This post is by Ed Stetzer, who serves as the president of LifeWay Research and the general editor of The Gospel Project. He teaches as visiting professor of research and missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and visiting research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is adapted from his book Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation.
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Mission and the Kingdom of God
We live in a rebellious world, but as Christians, we are not part of this rebellion. While the world rebels against its legitimate King, we rebel against the rebellion. We bow before the real King and declare subversively, “He is Lord.” Therefore, kingdom life “in between” the time of King Jesus’ resurrection and his return is marked by believers in Christ who function as subversive agents of his kingdom. To believe otherwise is to be caught simply existing as Christians, so focused on the promise of a kingdom we’ll one day inherit that we don’t feel responsibility for engaging in the mission that’s already in front of us. Worse yet, when blinded by this haze of inertia, we usually find ourselves more susceptible to being shaped by the world around us than by God’s Word and his truth.
We lose our compelling reasons for resisting the pull of culture’s self-interested standards, and we forfeit the opportunity to make a present-day kingdom difference the way God has commanded us to do. This can’t go on. Not if we’re going to be the subversive agents we’ve been sent here to be in the “already, but not yet.”
Our mission is to share Jesus with a broken world.
Not everyone sees this as a primary or central point. Some think the only means of expressing the kingdom is by performing good deeds—caring for the hurting, correcting injustices, handing out help and relief. And listen, I am all for the church doing these things with abandon!
Jesus explained the subversive nature of his mission when he said: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice how his mission turned against religious and political culture. For the religious, a king would be served and given extravagant gifts (see Bethlehem). Political leadership would be delivered through power and manipulation. Now we both serve and give pointing to the ultimate sacrifice of our King. The message and messenger collide with a cultural view of leadership. The kingdom is not about winning but about rescuing.
But while this part of our mission is extremely important and is (admittedly) too often overlooked and deemphasized in many Christian circles—to our shame—we lose our distinctive calling if by ministering to others’ visible needs we downplay the gospel that inspires it. The kingdom begins with the “seed.” That’s why in some of their final words with Jesus before his ascension, when the disciples asked what was going to become of his kingdom, he said the Holy Spirit would soon descend upon them, “and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). To make “disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) is why we’ve been left here. This is our kingdom mandate.
Our mission includes alleviating the needs around us.
Again, this follows closely on the heels of the first point; the two are nearly inseparable. Both should be happening so seamlessly in our lives and in the work of our churches that you can’t tell one without the other. For as surely as people are lost without Christ, they are also hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and in prison (Matt. 25:42–43); and our Lord commands us to care for them. I mean, he himself defined his ministry as being focused on the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed (Luke 4:18). So, therefore, we join him on mission not only when we proclaim his saving gospel but when we confront injustice, when we touch human need, when we seek to bring about changes that transform this world to look more like it will be when Jesus returns. The “not yet” aspect of life means the “weeds” of pain, abuse, worry, and danger are next-door neighbors with God’s people.
But because we are also subversive kingdom agents, we go underground to help others experience his concern in the here and now. Jesus ties them together so clearly in what is often called the Great Commission. He says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). So he tells us to make disciples. This involves, at its core, sharing Christ. Then he says to “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you,” which includes doing what Jesus said—like feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so much more.
Our mission focuses on both the local community and the larger world.
I’m so glad to see the rising concern among churches for unreached people groups, peoples around the world like the Dhanuk of India who have not yet heard the gospel. Spiritual lostness and oppression abound to the far corners of the earth, and we must pursue our kingdom mission to the uttermost parts with great passion and determination. In addition, that kingdom activity often starts small, and oftentimes we are called to pursue our kingdom mission in overlooked places—in our own neighborhoods.
For some of us, our kingdom mission opportunities begin first in our own communities in addition to partnering with others in the nations of the world. It may not be as exciting and exotic to subvert our own hometown needs with the power of the gospel, but this mission that takes us everywhere means it must also take us right here—right where we live—as ambassadors of a consummated kingdom to our own cities and communities. Then we can (and do) partner with others around the globe on a kingdom mission there.
The world is broken – more so than we know. But for those who know that Christ is coming to establish a new and perfect order, ours is not just a world to endure but a world to invade. Believers have not been stationed here on earth merely to subsist but to actively subvert the enemy’s attempts at blinding people in unbelief and burying them under heartbreaking loads of human need. The kingdom of God changes all that.