The Dilemma of the Church
From the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry with them, the disciples faced a difficult dilemma. Borne largely out of the incongruity between what they thought the Messiah was supposed to do and what Jesus was actually doing, they constantly and repeatedly were faced with this one question:
To what extent does following Jesus intersect with the realities of this world?
On the one hand, Jesus did miraculous works that directly improved the lives of people. He also taught people a new way to see themselves, and a new way of living their lives. In many ways, his teaching was practical and everyday. He obviously wanted to impact the everyday realities of life. However, his actions repeatedly fell short of the expectations of the Messianic hopes of those first century Jews. He said the Kingdom was coming, but when they tried to make him the king, he ran off. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, but when he entered the city, he went after the Jewish people in the Temple rather than the puppet king in the palace.
Nowhere is this incongruity more stark than in the story of John the Baptist in prison. Considering accounts by both Matthew and Luke, we see clearly how Jesus ministry is supposed to intersect the current world, but how it doesn’t or perhaps shouldn’t intersect the modern world in the way we would expect or want it to. Let’s start with the question John sent to Jesus by way of his disciples.
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NIV
You might be wondering why John is experiencing such doubt in this moment, and perhaps you are feeling a bit antagonistic to him for being so “weak” in his faith, but you need to remember that John had every reason for his doubt. John’s ministry was steeped with words from the ancient prophets, but no ancient prophet was as prominent in his message than was Isaiah. John knew Isaiah, and Isaiah had said some very important things about the Messiah, what he would be like, and what he would do. And one of those things the Messiah was supposed to do was to proclaim freedom for prisoners. How could Jesus be the Messiah promised by Isaiah if John, a faithful servant of God, was literally in prison? Furthermore, Jesus had claimed that ancient prophecy as his mission statement:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21 NIV
Despite the clear and obvious claim that Jesus was going to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, John was in prison. This is the perpetual dilemma of all followers of Jesus. How much of Jesus’ ministry is supposed to intersect with the real world we inhabit? Was Jesus speaking in metaphors only or was he talking about practical reality?
No wonder John feels his doubt, and no wonder he asks his question, but the answer Jesus gives to John tells us a lot about how we also need to answer the question:
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Matthew 11:4-6 NIV
I have to admit that the first time I heard those words, I thought they were insensitive. John asked simple question based on Jesus’ aforementioned mission statement and the inconsistency of its application, but Jesus answered by saying, “I’m doing the work I’m doing, and people who don’t get it don’t get it.” At least, that’s what I used to think. More recently, I have been able to see this answer in a new light, and I love it now. I can now see the compassion and the brilliance of Jesus’ words, because Jesus was sending a specific message coded just for John’s encouragement.
You see, Isaiah had a couple todo lists for the Messiah. Isaiah 61 was only one of them. Another one was in chapter 35.
…”Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
Isaiah 35:4-6 NIV
Notice all the statements in Isaiah 35 that Jesus echoed in his message to John. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear (and were given speech too). Jesus ticked all the boxes of Isaiah 35, except for a few differences. First, Jesus mentioned three things that aren’t found in Isaiah 35. Jesus mentioned healing lepers, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. It’s easy to figure out why he mentioned good news to the poor. That was the primary central component of the Isaiah 61 prophecy Jesus quoted earlier. Here’s what the prophecy in Isaiah 61 says in full:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
Isaiah 61:1-2 NIV
So Jesus referred to two different Isaiah prophecies in his answer to John, and by doing so, he was saying, “John, I am the Messiah Isaiah spoke of, and I am doing what the Messiah was supposed to do.”
Still, there are a number of things Isaiah had on his todo lists that Jesus left out. Did you see them? Both prophecies talk about the vengeance of God, but Jesus left that part out every time. Additionally, he specifically left out the “freedom for the captives” section when responding to John’s question. John had started his ministry warning people of the coming judgment and he was now one of the brokenhearted experiencing incarceration in prison, and by leaving out those very specific items from Isaiah, Jesus was telling John, “John, I am the Messiah, but not everything prophesied by Isaiah is happening now. Some of it is now, but some of it will happen later. Trust me on this.”
But wait, there’s more. I want you to see something brilliant Jesus did in his answer to John. Remember those additional comments about healing lepers and raising the dead? That was code; for John’s encouragement.
Consider the statement about healing lepers. No messianic prophecy said that lepers would be healed, but there are only a few stories in the Old Testament about lepers being healed, and only one of those stories includes a prophet. In that specific story, the leper was a foreigner named Naaman, and he is eventually healed by the prophet Elisha who told him to bathe himself in the Jordan river. A leper who was healed by being immersed in the Jordan river. A leper who was healed by the word of Elisha. Do you think John would have heard the reference to himself and his ministry of baptizing people in the Jordan? Do you think John would have been encouraged by the reminder? I think so. I think so especially when I remember who Elisha was—the successor to Elijah.
More than the reference to baptism in the Jordan, Elisha is the reason this is coded language for John. John thought of himself as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah according to the prophecies:
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ “
John 1:23 NIV
And according to Malachi, the one who would come to prepare the way was called “Elijah.”
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.
Malachi 4:5 NIV
Certainly, John saw himself as this Elijah figure, and Jesus referred to John as the fulfillment of this Elijah prophecy (Matthew 11:14), but Elijah of old never healed leprosy. Leprosy was healed by the one who came after Elijah. Jesus was telling John,”Yes, John, you served in the role of Elijah, and I am the one who comes after Elijah.”
I’m certain that would have been encouraging to John, but we aren’t done decoding Jesus’ words to John, and this last part would have been bittersweet. You see, the final thing Jesus added to his answer would have been simultaneously encouraging and frightening to John. As John is languishing in prison, facing the possibility of execution at any moment, Jesus said, “I can raise the dead.” Of course, the coded implication is that John himself will face death, but Jesus has the power to overcome it. This would have been such a bittersweet promise to John. Decoded, Jesus was saying, “John, I am the Messiah, but I will let you die there in prison. Still, hold onto your faith, because I have the power to raise the dead.”
What does all this have to say to us today? Well, John’s dilemma is quite similar to our own. He believed that the Savior was presently at work in the world, but he himself was also going through incredible hardship. Was he wrong about the Savior, or was he wrong about how the Savior’s ministry would intersect with the lived experience of real people? Is the Savior’s message merely “spiritual” or does it have “real world” effects?
Jesus’ answer to John is the same answer we need to hear today. His ministry is a combination of now and not yet. Some parts of the Messianic Kingdom play out in every day living while other parts of the Messianic Kingdom are for the future. Furthermore, the parts of the Messianic Kingdom that were most important to John and those that are most important to us just might be the parts left to the future.
Understanding which parts are now and which parts are not yet is at the core of our church dilemma, and the events in the first century church muddy the waters considerably. Shortly after this scenario with John, after Jesus had died, risen, and ascended, the early Christian church experienced moments of literal liberation from prison. Peter, Paul, and Silas each were imprisoned but were later miraculously released, but others like James the Apostle, Stephen, and countless other martyrs, were not so fortunate. Between the now and the not yet lies a vast expanse of the Kingdom only classified as “sometimes.”
Acceptance or Activism
Much of my upbringing was focused on training me to accept this uncertainty. I was taught that there are some things about the kingdom that are certainly now. Forgiveness is extended to all through the death and resurrection of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit is available to all who receive the message of Christ. I was taught that there are some things that are definitely in the future. The day of vengeance and judgment are still to come. The resurrection of the faithful and the joy of eternity are still to come. I was taught that the “middle” is the place of hope and faith mixed with resignation. I can pray for what I want, I can ask God to apply the Kingdom to my present circumstances, but I need to just resign myself to whatever answer God chooses to give. I was raised to understand that sometimes God answers prayers in ways we desire and sometimes he doesn’t. I was raised to understand that sometimes this world looks like the Kingdom is advancing and sometimes it doesn’t. I was raised to think that if I just “let go and let God” then the parts of the Kingdom that are supposed to show up on earth will, and the parts that are for later will show up later.
In short, I was raised to accept the incongruity of a now-but-not-yet Kingdom and to resign myself to a mindset of patience. A mindset that says, “I’ll endure; I won’t fall away.”
But I’m growing, and I now understand that there’s more to Christianity than just silent, patient endurance. There has always been more to Christianity than silent, patient endurance. John’s story actually teaches this lesson too. Remember, he was in prison because he spoke against the immorality of King Herod (the governmental authority). He was in prison because he acted as if the principles of the coming Kingdom were supposed to be active in the world today. John was in prison because he called out the leaders of his day to live out those principles, and while Jesus never echoed John’s statements, he also didn’t walk them back. In fact, Jesus claimed that no prophet, indeed no human, had ever been greater than John.
I was raised to live with resignation and endurance that some parts of the Kingdom are future-only, not present reality, and that’s just the way things are supposed to be; but I now realize that some parts of the future Kingdom are to be advanced in our present world by the activity of its citizens. The evidence of John regarding Herod and the evidence of Jesus standing with a whip in the Temple courts are proof enough that Christ-followers are called to a unique kind activism. The question is not how much we should expect God to do eventually but how much we should join God in doing now. The dilemma we thought we had was one of how much was now and how much was not yet, but the testimony of the first century church pushes us to a new understanding of the central dilemma facing the church. The central question is now this: To what extent is the intersection of Jesus’ ministry and the real world to be activated or advanced by his followers?
This is the better way to understand the dilemma faced by those who follow Jesus, those who are citizens of his Kingdom. It is not about understanding that some things are now and some things are not yet. It is not even about deciphering which things are now and which things are not yet.
It is the question of activism:
How much of the “not yet” is it the responsibility of the church to advance in our real world today?
I used to be happy and content to say, “God will do what God wants to do in the world, and I just need to live my own life with integrity and purity.” But John wasn’t interested in “living his own life” or “minding his own business.” John spoke the words of an activist against the religious and governmental authorities of his day, and Jesus called him “the greatest” person who ever lived.
Let’s make this more specific by breaking it down into some secondary questions:
- When should the people of God raise a voice against the broken parts of our world that do not yet represent the coming Kingdom?
- When should the people of God take action to bring healing into the midst of that brokenness?
- When should the people of God simply endure the brokenness while we wait for the Heavenly Kingdom?
Modern Christian Power
Even though for most of my life, I adopted the practice of silent, patient endurance, waiting for the Kingdom to come, other Christians have been wrestling with the questions of activism for centuries. In the first century, members of the church sold property so there would be no needy persons among them, and as a result, economic equity became a hallmark inside the church. Then, their activism quickly spread beyond the boundaries of the church itself. The early church took action against the practice of infanticide by going to the outskirts of towns and adopting discarded babies. Their activism played out in verbal opposition to the practice and also in the actual work of caring for abandoned babies. Through the centuries, that same activism grew as the early church responded to pandemics by remaining in towns overrun by plague and caring for the sick when others fled. This kind of activism, the activism of personally living out the principles of the future Kingdom was the main form of activism of the church through the centuries, but the last two or three hundred years have changed the dynamic considerably.
For the past few hundred years, democracy, industrialization, capitalism, and the Information Age have complicated Christian activism by giving Christians greater power to influence the society. In modern 21st Century America, all individuals and organizations can have immense influence through books, blogs, podcasts, social media, financial decisions, political activism, and the basic exercise of voting. All these powers exist for individual Christians, individual churches, and the wider Body of Christ too. Christians today in the United States hold as much potential for influence as any other individual or organization, and because the United States is still the most influential society on a global scale, the power of American Christians has never been greater.
Our dilemma is not merely academic. It is not a thought experiment about how much is now and how much is not yet. Our dilemma is all about how individuals and churches in America should steward their immense influence. The way we answer this dilemma changes nearly everything about how we do ministry as the Body of Christ in this world.
Sadly, answering this dilemma has always been divisive among Christians and churches. Instead of being a unified Body of Christ, we have split ourselves up according to policy opinions and political tribes, and ours is not the first generation to do so. Christians through the centuries have been aware of their influence, aware of their responsibility to influence, aware of the incongruity between the promised Kingdom and the present world, but staunchly divided over what we should do about it. Now, with Christians having more influence than ever before, the question becomes more important and therefore more strongly divisive than ever before.
Why is this the case? Well, one fundamental reason is that Christians have always been divided over the meaning of a core word in our faith: gospel. We know it means, “Good News.” We know it is our calling to proclaim the “Good News.” But what is the gospel really? Is it a message of eternity? Is it a message for the present? Is it a message of forgiveness or a message of activism? Calling us to a unified understanding of the gospel will be the aim of the next chapter.