“If you want to see what it looks like for God’s renewed people in Christ to be ‘royal,’ to be ‘rulers’ in the sense indicated by the vocation to be a ‘royal priesthood,’ don’t look at the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman emperors first became Christian. That raises questions and challenges at other levels, but to begin there would be to miss the point. Look, instead, at what the church was doing in the first two or three centuries, while being persecuted and harried by the authorities—and announcing to the whole world that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, was its rightful Lord. That is what it means to be ‘rulers’ in the sense we’re discussing here: to be agents of that King’s reign, the reign of the Prince of Peace, the one through whom tyranny itself (not to mention any individual tyrants) was overthrown with the destruction of its most vital weapon—namely, death—and the one through whom therefore was brought to birth a new world in which order and freedom at last meet.”
– N. T. Wright, After You Believe
In Christ, we find a new way of being that challenges us to put to death the old human (Rom. 6) and to become bearers of His image. At present, I cannot see the need for any revelation, doctrine, or prophecy that does not point me toward this goal. Anything beyond this—beyond eagerly awaiting by faith and “through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (Gal. 5:5, NIV)—is irrelevant to those who wish to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.
If the “only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6), then I get the feeling that I may have spent the past twenty years or more being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14). If this is not true for you, then I simply ask that you bear with me a while longer.
Through Christ, “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed” to each of us (Acts 13.38), but this extension of grace should not be misunderstood. While it provides us with a direct link to the Father, it does not allow us to justify our sin, mistreatment of others, verbal abuse, or manipulation (e.g., threatening someone if they act contrary to our wishes). Should we “go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, the promise and the purpose of being baptized into the life of Christ is that “we too may live a new life” (6:4).
Put another way, in Christ, we find a way of being that does not allow us to excuse behaviors that lead to sin, the most common being “jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20). Among these, I have seen fits of rage and selfish ambition justified under the pretense of respecting leadership. Do I plead guilty to this kind of behavior? Without question. But I hope I never again justify these behaviors in myself or in another. And if you justify these things because of all the good you or another person have done, then you oppose the renewing power of Christ and his holy spirit.
Now, you who are led by the Spirit and therefore not under the law (Gal. 5:18), consider first what it means to be led by the Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Why are you not under the law? What does this mean? Surely it implies that legalism is old-fashioned and that it is much more fulfilling to be yourself, to do what comes naturally, and to justify wrong-doing because, hey, nobody’s perfect. Right?
Not quite. If we live in such a way as to produce the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control),1 the extrinsic authority of the law has now become the intrinsic nature of our human hearts (Jer. 31:33).
Remember Peter’s advice: live as free people without using your freedom as an excuse for sin, but commit your lives in everything you do to serving Christ and each other (1 Pet. 2:16-17). It sounds wonderful and simple, but I believe it may need some explanation. So allow me, in my limited capacity, to point us toward what I believe is a good starting place for attaining this kind of freedom in Christ.
If we are not daily turning from behaviors that come naturally to us and instead choosing to adopt those of Christ’s indwelling Spirit,2 then our minds are not being renewed, and our claims to being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led are fruitless, as are our claims to both freedom and order.
So, what does being led by the Spirit look like? To pick the most clear-cut image out of scripture, it looks like a son of man praying by night in the Garden of Gethsemane, renouncing his hopes and desires in favor of his Father’s perfect will.3 Perhaps it is safe to say that being led by the Spirit means first adopting the self-denying character of Christ until our behavior becomes indistinguishable from his own.
For those of us who desire to be like Christ, it might help if we understand a thing or two about his character. To sum it up (and so do poor justice), the character of Christ is one of humility and servitude4 tempered with a dash of zeal for the Father.5 Looking at Saul of Tarsus, we might see that he was a zealot in the tradition of Elijah and Phinehas, the son of Eleazar.6 But when he met the Son of God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:5), that zeal was redirected toward a new way of being—the zealot for God’s kingdom must, according to the new covenant,7 be a servant of Christ8 and a living vessel for the “truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1).
In other words, our vision of reigning in the Kingdom of God means nothing if we do not embrace our role as servants of the firstborn Son and look to him as the “foundation already laid” (1 Cor. 3:11).
In my time, I have seen the idea of ruling in Christ’s kingdom misunderstood on three different fronts: 1) there are people who believe their success and prosperity to be the main demonstrations of their kingdom authority; 2) these same people often subscribe to a harmful misconception of son-ship by submitting to a spiritual father9 or to an apostle as their primary source of revelation (please note my emphasis), which in effect has caused some to either turn away from the “champion who initiates and perfects” their faith (Heb. 12:2, NLT) or to relegate him to a second-tier position in their lives;10 and 3) some believe it is the church’s present responsibility to judge the world rather than to await Christ’s judgment, which is set for an appointed time (Acts 17:31).
This last idea is especially dangerous, as it fills people with a false sense of omniscience while causing them to reach toward the kind of power that Christ attained only after he defeated the one who held the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Truly if we do have this kind of power (thus implying that we are as perfect as Christ rather than being made perfect through Him11, then why would we ever need a high priest who “always lives to intercede” for us? (Heb. 7:25).
If you are as qualified to judge as you think you are, then it stands to reason that you no longer need Christ to intercede on your behalf.– Me
Referring to the three issues listed above, the first usually shows up among people who become so enamored with the idea of “ruling and reigning” that they are oblivious to the cost of this kind of power (e.g., torture, humiliation, and crucifixion).12
As to the second issue, I find that it sometimes produces unadulterated devotion to a single church leader at the expense of ostracizing those who do not share this devotion (even though they are followers of Christ). At its core, this turning away from fellow believers in the name of “loyalty” is nothing more than idolatry and is in direct conflict with Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians when he says, “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
Finally, if any question remains as to how we should function as agents of Christ’s authority and power, Paul at least clarifies what we are not to do: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (4:4-5).
I do not know how to make this scripture any clearer than it already is; it speaks for itself without any help from me. If Paul is correct (and if I am not taking his words out of context), then we should judge nothing until the Lord comes.13 So, where exactly does that leave us?
Despite what some may think, I am not suggesting that we should all just lead ourselves, picking and choosing how we want to submit to authority. Rather, I am pointing us toward what I think could be a more perfect plan to bind us together in a spirit of faithfulness and protect us from the abuse of power. Among people who are preparing for the kingdom of heaven, the reality of what unity and faithfulness should look like is summed up in Philippians 2:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (2:1-4)
Paul has just defined kingdom order. As we know, factions arise among us when our convictions drift so far apart that they become irreconcilable. The question remains: why are our convictions diverging in the first place? Perhaps multiple reasons exist, but I want to suggest the possibility that either you or I (or both of us) have taken our eyes off Christ.14
In Philippians 2:1-4, the first factor in the equation is unity with Christ. This is the essential element because it is only when we are united in Christ that our convictions become identical. Being united in Christ means understanding his nature and character and working with all of our hearts to emulate that character by way of a vital gift from heaven—the Holy Spirit, our living witness of the resurrected Son, and the assurance of everlasting life.15
Once we are united with Christ by his Spirit, the other components begin to lock into place: we become like-minded, we have the same love (and convictions), we unite in spirit and purpose (we share a vision that is universal because it is the vision of Christ rather than the vision of a single church or individual), and we begin to relate to one another in a spirit of humility. As easy as this last part sounds, it is often the most difficult to grasp. Humility is not second nature to me; I hope it is to you.
Based on the previous scripture, the key to unity is humility. Unfortunately, many believers think unity is something inorganic that the hierarchy outlined in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 imposes. However, Paul may be saying in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that Jesus appointed the apostles—as messengers of the good news and as prototypes for the new way of being—before he appointed anyone else in the church.
Put simply, they came first in a chronological sequence and were entrusted with one task: to cultivate a body wherein the working “parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25).16 Also, Ephesians 4:11 is often preached to justify the five-fold ministry (and perhaps rightly so) while the ultimate purpose of this order is overlooked: “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (4:12).
Is Paul suggesting that the means lead to an end or, more specifically, to the realization of a meaningful hope that transcends all other agendas? I think so. If the ministry is not building up believers in the knowledge of the Son of God—that is, if we are not being led toward a revelation of who Christ is and how we are to reflect him to the world—then we are wasting our time as unfaithful stewards of the gospel. Further, if equilibrium in the body of Christ is not evident, then the body parts are not functioning according to Yahweh’s plan. So, how do we become this fully-functional body of Christ? Read 1 Corinthians 13, and then get back to me.
As for the good news, it is simply this: Yahweh, God of all creation, has made a new covenant with humanity through the resurrection of His son, who, having ascended into heaven, has left us His indwelling Spirit, who is—in us, through us, and for us—the promise of life eternal and the assurance that we will live, in bodily form,17 with the true King of heaven and earth.
Any message or gospel that deviates from this essential truth is not the message of the kingdom.18 Moreover, any ministry that does not concern itself with winning people to Christ does not share in the interests of heaven, for “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). I do not care how many people I get to come to my church, and I hope I am not among those who care how many people leave my church to go somewhere else—if I can lead people to a revelation of who Jesus is and what this new way of being means for them, then I will have fulfilled my God-given mandate as a follower of the firstborn Son.
Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.
- See Galatians 5:22-23. ↩︎
- Galatians 5 and Romans 6 are two great signposts for this; I reference them because they are the ones I am most familiar with. ↩︎
- See Luke 22:42. ↩︎
- See Philippians 2:6-11. ↩︎
- See John 2:17. ↩︎
- See Numbers 25, 1 Kings 18:40, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:4-6, and N. T. Wright’s “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17)”. ↩︎
- The new covenant is summed up nicely in Jeremiah 31:33-34 and in John 3:16. ↩︎
- See Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 3:5, and 4:1. ↩︎
- This is remarkable to me when I consider John 20:17, where Jesus refers to his disciples not as sons but as brothers. See also Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:1-7. ↩︎
- I am not discrediting the concept of spiritual fathers and sons, nor am I suggesting that we should not submit our lives to the instruction of people who exceed our knowledge in the faith. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul writes, “for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel,” and in verse 17, he calls Timothy his son. Also, in 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul refers to Timothy as his “true son in the faith”. ↩︎
- See Philippians 3:12 and Colossians 1:28. ↩︎
- See Matthew 20:20-24. ↩︎
- In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (8:15-16). Even though he is qualified to judge (because he is the only one who can stand with the Father), he instead chooses to wait because the time for judgment has not yet come. ↩︎
- See Hebrews 12:2. ↩︎
- See John 14:15-21 and Ephesians 1:13-14. ↩︎
- If you want a summary of what the early apostles were like, what they endured, and what their responsibilities entailed, refer to 1 Corinthians 3 and 4. Primarily, they are the servants of Christ through whom we come to believe (1 Cor. 3:5). ↩︎
- See 1 Corinthians 15:12-58. ↩︎
- See Galatians 1:6-7, 1 John 2:22-29, 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 2:8, and Titus 1:2. See also “Gnosticism” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E-J, Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993. 404-406. Print. ↩︎