I grew up in the church and I don’t think I understood the heart of what Christianity is about until last year. Let me explain.
Towards a New Story
The meaning of something can only be found within a specific context. If I say “it is snowing”, the statement means one thing if it is placed within a story where (a) I have been dying to build a snowman but there hasn’t been enough snow, versus (b) I am trying to catch a flight that will now be cancelled due to the weather. The same statement takes on very different meanings depending on the context—in one case it means the elation of finally getting to build a snowman, in the other, it means the possibility of sleeping at the airport. Events gain their significance from their context, they mean what they do only within a larger story.
Jesus is no different. The significance of Jesus’ life is only revealed by the story that He is thought to be a part of. Change the story, and the meaning of who He was and what He accomplished inevitably shifts as well.
So, what is the story? The vast majority of western Christians are taught something that goes like this. You were made to be in a relationship with God, but you have sinned and rebelled against God and have failed to meet His perfect moral standard. Because of this, the relationship has been broken, you have been separated from God, and you now stand guilty before a holy God rightly deserving the wrath of God. But Jesus came and died on the cross for your sins, taking the wrath of God that you deserved so that now you can be forgiven of your wrongdoings and can be made right with God. The relationship is thus restored, you are saved, you have peace with God, and you get to go to heaven when you actually deserve hell. This, in broad strokes, is the backdrop for most people’s understanding of Jesus. Jesus means what He does to a lot of His modern followers because this is the story He is thought to be apart of.
But this story, taken as a whole, must be abandoned if we are to ever fully understand the significance of Jesus. It is laced with half-truths that have functioned to veil the main thrust of the 4 gospels from the modern reader. This widely accepted narrative is far too narrow, creating a Jesus whose significance lies almost solely in His atoning death and what that may mean for you and your personal relationship with God. It reflects a modern western revision that has caused countless misunderstandings and is unable to make sense of large swaths of Jesus’ life. This framework will simply not do justice to the totality of what Jesus Himself thought that He was doing and will leave you with a very limited view of who He was and what He accomplished.
While this is the dominant context for Christianity today, there were no Jews in the first century (Jesus’ own context) that thought this way. This was unequivocally not the story that they had in mind, it was not the world that they saw themselves in, and it was not the story Jesus Himself thought He was a part of. Their controlling narrative was quite different, and because of this, Jesus’ actions—His life, His teachings, and His death and resurrection, took on a different meaning for the earliest Christians than it does for most of us today. In order to begin to recover this meaning, we need to paint a slightly different picture in which the full significance of Jesus can be seen.
Jesus in Context
If we are ever to understand Jesus, we must meet Him on His own terms, and that means placing Him firmly within the hopes, aspirations, and worldview of second temple Judaism. As a Jew, you inhabit a world where God has made humanity to wisely govern His creation, to be recipients and reflections of His love, and to be agents invested with God given authority to partner with Him in taking the world forward towards it’s ultimate goal. But humanity has chosen to do things on their own terms, rejecting the fully-human life they were designed for, rejecting their genuine vocation, and thus derailing God’s plan for His world. God, deeply committed to both His creatures and creation, has now chosen a people (Israel) to be the people through whom He will put the entire world right. Problems arise again when God’s chosen vehicle to bring healing to the world are themselves shown to be sinful and in need of rescue. Because of Israel’s sin, they find themselves in an extremely dark place, being ruled over by pagan nations, being cut off from ancestral promises, being held in slavery and exile, and seemingly being left to their own accord by the God that called them to be His own. Things have gone terribly wrong for Israel, and in turn, God’s plan to save and rescue the world through them also seems to be in jeopardy. But even though it was hard to understand how this could all be part of the divine plan, they continued to hold fast to God’s word that He Has not abandon His people or His world. God has promised that there is coming a day when He will act in a new way, that there will be a new freedom event like that of the exodus, a time when wrongdoings will be forgiven, a time of healing and restoration, a time when God will climatically put His world back on track.
In light of this, it must be said that as a Jew what you are hoping for has nothing to do with what happens when you die or any kind of disembodied heavenly existence thereafter. Rather, you worship a God who acts within history, and your hope is that He will do so once more, returning to set right all that has gone wrong, to establish peace and justice on earth, to vindicate those who have been faithful to Him, and to enact a radically different world order where He Himself is once again king. In the first century, there is a great sense of anticipation, a buzz, that the time is drawing near for all of these things to finally happen. It is out of this world, and in the middle of this story, that Jesus of Nazareth bursts onto the scene proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).
The Kingdom of God
Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom has largely been ignored or distorted in western Christianity, mainly because it makes little sense within the traditional story being told. If Jesus came primarily to to die on the cross for your sins, to save sinners, to open up a way to heaven upon death, then what the heck was He doing spending so much time talking about the kingdom of God arriving on earth?
But anyone who reads the gospels with a fresh set of eyes will quickly see that Jesus’ entire life and ministry is dominated by one major theme, one thing that Jesus cares about more than anything else, one central message that towers above the rest—the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived. And with a new story in place as the proper backdrop, Jesus’ central message of the kingdom comes into sharp focus, with the results being no less shocking and exhilarating today than it would have been in the first century. It’s finally happening. God is at last returning to do what He always promised. Exile is over and the time of restoration and redemption is here. Jesus does not come as the fulfillment to a story of humanity being bound for hell who can now have peace with God and go to heaven. He comes claiming to be bringing the long story of Israel and their God to its climactic moment, in which Israel’s vocation to be the people through whom God rescues His world finally finds its fulfillment in Jesus and thus brings about the new world that God intended since the start. Jesus comes with a royal announcement of the kingdom of God, that God is taking His world back, at last reasserting His saving and sovereign rule in His creation. The kingdom is coming in a manner completely unexpected by Jesus’ contemporaries but the message is clear nonetheless—God is becoming king.
In my first post I talked about the true and ultimate Christian hope not being about going to heaven, but about heaven and earth fully overlapping, about a restored and redeemed earth, a new creation. The central claim of Christianity is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate hope of new creation has paradoxically, but climatically, begun. That God has acted through the faithfulness of Jesus to defeat everything that was holding His world back, and that Jesus came to inaugurate a new kingdom where God Himself was once again enthroned as king. In a Christian view of the world, the resurrection of Jesus is the climactic establishment of new creation—Easter sunday the birth of a new world. Christianity gets off the ground based on the evidence that in and through Jesus something had happened because of which the world was now a different place, and that God’s intended future had strangely but emphatically commenced in the present. Christianity then grows at an unparalleled pace, not because people were going around preaching a new personal spirituality, or some kind of salvation in terms of where you go when you die, or that you should accept Jesus into your heart. Christianity exploded to become the largest and most influential religion in human history because people were convinced that the resurrection of Jesus marked the initiation of a new world, that the Creator had made good on His promise and commitment to His people and His world, that Jesus was enthroned as king of this new world, and that everyone must hear this glorious news.
If we are to take Jesus seriously, we must see everything in light of the fact that He came primarily to usher in new creation. Jesus tells us that He was sent for the purpose of announcing the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43) and everything that He says and does can only be understood when we recognize them as downstream of His kingdom announcement and His vocation as the kingdom-bringer. All of Jesus’ so called “ethical” teachings are not to be treated as an abstract moral philosophy of right and wrong, but rather, the only sensible way to respond when God decisively takes His world back. Jesus’ teaching on loving your neighbor as yourself, or forgiveness, or giving generously to those in need, only make sense as outworkings, as implications, of the fact that God’s new world was coming to birth through Him. Similarly, when the apostle Paul gives a list of the kind of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians, he is not participating in a bit of abstract moralism. He’s giving an analytical truth—that those who continue to destroy the good, wise, and loving design of the creator for His world simply cannot be apart of this new world anymore than an arsonist can work for a paper factory.
Likewise, the miracles and healings of Jesus in the gospels should not be taken, as I always had, simply as proof that he was indeed God. Rather, they fit neatly into his larger ministry of announcing the kingdom of God. The establishment of this kingdom must involve the defeat of evil—the enemy that has held God’s people and his world captive, and with the miracles of Jesus there is evidence that this was now happening, that the overthrow had begun, that restoration had commenced, and that the kingdom was breaking in. “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).
The gospels are explosive narratives telling you about God’s new world, long held back and defaced by sin and death, at last being unleashed into the present space and time. All four gospels, in their own way, are telling the story of Jesus as the story of how God took His world back from humans and all of the horrible things we have done to it, and has ushered in His alternate kingdom. The cross and empty tomb are more than just a way to personal forgiveness, it is the means by which everything that stood in the way of God’s intended world coming to pass has been defeated, and thus the opening up a new reality in the midst of the old. Personal forgiveness of sins and being made right with God are important, but they should be seen as small parts within a much larger, all-encompassing scheme of Jesus launching the kingdom of heaven on earth and not made central in and of themselves. On the cross Jesus defeated the evil powers of this age, and in His resurrection inaugurated a new age. This is why Paul can speak of His contemporaries as those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11), and why the author of Hebrews can speak of Christians as those who have tasted “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). The earliest Christians all saw themselves as living at the turning point of human history where the “present evil age” was being ruptured and passing away while the “age to come” was dawning. Unless we begin to think eschatologically about the significance of Jesus, that is to say, as if the “end times” and the “last days” have begun with Christ’s first coming and are awaiting their final consummation at His second coming, much of the new testament will remain a puzzle whose pieces don’t seem to fit together and certainly don’t create a wholistic or coherent Christian worldview.
All of this can and should be fleshed out in more detail but at the very least when we think of Jesus we must begin to think most prominently of His announcement of the kingdom. All too often the message that Jesus proclaimed most loudly has fallen on deaf ears in the modern world but Jesus went to great lengths to explain the significance of what He was doing, and He does so in terms of God’s kingdom. An unwarranted overemphasis on His atoning death and restored personal relationship as the pinnacle of what He accomplished will certainly sound more spiritual, but at the expense of neglecting a God whose plans go far beyond personal salvation and a Jesus who came to reclaim God’s world. Jesus’ entire life is defined by His loud proclamation and embodiment of the good news of the kingdom of God, going around teaching about the nature of this new world and what kind of people will be apart of it, summoning His listeners to respond with repentance and a new loyalty to Him as king, forming a new humanity who were given a new identity and a new task as participants in this kingdom, and decisively establishing the kingdom through His death and resurrection.
And if we ever want to understand what Jesus meant when He declared that the kingdom of God had arrived, we must also begin to embrace a different biblical paradigm, one that leads to a slightly different brand of Christianity that revolves around a loving, generous Creator and His utter devotion to redeem all of His creation. In order to do justice to what the Bible is saying, Jesus must be placed within the context of the long story of Israel and their God, in which Israel is chosen to be the vehicle of God’s plan to rescue His whole world and Jesus comes as the faithful Israelite through whom this plan is at last fulfilled and accomplished. In overthrowing the powers of sin and death through the cross and resurrection, Jesus is vindicated and exalted as the world’s rightful sovereign, rectifying God’s people and His world, reestablishing God’s saving and sovereign rule, and opening up a cosmic restoration, a new creation, the kingdom of God. This is the significance of Jesus, and this, in fact, is what Christianity is all about—that the God who made the world is remaking the world, and you’re invited to be a part of it.