I grew up in the hot phase of the Cold War. People in Europe and all around the world, frightened by the prospect of instant annihilation, began to demonstrate against nuclear weapons on their territory. The nuclear holocaust was a real possibility—so people marched.
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the same generation discovered nature and ecology. In Europe, new political parties emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to defend the ecological balance against roughshod capitalists clearing tropical forests in the Amazon basin at an alarming rate so that fast-food chains had a secure supply of beef for their increasing number of global customers.
Today our world is not less polarized. Media has moved us even closer to one another. I can know about an important event happening on the other side of the globe in minutes—especially if I’m plugged into social media. People chanting on the streets of Moscow, a horrific accident in Texas, a terror attack in London, a devastating chemical attack in Syria—we get it all on multiple screens within minutes.
This increase in information, however, has not led to better decisions. In fact, it feels as if societies all around the world have become more polarized. We “like” what we like to hear; the danger of digital ghettos where everybody thinks the same and those with different opinions are just not heard seems to be more of a reality today than 20 years ago.
What would Jesus do if He lived in 2017? Would He march down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of women, science, immigration reform, the Constitution, or unborn life? Would Jesus enter the discussion about sustainability and limited natural resources and privacy rights? Would He speak up for the poor, the marginalized, the illegal immigrant, and the teenage girl who just found out that she is pregnant?
These are penetrating questions requiring a careful look at what Jesus was passionate about during His ministry less than two millennia ago.
Right from the outset we know He loved us unconditionally; His mission was to save the world (John 3:16). Yet as He engaged with the world around Him, He often spoke purposefully about choices and values and principles that continue to affect our lives as well. Salvation and grace were not separate from justice and righteousness and mercy and compassion in Jesus’ heart. His ability to see the big picture while helping us notice the little, yet relevant, choices transformed the world.
John the Baptist’s announcement that the kingdom of God was at hand (Matt. 3:2) offers a good introduction to Jesus. The longed-for Messiah introduced sweeping hope and a new dimension that most of His audience was not ready to grasp.
Yes, Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. His first sermon in Nazareth clearly illustrates this. After reading from Isaiah 61:1, 2, Jesus simply states, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).1 You remember the essence of this message. Jesus is ready to “proclaim good news to the poor,” “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,” to “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). That not only sounds radical—it was radical and, considering the response of His audience, it was not appreciated. Jesus proclaims God’s kingdom: He does not reinvent it, though. In all He is doing and saying, He is deeply rooted in Scripture.
His Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12; Luke 6:20-23) and the subsequent expanding of these kingdom principles (Matt. 5-7) are truly countercultural. The poor in Spirit, the meek, those who are mourning, or thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers: they are all blessed in God’s kingdom—not the powerful, the mighty, the great, the haves, the VIPs, or royalty.
Jesus touches the blind, the cripple, the leper (Matt. 8:1-4; 9:1-8, 27-31). He has fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners (Matt. 9:10, 11; Mark 2:13-17).2 He tells stories about good Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37)— people that any Jew living in first-century Judaism knew to be bad. In His stories sinners receive a feast instead of a rebuke; they are embraced and transformed (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus welcomes outsiders and invites them to become insiders in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ concern is clearly not only about healing, feeding, and proclaiming good news. His repeated cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-16; Matt. 21:12-17) suggests also a focus on economic justice. God’s Temple was not to be a place to make a quick buck (Mark 11:12-17).
His proclamation of liberation involves all. While He purposefully preaches to Israel, the chosen people, the freedom He offers affects all—including the stranger and the alien living in Israel who were considered eligible for the jubilee legislation found in Leviticus 23-25.
When Jesus talks to the faithful about the judgment at the end of times He purposefully includes in His parable about the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) the stranger (or foreigner). You serve Me when you serve those you do not normally recognize, He whispers to our hearts. Pay attention, open your eyes, and see the brother or sister who doesn’t look like you.
Kingdom business is not just about understanding grace and reaching those who cannot reach for themselves. When we have recognized that we are already living in His kingdom,3 we join the ranks of His disciples. Jesus uses several surprising metaphors to illustrate the role of His disciples in society. Matthew 5 tells us that we are to be salt and light (verses 13-16). Salt gives taste to otherwise bland food; salt conserves food in a freezerless world; salt fertilizes, which was an important use in first-century Judaism.4
Light is needed to see a way and orient oneself in darkness. While Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:6-9), His disciples are called to point the spotlight on Him. Their actions, values, and commitments echo His actions, values, and commitments.
Jesus didn’t liberate all slaves, but He started a movement that ultimately would change the world—from inside out.
Beyond light, Jesus also compares the agents of His kingdom to yeast (Matt. 13:33). Yeast is often used to illustrate that which is evil or unclean. Here, however, it is a symbol of unstoppable growth. Jesus’ disciples are
in this world (though not of this world; cf. John 17:14-16), and their influence should penetrate everything. We are called to be engaged as Jesus was engaged in His world.
Finally, true heart conversion always must involve the element of repentance. Israel’s great revivals were always associated with repentance and changed hearts—not just with changed circumstances. Jesus recognized that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Repentance and prayer are foundational elements of social action. Jesus teaches us to repent, to pray, and then to go.
Biblical thinking about stewardship begins at Creation. As created beings, we recognize our indebtedness and His Lordship. We recognize that there is a special time, after every six days, that belongs to Him. The making of the Sabbath represented the highlight and conclusion of the Creation week. It set aside time—one of our most precious commodities—as belonging to the Creator, forever.
Yet Jesus does not only speak about time when He introduces the principles of God’s kingdom. He speaks of treasures, hard cash, and our attitudes to cash (Matt. 6:19-24). Building up treasures on earth is a futile exercise in a time rife with bank crashes and out-of-control capital markets. Building up treasures in heaven, where no one but God can see the ledger, will help us focus upon things of eternal value.
True discipleship means that all our resources (time, cash, energy, influence, and creativity) are at the service of the kingdom. This radical vision lies at the heart of Jesus’ vision of His kingdom. “[Jesus’] teaching establishes that Christians should be socio-politically involved and that this involvement is motivated by the character and activity of God as displayed in Jesus’ ministry, the hope of the consummation of the kingdom of God at the new creation and the Spirit’s present activity,” writes theologian Wesley Chiang. “Christ’s universal Lordship over all time and space motivates Christians to be championing his kingdom in every sphere of human life.”5
Social action encompasses three main dimensions: relief, development, and structural change. Jesus was involved in all three areas. He offered relief to the needy, the sick, and the hungry. He invited them to follow Him, making disciples of tax collectors, fishermen, and even political activists. When He spoke about the kingdom of God, the most important recurring topic of His preaching, He introduced radical structural change. Yet the principles He preached were solidly anchored in earlier revelation. He who inspired prophets and poets did not reinvent the wheel. Rather, He reminded His audience that their reading of Scripture was not without bias; that their understanding of the law was colored by their own preferences; that their commitment to grace lacked the existential experience of grace.
Ellen White’s take on social engagement seems to echo Jesus’ understanding. “Any human being who needs our sympathy and our kind offices is our neighbor. The suffering and destitute of all classes are our neighbors; and when their wants are brought to our knowledge, it is our duty to relieve them as far as possible,” she writes. “Our neighbors are the whole human family.”6
Yet Jesus, our human Brother, was, at the same time, also the completely Other. His sense of mission helped Him to know intuitively which areas of His society needed His engagement. He didn’t liberate all slaves, but He started a movement that ultimately would change the world—from inside out. His commitment to the principles of God’s kingdom moved Him to search out the marginalized as well as the powerful. He often surprised and irritated His disciples as He engaged the world around Him. Ultimately they understood that morality based on self-interest and self-justification is not God’s morality but human-made fig leaves flaunted in open rejection of God’s kingdom.
Would Jesus march on Pennsylvania Avenue? I really don’t know. But I do know that He continues to challenge His church, individually and as a corporate body, to search for the principles of His kingdom in all we do. As the Creator He cares for His creation. As the Savior He yearns to relieve suffering and pain and extend grace and mercy to a sin-sick world. As the Judge He desires righteousness, transparency, and equity in His followers as they too engage the world surrounding them.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review who often wonders about the principles of God’s kingdom in his own life.