The Prophetic Culture of the Kingdom
The community of Christ is a prophetic community. The prophetic message of the community is Jesus. The prophetic message of the community is the Gospel of his kingdom. The community of Christ is to be the prophetic voice in the desert of the world declaring the truth and hope of the Gospel, declaring the culture of the kingdom and revealing that culture to the world. This is our prophetic role. The prophetic is to be a sign of something. In the previous chapter I spoke of this sign as being a mirror reflecting God’s glory (who he is and what he is like) to the world and being an arrow pointing to Jesus. This is one way of describing the Church’s identity, its means of being relevant in today’s world. Our kingdom culture is thus a prophetic culture. When the community of Christ lives a style of life that is marked by the cultural values of the kingdom it embodies the prophetic message of that culture and the Gospel. By demonstrating the cultural values of the kingdom in the way that we live we prophetically declare the reality of the kingdom to the world. In holding true to loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself we find the pinnacle of prophetic action. This shows us that love is the foundation of true prophecy and not judgment as some believe. In Revelation 19:10 we read that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. It is the message of Jesus to humanity, his testimony, that is the Church’s prophetic message. The Gospel is the message of Jesus and the Church must hold to that message as its core, its prophetic declaration even if it is a difficult one.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” - John 14:6-7
This declaration by Jesus presents the community of Christ with a distinct cultural and prophetic challenge. That Jesus is the only way to salvation and relationship with God means there is an exclusive claim at the center of the community’s prophetic message. No option is left to us but to
proclaim that there is only one God and only one way to know him, one way to be saved. There is only one spiritual truth. All other systems of belief cannot open the gateway to God, for Jesus is the only Gate. As you can imagine, in today’s world this is a difficult message. World culture can only hear this message as intolerant, the great swear word of our era. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of the predicament. The challenge is how does a prophetic community based in love carry this message to the world? We are not to be intolerant of others, but to love them. The Gospel is the Gospel and we cannot water it down in order to make it more palatable to those offended by it. We can only be faithful to the message else we become something other than the Body of Christ. It is perhaps better to look at the problem from another perspective.
The reality is that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. This reality cannot be altered, whether it is a truth we believe or not, it is the case. The message of the Gospel is hope because it reveals this truth. The world is dying and in need of his life. The world is in need of the love and transformation of God and when it encounters this prophetic reality it can only discover that the message is true. Jesus came to set us free from the darkness which denies this reality. Intolerant or not, the issue falls to the wayside in this light. If we truly believe in the exclusive claim of Jesus, love for our neighbor and our broken world requires us to be true to the prophetic message of the Gospel. It is the very message pointing the way to true spiritual salvation and true spiritual power to transform people’s lives. It is not love to let those perishing perish because they may be offended by truth.
For God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son. Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but rather to save the world through him. - John 3:16-17
The prophetic message of kingdom culture rests on these words. We were perishing already. If not for Jesus we would have continued in our condemned state without hope of redemption and transformation. Jesus did not arrive bringing a judgment that condemned us, for it was already in
place. As the above verse says, he came to save us from that condemned state. It was only he that could do this, and thus he is the way and the truth and the life. The Gospel may seem intolerant to those who have not met Jesus, who have not yet encountered his reality and the truth of who he is, but if it truly is the hope of the world it is not intolerant, it is the hope of humanity.
At last we come to the vital importance of living according to the spiritual culture of the kingdom. The Christian style of life is more than being Christian. The authentic Christian life is the expression of kingdom culture and is a prophetic way of living. Our love points to the love of God, reflecting his love to the world. Our forgiveness points to the forgiveness of God, reflecting his forgiving nature to the world. The prophetic significance and relevance of the Church is found in being the people of God living according to the spiritual culture of the kingdom. This is what it means to be his witnesses in the world. Our testimony that Jesus lives is found in the way we live because of his presence in us. A prophetic style of life is more powerful than words. We convince few people of the truth of the Gospel with mere words. When the presence of Jesus reaches through us to others we become a doorway for them to encounter the living Christ, the person instead of the idea. An active Christian style of life acts as an invitation to meet Jesus Christ. He is the ‘why’ we live the way we do, the ‘why’ we love others, the ‘why’ we care for the poor, the ‘why’ we do something as unthinkable as forgiving our enemies, the ‘why’ we oppose injustice in all its forms etc… He is our prophetic message and the only message we have to give. Our kingdom culture is what makes the Church a prophetic community. Where we have abandoned that spiritual culture for religious and world cultures, we have abandoned our prophetic role in the world. To be relevant in this world we must return to our prophetic identity as those who live the way Jesus has taught us to live thus embodying the prophetic message that he is the way and the truth and the life.
If the prophetic message of the Church is Jesus and his kingdom and that is its only true message then other messages should be understood as false prophecy. The voice of the Church should be focused on Christ and his kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. The voice of the Church should be focused on the values of the spiritual culture of the kingdom, not on the values of the cultures of the world. It is here that the Church has blurred the lines between its loyalty to Christ as Lord of his kingdom and loyalty to world systems. There is a stream of the Church that believes political power and influence is a sphere to be sought after. The problem with political power is that it does not lead to kingdom power. The kingdom is not about dominating the wills of others. In other words, you cannot use political power to Christianize a society, for to be Christian is to freely give oneself to Christ. A faith culturally and politically forced on people is not authentic spiritual or biblical faith. Obtaining political control in order to enforce kingdom culture is not a spiritual action. It is an approach based on using the values of world culture and the power of that system enforced by the state. Such a situation is the very scenario Jesus opposed during his earthly ministry. A society is transformed through the spiritual impact of the presence of the kingdom. It is the inner city minister bringing the love of Jesus to the streets that can transform people’s lives. It the objection by the Church to the oppression of the poor that points to the kingdom. The Church’s tools have always been spiritual in nature and not earthly. If political power and control of world systems were effective then surely the ‘Christian’ nations of the world would be in far better shape than they are. Jesus surely would have left some instructions on how we were to dominate society by wielding political power in his name…but he didn’t because it was not his way, and nor is it the Church’s. When the Church looks to political power as the means to enforce a Christian culture and paradigm on society it is using a false form of prophetic action. The answer to the darkness of the world is the light of Christ found in his people being the light and salt in the earth. The answer is not found in a political attempt to dominate the darkness.
The Church ought to be a force in society by being the voice of the Gospel, by being the prophetic community it is meant to be. The leaders of nations are appointed by God and answer to him. The Church’s responsibility is to remind those leaders of what God expects of them (justice, mercy, taking care of the poor, freedom from oppression etc…). However, the Church cannot expect the state to fulfill the call of the Gospel. It must do that work itself because it is the presence of the kingdom and its culture within any given society. We do what the state should be doing, but most likely is not, because we are the followers of Christ. Where the Church is actively living out the culture of the kingdom it is a prophetic sign to the state of what God values and expects from a society and how the state should be conducting itself. To use the voice of the Church to prop up the political power of the state is a misuse of the prophetic voice of the Church. We have the authority to hold the state accountable to the standards of the kingdom, but we do not have a calling to politically control the state or a society using earthly power. If we want to see our societies transformed we must be on the forefront of that transformation with the message and the style of life found in the Gospel.
Where the Church has taken on a belief system that seeks to establish an earthly kingdom on behalf of Jesus it would do well to recall that this was the same mistake the disciples made with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is a spiritual kingdom being established in the hearts and minds of people everywhere, in every nation and every tribe. There will be no one Christian nation on the earth until Jesus himself returns and asserts his reign over the whole earth. We cannot take seriously, if we believe the bible, the idea of a Christian part of the globe vs. a non-Christian part. Our family extends beyond all earthly borders to every corner of the earth wherever Christians may be found. The community of Christ is a kingdom without physical borders as we have seen. Jesus is calling all people out from their world cultures into his kingdom and the Church’s voice should be prophetically echoing this call. Jesus is extending his kingdom culture all over the world and the Church’s mission is to follow his action. The Church should be the primary voice calling for the values of the kingdom to be adhered to globally. The plight of the poor in Africa, for example, is a kingdom matter not a political one. It is enough that they are in need that the Church should be leading the way in taking action to meet those needs. In so doing it acts prophetically pointing to Jesus, the reason for our action, and pointing to the kingdom in which we live where the poor are to be cared for.
When political powers oppose the kingdom of heaven we must choose our loyalty to Jesus over those political powers. This is the example that Jesus gave us throughout his life and the example we should follow. The Church becomes a kingdom presence within society serving their lord and king Jesus and not serving the political powers they find ruling their particular society. This is what it means to be culturally distinct, to be the citizens of the kingdom living a style of life based on the culture of the kingdom regardless of what culture and society they find themselves living in. We live in the world, but are no longer of the world, or perhaps we could say: We live in the world, but are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
As much as it may bother us, imperfection is a reality. Paul’s famous statement that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God reminds us that imperfection is with us all. Wherever Christians gather they live with the tension of this reality. Some may feel that they are not quite as imperfect as others, but the ugly truth remains: we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. Christians, unfortunately, have a reputation for thinking themselves a little less imperfect than others. In some respects this is a stereotype and in some ways it reflects truth. Whether it is true or not, the reality of imperfection leads to a deeper issue, that of judgment.
We have looked at the problem of judgment from within the Church and how it turns people away at the gates of the Church. We have also looked at how Christians, fed up, with a Church they deem imperfect elect to reject formal Church. But a challenge ought to be made to this other side, just as we have challenged those within the Church, and perhaps it is the greater challenge. It is one thing to be critical of the Church. Criticisms can and should be made, as have been in this book, but they cannot be made without some kind of response. Two options readily present themselves: that of cynicism and that of a prophetic response. Both begin at the same point but diverge in the way they move beyond the criticisms they have made.
The cynic judges the Church for its imperfection and responds by opting out of the community. Since the Church does not meet their needs and falls short of what they believe the Church should be their response is to disassociate themselves from the Body. There are two problems with the cynical response. First, whether it is imperfect or not, the Church is the Body of Christ. A Christian is a member of that Body and can not, if they take biblical faith seriously, separate themselves from that Body. The culture of the kingdom is centered on love and unity. It is an act of spiritual violence to abandon the community. To do so is to deprive the community of one’s gifts and talents given for the purpose of service. In other words, the Body can not function as it is meant to without everyone’s presence within it. Second, we are called to love. If you are a follower of Jesus, this is your primary call and purpose in this life. It is, as we have seen, the prophetic cornerstone of the culture of the kingdom. To opt out of the community is a failure of love and this is the ultimate end of the cynical response. Though dissatisfied cynics may feel justified in leaving the Church, the reality is that they have only fulfilled judgment and responded according to their own selfishness, two rather worldly values incompatible with kingdom culture. It is not love to judge the imperfection we see and turn our back on the Church. The biblical model is the exact opposite. Kingdom culture stands opposed to this response, calling the critic to a prophetic response instead.
The prophetic response to criticism starts with an honest voice. It sees the problems within the Body and speaks to them bluntly. Unlike the cynical response, however, the prophetic response expressing kingdom culture is one that continues in love. The prophetic response believes in transformation, believes that problems within the Church can be overcome. Love does not allow for opting out, but calls us to remain a part of the Body being a part of the effort to bring about change and calling her to be what she is meant to be. Love is loyal to the end just as Jesus was and is loyal in his love to the end. Those who are critics and grasp the prophetic response lay aside their needs, their egos, and look to how they can best serve the Body of Christ. Love, after all, is not proud and is long suffering.
The reality of imperfection has always been a part of the Church and always will be. How its own members with critical voices respond to that imperfection is an issue of faith that should follow along the cultural lines of the kingdom of heaven. This response reveals a maturity of faith and understanding of the love of God for his people.
As we draw near to the end of this book it should be apparent that in today’s world there are two Christian cultures. One is that which I have attempted to describe, a culture that is spiritual and based in relationship with Jesus Christ and his kingdom. The other is a Christian culture we are all more familiar with. We have our own radio stations, our own movies, our own television etc… We have a culture that allows us to be insulated from the world. It is a culture that underscores the separation of Christians from the world and creates an atmosphere of ‘us and them’. This Christian culture helps to keep those outside the Church at a distance and shifts our focus as believers away from a world in need of the Gospel and consequently causes us to lose connection with the reality of the kingdom of heaven. We might ask why this consequence occurs, for are we not to be different from the world? We are, but when we use a culture that insulates us and puts up barriers between us and the world we lose the ability to expand the kingdom, we lose our prophetic voice. We lose the ability to reach the very world Jesus has called us to reach. He has called us out of the world into his kingdom, but he also sends us into the world to bring the message of the Gospel to it. When our culture focuses our attention on ourselves instead of on the need of the world around us we have lost sight of the Great Commission. When the Church turns its back on the world and circles the wagons in order to protect itself from the world, we have lost sight of the heart of God and the prophetic message he has entrusted us with. The barriers set up by Christian culture have sent the wrong message to the world who believe we have judged them as being unclean, unfit, and unwelcome. The message of Jesus has always been that all are loved and to be welcomed. When our culture sends the wrong message we must consider changing our culture so that it lines up with the message of Jesus or we may discover that we are in a way acting as a false prophetic voice in the world today.
We also risk remaining a community lacking authenticity. Without an authentic spirituality of relationship with Jesus we have no true spiritual authority or integrity. It is one thing to call oneself a ‘Christian’ and quite another to be genuinely Christian. Another way of looking at it is to consider that today we have a cultural Christianity that has lost connection with biblical Christianity. We have not taught those in the Church what it means to follow Jesus, to be his disciple. Far too many Christians get ‘saved’ and end their spiritual life at that point. Is it enough to ‘be in’? The New Testament teaches so much more about what ‘being in’ means. Perhaps we have not communicated the reality and the richness of a life lived with Jesus. It could be as simple as having not taught people that the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is more than an idea. It is a real experience for all who receive him. Perhaps we have not taught people that their relationship with Jesus is continuous, that it does not occur once a week within the context of a church meeting. They have the opportunity to walk with Jesus every day, to walk in step with his Spirit and live out the truth and the message of the Gospel with him.
These seem like obvious and simple matters, but how many Christians today know that God is speaking to them? How many have been taught about the ways in which God speaks? How many have been falsely taught that he is a silent God? In some ways our current Christian culture is like a child that feels abandoned by his father and is trying to fill that silence with something else. There are those who will criticize the notion that the Church has suffered because of a lack of genuine relationship with Jesus, but I would contend that we would not be facing many of the issues we are today in the Church if we were living lives centered on a vibrant relationship with Christ. It is this depth of relationship with Jesus that allows the Church to fulfill its prophetic role in the world and to understand what it means to be his presence, his light, in the darkness.