. We don’t need to decide whether we’re going to be “Kingdom” people or “Cross” people. And anyone telling you in a sermon or a book or a blog post that one is more central or more important is distorting the gospel.

We don’t need to argue about which blade is more important in a pair of scissors. We don’t need to debate whether the front or back wheel of a bicycle is more necessary. No one needs to write a book about whether your right or left foot is more vital to finishing a marathon.

And you don’t need to choose only one sentence with which to express the gospel. But if you really feel compelled to do so, let me strongly suggest the use of some commas:

Jesus gave himself up to be killed in our place, bearing our sin, so that we could be forgiven, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and sent out into the world as his pastors and ambassadors, who work to make their small corner of the world look like God’s kingdom—his new world—and who call the people around them to recognize and embrace their king and savior.


O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 2)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/19/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In part 1 of this post we looked at Zephaniah chapter 3 and saw how the people of God during the time of Zephaniah were waiting and anticipating and longing. Because of their disobedience and rebellion, God had removed them from the Promised Land, sent them into exile in Babylon, and sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple at the heart of Jerusalem.

And to the people of God all of this wasn’t just a major inconvenience; wasn’t a merely geographical problem; it was an epic spiritual crisis. Their sin was unforgiven, they had been removed from the land God had promised them, which made them wonder if God had completely and finally forsaken them, and the destruction of the temple was God’s signal that he was leaving—that he would no longer dwell with his people; that he would no longer be “God with us.”

And so they longed for the end of exile—for God to be their only true King and master. They longed for mercy—for God to find a way to forgive their sins, numerous and grievous as they were. And they longed for God to come and dwell among them once again as Immanuel—“God with us.”

We also saw in Part 1 that, in fact, all these things came to pass in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, who came to be Immanuel—the God who is with his people, who came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and reign as the only true Lord of his people, and to die in the place of his people to purchase the forgiveness of their sin finally and completely. So that brings us to where we are today. And the question I want to pose today is:

Why isn’t the story over? 

Why isn’t Christmas the end of the story? I might have given the impression in Part 1 that the coming of Christ was the end of the story—exile over, Jesus present and ruling, sin forgiven…  And yet… I think we all still have the sense that… there has to be more.

We look at the world around us and we see earthquakes and tsunamis. We see AIDS and cancer. We see abuse and divorce. We see destitution and poverty. We see hunger and famine. We see tensions between nations, tensions between political parties, tensions between races, tensions between generations.

We look around and we see so much lingering wreckage from sin and the fall, and we say, “This… still can’t be right. There’s gotta be something more, doesn’t there? Remember the old men in the book of Ezra? The old men who had seen the first temple before it was destroyed before the exile, and when they saw the new temple being built they wept (Ezra 3:12) because of how much it paled in comparison to the first temple. They wept and said, “This can’t be right. God—is there more? Is there more than this?

In many ways, we are in a similar place. We pray, “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—knowing full well that we’re praying that because clearly the Kingdom hasn’t fully come. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, yet. And so we wait. We anticipate. We long.

And Christmas reminds us what we’re longing for. In many ways we’re longing for the same thing that our spiritual forefathers longed for. We’re longing for the end of exile—not exile in Babylon. Exile in a place where there is a “God of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who is not our God. We’re longing for God to deal with sin and evil—not just to forgive them, but to destroy them forever. And we’re longing for Immanuel—“God with us”—to come. Not to be among us for a time, but to reign and well dwell among us fully and finally forever.

And these are the very things Paul is anticipating in this text from Romans 8. In verse 18 he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (some translations say “revealed to us.”  Some say “revealed in us.” The Greek is a little ambiguous, but I think Paul means “revealed in us.” We’ll get to that in a moment). Verse 18 is the key to the rest of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph explains verse 18, so it’s important to understand what Paul means here. And the two difficulties in understanding it are, first, what are the “sufferings of this present time” that he’s talking about? And second, what is the “glory that is to be revealed.”

Let’s take those in turn. First, what are these “sufferings”? In many of the letters of the New Testament, there is evidence of believers who are already suffering because of persecution. 1 Peter, for example, is mainly written to encourage followers of Jesus who are being persecuted for their faith. They’re being hassled, pressured, beaten, even killed for following Jesus.

But the Christians in Rome weren’t being persecuted yet. Rome, for all its moral depravity, was a very cosmopolitan city at the time Paul wrote this letter. It was very accepting. Christians didn’t really begin to be persecuted there until years later. And Paul was writing to Rome from Corinth, which was even more accepting of religious diversity than Rome. So, as far as we know, there wasn’t any persecution of Christians either in the place Paul is writing from, nor the place he’s writing to at this point.

So, Paul isn’t talking, in verse 18, about suffering as a result of persecution. What’s he talking about then? He’s talking about suffering that is a result merely of living here. Living where?  Rome? Corinth? No… living here in the groaning creation. We live, as Paul did, as Jesus did, as Abraham did in a world that is beautiful, but badly broken. A world, Paul says in verse 20, that was subjected to futility”—that word means brokenness or emptiness or valuelessness.  “The creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness; emptiness—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.”

Who is that? Who subjected the creation to futility? 

The initial suspect might be Adam or Eve, since they’re the ones who rebelled and caused the Fall. But that’s not how the Fall narrative reads, is it?  “And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:17).

Adam sinned, but it was God who cursed the ground.  He cursed—not just human beings, but the world­—the very natural order—in which they live, and as a result the world fell into the sort of place where tectonic plates don’t always glide again each other.  They slip sometimes and earthquakes happen. Where human greed and weather patterns cause famine to happen. Where cells stop working right and cancer happens. Where bodies lose the ability to fix themselves and death happens.

But that’s not Paul’s point in verse 18, is it? His point is to say that all of this: All this death, all this sickness, all this brokenness, all this pain, all this frustration, all this tension, all this struggle we experience as a part of living in this place—all of it is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (v. 18).  Now again (I’ll spare you the nuances of the Greek dative case) I don’t think Paul is saying that this glory is to be reveled to us. It’s going to be revealed in us. It’s not going to be some spectacular thing out there that we’re going to observe. It’s going be a spectacular thing in here that we will experience.

So what is it?

What’s this glory that will be revealed in us that will be so breathtaking that any suffering we could experience here will not even be worth comparing to it?  What is this that’s going to happen in us that will make us say then, “I can’t believe I EVER grumbled about my circumstances! I can’t believe I EVER complained about my pain. I can’t believe I EVER looked at God in doubt and discontent in view of this splendor?” What is it? Paul calls it “glory” in verse 18.

Glory is a notoriously difficult word to define. We use it a lot in our churches, of course, but it seems to be one of those words that everyone can use in a sentence, but most people can’t define.  Right? I mean, Define “glory.” …  Does it mean “goodness”? Well, sure, but that’s not all. Does it mean “beauty?” Sort of. But when we say God is glorious, we’re saying more than just, “God is beautiful,” aren’t we? The core of the meaning of word really has to do with “brightness” and “splendor” and “luminosity.” But, floodlights are bright and luminous. Are floodlights glorious?

To explain glory you really need to use more words. You have to say something like, “Glory is a state of radiant beauty and splendor that flows from a magnificent and praiseworthy nature.” God is the most glorious being because he is the most magnificent and praiseworthy being that exists, and therefore his magnificence and praiseworthiness show forth in incomparable and unfathomable beauty and splendor.

Man, on the other hand…

J.M. Boice wrote,

“Man was once a beautiful physical specimen. The man Adam and the woman Eve were the glory of creation. They excelled the rest of the created order in every respect. But when they sinned, physical decay, sickness, suffering, and eventually physical death came upon them. God said, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19b). They were not originally destined to die, but die they did.  Man was also beautiful in soul, the most beautiful of all the creatures. He had a nobility that transcends our ability to fathom.  But once Adam and Eve sinned, that beautiful soul was tarnished.  Now they began to lie and cheat and shift the blame from their own failings to those of others.  Most significant was the ruination of their spirits.  The spirit was that part of Adam and Eve that had communion with God.  They had walked and talked with God in the garden. But once they fell, they no longer sought God out.  They hid from him, and the encounter that eventually came was a judgment. We enjoyed glory once, which is why we long for it so much.  But it is gone…. What a marvelous thing it is then, when we turn to the Bible, to find that the end of our salvation in Christ is not merely deliverance from sin and evil and their consequences, but glorification. God is restoring to us all that our first parents lost.” (Romans, 864)

That’s what Paul’s saying in verse 18. He’s saying that part of the gospel is that God himself will restore our glory—in ways even beyond what was lost. He will resurrect believers long dead, he will transform believers living, and will reform us all into beings whose magnificence and praiseworthiness radiate in beauty and splendor—who, as Jesus said, “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).

And the beauty and wonder of this transformation in us will be so vastly disproportionate to the consequences of the Fall that any pain or hurt or suffering here will seem in retrospect to have been as nothing.

But here’s the part of the gospel that I think so often gets left out.  We tend to individualize the gospel. We tend to think only of what the gospel has to say about my situation. What’s it gonna do for me? How do I get saved? But the gospel is bigger than that. The gospel is global. It has cosmic implications. Let’s keep reading.  Verse 19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” That is, all creation, in a manner of speaking, waits with “eager longing” for this transformation to happen in us believers—for this glory; this radiance to be revealed in us. Why? Why is creation longing for that. Keep reading…

Verse 20: “For the creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness—“not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…”  In what hope? What was God’s hope for his creation when he subjected it to the curse of the Fall? “…In hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage”—its slavery—“to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

What Paul is saying here is that there is a parallel between what God will do in us and what he will do in all his creation. Just as there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for us, there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for the whole cosmos.

As N.T. Wright says,

“[The earliest Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.  …What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter.  It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.” (Surprised By Hope, 93, 97)

The earth as we know it will not be destroyed in favor of a foggy, cloud land where we all float around as disembodied spirits.  Rather the earth itself will be resurrected and remade—set free from the curse that has marred and broken it. It will, in a word, be glorified. God will drench it with himself and will fill it—he will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), and he will be Immanuel once again—God dwelling with his people.

In the meantime, we wait. We wait with a taste in our mouths of what is to come. A taste that makes us anticipate and long for more. Paul calls this “taste” we’ve been given, in verse 23, the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” or “the firstfruits from the Spirit.”  He writes, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The question you should ask yourself when you read what Paul says there is, “Wait. Wait. Don’t we already have these things?  Aren’t we already adopted as sons (and daughters)? Don’t we already have redemption in Christ? Aren’t we already saved?”  Why is Paul talking like we’re still waiting for these things? Why does he say that we “wait eagerly” for adoption, for redemption, for salvation?

The answer is that Paul views our situation here and now as a parallel, in some ways—an echo—of the situation of the people of God who returned to the Promised Land in the time of Ezra, that we talked about two weeks ago. Was there an end to the exile at that time?  Well, yes.  …But no. They were back in the Promised Land, but they were still waiting for God to come and end their slavery and reign over them as their only king. Had God forgiven their sin? Well, yes. He had returned them to their land.  …But no—they still were suffering judgment for their sins. Had God returned to dwell among them? Well, yes. There was a functioning temple. …But no. It was a shack of a building and God really still seemed far off.

Have we been adopted as sons and daughters of the King through Christ? Yes. But we are not yet the sons and daughters we will be when all sin and evil in us is destroyed by the benevolent power of God, and we are glorified and transformed, becoming like God’s Son, Jesus, when we see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Have we been redeemed? Have we been ransomed—freed—from the dominion of sin so that we are no longer enslaved to sin; so that sin and death are no longer our master? Yes. Sin is no longer our master. …But sin still masters us… because we let it. And one day God will eradicate sin completely, and the war will be over. And obedience and the pleasure of holiness will fill completely every part of us.

Have we been saved through faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross? Yes. But we still wait for an even greater saving, ready to be revealed in the last day (1 Peter 1:5), a saving that will make us not merely citizens of heaven dwelling in a dark world—as we are now—but citizens of the new heavens and new earth, living in God’s new world.

What we enjoy here and now because of Christ’s death for us—forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, redemption, power, glory, joy, hope, peace, rest… all of these things are only tastes.  They are only faint tastes of the salvation that is coming. They are only the firstfruits.

These present realities that we sing about, that we talk about in church, that we write books about, write songs about… all of them—wonderful as they are—are only the firstfruits of what is to come.

Let me close this way: Here’s how this all connected to Christmas.  Jesus’ first advent—his first coming, which we remember this week—is itself only the firstfruits of what is still to come. The first advent anticipates the second advent and is the promise that it will surely come. The coming of Immanuel that we celebrate at Christmas is the firstfruits of the coming of Immanuel that we will celebrate together with him forever.

The song of our spiritual fathers was, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here; until the Son of God appear.” Our song is, “O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Because the curse of the Fall persists, the shadow of decay and death still lingers over us and this groaning creation. But when the “Dayspring” comes (Dayspring means “dawn”, “sunrise,” “the rising of light into the darkness”). When the Dayspring comes, he will disperse the shadows of death and night forever.

So as we look back, on Christmas, to the coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us, let us also let Christmas point us forward to the last coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us.

Hear the Lion. See the Lamb.

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:1-7

Part 11 (4:6b-11)  ΑΩ  Part 13 (5:8-14) →

I love

Love. Love, love, love. I order a lot of books, and I love the experience of seeing a package addressed to me sitting on the front porch. (And who doesn’t?) Once in a while I order so many books that I forget which books I’ve ordered and I literally have no idea what’s in the box on the porch. Which is the best. It’s like a little Christmas.

That I made.

For myself.

I’m sure you can relate. Or not. At any rate, when the boxes arrive they’re always addressed to me, so I know they’re mine. But imagine that one day a box arrived on my front porch, and instead of saying “Bryan McWhite” in the address line it said, “To the one who is worthy to open this.”

Bummer. Self-made Christmas is over. I’m gonna be pretty sure that’s not addressed to me. I’m not the one who’s supposed to open it. And is there anyone around who is? Will we ever know what’s in the beautiful, brown Amazon-stamped cardboard box? I could weep…

A (somewhat) similar scene unfolds in Revelation 5:

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” (vv. 1-3)

Think of God, in this scene, as an Architect/General. In chapters 1-3 he has given the church some initial details of his cosmic plan. He is going to war against the forces that have marred and corrupted humankind and his creation. He will defeat and destroy these forces once and for all, and will rebuild his broken and tattered world—a greater and better Eden. The scroll he’s holding, then, is his battle plan and blueprint for rebuilding. It’s perfectly sealed (“seven seals”) with a sealing wax that can only be cracked by one who is truly worthy.

And no one fits the bill.

God decided, from the beginning, that his great battle plan would be initiated by humankind. For God to press ahead without a worthy human being to lead the charge and the rebuilding effort would be an admission that he was mistaken; That his plan had failed; That he had hoped in humanity and that his hope had been not only mistaken but foolish. And yet it appears that that’s exactly what’s happened. Humankind has gone completely astray. They’ve all rebelled. They’ve all fallen. Even the best of them have become corrupted by sin and self-interest.

So, John weeps (v. 4), because for a moment it appears as though God’s plan will not unfold. Evil has won after all, and will be allowed to engulf the earth completely. God’s new world is a dream that will never be realized. Hope is lost, because humankind has failed. We ran God’s beautiful plan straight into the ground.

This is where we find ourselves. Looking at the ground, sobbing over the shattered remains of our world, like a kid standing over the broken pieces of his favorite toy, knowing his recklessness alone led to this. We should all feel this. We’ve all contributed to the wreckage. And none of us have lived lives virtuous and worthy enough to undo the wreckage.

But then one of the twenty-four elders speaks:

“‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.‘” (Rev. 5:5)

So there is someone who can crack the seal? There is someone who is worthy to initiate God’s rescue and renovation plan? There is a human being who is untouched by sin, corruption and darkness? Who is he?

“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:6-7)

Did you catch that? “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. …Then I saw a Lamb…”

This is one of the most stunning portraits of Christ in the entire Bible. John hears “Lion” and sees “Lamb.”

The one and only human being worthy to break the seals and unfold God’s cosmic plan to defeat evil and restore his broken world is Jesus, the Lion who wages war on evil with terrible ferocity, but who wins the war by self-sacrifice—by being slain himself. But don’t think for a moment that the fact that the Lamb was killed means he’s weak. The Lamb has seven horns (a symbol of perfect power) and he has seven eyes (a symbol of perfect knowledge). This Lion/Lamb is invincible. He cannot be killed by any means but self-sacrifice. And in his self-sacrifice he wields the most dominating and unstoppable power the universe has ever seen.

Suddenly we understand more clearly why the elders have fallen down before him; Why they cast off their crowns before him and worshiped (4:10). He is staggering. He is worthy of our praise and songs. Celebrate him. Celebrate the Lion and Lamb who is our once-and-forever rescuer and redeemer. But we cannot just celebrate him from afar, like fans of a favorite artist or athlete.

We must follow after him in his likeness.

N.T. Wright sums it up well:

“There have been, down the years, plenty of lion-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus died for us; but now God’s will is to be done in the lion-like fashion, through brute force and violence to make the world come into line, to enforce God’s will. No, replies John; think of the lion, yes, but gaze at the lamb. And there have been plenty of lamb-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus may have been ‘the lion of Judah,’ but that’s a political idea which we should reject because salvation consists in having our sins wiped away so that we can get out of this compromised world and go off to heaven instead. No, replies John; gaze at the lamb, but remember that it is the lion’s victory that he has won.” (Revelation for Everyone, 54)

So, church, may we lay down our lives like lambs, in sacrifice and love, commending salvation through Christ to friends, family, and co-workers. And may we fight for justice, truth and goodness like lions, declaring the end of the reign of evil. May we follow closely behind our great Architect/General—the Lion-like Lamb and Lamb-like Lion.

Is Jesus a Puppet King?

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6:14-15)

What’s the strangest scene in the entire Bible? The frogs falling from the sky? That’s a pretty good one. What about Balaam’s donkey turning around and demanding that Balaam stop hitting him? Sheesh. That would get your attention. Maybe Ezekiel’s vision of wheels with eyes all over them? Creepy, right?

I’ve always thought that one of the strangest scenes in the Bible is recorded in a comment the apostle John makes in chapter 6 of his gospel. Jesus had just performed the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes. From five pieces of bread and two small fish, Jesus feeds five thousand people and has enough leftovers for lunch the next day. The people are absolutely amazed by what they’ve seen. So much so that they declare as one, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (v. 14).

The people were so overwhelmed by what Jesus had done that they immediately agree together that Jesus must be the messiah—the long-awaited prophet-king who would come to rescue the people of God and rule over the world forever and ever. And yet, something so very strange was happening in their hearts. And Jesus saw it as it was happening.

John writes, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (v. 15). Wait… what? Did you catch that? They intended to make him king? So… if they wanted to make him their king it kind of seems like they were under the impression that he wasn’t yet their king. They seemed to think that he needed them to make him their king.

Maybe they thought that he still needed a crown or a robe or a throne in order to be a proper king—not realizing that his crown is power, his robe is heaven, and his throne is not of this earth. In fact, the earth is merely his footstool (Isa. 66:1). And what kind of king did they think he was going to be, exactly, if they thought they could take him by force and make him king? What kind of king would you be if your own subjects could take you by force and make you to do what they want you to do? That’s called a puppet king.

On the other hand… Don’t we all do this? Don’t we all try to force Jesus to be the kind of king we want him to be?

Don’t we all try to dictate to him when he’s going to be king, and what things in our life we will and won’t let him be king over? Don’t we all decide that we will only follow Jesus if he doesn’t demand too much of us? If he doesn’t ask us to step out into risky situations for the gospel? If he doesn’t call us out of our comfortable and self-centered lifestyle for kingdom causes? If he doesn’t point to our sin and say, “Turn. Turn from that. Why will you die?”

Jesus is not a tyrant king. He is a king who loves us enough to die for us. But he is also most definitely not a puppet king who will always approve and always agree with whatever we want him to do or be. He is most definitely not a king who will let us define him by our own preferences of how we think he should be. He said, “I AM that I am.” Which means, he defines himself. We can never invite him to get on board with our plan for our lives. If he is truly the king our only decision is whether we will get on board with his plan for the rescue and restoration of his world, or whether we will rebel and continue to contribute the decay of the world.

For far too long, I allowed myself to imagine that I defined what kind of king Jesus would be to me, and what parts of my life he would be given access to. I know many of you can relate. May we be people who invite and embrace the benevolent reign of Christ over every part of our lives.

What Does It Mean to Proclaim the Gospel? (Part 1)

I led the staff of New Hope Church through this material for two weeks in our general staff devotion time. I think it is absolutely crucial that church leaders, in particular, work harder at thinking biblically about what the gospel is and what happens when we confuse the “plan of salvation” for the gospel. Please feel free to read and use it in your own church, small group or another discipleship setting!

What Does It Mean to Proclaim the Gospel? (Part 1)

Defining the gospel is all about where you start. If you start with Paul’s letters and ways of thinking, and try to fit Jesus’s words and ways of thinking into Paul’s, your understanding of the gospel will have a distinctively “Paulish” flavor to it. On the other hand, if you start with Jesus’s ways of thinking, and try to fit Paul’s ways of thinking into Jesus’s, your understanding of the gospel may have an entirely different flavor to it. An important question, then, is: How can we proclaim the gospel in a way that reflects all of Scripture—not just our favorite parts?

“I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’ The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles.”[1]

“For many people, ‘the gospel’ has shrunk right down to a statement about Jesus’ death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it. That matters, the way the rotor blades of a helicopter matter. You won’t get off the ground without them. But rotor blades alone don’t make a helicopter. And a microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don’t, by themselves, make up ‘the gospel.’”[2]

A Group Thought Exercise…

If you lived in first century Palestine and were a follower of Jesus, listening to his preaching, and building your life on his teaching (before there even was an “apostle Paul”), how would you explain to someone what the “good news” is? Try hard to avoid importing what you know now about the gospel back into what you would have been hearing from Jesus. What follows is representative of what you would have known about “the gospel.”[3][4]

Mark 1:1: “This is where the good news starts—the good news about Jesus the Messiah, God’s son.”

Mark 1:15: “‘The time has come!’ he said; ‘God’s kingdom is arriving! Turn and believe this good news!’”

Matthew 4:17, 23: “From that time on Jesus began to make his proclamation. ‘Repent!’ he would say. ‘The kingdom of heaven is arriving!’ …He went on through all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news about the kingdom…”

Matthew 9:35: “Jesus went around all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news about the kingdom….”

Matthew 24:14: “[Jesus replied], ‘…And this good news about the kingdom must be announced to the whole world, as a witness to all the nations. Then the end will come.’”


Group Reflection Questions:

As an early follower of Jesus, what would you have understood that Jesus meant by “the good news”?


How should we reshape the way we think about the gospel and proclaim the gospel so that we’re reflecting all of what Scripture says about the gospel? Write out, in brief, a statement of the gospel that tries to do this well:


Concluding thoughts about why this is significant and worth thinking carefully about…

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples. …Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and…aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.”[5]

“Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.”[6]

…In other words: Is the condensed version of the gospel that we often share with people so focused on a “making a decision” that it is unintentionally helping people “feel saved” without calling them to be subjects of God’s kingdom—disciples of Jesus? Is this part of the reason we see so many unconverted “Christians” in our culture?

[1] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 26.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Forward” in McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, 13.

[3] All Scripture citations are my own rendering from the Greek text, with the aid of N.T Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

[4] You would have heard other things from Jesus that may be part of the gospel (e.g. Mark 10:45), but you likely would not yet have heard these things connected to the word “gospel.” The word “gospel” is mentioned also in the following texts, but they do not clarify what the gospel is: Mark 1:14; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15; Matt. 26:13; Luke 9:6; 20:1.

[5] McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, 18.

[6] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 403, n. 8 as cited in McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, 75.