You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (9)
The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology1 says that just prior to the incarnation of Christ, the Greeks used the word gospel in three ways: 1) in reference to the reward given to the messenger of victory: his good news brought relief to the recipients and therefore he was rewarded; 2) in reference to the message itself. It was chiefly a technical term for the message of victory; 3) in a religious sense, it referred to Caesar Augustus as the “Divine savior king” at birth. It also referred to the Caesar's speeches, decrees, and acts, which were “Clad tidings which bring long hoped for fulfillment to the world's longing for happiness and peace.”
This religious use of the word gospel was a decree of the Creeks in Asia in 9 B.C. celebrating the birthday of Augustus. It called his birth “the beginning of everything” and honored him as he who “restored the shape of everything that was failing and turning into misfortune and has given a new look to the Universe at a time when it would gladly have welcomed destruction if Caesar had not been born to be the common blessing of all men.” Moreover, the decree thanked providence, “which has ordered the whole of our life” by sending a “savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . . and whereas the birthday of god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him . . . Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province . . . has devised a way of honoring Augustus hitherto unknown to the Creeks, which is, that the reckoning of time for the course of human life should begin with his birth.”
Obviously the Creeks' faith was in Augustus. Their gospel was that he would save the world, control its future, and produce peace throughout the Empire.
After the ascension of Christ, the apostles defied the Roman Empire and Augustus by declaring the gospel of Christ. With this one phrase they said that Jesus, not Caesar, was the Divine Savior-King and that He had ascended to the throne where He would usher in a new era of peace.
The educated Roman comprehended this message more clearly than do many modern Christians. He knew that what these first-century Christians were declaring was that Jesus was establishing a rival government. Whenever a Christian refused to bow down to Caesar by not burning incense before the national god, he was clearly saying that even Caesar must bow to Christ.
The Christian gospel is not merely “Jesus Saves.” Caesar would have had no problem with this message. No—the gospel that brought persecution to the apostles was that Jesus Christ, the Divine Savior-King, God Incarnate, lived a sinless life, died as a substitute for sinners, rose again, and ascended to heaven where He now rules over time and eternity. In other words: Jesus is the Sovereign Lord, His Word is law, and His kingdom will reign.
The Roman government understood that these men were issuing a challenge to their presumed authority. And the Jews realized that these Christians were telling them that if they wanted to continue being a part of the “Nation of God,” they had to bow to the resurrected King they had just crucified. Both groups saw Christianity as an enemy of their governmental systems; each realized that it was a matter of “kill or be killed.”
Jesus and the Kingdom
When Christ began His ministry. He preached, “The kingdom of God is near.” The gospel of Matthew notes at least fifty times where Jesus referred to the kingdom. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew records the Lord's parables concerning His kingdom. These parables reveal that His reign would come and bear fruit; silently leaven the entire world; cost its subjects everything they owned; and, at the end of time, judge all those outside its domain. In Matthew 16:28, Jesus told His disciples that some of those standing there listening to Him would not taste of death until they saw “the son of Man coming in his kingdom.” When did this happen? Are some of the original twelve hidden somewhere waiting for His kingdom before they can die? Certainly not. They saw the coming of His kingdom on the day of Pentecost, as well as in the judgment of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Luke tells us that Jesus spent the entire time between His resurrection and ascension speaking to His disciples about the kingdom of God (Ac. 1:3). Clearly, He believed their comprehension of this subject was crucial to His purposes. Why else would He spend His last days on earth speaking about this one subject?
After Christ ascended. He poured out the Holy Spirit and began to reign through the church. He rules now. We are not waiting for Him to usher in His kingdom; He has already done it! (Although we certainly will not see the fullness of His kingdom until His physical return.) Furthermore, Paul said that Christ would reign until He put all His enemies under His feet. “Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power” (7 Cor. 15:24-28). Paul explicitly says, then, that we are not waiting for His kingdom to come with the end of time. On the contrary, when the end comes, it will be because Christ's kingdom has defeated all His enemies.
The Nature of His Kingdom
According to Colossians 1:13, Christians have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. But some might ask, since the kingdom is obviously with us, why aren't we experiencing “Millennial Peace”? Why aren't all the nations discipled?
While the redemptive work of Christ ushered in God's kingdom definitively, it must be progressively worked out in history until it is finally established on judgement day. Our salvation has the same triad: We were definitively saved, are progressively working out our salvation, and will be perfectly saved on the day of judgment. To say that the kingdom is not yet reigning because there is no worldwide peace is as erroneous as saying that because you are not perfect you are not saved.
It is the rejection of Christ's present sovereignty that constricts the ministry of many churches to evangelism and “personal holiness.” Their thinking is that because He isn't yet Lord in all men's minds there can be no kingdom until He returns: A l l that we can hope for is winning a few converts; all that we can work for is to lose as slowly as possible. But lose we will.
It is the nature of the kingdom, however, to increase, not decrease (Is. 9:6-7). It is like a mustard seed that grows from something small into something that gives worldwide shelter. Furthermore, the increase of God's kingdom is continuous and gradual. It is not going to be established by one cosmic revival or by some other cataclysmic event.
The Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission
The Bible gives three stages to Christ's kingdom permeating the world. First, there is the declaration of the gospel of Christ and the regeneration of sinners. Then there is the process of making disciples of these new converts by applying His lordship to every area of life. The final step is for these disciples—both individually and collectively—to begin bringing their culture under the rule of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4-6). In short, we must combine Matthew 28:19, 20 with Genesis 1:28: Make disciples and cultivate the earth for God's glory.
Before we can make disciples, however, we must make converts. It amazes me how so many who loudly profess a deep belief in the ongoing nature of the Cultural Mandate fail to evangelize. We seem to prefer raiding the fruit of other more evangelistic churches and discipling their converts. (Yes, yes, I know they are the Lord's converts, but you do get my point!) The problem here, however, is that we all too often must spend a year or more working to remove a faulty understanding of the gospel. And worse, we fail to obey the Lord's command to go out and share the light to those who are in darkness. I guess it is easier to ridicule the pietists and arminians for the impotency of their watered-down gospel than it is to actually take this full gospel to the world around us. We cannot “take dominion over the earth” if we refuse to evangelize unbelievers around the world. The kingdom is not going to be extended by good works, political action, or publishing theological treatises on the Cultural Mandate unless there is an equal involvement in evangelism. If we fail to see sinners converted, all we will have at best is a moralistic culture that at heart is still at war with God.
I suggest that churches begin seasonal evangelistic efforts where they rent a large room in a nice hotel and present the gospel through music, drama, the arts, offering Biblical wisdom on how to rear children or manage finances, etc., and that they do this in a way that can be heard by people who have been reared in this age and culture.
Some other ideas: What about watching the newspapers for births or for announcements of first birthdays and sending these families a video with a low-key offer of help, if they do not already have a church? In a church I pastored, we brought in Ballet Magnificat for a Saturday evening performance. Over half of the 400-plus people who came to this performance were unbelievers.
Of course, we should also support those men and women around the world who are taking the gospel of the kingdom of God to those we, as individuals, cannot reach. There are missionaries like Derek and Peter Hammond, as well as nationals like Josue Lopez in Mexico and Mario Aviles in Nicaragua, who are having a massive impact for Christ that we could and should support. I constantly tell the supporters of Global Impact that whatever fruit I produce around the world is their fruit as well because I could not do what I do without their assistance. To put it succinctly, our offerings should support our profession of a world-conquering gospel.
One of the keys to subduing the earth, of course, is not only to declare that Jesus is Lord, but proclaim how He is Lord. Our goal is to apply the Word of God progressively to the world around us. We cannot limit the King's will to character and church life. It is “the earth” that we are to subdue, not just souls. All of life—church, family, education, business, science, the arts, civil government, etc.—must be cultivated for His glory. This requires that these spheres submit to the King's Word. As Charles Colson writes in The Body: Being Light in Darkness:
What is clear from creation onward, is that God's rule extends to everything. From our bank accounts to our business dealings to our educational curriculum to our social justice issues to our environmental concerns to our political choices in the voting booth—everything must reflect the fact that God's righteous rule extends to all of life.2
If we reject the King's Word, we implicitly deny that God is sovereign. The laws of God are expressions of His holiness. As such, they reveal to us how to sanctify every sphere of life. To say that God has no will concerning our various vocations, callings, and responsibilities is to say that there are areas of neutrality where man, not God, is sovereign. Neutrality, however, does not exist. Either we are submitting to the Sovereign King and His revealed will, or we are at war with Him.
Part of the institutional church's responsibility is to instruct her members how Jesus' lordship is to be applied to everyday life. For too long, many churches have only prepared their members to attend meetings, tithe, and pray. But, for example, what does God's Word have to say about banking? Is there anything in the Scriptures to equip the banker to cultivate his sphere for the glory of God? Does the Bible have anything to say about loans, debt, and fractional reserve banking? It certainly does. (If you doubt me, read my friend E . Calvin Beisner's hook, Prosperity and Poverty.) And if we neglect to instruct the banker in how to bring divine order to the sphere of his vocation, can we then blame him for thinking that Christianity is irrelevant?
It is part of the image of God within human nature to exercise dominion. If Christians deny this doctrine, if we refuse to subdue the earth, then we leave the door open for the godless to rule and to leaven the earth with their sin.
It is not enough merely to say that the Cultural Mandate is still in force today. As the army of God, we must be discipled in how God's Word directs us to subdue the earth. Motivating uneducated and undiscipled believers to subdue the earth will only produce anarchy—everyone doing what seems right in his own eyes.
Subduing the earth involves applying the Word of God to the world around us. Unlike the Israelites, however, we are not to use a steel sword in subduing the earth. The New Testament method of extending God's reign is explained by the analogies of salt, light, and leaven. We are to persuade and convince through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the testimony of our godliness, thus causing others to desire God's will.
If we seek to subdue the earth via the steel sword of power, rather than the spiritual sword of service, we will be rightfully rejected, just as the Gentile authorities were whom Christ condemned. Moreover, If we seek to have godly influence without proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and emphasizing the necessity of regeneration, the unrighteous will throw off the restraints of God's Word at the first opportunity.
- The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI, 1980), Vol. 2, 107-108.
- Charles Colson, The Body: Being Light in Darkness (Dallas, TX, 1992), 193.
- Monte E. Wilson, III