Art Wright, Williamsburg Baptist Church
What was Jesus up to during his earthly ministry? It is a question that all Christians must wrestle with as they try to understand what it means to follow him. We often read stories in the Gospels of what he said and did . . . but when we step back and look at the big picture, what was Jesus trying to accomplish with his ministry? What was the end goal?
What exactly was Jesus trying to do?
Many American Christians would answer quite simply and quickly, “Jesus was trying to save people from Hell.”
The witness of the New Testament, however, suggests otherwise. After all, the Greek word for “Hell” (Gehenna) appears a scant 12 times in the entire New Testament. Moreover, when we look at Jesus’ words and parables, it becomes especially clear that Jesus cared much more about how people live in this life. Think, for example, of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). While the parable does talk about the afterlife, reading it in its context clarifies that Jesus tells the parable to encourage hearers to use wealth and power in this life in a way that reflects divine values. Many Christians have overemphasized the afterlife and underemphasized Jesus’ concern for how his followers live in this life. We have entirely flipped our priorities.
To understand better what Jesus was up to, we should start at the beginning. Jesus’ very first words in the Gospel of Mark help orient us toward his mission: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, emphasis mine). Everything that Jesus does in the chapters that follow is oriented toward inaugurating and advancing the Kingdom of God. Repentance involves re-orienting our lives toward this kingdom.
Unfortunately, my sense is that many Christians have conflated “Kingdom of God” with “heaven.” And this may be, in part, the unfortunate byproduct of Matthew’s Gospel substituting the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” for “Kingdom of God.” However, Jesus’ primary mission was not to get people into heaven. (Sorry to burst any bubbles!)
Taken in its first-century context, the Kingdom of God (and Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew’s language) describes not a place but rather the realization of Israel’s God as the true ruler of the world. It speaks to a vision of how the world looks when God’s reign is fully realized and the entire created order has been restored to the way it was meant to be, in the beginning.
This is what Jesus was up to in his ministry. Even his death is oriented toward a vision of God’s kingdom that resists the oppressive powers that be and seeks to effect change through nonviolent resistance.
What would the world look like if God’s reign were fully realized? Scripture offers plenty of clues to point us in the right direction:
- It is a world in which people care for orphans, widows, immigrants, and all who are the most vulnerable among us.
- It is a world in which the forces of domination and oppression have been undone.
- It is a world in which no one is hungry, and no one suffers unduly because of lack of access to good nutrition or healthcare. (We see this especially in some of Jesus’ )
- There is no more crying, and no more tears (Revelation 21–22).
- People of faith recognize their calling to be a blessing to others and to the world (Genesis 12:1–3).
We could go on and on.
It is a world without sin.
It is a world where where all people and all of Creation can thrive.
Yet anyone can pick up a newspaper and see immediately that the world does not reflect this vision. The world is not as it should be. Jesus’ mission is not yet complete. Throughout Scripture, God calls people of faith into partnership to work toward this alternative vision of the world. Indeed, this is the work of the church, to continue on toward the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission.
That means that being a Christian is not primarily about you or me. It is not about being a “consumer” of whatever worship music or religious practices that we prefer. Rather, a life of faith ought to be oriented toward God’s purposes and vision of a just and peaceful world. Through Jesus, God is inviting each of us to join in this work of advancing the kingdom of God on earth.
This is where mission and advocacy find their place in our spiritual lives.
Mission and advocacy begin with the realization that the world is not as God intends it to be.
Mark Snipes notes that, for many of us, we come to this realization when on short-term mission trips. We see others who are facing persistent hardships, adversity, and suffering. For others, we come to this realization when we begin to listen with openness to the experience of others: the Black Lives Matter movement, or the homeless person we stop and listen to on the corner, for example.
Our church mission projects, as Mark notes, often only attempt to offer “bandaids” to the problems of our neighborhoods and the world. However, Jesus’ effort to build the kingdom of God demonstrates that this is not enough for people of faith. We must partner with God in the ongoing work to create a more just and peaceful world.
For many of us, this will be a dramatic shift in the way we have understood mission and the work of the church in the past. It will require education and collaboration and effort. But it is good and rewarding work. Indeed, it is the work that the church is called toward, perhaps now more than ever, as we redefine what it means to be church in the pandemic and one day in a post-pandemic world.
Churches: Let’s find ways to join in Jesus’ mission to advance God’s kingdom on earth. After all, each week in worship, we pray these words to God: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so.
 Most scholars think that the author Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a source, but made some changes that better reflected Matthew’s own theological perspectives. It may be that Matthew, being a good Jewish Christian, simply changed “God” to “heaven” out of sensitivity to the usage of the word “God.” Compare, for example, Matthew 4:17 to Mark 1:15.
 For more information on this particular perspective on Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom of God, these books by author and biblical scholar N.T. Wright might be a good place to start: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012) and Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (2011).