This past Sunday morning I was privileged to preach to a large congregation made up of local church members plus a few hundred delegates, literally from all over the world, attending the 27th annual BLESS THE NATIONS missions conference in the Eastern Cape. Prior to the conference, those of us on the steering committee had wrestled with some issues we believed to be dire threats to the Church in South Africa today, such as rife nominalism, humanism, ancestral veneration, ‘prosperity teaching,’ etc. Hence the subject at hand in the Sunday plenary session, followed by several panel discussions dealing with the particular issues mentioned.
I thought I would share my message, under the above heading, for the interest of those unable to attend the conference and my wider readership.
We began with a statement one of our house church members had sent me the week before preaching – it was by the famous Welsh preacher, Dr. Martyn Loyd-Jones to the effect that those God had used in revival in times past had as their first concern not so much ‘the state of the church’ as ‘the state of their own souls.’ What a call to humility at the outset for those who make up the very Church we are challenging, including myself!
The Church, certainly in the West, is (in my opinion) in dire crisis whether she realises it or not. Being a South African somewhat besotted about the game of rugby (our Springboks currently rank no. 2 in the world), I was reminded that whenever our rugby has been in crisis, the public and coaches have called for a return to ‘the basics,’ i.e. to ‘the drawing board.’ One ‘drawing board’ for the Church in crisis could well be Mk. 1:14-18, with its revelation of ‘5 basics’ I believe we need to re-visit.
BASIC 1: GOD’S PEOPLE ARE A KINGDOM PEOPLE… (v. 14-15a)
Mk. 1:14-15a tells us that “After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee… ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near'” (‘has arrived’).
Israel had longed for this moment, but were expecting their Messiah to usher in a cataclysmic, political triumph on behalf of his people which would deal with her enemies once and for all. However, along came John the Baptizer and Jesus claiming that the kingdom had indeed arrived in the person of ‘the Christ’ – but his kingdom was not to be a political one, rather a quiet inward rule in the hearts and lives of all (Jew and Gentile) who would heed him. Furthermore, we need to remember that Jesus made his claim to kingship in the context of Rome’s kingship in the form of an emperor referred to as ‘god.’ Every time a would-be follower of Jesus (to Romans an ‘atheist’ of sorts) handled a Roman coin, it was a concrete reminder that ‘Caesar is Lord’ in contrast to the confession ‘Jesus is Lord!’ Later the apostle Paul would exult in Christ’s unique lordship in Phil. 2:6-11: ‘being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
With this background we note the many ‘kingdoms’ of our time: kingdoms of power (political, economic, personal), materialism, pleasure, egoism [I have come across narcissistic ‘Christians’], professional sport, and success. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), in the face of Hitler’s early military success, declared that while man is after success, God is after obedience! To which of these afore-mentioned false kingdoms have we submitted, in one way or the other? The Keswick speaker Alan Redpath once challenged us: before we can pray ‘Your kingdom come’ we must learn to pray ‘My kingdom go!’ There is a sense in which if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.
BASIC 2: GOD’S PEOPLE ARE A GOOD NEWS [GOSPEL] PEOPLE… (v. 14, 15b)
Mk. 1:14,15b reminds us that “After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God… ‘Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus declared.
Simon and Andrew and all good Jews would have heard echoes of Is. 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who bring salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” Every time a new emperor was appointed, runners would be sent out into the vast Roman empire, crossing mountains and valleys, heralding the news to all Roman citizens and those ruled by them. For the oppressed Jews in Palestine this was hardly good news. But here in Jesus was true good news, news of a unique and eternal peace, joy, salvation and kingdom the world knew nothing of!
This good news did demand that people ‘repent’ (a rare word today) and ‘believe.’ Repent from what? We can easily read our favourite systematic theology back into the answer, but in the immediate context it probably referred to God’s people repenting from the false gods and kingdoms of the time, including a Judaistic political kingdom as a final solution to all their problems. It was rather a call to repent from the ‘unbelief’ of the latter and to believe (trust) in ‘THE KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS’ (Rev. 19:16). Our greatest enemy as Christians of every age is in fact unbelief, the refusal to believe in Jesus and commit to him as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ (Mt. 16:16).
And what good news we have in the gospel today! It is infinitely more than Jn. 3:16 and Rom. 5:8, though including these. What about the good news of Gen. 1-2, where we have God and mankind in sublime communion? (the gospel doesn’t begin with the ‘fall,’ although it includes it). The gospel is the full story of the Bible, the full story of Jesus and his person, his incarnation, life, miracles, cross, resurrection, exaltation and coming again. Why do we stop at Good Friday when the gospel includes Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection in him, both spiritual and physical? If you want a good summary of the gospel, I suggest you visit 1 Cor. 15, the whole of it. Recently I conducted the funeral of a friend in his fifties, who died suddenly and left his wife of just one year absolutely devastated. I explained from the pulpit that her comfort would be in the gospel, not as commonly understood but as revealed in 1 Cor. 15. She phoned me the next day to ask for the text again, as she had missed it in her distraught condition. She promised to read the passage concerned and seek a greater comfort in it’s full-orbed ‘good news.’
Many around the globe would agree with me when I say that much of the Church world-wide has simply ‘lost the gospel.’ We have for example fallen prey to easy-believism and its ‘3 quick steps’ to salvation and heaven, to morality in itself [in South Africa much of the Church has bought into the false notion that if only we can change the nation’s values, the nation itself will change]. Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good or good people better – ultimately he came to make dead people live! Certainly the Church in SA has in many places succumbed to religiosity, ritualism and ‘churchianity.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid the German’s Church’s large-scale capitulation to Hitler and anti-Semitism in the 1930’s at the feet of rampant nominalism, ritualism and religiosity in his native Lutheran Church.
Have we truly grasped the good news, i.e. the gospel? Perhaps more accurately, has the gospel ‘grasped’ us? Is it transforming us both individually and corporately, as it did Paul the Apostle and the NT Church that turned the world upside down?
We’ll handle 3 more ‘basics’ for the Church today next time round…
[ADDENDUM to sermon. On the matter of ‘the good news,’ I am no longer of the persuasion, as once I was, that we have to batter people with ‘the law’ before introducing them to the ‘good news’ of Jesus. This approach cannot stand the test of Scripture in my humble opinion, nor that of NT witnessing and preaching (e.g. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2). It is enough (initially any way) to be confronted with Jesus Christ, and his good news! (as defined earlier on)]