The idea that Christians are to bring healing into the world—the restoration of people and the reformation of systems that hinder them—seems reasonable enough (in thought, anyway). It is certainly biblical. Reality, however, is another story. The moment one ventures out into the world—either physically or through the lens of the media—you will no doubt be thrown back by the overwhelming suffering, injustice, and evil that frequently seems to rule the day. Islamic terrorists—an enemy with no intelligible goal other than destruction—remind us that evil is real, ruthless, and well-supplied with volunteers. Incomprehensible poverty in India, despotic regimes in the Middle East, and Mexican drug wars us that injustice still reigns throughout much of the world.
Just recently, in my own community, a twenty-nine-year-old pastor was brutally murdered in his church and his sixty-seven-year-old female assistant was nearly beaten to death for a few dollars.
Within our own church communities, we see families torn apart by sin, abuse, and divorce. We often pray without result as our friends and loved ones succumb to disease and death. Many are suffering distress as their children wander from the faith and countless others are struggling with job loss and the economic hardships brought on by prolonged unemployment. Mindless acts of evil, moral failures, indiscriminant suffering, and tragic loss bombard our lives. It is no wonder that many of us feel overwhelmed by a sense of despair and may think that improving these conditions is not only futile but also pointless. Some may even begin to doubt that God is real or that he loves them. Sadly, the church is full of discouraged and often defeated Christians.
Such pessimism is incongruous with the new life in Christ. The epistle to the Hebrews, which exhorts believers to be faithful in “the last days,” is as relevant today as it was then. Most scholars believe Hebrews was written between A.D. 80 and 85. This would place its writing at least eleven years after the brutal persecutions of Nero had ended in A.D. 69. Wisely, Nero’s successor, Vespasian sought to establish peace and stability and was considered a virtuous man of upright character (Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesar’s [New York, NY: Scribner’s, 1975], 219). In essence, the Christians to whom this epistle was written were living in a period of relative peace—free from persecution.
Numerous passages in Hebrews attest to the fact that the problem confronting these Christians was not persecution but apathy, and/or outright spiritual sloth. The anxieties of life had overtaken many and some were in danger of drifting away from the gospel (2:1). Others were at risk of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). Some had abandoned corporate worship (10:25) or were faltering in their spiritual zeal (12:2). Many were guilty of failing to learn the doctrines of scripture. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (5:12, ESV). In summary, the church was in an awful state. The reprieve from persecution had enticed them to become complacent, lazy, and apathetic.
This seems to closely parallel our own times. We are not being put to death for our faith. In fact, American Christians live in relative peace and prosperity. Our “sufferings” that are common to life in the fallen world generally pale in comparison to the abject suffering of so many others now and throughout history. We, too, have become complacent, often indifferent toward the world and those who suffer. However, this complacency may have more to do with how we understand our mission and purpose than it does the absence of persecution. If, as I have said before, we hold a view of the gospel that only emphasizes personal conversions, the world around us will descend—unabated by the church—into evil, injustice, and oppression. This neglect defies Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors because it ignores the conditions, systems, and institutions that hinder human flourishing and cause suffering. It is very hard for people to believe that Jesus loves them when his followers show little or no concern for the very things that are hurting them.
If, on the other hand, we embrace the gospel of the kingdom, then the encouragement from the writer of Hebrews makes more sense. Remembering that we have been given new life and now live under the authority of the good King who is over all kings, the writer encourages us to “be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28 ESV). Here is our hope: The unshakable kingdom of God has come into the world to oppose and tear down the kingdom of Satan—those conditions, systems, and institutions that harm and enslave God’s creation. This gratitude due the kingdom of God finds its cause in God’s desire and power to change the world. This is God’s continuing act of redemption, its intended scope being the restoration of the whole creation to its proper harmony (cf. Col. 1:19–22).
Throughout Scripture, our attention is drawn again and again to the kingdom; Jesus built his theology around the concept of the kingdom of God. Robert Linthicum summarizes the meaning of the kingdom in his seminal book, Transforming Power:
It takes very little reading of the Gospel accounts…to recognize that what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God was simply the full living-out of shalom upon the earth, in its private and public dimensions, in its personal and corporate dimensions, and in its political, economic, and religious systemic dimensions (Linthicum, Transforming Power [InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2003]).
In other words, the unshakable kingdom has come is coming and one day will come fully when Christ returns. The mission of the body is to proclaim God’s message of hope, share his love, and restore the peace of God (shalom) to all that sin has unsettled. We are sons and daughters of the Most High God; we have nothing to fear from the world (cf. Rom. 8:15; 2 Tim. 1:7)! It must also be understood that while we work for shalom, we will suffer failure and disappointment. There will be days when the kingdom seems so small and evil so large. But the timing and effect of God’s will on earth belongs to him and our faithfulness is measured in the effort, not the result.
As citizens of God’s kingdom, we cannot and should not be shaken by this world and all of its woes, but go by faith with boldness, bringing the love, beauty, justice, peace, and mercy of God’s kingdom to every corner of the earth.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven