Our church care group is having a Christmas outreach event tonight — with a difference. In previous similar events, our primary concern would be on how to “save the lost” — how to get people to make commitments to Jesus. This is still our concern because we love our friends and family and believe that they will experience true life when they choose to follow Jesus. However, we have to come to realise, or realise again for some of us, that our first job is to demonstrate something of the reality of the character of the Jesus that we want them to follow. We want our friends to also experience a foretaste of the Kingdom.
We have just come back from our church camp. The speaker was Rev Wayne Ibara, pastor of Makiki Christian Church, Honolulu. (I tried to hum the opening bars to the intro of the Hawaii Five-0 TV series near him but he didn’t seem to notice.) With much humility and patience he outlined his church’s journey towards being a missional church. One of the things he mentioned was that a missional church is one that does not exist for her own sake but understands that she is meant to be “sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom of God.” Here, Pastor Wayne was quoting from the work of missiologist Leslie Newbigin who among other things, taught about the church being the sent community that continues the work of Jesus (John 20:21) and Jesus came both demonstrating and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom, the reign of God, and not about the church. Mark 1:14-15 is an early summary of Jesus’ message:
“After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news of God: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” (HCSB). The Good News was that God’s providential reign was coming and had drawn near in the person of Jesus.
Mark frames his introductory summary of Jesus’ proclamation in 1:14-15 according to characteristic OT schema that presents the revelation of God in terms of divine blessings and human obligations. The gracious activity of God evokes and demands an appropriate response from humanity (e.g., Exodus 19-20; Deut 29:2-8;9-15). Likewise, the gospel, as it is proclaimed by and present in Jesus, can remarkably be summarized in a single indicative: the divine blessing is present in “the kingdom of God,” and the human obligation is contained in two simple imperatives, “repent” and “believe.” (James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002, 47-48.)
The gospels presents Jesus functioning with this schema of “divine blessings and human obligations.” He goes about demonstrating the nature of the Kingdom. He heals the sick, feeds the hungry, delivers those oppressed by evil spirits, reaches out to the marginalised, and stands up for truth against the powers of the day when needed. As He demonstrates the reality of the Kingdom, He also invites people to come under the saving reign of the King of this Kingdom. Therefore there is an inextricable link between the acts of Jesus and the words of Jesus. Sent to continue His work, the church too needs to proclaim the gospel through word and deed. As Newbigin points out, it is often some “kingdom” deed that leads the way to a discussion of the gospel. Something happens and people are intrigued. They then ask the question for which the gospel is the answer.
. . . almost all the great Christian preaching in Acts are made in response to a question. Something has happened which makes people aware of a new reality, and therefore the question arises: what is this new reality? The communication of the gospel is the answering of that question. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 132.)
Therefore, empowered by the Spirit, the church must show by life and deed this new reality. As Newbigin argues, the question for which the gospel is the answer, “is only asked if there is some evidence that the new reality is present” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 133).
Tim Keller puts it this way:
Biblically, an experience of saving grace through evangelism leads to radical sharing of wealth and helping the needy. And when the world sees this sharing, that there is “no needy among them,” (Acts 4:34) it leads to more powerful evangelistic witness (Acts 4:33). Thus doing justice and preaching grace go hand in hand . . . (Tim Keller, “What is God’s Global Mission”)
So the church is a sign of the Kingdom. By who we are, by what we preach, and by what we do, we point to the saving reign of God. And the church is the instrument of the Kingdom. We are sent out by Jesus as the Father sent Him, to demonstrate and to share about the Kingdom. And yes we are also to provide a foretaste of the Kingdom. When non-believers interact with believers they should experience something of the character of a God who loves tenderly and compassionately, but who is also completely committed to truth and holiness.
A few days ago I received a query from someone who wanted to know what were the laws governing evangelism in Malaysia. I said that there were laws in place that punished anyone who tried to get Muslims to change their faith but no such laws exist for sharing the gospel with non-Muslims. But more recently I have been thinking — instead of reducing the discussion to how we can get people of other faiths to “sign on the dotted line,” we should be thinking first about how we can reveal something of the new reality of the Kingdom by our love and by our commitment to truth. Our lives as followers of Jesus should be so different that people of other faiths become curious, and ask the question for which Christ is the answer. But if the quality of our lives does not reveal something of the reality of God, our words will ring hollow.
So I pray that we will have a good time at our Christmas outreach tonight. I pray that it will be a true celebration of the coming of Christ. I pray for a deep and genuine live for our guests. I pray that our guests will notice something so different in us that it will lead to good solid conversations about Jesus. And I pray that the conversations will lead some to repent and to believe.