Idolatry vs. Kingdom Realization
What does it mean to bring your life and arena of activity under the Lordship of Jesus Christ? This has been a constant refrain of my teaching and writing for many years and I have defined this adage in a number of places. In this article I hope to provide additional clarity on the subject.
The reason we are called to bring our life and sphere of influence under the authority of Jesus is so the kingdom of God (the rule of Jesus Christ) will be realized in this realm. The fact is all of life - every nook and cranny of life - is subject to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. However, his Lordship is actualized as the followers of Christ live a life of obedience to him. For many Believers, Christian obedience is limited to prayer, Bible reading, regular church attendance, moral behavior and what I have called elsewhere a "smiley face engagement with the world." By that I mean, the nice guy approach to, well, everything.
Yet, to bring your life and arena of activity under the Lordship of Jesus involves much more. Indeed, it rejects the "smiley face engagement with the world" in favor of world changing activity. As James Jordan wrote somewhere, we are called to emulate the creative work of God himself; take hold of creation tear it apart and reassemble it in a way that improves upon the original. This is exactly what God did in his work of creation. Having brought matter into existence from nothing, he proceeded to mold it, form it and improve upon it (cf. Genesis 1:1-28).
Even so, creativity is part of the image of God in every human being. Some people are endowed with greater creativity and ingenuity than others but it remains true, it is not required that a person be a follower of Christ in order to be creative. What then is the difference between the creative, God emulating behavior of the Christian and that of the nonbeliever?
The answer to this question begins with another question: who do you worship? As N. T. Wright says in a number of places (most clearly in his book, The Day The Revolution Began), idolatry is truly the fount of all sin. It is when mankind chooses to worship something other than God that the myriad of possible sins are committed. For instance, a person will steal because they place themselves and their needs or desires above God. God has said you shall not steal and to do so indicates worship of self rather than God. This is true even of the poor person who steals to "survive." They still place their own well-being above the commands of God and therefore have made themselves their own God. Sometimes a person will worship Mammon (wealth) and everything in their life is geared toward accumulating riches. This places wealth in a position above God. Yet even then, the idol in view is ultimately self. No matter what sin we may choose to consider, at the core of that sin is the idolatry of self. Indeed, this was the sin of Adam and Eve. They wanted to be their own gods. Thus, the fundamental or basic philosophical difference between the creative work of the non-Christian and the creative work of the follower of Jesus is the answer the question, "who do you worship?"
Unfortunately, many Christians do not worship God in Christ as they claim. Instead, their life revolves around self. This can be seen in a variety of ways; some of them very obvious some of them more subtle. For instance, a blatantly selfish person is easy to spot. We often call this type a narcissist. On the other hand, a person who hides their selfishness behind a wounded, vulnerable persona is less easy to identify. This is the kind of person who "grudgingly" shares their personal path to wholeness with their "Bible study group," blaming all their problems on an unfortunate childhood, lousy marriage, shattered dreams or whatever. The point is, there are millions of Christians who claim to worship the Lord yet worship themselves. Now, I understand this is very difficult to overcome; we become so used to self-worship that we have trouble identifying it. Nevertheless, in order for a Christian to be fundamentally different than the non-Christian - in order for the Christian to be successful in bringing their life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ - they must have the proper object of worship. Therefore, until the Christian is truly worshiping God in Christ they are no different than the non-Christian who is creative, showing ingenuity and experiencing success.
I will be the first to say this is not an easy task; it has been a difficult path in my own life. The idol of self is not easily removed from the throne! Yet, a primary reason idolatry is so hard to overcome is because Christians have become satisfied with an abridged form of Christianity. We have cut ourselves off from the richness of the covenant promises and have divided the mind of God in practice if not in theory. This has robbed us of the joy of our salvation. This has made worship of self seem more rewarding than worship of God.
Part of the problem with modern Christianity is the sharp divide that has been placed between the old covenant and the new. No doubt, a tremendous change took place with the work and person of Jesus. But that change was not an abandonment of the covenant promises made to Abraham and Israel. Rather, the change is found in the fulfillment of those promises in Jesus the Christ. The truth is, we are not part of a new religion, began with the death and resurrection of Jesus but are part of the ancient religion created by God from the beginning and at last fulfilled in the work of Jesus, the Eternal Son Incarnate. Because of this artificial divide between the past and the present, modern Christians are always starting over, always trying to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, when someone says they should bring their life and arena of activity under the Lordship of Jesus so the kingdom will be realized, they either reject the idea out-right or struggle to understand how it works. Many Christians believe they have been called to a relationship with God simply to endure this life with the hope of spending eternity in heaven. But that's not what the Bible teaches. The Bible says the promises made to the patriarchs find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Romans 15:8, 1 Corinthians 1:20 etc.). And the promises made to the patriarchs primarily concern this realm. That is not to say this is all there is. It does require us to understand that the end of this age is not marked by the destruction of creation but by the renewal of creation and the coming together of heaven and earth.
So, the person who has God as their sole object of worship and is working to bring their life and sphere of influence under the Lordship of Jesus should expect to see the age-old promises of the covenant manifest in their life. For instance, Remember the LORD your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath (Deuteronomy 8:18, NLT). In the New King James version it says, it is God who "gives you the power to get wealth." Now, this is not an article about the health and wealth gospel. Instead, it is a piece about the realization of the kingdom of God through the cultivation of the salvation we have been given in Jesus Christ. For, you must work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him (Philippians 2:12b-13). Remember, the kingdom of God is not some future place or event but is simply the rule of Jesus Christ in your life - here, now. That is why you must work hard to show the (comprehensive) salvation you have been given in Jesus Christ. You do this by obeying God with deep reverence and fear. You do not earn your salvation through obedience, you express it.
Again, keep in mind, all of this rests upon the proper object of worship. Also, if we understand the covenant promises we will realize the success promised in the Bible is typically actualized in the corporate body. In other words, the prosperity of a people group as a whole is what is in view in the covenant promises. Certainly, the individual can be and is often blessed. Nevertheless, the fullness of the covenant blessings is accomplished in the corporate entity of God's people. This is made clear in Deuteronomy 27 which says,
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the LORD your God: Your towns and your fields will be blessed. Your children and your crops will be blessed. The offspring of your herds and flocks will be blessed. Your fruit baskets and breadboards will be blessed. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be blessed. The LORD will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven! The LORD will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you. If you obey the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways, the LORD will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the LORD, and they will stand in awe of you. The LORD will give you prosperity in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you, blessing you with many children, numerous livestock, and abundant crops. The LORD will send rain at the proper time from his rich treasury in the heavens and will bless all the work you do. You will lend to many nations, but you will never need to borrow from them. If you listen to these commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today, and if you carefully obey them, the LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom. You must not turn away from any of the commands I am giving you today, nor follow after other gods and worship them (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
Note that all of this rests upon the demand of exclusive worship of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 28:14). Idolatry of any sort is not allowed. Moreover, while the choice of Israel was an act of grace, obedience was required to reveal the results of that salvation (cf. Exodus 19:4-6). In truth, nothing about this aspect of our relationship with God has changed in this new covenant age.
Now then, the Christian who brings his or her life and arena of activity under the Lordship of Jesus and has God and God alone as their object of worship will be in a position to see the kingdom of God realized in their life. Everything they do is performed as a means of bringing glory to God. In their work, personal relationships, recreation, politics, creative actions and hobbies - all of this is done to bring glory to God. Everything is done according to the Scriptures. They think of others more highly than themselves. They are creative, finding solutions to problems in all facets of life. They labor to make contributions in science, education, and medicine, the industrial and cultural arts, politics and so on - in whatever way God has gifted them. Throughout, they worship God and God alone. Gone are the idols of self, wealth, power, sex, belonging, and so on. In everything, they worship God and find ways to express the reign of Christ in their life.
As a result they attract others to the cause. First fellow Christians learn about the Lordship of Jesus and begin to "work hard to show the results of their salvation." Along with them, new converts to the faith are discipled in a full and rich understanding of the gospel. In this way, nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD (Isaiah 11:9).
Thus, it is in this life we should experience the righteousness (covenant faithfulness) peace (relationship with God) and joy (depth of love and gladness) of the kingdom of God. That is what the kingdom is about. And it is supposed to begin in this life. However, when we cut ourselves off from the Grand Adventure that began in Eden, it becomes very difficult to see exactly how we are supposed to live a life under the authority of Jesus so that his Lordship will be actualized in this realm. Indeed, many, many Christians believe such talk is heresy or at least borders on heresy. I would counter by saying that those who reject the current reign of King Jesus are the heretics.
A diminished gospel that misunderstands the kingdom of God has spawned theological havoc across the board. Instead of a world changing Christianity most followers of Christ have settled for a "one person," me first religious belief. They are attracted to the "lovey-dovey" glad-handing types who are big on relationships but have nothing substantial to say about the realization of the kingdom in this life. There is nothing wrong with friendly church leaders who help people develop open and loving relationships. Indeed, it's characteristic of the kingdom. But if that's all they do they are guilty of sidelining the people of God into a self-centered, dead end religiosity.
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