This is the question with which all serious Christians must wrestle. To think that Christianity is thriving in America simply ignores the obvious and overwhelming facts of our times. Much like the century preceding the Protestant Reformation and subsequently the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the church was in a dark and desperate period. In its general understanding and representation, Christianity had drifted from its mission and biblical foundations-and the results were devastating.
Similarly, the church in America today has also drifted from its biblical mission and the result has been a church largely divorced from its kingdom purposes and therefore increasingly irrelevant to people living in the real world. At the heart of our present dilemma is our diminished understanding of the gospel, namely the gospel of the kingdom. In reforming the church, the Reformers taught that Jesus-being the Son of God-was born, crucified, and rose again, and because of these facts, your sins can be forgiven. This was and no doubt remains "good news." However, this summation could be drawn from Paul's letters without ever reading the four books commonly known as the Gospels.
The Pauline epistles, particularly Romans and Galatians, consist of precise statements of what Jesus achieved in his saving death and how that achievement could be appropriated by the individual. We often refer to this as the "plan of salvation" and it is, of course, true and essential to Christian understanding. Unfortunately, if this is all we believe, we only have part of the gospel leaving us with very little in terms of truly knowing Jesus's mission and, subsequently, that of his church. This reductionist understanding was never the intent of those working to reform the church, but the Reformation would set the stage for the bifurcation of the gospel. Eventually we came to think of personal salvation as the "good news" apart from its crucial modifying phrase: "of the kingdom," leaving us with a nebulous religious term (i.e., the kingdom) that fewer and fewer Christians would even understand.
However, when we marry the teachings of Paul with the story told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we clearly see a broader description of the gospel. The synoptic gospels describe and give meaning to the teaching and activities of Jesus in between his birth and crucifixion. This is where we encounter the gospel or good news of the kingdom-the fulfillment of the messianic promises given to Israel, which the gospel writers clearly sought to establish. To Israel, the gospel writers announce boldly, "The time is fulfilled, Israel's king has come!" Coupled with the fulfillment of Abrahamic covenant, this announcement is extended to the whole world, including both Jew and gentile. God has become king of the world and he, through Christ's death and the establishment of his kingdom, is gathering a people for himself through whom he is bringing redemption to every aspect and corner of his creation. Jesus invites us to repent (be born again) and enter the kingdom so we may join him in setting life and the world right!
It is in Jesus's proclamation of the kingdom-the in-breaking reign of God-that the mission of Christ gains its full meaning. The crucifixion achieved victory over sin and death, making Jesus King; the resurrection is the result of his victory and the first fruit of the age to come, and the ascension declares, "He reigns!"
Jesus's life and teachings confirm the real and active presence of his kingdom rule and the way in which we who have been given new life are to live and bear witness to this new reality. Simply put, the character and call of God's kingdom does not fit comfortably alongside the kingdoms of this world but instead offers a radical challenge to our lives and everything about this world. One may wish it were so, but we do not "accept Christ" and easily join with his kingdom purposes. Jesus says, "the kingdom is within your grasp" (Luke 17:21), meaning we are confronted with a decision, a decision to believe, trust, and follow Jesus in his work and purpose. There is no easy belief as some would prefer-saving faith compels us to act, and the direction in which we are to act is clarified in Jesus's command to "seek first the kingdom" (Matt. 6:33 ESV).
In my next commentary, we will examine the upside-down nature of these demands and some practical examples of how we seek first the kingdom.