Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a Church

What if Jesus never intended his followers to form a church as we know it today?

Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a ChurchI looked at where the Bible talks about the kingdom of God and where it talks about church. What I learned is shocking.

These are New Testament Considerations: Both the church and the kingdom of God (along with the kingdom of Heaven) are New Testament concepts. None of these terms occur in the Old Testament. Since Jesus comes to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), the kingdom of God must be one way he intends to do so.

Jesus Teaches about the Kingdom of God, not Church: Jesus talks much about the kingdom of God (Heaven) and little about the church: fifty-four times versus three. Clearly Jesus focuses his teaching on the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is so important to Jesus, it should be important to us as well.

A Change Occurs in Acts: A transition of emphasis happens in the book of Acts, with twenty-one mentions of church and only six mentions of the kingdom of God. Early on Jesus’s followers shift their focus from the kingdom of God to the church. This is logical because a church is a tangible result while the kingdom of God is a more ethereal concept. But just because this is a logical shift, that doesn’t make it right.

Jesus’s Followers Focus on Church: The rest of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation) emphasizes church over the kingdom of God: ninety times versus eight. Even though the early followers of Jesus favor the practice of church over the concept of the kingdom of God, the fact remains that their practice of church then is far different from ours today.

Today’s church should push aside her traditions and practices to replace them with what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God. It will change everything.

(Here’s the background:

The word church occurs 114 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament. Of the four accounts of Jesus, church only occurs in Matthew and then just three times. Acts, the book about the early church, mentions church twenty-one times. The word church occurs in the majority of the rest of the New Testament books (fifteen of them).

Instead of church, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. The phrase, kingdom of God, occurs sixty-eight times in the Bible, again, all in the New Testament. The majority of occurrences are in the four biographies of Jesus, accounting for fifty-four of its sixty-eight appearances. Acts mentions the kingdom of God six times, with only eight occurrences popping up in the rest of the New Testament.

Matthew generally writes using the kingdom of Heaven instead of the kingdom of God. He uses kingdom of Heaven thirty-one times and is the only writer in the Bible to use this phrase. By comparing parallel passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see the same account with the only difference being that Matthew writes kingdom of Heaven whereas Mark and Luke use kingdom of God. Clearly Matthew, the only biblical writer to use kingdom of Heaven, equates it to kingdom of God. Additionally Matthew uses the kingdom of God five times.)

Grumbling About Church Shows That We Care

People complain about things that matter to them; silence reveals apathy

When a customer complains about a business, the astute businessperson knows to embrace it as an opportunity. The fact that the customer is complaining means they’re still a customer, and they’re simply providing a chance for improvement. After all, if they no longer view themselves as a customer, why would they bother to share their concerns? They gripe, because at some level, they still care.

They may post a rant on social media, grouse to all their friends, or contact customer service to demand a resolution. But regardless of their approach they yearn for a better outcome than what they experienced. This is because deep down they want a business relationship and hope for it to improve.

Grumbling About Church Shows That We CareI’m a lot like that when it comes to the universal church, the church of Jesus. I complain about his church because I care. In fact, I complain a lot because I care a lot. The church that Jesus’s followers started could be so much more than what it is. It should be so much more than what it is.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. In fact most people don’t. They’re basically happy with the church status quo and how she operates. They essentially like the way things function and the traditions they have. They still embrace the basic tenets of today’s church meetings: a Sunday service with music, a lecture, and a collection. Maybe the church will even tack on a social time: call it a Christian happy hour with coffee.

And if they get mad or hurt or disillusioned, they’ll act like consumers and take their business to another church, one that behaves in a manner more aligned with their preferences, expectations, and experiences. But most will still attend church.

A few, however, will drop out. Though they leave the church, they usually don’t leave God. Contrary to what some people think, church attendance doesn’t equate to having faith in God. These church dropouts still love Jesus; it’s his people and their unexamined practices that drive them crazy.

Just as people can go to church and not have faith, they can just as easily not go to church and retain their faith. It’s not that they don’t like church; it’s that they sense she is broken. Though I go to a typical, modern church, I agree with these folks who have a sense that today’s church isn’t working as it should, that we’re missing the point of what it means to truly follow Jesus.

Though I don’t have a solution, I do have ideas. That’s what this blog is about. Stay tuned for more in the Sunday posts to come, because I have much more to say. After all, I write about the church because I care about her.

What Did Jesus Do?

Move from asking “What Would Jesus Do?” to asking “What Did Jesus Do?”

What did Jesus do?The phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” was popularized in the 1990s. Often epitomized by colorful bracelets that bore the acronym WWJD, the concept was intended to serve as a constant reminder for followers of Jesus to act as he would act. Therefore, in any given circumstance the goal of WWJD is for us to ask ourselves, what would Jesus do in this particular situation? Then we should act accordingly.

I like WWJD as an ongoing nudge to always strive to behave in a manner consistent with Jesus. However, this requires that we presume to know how Jesus would act today. This necessitates interpreting his actions from two thousand years ago and projecting them into our modern culture, which we invariably do through the lens of our personal experience. Some call this contextualizing. The problem in doing so is that we make assumptions and might be in error.

Instead of presuming to know what Jesus would do, it might be better to look at the Bible to see what he actually did.

In reading the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the biographies of Jesus—here are some of the things that Jesus consistently does:

Jesus Loves Everyone: The Bible shows Jesus loving everyone, especially those on the fringes of society, the people who “good” folks avoid. Jesus does the opposite, going out of his way to love those who few people love.

Jesus Questions Spiritual Conventions: A paraphrase of a reoccurring teaching of Jesus is “You have heard it said ____, but I say ____.” It seems Jesus consistently challenges the beliefs people have and the way they act. His teaching delights the common people and frustrates the people who think they have everything figured out about God and what he expects.

Jesus Heals People: Jesus goes around healing people of their physical infirmities, from removing fevers to raising people from the dead. In this spectrum of need are people with odd afflictions that the Bible calls evil spirits. It matters not if these people are really possessed by demons or if their struggle is actually mental illness. The reality is that Jesus heals them; he solves their problems.

And for those who claim that miraculous healing doesn’t apply today, check out Jesus’s future-focused statement in John 14:12: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”

Jesus Feeds People: On two occasions Jesus feeds hungry people, miraculously multiplying a measly amount of food to feed a multitude. Before you assume you can’t do that, go back to read the above verse in John. Of course we don’t always need a miracle to feed people. We can just do it the normal way and feed hungry people from the resources we have.

Jesus Opposes Religiosity: Jesus opposes the religious status quo. Though Jesus clearly loves everyone, one group consistently earns his criticism: the spiritual leaders who follow regimented religious rules. They adhere to a spirit of religiosity. Though they are devote in their righteousness and adherence to their traditions and interpretations of the Bible, Jesus consistently has to correct their errant thinking.

These are the things that Jesus does. May we go out and do the same, to do what Jesus did.

Put Jesus First This Christmas

If we say “Jesus is #1,” our actions should confirm that, not prove us to be a liar

Put Jesus First This ChristmasThe person’s Twitter profile was very telling. In fact, I almost missed what should have been her main point. Her key claim was tacked at the end of her 160-character bio, buried in the last eleven characters. Almost as an afterthought she added: “Jesus is #1.”

Am I the only one who finds this ironic?

If Jesus is truly number one, shouldn’t he be listed first and not tucked at the very end? (Wait, let me go check my Twitter profile…whew! It’s all good. I open with “I follow #Jesus.” Not just Jesus mind you, but #Jesus. Not only do I list him first, but I accord him hashtag status for better discoverability.)

Most Christians would say that they put Jesus first. It’s a great concept, but what does it really mean? How do we go about putting Jesus first in actual practicality?

Here are some ideas to consider:

Do What He Would Do: As a starting point we put Jesus first by following his example, by doing what he would do. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. I’ll talk about this in greater detail in two weeks, so be sure to come back for that.

Spend Time With Him: In theory we spend time with the people who are important to us. (Though that’s another thought deserving serious contemplation.) If Jesus is truly number one, truly important to us, we need to spend time with him. But how? Prayer is one way. Reading the Bible is another. How about engaging in other spiritual disciplines such as fasting, observing the Sabbath, service, community, solitude, stewardship, worship…? You get it.

Have Him Walk With Us Through Life: Yes, Jesus is always with us, and therefore goes wherever we go. But let’s move this from spiritual abstraction to effective experience. What if we imagined a physical Jesus at our side as we walked through life? He would actually go with us where we go, literally watch what we do, and really hear what we say—in everything and everyway. What aspects of where we go, what we do, and the things we say would glare as an embarrassment? If Jesus is truly first, the answer should be nothing. But I suspect we all have some work to do in this area.

Be His Ambassador: As Jesus’s followers, we represent him to the world. We serve the role of ambassadors. Therefore our actions do not reflect us, but ultimately him. We need to carry ourselves in a manner worthy of this high calling that he has given us. The world is watching. They’re watching us, but they’re judging him.

Make a Difference: The four biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—show us a Jesus who made a difference everywhere he went. No effort was wasted. Every action had purpose. He left a wake of changed lives. We should do the same.

If Jesus is to be number one in our lives, we have some work to do. We must move this from sentimentality to actuality. Let’s start today: Make Jesus number one in tangible ways.

As we celebrate Jesus this Christmas, let our first gift be to him: a gift of making him number one.

Merry Christmas!

[This is from the December issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?

Arguing over what is true has divided Jesus’s church for centuries

Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?I’m a huge advocate of Christian unity, that as Jesus’s followers we should all get along and live in harmony. Denominations and theological perspectives don’t matter; Jesus does. In the book of John Jesus prays that his future followers will play nice with each other, that we will be as one. This is so others will get to know him. In praying this Jesus realizes that discord among his people will serve as the biggest deterrent to growing his church (John 17:20-26).

Paul likewise writes that we need to strive to live in unity. He commands it (Ephesians 4:3-6). He says there is only one body; there is only one church, not 43,000 variations that we call denominations. This disunity is the downside of the Protestant Reformation.

When I tweeted about the importance of unity, one person messaged me with the stipulation that the basis for unity must be truth. The problem with using truth as a litmus test is agreeing on what is true. In effect this person was justifying disunity. Specifying a requirement of truth provides an excuse to avoid being one church. Christians have used this pretext for five centuries and divided the church of Jesus into religious factions as they argued about what is true.

The Age of Enlightenment, part of the modern era, brought with it the assumption that over time, through ongoing iterations, human thought would eventually converge on a singular comprehension of truth. This didn’t happen. The opposite occurred. Truth became multifaceted, the product of each person’s individual logic and bias.

Christians have fallen victim to this thinking over the past few centuries, with otherwise well-meaning people assuming their comprehension of spiritual truth was correct. Ergo everyone else was wrong. As a result we have separated ourselves into denominational schisms, subverting the intended unity of God’s church in the process. How this must grieve him. It certainly grieves me.

Spiritual truth is important, but we must hold it loosely. After all, our comprehension of what is true just might be wrong, mine included.

[This is from the November issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

Do You Know You Are a Priest?

As followers of Jesus we become his priests; it’s time to start acting like it

Do You Know You Are a Priest?Aside from sharing my first name, I like Peter in the Bible. His concise writing packs a lot of practical teaching into his two short letters. He writes to those who follow Jesus. His words apply to us.

Peter describes us in four ways: as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” and “God’s special possession,” (1 Peter 2:9). While all four labels pack much value, I particularly like the idea of priesthood.

In the Old Testament, only select people could become priests. Priests had to come from the tribe of Levi, which ruled out everyone from the other eleven tribes. In addition, they had to be a descendant of Aaron; this eliminated most of the rest of the tribe of Levi. Plus they had to be male, thus removing all women from consideration. Last they couldn’t serve until they turned twenty-five, making younger men have to wait.

That was quite restrictive. Either someone was in or not. There were no exceptions. Jesus changes all of that.

Under Jesus, spiritual service is not limited to a select few born under the right conditions or possessing certain credentials. In Jesus’s church the door to priesthood is thrown wide open. We are all eligible to be priests. In fact we are all priests by virtue of being his followers.

As priests we minister to each other and shouldn’t expect someone else to do the job for us. As priests we don’t need special clergy to serve as our liaison to God; we can approach God directly. Under Jesus the priesthood as a special ordained position becomes obsolete. Instead the priesthood becomes normal, something we all should embrace as our calling.

Today’s paid ministers and pastors are an extension of the Old Testament priesthood, something Jesus effectively eliminates when he fulfills the Law of Moses. It’s time we start acting like his priests and stop expecting the clergy to do our jobs for us.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is 1 Peter 1-3, and today’s post is on 1 Peter 2:9.]

The Error of Evangelicals

The Error of EvangelicalsIn our world of political correctness, there seems to be one group of people who it’s socially acceptable to harass and hate: Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. In a world that values tolerance, there is one group that it’s okay to not tolerate: evangelicals. It’s politically permissible to mock them, denigrate them, and verbally attack them. It’s not fair, but they brought it upon themselves. They made themselves a popular target. Though some evangelicals are truly persecuted and martyred, the majority who think they are enduring hardship for their faith are really facing wrath over their errors.

Though I may have some evangelical characteristics I do not identify myself as evangelical. I was, for a time part, of their camp, but I left. When I visit them, I often don’t enjoy the experience. The reason is they lost sight of their purpose. Their original goal was to evangelize, that is, to tell others about Jesus. Jesus loves everyone; Jesus offers acceptance; and Jesus specifically says his purpose is not to condemn (John 3:17).

Too many evangelicals have forgotten that. Contrary to Jesus’ example, they don’t love outsiders, they don’t offer acceptance to those who are different, but they do judge those with dissimilar values or lifestyles. They forgot to be like Jesus. Instead, they have taken a political stand against two issues that trouble them: abortion and homosexuality. They stopped evangelizing and started politicizing. It’s no wonder some non-Christians think evangelical is a political movement.

In their campaign against abortion and homosexuality, a few of them have made some horrific statements and done some terrible things. Many have judged, condemned, and hated in the name of their religion. Most have vilified those who deserve love and acceptance. They have besmirched the name of Jesus. For that, I am truly sorry.

If only they had spent half as much time, effort, and money doing what they should have been doing – telling others about Jesus and acting like him by offering love and acceptance without judgment – then the world would be a much better place and the name evangelical would be respected instead of ridiculed. How I wish that were so.

What is your view of evangelists? Do you agree that Jesus offers love and acceptance without judgement? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

I Am a Writer – And Much More; Who Are You?

I started writing as a teenager. As an adult, many of my jobs involved writing, but I never thought of myself as a writer. Writing was something I did, not who I was. That changed about five years ago when I realized writing was an ongoing thread in my life. I had been a writer for a long time but had never verbalized it. Though I had to force myself to say it, I eventually croaked out the words, “I am a writer.”

Mug displaying "I am a writer."When speaking at writers conferences, at some point I lead new writers in saying, “I am a writer.” They smile. We do this a few times, each time louder and with more confidence than the time before. By the end, many are grinning. For some it is sweet confirmation of their identity, while for others it’s the first time they’ve ever voiced their unspoken dream. At that moment they take their first step in becoming writers. They are affirmed.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; we become who we say we are.

However, I am more than a writer; I am other things, too. I am also a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a volunteer, a magazine publisher, an editor, and more. But my most important identity is as a follower of Jesus. Saying each of these labels, affirms me in those roles, cementing my self-image through positive identification.

There is also the opposite of this. Though unintentional, many of us cause ourselves pain with the negative labels we heap on ourselves. Perhaps you’ve said or heard someone say some of them: “I am dumb,” “I am lazy,” “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m a failure,” “I can’t lose weight,” “I’ll never get out of debt,” “I’m a victim,” “I’m unlovable,” and so on.

Whether this is a dip into self-pity, an attempt to gain attention, or an admission with a sliver of reality, these statements are damaging. With negative talk such as this, we inadvertently move ourselves closer to becoming what we say, whether we believe it or not, whether it’s true or not. Who we think we are is what we become.

Let’s use our words to become our very best. Although being a writer is laudable, my identity starts with “I am a follower of Jesus, a child of the king.”

Who are you?

[This is from the March 2015 issue of Peter DeHaan’s newsletter. Sign up to receive the complete newsletter each month via email.]

Do You Wish People Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

My wife wishes people a “Merry Christmas,” while I say “Happy holidays.” We both have our reasons for doing so, and we are both right.

It’s important to us to keep Jesus as the central focus of Christmas. One way my wife does so is by wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas” – every chance she gets. She never says “Merry Xmas” and doesn’t shop at stores that resort to that godless abbreviation. She also never says “Happy holidays” – and gives me a critical glare when I do.

I am, however, quick to say “Merry Christmas” to people who follow Jesus and am happy to return the greeting to others who offer it to me. My preference, however, is a more intentional “Have a wonderful Christmas,” because the idea of making merry is a bit too jolly for me, obscuring the wondrous love of Jesus and what he came to do.

However, when expressing season’s greetings to people of unknown faith, I prefer a less confrontational “Happy holidays.” While people of other faiths could take my “Merry Christmas” greeting in a secular sense, they could likewise be incensed at a perceived attempt to proselytize. That would not be my intent; I do not want to offend.

My wife thinks I’m over analyzing something simple.

I consider it this way: How would I feel if someone wished me a “Happy Kwanzaa,” a created holiday originally intended as an “oppositional alternative” to Christmas?

Someone did, and I was offended. Caught off guard and unwilling to reply with “Happy Kwanzaa,” I blurted out “Merry Christmas.” Sadly, I responded to his confrontation with an equally confronting retort.

I wish I had just smiled and said, “Happy holidays.”

Why Must We Resort to Name Calling?

“Are you Arminian or Reformed?” The man’s question surprised me. He seemed sincere, and my answer was apparently important to him, but it perplexed me. Besides, I just met the guy.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t care. I’m sure he thought me as evasive or dismissive or pagan or perhaps all three, but I was just being honest. Knowing the answer never merited my time.

He tried again. “What’s tulip mean?”

Oh, I’ve heard this one. “Um, it’s an acronym…” If I knew the answer, he’d label me Reformed. If I didn’t, would that make me Arminian? “…but I don’t remember what it stands for.” Again, honesty prevailed.

Snorting, he tipped his head back and rolled his eyes. He stared for a moment, shook his head, and then stomped off.

I’ve also had people try to pigeonhole me into one of the three main streams of Christianity: Mainline/liberal/traditional, evangelical/fundamental, or Pentecostal/charismatic. How about none of the above? While I identify with parts of all three groups, each has elements I decry.

Then there are those who align with certain preachers or theologians. I respect some, but that doesn’t cause me to follow them. (Consider 1 Corinthians 1:12). I disagree with others, but that doesn’t cause me to reject them. After all, I might be wrong.

For me, my theology comes from the Bible and my commitment is to Jesus. Nothing else matters, so stop calling me names.