The Church is like an adopted son who tells his father how much he loves him and how much he wants to make him proud, but then ignores the important things his father asks of him day after day. When the father finally confronts his son on the important matters that have been continually neglected, the son replies, “But father, do I not tell you how much I love you? Do I not I tell you how wonderful you are?”
“You do son,” the father replies, “but even though you continue to tell me how much you love me and how wonderful of a father I am because of my example, you continue to ignore my requests and remain untransformed in your life. Have I not asked you to change your ways and follow my example? Have I not asked you to be an example in our community by the way you live? Have I not asked you to feed those in our community who are hungry? Have I not asked you to help the homeless find a place to stay? Have I not asked over and over for you to give to those in need, to help those who are sick, to visit those who are imprisoned? But time after time you ignore my requests. So how can you truly say you love me and seek to make me proud, when you do not do what I ask of you?”
Listless and embarrassed, the son just stares at the ground.
But the father continues, “Can we not reason together? Or will you continue to follow the way of your older brother? I could not stand it when he would bring gifts to me, have celebrations for me, make requests of me, and then ignore the important things that I requested of him. So I finally cut him off and have been waiting for him to come to his senses. Do you think I will not cut you off as well? You ignore my requests and you are arrogant about it. So please, until you are ready to change, stop with the empty words, the gifts, the celebrations, and the requests and empty praises because they are detestable. Change the way you live your life. Stop doing wrong and learn to do right! Learn how to seek justice and encourage those who cannot defend themselves. Defend the little ones who do not have parents. Care for the widows in our town and plead their case for them. If these matters are important to me, should they not be important to you as well?”[i]
Jesus and Religion
The harshest words of Jesus were, and continue to be, directed at those like the adopted son, who offer their love and adoration toward God the Father but remain untransformed in their living, neglecting the important matters that the Father expects from them. They are the people who say all the right things about God, go through all the right motions, give their gifts of sacrifice and praise to God, and have weekly ceremonies in honor of God, but who live unchanged and untransformed lives and ignore who God has created them to be in the world. Ironically, they have followed the wayward path of Israel, the older brother, who the prophets warned about their negligence. The people of God profess Him with their lips but profane Him among the nations by neglecting His ways.
So it should not be surprising to us that there will be those who call on the name of the Lord but who will be called cursed. Make note, it is not I who says they will be cursed; it is Jesus.[ii] For the religious are those who profess their faith with their lips but who remain unchanged and untransformed in their lives. They attend church services to worship God but look like the world in their actions. They say their prayers and make requests to God but ignore the requests of the poor and weak. They give their money to God but neglect the cause of the poor.
I could list countless examples of how I have seen this play out in churches over the years, but the objective of this book is not to point out the speck in one person’s eye while ignoring the log that has been jammed in my face for so long. The objective of this book is to open our eyes to a different way of life that is found in the world altering reality of the Kingdom of God and to demonstrate how it can transform us, individually and as the Church, to move forward in unity for the sake of the world, becoming all that God intended us to be by following the way of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, I have noticed that it is difficult for people to understand exactly what I am talking about if I do not give a few examples.
I was contacted by a high school senior who was working on a senior project for graduation. She told me that she wanted to work with churches in order to fully stock and supply the local domestic abuse shelter for women. After asking her a few questions about her plan and telling her that our church was definitely in, I asked if she had already contacted other churches to get their support as well. She told me that she had a list of five churches and had already contacted four of them; we were the fifth. Three of the churches told her no, and one church said they would have to take it to their elders and get back with her, which they did and ultimately said no.
I felt so frustrated and ashamed. How difficult is it for a church to set out a box to collect supplies and then make an announcement about it? Little did I know that the story was about to get worse. I asked the senior what church she attended. She said, “I don’t go to church. But in my project planning I just thought the people most likely to help with a project like this would be people in the church. I have been really surprised at their unwillingness to help.”
What could I say to her? Absolutely nothing.
Too many times we create rules and protocols in our churches that we believe must be followed. We get so fixated on the rules and laws we make that we miss the larger point of who we are to be and what we are to be doing in the lives of people in our communities and in the larger world. We miss the fullness and richness of living and embodying the Gospel. Here is another story to illustrate my point.
One early Sunday morning as I and a couple of friends were hanging out at our church building a man walked in and told me that the heater went out in his apartment. He explained that his family was huddled together under one single blanket in the frigid, single-digit apartment. He went to the local homeless shelter to see if he could get a portable heater and blankets. The shelter gave the man a name of a local church where he could go to in order to get help. The man walked over to the church, went inside, and began telling people about his situation. To his surprise, the answer that he was given on this Sunday morning was, “Our office is closed and we are unable to get a check, so we cannot help.”
Now granted, he may have just talked to the wrong people and it is possible that if he had spoken to someone else the result may have been different, but in my experience, situations like this are not uncommon in our churches. It is truly an amazing irony: we show up to church to worship our God, to sing His praises, and to learn how to be like Him, but we have difficulty connecting our affinity toward God to real life. And, as a result, we are negligent in recognizing our identity and living out the purpose God has given us as the Church in the world.
We, too many times, miss the forest for the proverbial trees. We are not quite sure what the point of our faith is beyond our own individual salvation. We are quite good at understanding that “Jesus died for our sins” and that “our sins have been forgiven,” but we are not quite sure what to do about it…other than “be a good person and wait for heaven.” We are sorely missing the inextricable link between our own individual salvation and our daily lives, as if salvation only means something for the future. On the contrary: Salvation means something for each of us right now! Salvation means something for who we are right now! Salvation means something for how we relate to people right now! Salvation means something for our purpose in this life right now! But we have become very good in our churches at divorcing our salvation in and through Jesus Christ with our present lives.
For instance, there is a guy from a church in my city who said, “Our church is not in the business of helping the homeless.” The crazy thing about it is…I believe him! His church is not in the business of helping the homeless, but as followers of Christ, we all should be, right? The Scriptures remind us of Jesus’ words when he said, “For what you have done to the least of these, you have done also to me.” Those pushed to the edges of society ought to be the concern of the Christian. Ironically, I have found that several Christian leaders in my town did not realize that we have a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown. How can we take seriously the call to care for the “least of these” when we have convinced ourselves that helping the poor and marginalized is not our business? Are we not to put our faith into practice in real and tangible ways? Do our salvation and the empowering of the Holy Spirit not propel us to live and act differently for God’s purposes in the world? Does God not expect anything more from us than “being good people” as we “wait for heaven?”
We have so watered down the richness and robustness of our faith that it has come mostly to represent the task of “saving people’s souls.” As a result we have come to believe that the message of the Gospel does not have much “real life” application. In essence, the Gospel is good to “get me to heaven,” but it means very little for the transformative and healing work that God wants to do in the world through us as his “saved people.”
For instance, there have been several people who have asked my opinion of local churches in town spending millions of dollars on new church buildings. In response I have said, “Man, the drug and substance abuse problem is getting really bad downtown and it is really negatively affecting families and children. Wouldn’t it would be awesome to use some of that money and manpower to create an intensive drug and substance abuse program organized by prayerful Christians who God could use to help free those who are addicted and enslaved by drugs?” And to my surprise, the Christians who asked me the question respond by saying, “Why would we do that? What does that have to do with the Gospel? Why is that the responsibility of the Church?”
These are just a few examples out of many that show our narrow view and understanding of the Gospel. We have a misaligned idea of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ relates to our identity and purpose as Christians in our communities and throughout the world. Even more, it highlights how disconnected our idea of the Gospel is from real life application. I know this disconnect is not happening in just one church or in one town. It is epidemic throughout the Church as a whole. I know people. I talk to people. I see what we are doing in the Church. It is obvious that we have been and continue to be negligent in our application of the Gospel to real life, in taking it beyond a mental thing and letting it transform us from the inside-out of our own lives and then into action. That, my friends, is why the Church Is dying.
And I am pointing the finger back at myself more than anyone else, as I have missed the point too many times in my life to count. We have so isolated and insulated ourselves that, not only have we turned a blind eye to how we might be able to help the very least in our midst, we have insured that there is no way for us to develop any kind of real and meaningful relationship with them. Don’t miss my point. I am not suggesting that we have to be doing something for someone each moment of the day. However, I am suggesting that we are significantly lacking in a love that breaks out from our lives and touches the people in our towns and cities in powerful and tangible ways. We are a people who care significantly more about our own interests within our churches than the interests of those who desperately need the love and compassion of Christ lived out through our lives. This negligence is absolutely tragic and I will be the first one in line asking God to forgive me for missing the point.
We have been caught in, and have a very difficult time escaping, the trappings of religion, even though we may feel as if we are really well-intentioned in what we do. The truth is that if the Church is ever going to find its heart, its soul, its first love again, then we will have to finally break away from religion, pettiness, and shallow, superficial, self-centered living in order to [re]discover our identity in Jesus Christ and the selfless, loving, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God as our united purpose in the world. The Church must become the meek, humble, contrite, and lowly suffering servant to the world in order to demonstrate the love of Christ. But, it is only when we discover the Kingdom of God that we will find our identity and purpose, and then the Power needed to begin transforming the world.
It is absolutely critical to understand that the Kingdom of God stands in complete contrast to the ways, workings, and thinking of the religious. Jesus and religion have never mixed. Unfortunately the Church, or the means through which the Kingdom of God ought to be proclaimed and demonstrated to the world, has become overwhelmingly compromised by religion and religious people, well-intentioned or not, who have buried deep the life-giving treasure of the Kingdom of God. We will begin to better understand what the Kingdom of God is and why it is essential for the follower of Christ in short order, but we must first look inward at the way religion has kept this vital message from the eyes, ears, and heart of the Church.
The pursuits of religion are like weeds that choke the vine of the Kingdom of God and keep it from producing fruit.[iii] In the absence of fruit produced by a life centered on the Kingdom of God, we find apathy, self-centered pursuits, and superficiality. In fact, the weeds of religion are exactly opposite of the abundant fruit of the Kingdom of God. Religion may look good on the outside, but it is spiritually empty on the inside. It is like a cup that looks clean and shiny on the outside, but upon closer examination it is filthy and unusable on the inside.[iv] Religion may even resemble a tomb that has been scrubbed, washed, and cleaned on the outside but is full of death, bones, and everything unclean on the inside.[v] Religion always has a good appearance on the outside, but is dead and void on the inside.
The religious may very well go to a church service on Sunday, wear the right clothes, say the right words, have all the “church” answers, go through the right motions and have an endless number of traditions they are strict to follow, but they are reluctant and have no interest in following the way of Jesus in their lives. The religious are in desperate need of the Spirit of God to break into the hollowness and shallowness of their lives. The religious are in need of a radical and sacrificial discipleship that further breaks out into a love that produces right-living, justice, and mercy for the entire world to see. Religion keeps one on the periphery of life walking around blindly in circles, while keeping the Spirit of God from breaking through the surface to transform the heart. No matter how ornate, decorated, and well-meaning religion is on the outside, it is absolutely worthless if it does not bring a person to full life-transformation from the inside-out. Each one of us would be wise to constantly examine ourselves and pray that we are not neglecting the way of Jesus by allowing religion to take a foothold in our lives.
Believe It or Not… I Love the Church!
Now, before I go way too far too fast (and maybe I already have), let me tell you who I am. I am a fanatical lover of the Church and one who obsesses over what the Church should be in the world. I no more enjoy pointing out the inadequacies, failures, and hypocrisies of the Church than I enjoy getting a tooth drilled, but it is necessary that we come to terms with and begin discussing the hard truth of the situation in which we find ourselves. I don’t think for a second that everyone in the Church is bad…not for a second! In fact, there are many individuals within the Church who are living Spirit-filled Kingdom-centered lives every moment of the day! Even in lifeless and dead churches there may be individuals who are completely living and extending the Kingdom of God through their lives. But I believe it is a small number in comparison to the whole.
I also believe it is our leadership within the churches that is primarily to blame for the state of the Church, for its waywardness, for its lack of depth, for its superficiality, for its blindness, and for its religiosity. For it is behind our leadership that the people follow, and we, the shepherds, have not led well. It is our responsibility to feed, nurture, and protect those in our care. It is our responsibility to nurse those who are sick back to health. It is our responsibility to help those in our care to have the eyes to see and the ears that hear the Truth of God, but we ourselves must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear first. So shall the blind continue to lead the blind? Or shall the light finally break through into the darkness that we may all see?
We have long looked for light but what we have seen is darkness. We have long sought after the brightness, but we have continued to walk in the shadows. We have long been like blind people feeling our way along the wall stumbling about, but the light is beginning to break into the darkness.[vi] The people who have been walking in this darkness will see the great light. And this light will reveal that which has been hidden for far too long.
I believe the brightest and most revolutionary days of the Church are in our midst, but they will only begin when we finally have the eyes to see that the Church is the means through which the Kingdom of God will be embodied and announced to the entire world! For if it is not the Church who will be the light in the growing darkness of the world then who will it be? It is for this realization I work and I ask you to join me.
The Fluff Factor
The perception of the Church by many in our communities is that it has become a superficial, mass-marketed, fluff and puff, demographic-driven, entertainment organization or a stiff, rigid, legalistic, overly-political, and judgmental organization that seems to exist for its own purposes. Neither description of the Church is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God, nor is it what the Church ought to be or how the Church ought to be viewed in the world.
The Kingdom of God should never be confused with “seeker sensitive services,” slick ways to impress or recruit people to join our churches, or a “relevant” marketing ploy or gimmick. The Kingdom of God does not need to be watered down, dressed up, or hyped-up in order to move in power and invite a desperate and hungry world into complete transformation. Furthermore, the Kingdom of God is not a rigid, stiff, legalistic, oppressive, political, or judgmental movement. It does not judge or condemn the world. It does not move out in hate and anger. And it certainly does not abuse, fracture, break, or tear down individuals, families, churches, communities, countries, or the world.
Rather, the Kingdom of God is the most revolutionary, stand-alone, in-your-face reality in the history of humankind! It is the most liberating, loving, and restoring movement that has ever been initiated for the world to see and for the world to join. It is the most merciful and grace-filled movement that has ever been witnessed, demonstrating through our lives the best and highest ways of God for the healing of the nations.
The sad reality is that the Church, in its blindness, deafness, and maybe even deadness, has been sorely ignorant of and cannot seem to find the beautiful realities of this Kingdom announced and embodied by Jesus Christ. It is this very reality that has led the Church into the metaphorical desert, walking around in circles, fighting and complaining, while continuing to neglect its identity, purpose, and calling for the world in and through Jesus Christ.
The late Messianic Jewish author, Arthur Katz, said it this way about the current state of the Church:
The thing that mutilates us as the church is our inveterate, stick-in-the-mud, ego-centrism. We bring into the church the same mind-set that we had in the world, by which we continue to be at the center. Is that not why we have so many problems? We measure ourselves by ourselves, by how much we like the services, the worship, the preaching. Everything is still predicated on what we like and what pleases us. And if we do not like it, we move to another fellowship. Everything is seen in terms of our satisfaction, our pleasure. That mindset is death! But, praise God, He has given us a purpose that is beyond ourselves, that has not ourselves as the end purpose. The purposes of God are the means to an end larger and other than ourselves by which, when we give ourselves to it, we come into true fulfillment of ourselves.[vii]
The Church is to be a means used by God for an end larger than ourselves- the embodiment and extension of the Kingdom of God. We give ourselves sacrificially to it. We become less and God becomes more. It is all about God’s will and God’s way in our lives and in the life of the Church. This is the singular purpose for which we have been called by Jesus. Our purpose, as the unified Body of Christ, is to extend the Kingdom of God through our words and deeds all throughout the world in the hearts and minds of those who come to believe that Jesus has initiated a new order, a new way of life, an alternative to what this world is offering. But we have become so ego-centric and so self-focused and consumed that we have become something very different than what God intended. We have pursued alternatives that are not the way of Jesus Christ and are not close to resembling the Kingdom he came to initiate. And to that end, the Church is perceived by many as nothing close to the Christ that it professes to follow.
How Do Others See the Church?
If you are worried that I have gone too far in my short assessment of religion and the Church, please know that there is a wealth of anecdotes and data that support my claims. There are generations of people who have been turned off by the Church, many whom actually grew up in the Church. The number of people joining our churches in the United States continues to dwindle decade after decade, losing relevance in the daily affairs of the world. One of the main reasons for the continuing decline is the negative perception of the Church by various generational groups outside of the Church, especially GenX, GenY, and Millenials. For these groups, Christians are primarily viewed as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.
Granted, this is a very broad stroke of the brush, but perception is reality for those who are doing the perceiving. The perceptions people have of the Church come in a variety of ways from first-hand experience, information from other sources, and other painful encounters and hurtful experiences from Christians.[viii] Consequently, the Church continues to lose relevance in a world that quickly dismisses it in perceived, or real, hypocrisy. The Church preaches one thing, yet many of those who identify themselves with the Church live untransformed lives. To the world, the Church has become a group of holier-than-thou individuals who claim a certain special status, but look, act, and behave like everyone else. Our team looks pretty good from the inside, but from the outside there is very little that seems appealing based on the life of the Christian and the Church.
On many fronts, from divorce rates to gambling and from pornography to serving in the community, the Church looks no different than the larger culture. The term Christian has become more of a label indicating that a person identifies with a single church rather than one who has taken up the cross of Christ, died to the old ways of sin, and is continuously transformed in power by the working of the Spirit of God to look and act like Jesus Christ every moment of the day.
With the Church preaching one way of life and living another, it is no wonder that people find it easier to ignore God and just try to be good people without the hassle of the Church. In fact, there are those who actually believe they are preserving their faith by staying out of our churches! We are largely responsible for repelling people by the way we have represented God in our individual lives and in our churches. We have lost our cultural voice and any inkling of relevance. That is why so many generations, most especially young people, are turning away from the Church and pursuing agnosticism, atheism, universalism, and activism. Please understand that this is more than just my humble opinion. This is the reality in which we live, and all of it can be backed up with evidence. Again, I hate facing the truth as much as anyone else but we must all open our eyes and our hearts together in order to shape a better future and to become all we have been created to be.
Identity and Purpose
When relevance is lost, one begins searching wildly to find a new identity and a new purpose. That is exactly what the Church has done. Ironically, the only thing that can give the Church identity and purpose, the Kingdom of God, has long been discarded and buried. The Church, unable to see what it is missing and what it desperately needs, has tried in vain attempt after vain attempt to find a new tactic or ploy that will give it identity and purpose. We have watched as church after church runs around in circles trying to figure out what will get people to come in through the doors- a new gimmick, a new program, a better sermon, a new building, another revival, and so on and so on. The Church has come to resemble a business trying to figure out the wants, needs, and desires of the consumers rather than simply becoming the Body of Christ that is the very embodiment and extension of the Kingdom of God in the streets and neighborhoods and homes in our communities.
Our churches pour enormous time, energy, effort, and resources into making the centralized Sunday worship service “the event” or something new and relevant so as to retain the people we have and to attract people from whom we have become so disconnected. Our churches have created program after program and service after service trying to find the one thing that will “work.” The problem is that when the hype, glitz, and glam wears away, we are left still searching for something else to fill the void, make us relevant, and give us an identity and purpose. We have to stop playing these games.
No matter how clean or beautifully decorated the tomb is, it still has the same thing on the inside. We do not need more decoration. We need internal cleansing. We need a purpose larger than ourselves that will eclipse the self-centered, ego-centrism that has divided and crippled us for far too long. The larger purpose that will unite the Church and give it an identity and mission in the world is the central and most important message of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God, nothing more and nothing less.
Is This Shocking?
So depending on who you are, this is either shocking news or a huge sigh of relief. Either it shocks you, like it once did me, because you would have never believed that you could be involved in church and be completely missing the most important, monumental, and revolutionary reality that has ever existed, while continuing to spin your wheels in fruitless endeavors looking for identity, purpose, and something that sticks. Or, this news gives you a sigh of relief because you have always known that there had to be more than what you and your church have settled for, yet you just didn’t know where to go or where to look. Either way, I hope that this clarification compels you to curiosity and hunger, and pushes you further into your own individual pursuit of this beautiful treasure.
Just so we are clear from the outset, I am pouring my heart and soul out to those of you who have not realized until now how broken, dysfunctional, and misaligned we are as a group of people who proclaim to follow Christ. I am pouring my heart and soul out to those of you who do not know what the Kingdom of God is, and to those of you who did not realize that the Kingdom of God is the identity and purpose of the Christian and the Church. I am pouring my heart and soul out to those of you who have perpetuated a religious system, willingly or unwillingly. I am pouring my heart and soul out to those of you who hold on tightly to power, control, and politics within your churches.
I am pouring my heart and soul out to those of you who have commercialized Jesus and your churches in order to attract and entertain people who are hungry to consume. I am pouring my heart and soul out to each one of you who have been living inside of the torn down and devastated walls and have been there so long that you haven’t even noticed the problems. I beg of you, please see the problems. Honestly look at yourself and your church as you read the following pages. Let the Truth of Christ pierce your heart and awaken your Spirit to the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom Lost
Over the last few years I have spent an enormous amount of time speaking with those within the Church about the Kingdom of God and have been surprised at how few even know what it is. Despite it being the primary message of Jesus in the Gospels, mentioned over 120 times in His teachings and parables, many Christians are ignorant of its meaning and importance. How is it that we can read the Gospels and hear the message of Jesus taught day after day, yet not know or understand His most central message? How is it that Jesus can mention a particular phrase over 120 times, yet we fail to discuss it? How is it that virtually every parable of Jesus begins with, “The Kingdom of God is like…” yet we never ask what the Kingdom of God even is? We certainly have our work cut out for us if we are to discover the richness of Jesus’ primary message.
My hope is that we can walk together through the words and parables of Christ to uncover the Kingdom of God, understand it clearly, and then put it into practice in our own lives and in the life of the Church. But in order to do this, we will need to bring together these parables and stories of Jesus, and then begin to weave them together into a larger Kingdom tapestry for each of us to see more clearly. Through our journey, we will begin to see that the parables we have studied and viewed in isolation for so long are, in fact, a beautifully woven tapestry that brings the Kingdom message of Jesus to the very forefront of the Gospels.
Seeds and Soil
When Jesus spoke to his followers in parables, or short stories that make a moral point, he would not always explain the meaning of the parable. Many times, this would leave the audience wondering what he was talking about. They would try to figure out who they were in the story and what lesson they could learn from it. Sometimes people got it, sometimes they didn’t.
So while Jesus used images and common situations in his parables and teachings that people could understand and easily relate to, the hidden truth or meaning was not always obvious to the audience. Even though Jesus would sometimes explain His parables to His disciples, they were curious why He would not always explain the same parables to the larger audience to which he was speaking. This was exactly the case with one particular parable that stopped the crowd in their tracks and left them wondering what exactly Jesus meant. They received no sort of explanation from Jesus. It was the story of the seed sower.[ix]
You may remember this parable. It is the one in which Jesus described a variety of scenarios and conditions that the seeds encountered when they were thrown to the ground by the sower. Some of the seeds never had a chance of taking root and growing because they were too quickly devoured by birds. Other seeds landed in rocky areas on top of the soil and within days they were breaking forth to the heavens, only to wither and die because they did not take root or receive enough nourishment and water. The same was said for other seeds that were planted in shallow ground. The small seedlings broke through the soil beaming toward the radiant sun only to shrivel away into nothing. The fate of other seeds came as they landed on the edge of the field near the weeds and thorn bushes and were choked into submission. While some of the seeds never took root or met a quick death, the seeds that found a home deep within the nourishing soil, protected from the harsh elements, grew and thrived and produced a great abundance of crop.
For an audience that understood quite well the ins and outs of farming, this made perfect practical sense. You sow the seeds deep within the nourishing soil so it can take root and grow abundantly. It doesn’t work out so well when you sow seeds on top of the soil so birds can eat them, in shallow soil that will cause the seedling to wither away, or even near the weeds that choke the life out of the seedling.
But it was precisely parables like this that had meaning that wasn’t always obvious or apparent to everyone who heard it. Many in the audience may have appreciated the interesting story from Jesus about things they could relate to, but many had no idea about the deeper truth He was teaching them. They could see and hear what was right in front of them, but were blind and deaf to the hidden treasure of which Jesus spoke. This is why the disciples were so confused when Jesus would not explain this particular parable to the audience. The audience clearly did not understand the deeper truth of the parable… and this really bothered the disciples.
Jesus not explaining His parable likely would have bothered us in the same way that it bothered the disciples. Why announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God in such puzzling and mysterious ways? Why not tell the people what You want to tell them so it is obvious? Certainly Jesus could take a different or better approach so everyone would know clearly what He is talking about. But Jesus responded to the disciples by saying, “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God has been given to you and not them.” Excuse me? You don’t plan to explain your parable to them?
How could Jesus be so insulting to the all of these people who are listening to and following Him? How could He be so comfortable not explaining exactly what He meant to convey to the people so it was really clear and obvious? If He wants people to understand His mission and message and then wants people to join Him, then why doesn’t He take time to explain His story? How will His audience grow? How will His Kingdom message get out?!
Jesus’ seemingly callous statement about the audience may seem confusing when read out of context, but when Jesus continues, His point becomes much clearer:
Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,hear with their ears, understand with their heartsand turn, and I would heal them. Matthew 13:13-15
The audience that day did not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear the deeper truth of which Jesus spoke. The hearts of the people had become callous and, as a result, He did not feel compelled to explain the parable to them. While it is true that Jesus was referring specifically to the people who heard the parable that day, we can be certain that “missing the point” is not a unique phenomenon to only the first century Jewish audience. In fact, it is quite possible for any person, even the most well-intentioned, to walk through life as a sleepwalker, a person with eyes and ears who is living and breathing, who hears the parables and stories of Jesus, but who do not have the eyes to truly see, or the ears to truly hear and understand the message of the Kingdom. Any one of us may read and hear the Scriptures a thousand times over, but we may still not understand the deeper meaning of the Kingdom. We can’t see it. We can’t hear it. Our hearts have become callous to the deeper truth of Christ. And, when we live this way- we are dead to the true message and purpose of Christ, and then to our very identity and purpose.
It is to such people the Scriptures proclaim, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.”[x] Open your eyes! Open your ears! Take off the blinders! Open the fertile soil of your heart to receive the Kingdom seed that Jesus is planting deep! Ask and you will receive! Knock and the door will be open! Seek and you will find!
But who are we in the story? Are we the complacent audience who, not only does not understand the deeper meaning of the parable, but who also does not seek out Jesus to find the deeper meaning? Or, are we like the disciples who, did not understand the deeper meaning of the parable, but who sought out Jesus to find out what he was talking about?
Are we content with the practical application of the parable? Or, are we hungry to ask, seek, and knock in order to find the deeper Kingdom message?
That is why, when we read the account of Jesus not explaining this parable to the crowd, we may be wise to ask ourselves who we are in the story and what we can learn from it. While we may think we are like the disciples, maybe we are the audience listening to this parable of Jesus and missing the point?
My observation is that we, in the Church, believe too often that we are the “insiders” with special knowledge from Jesus and have it all figured out, yet too many times we are actually much more like the audience, who misses the point, and in turn, misses the Kingdom. That is why it is absolutely essential for each of us to read the parables with fresh eyes. We must open our ears to hear the words. We must understand the message Jesus is talking about. And then, we must try to be honest about who we are in the story, no matter where it takes us!
Here is the reality for most of us in the Church. We may have very well read or heard the parables and teachings a thousand times and assume each time that we are the disciples when, in fact, we are the audience who hears the parable but does not understand what it means. We may very well have been claiming that we follow Jesus and may have been saying that we follow His teachings. We may even call or label ourselves Christians, attend a weekly church service, and actively volunteer at our church. But, we have to be comfortable with the idea that, and this may seem provocative or contrary to what you believe as a “saved” person, even though we claim to follow Jesus, and even though we are active and busy in our churches, our eyes and ears may be closed and unable to see or hear the rich message of the Kingdom of God.
A Personal Story
I certainly do not want you to lose hope and throw up your hands in resignation. That is not the intention of this book! It is to help you open your eyes and ears to the deeper meaning of the Kingdom of God. The truth is that our eyes and ears can always be opened no matter who we are or where we are at in your own individual journey. It takes an awareness of our current condition and a willingness for the soil of our lives to change in order for the Kingdom message to be planted deep so it can take root and grow. Read how Jesus explained this parable of the seed sower to His disciples when He pulled them aside:
When people hear the message about the Kingdom and do not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their hearts. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to people who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to people who hear the word and understand it. They produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Matthew 13: 19-23
There are forces at work that can blind us and keep us from seeing, hearing, and realizing the great message of the Kingdom of God. They can also keep this message from taking root and growing in our lives. Though it may be subtle, it is both a reality and a situation to which we must awaken. I have experienced this blindness and deafness firsthand in my own life. The reason I know it is possible to read about Jesus and hear the messages of Jesus, yet still be truly blind and deaf to the message of the Kingdom of God, is that there were forces at work around me that clouded my vision of the Kingdom and kept me from truly hearing its message. I had determined that I had everything figured out. I believed that I was viewing Jesus and the Gospels through the appropriate lens. I believed there was nothing more that I needed to know. It was at that moment when I was caught completely off guard, discovering that I could only see what I wanted to see and only hear what I wanted to hear. As a result, I kept running in circles day after day chasing my own tail.
About fifteen years ago a friend and I believed that we should start an organization called Taking Back America. We believed that the very best thing for America was for Christians to mobilize politically and make a stronger united effort to influence our governments, schools, and other institutions “for the cause of Christ.” We were very excited about this endeavor and were planning to have a huge kick-off event with some national political speakers who were Christians and some major label Christian musical acts.
With the planning underway and a few speakers already committed, I contacted a particular artist management company to line up a musician. I spoke to several different people at this company, telling them all about what we were doing and why we were doing it. I sent them our information and they told me that they would get back with me within a couple of weeks, but they never did.
Frustrated, as this was the last piece of the puzzle we needed to begin promoting the event, I called the agency back in order to find out what was taking so long. The lady with whom I had been speaking over the previous weeks finally passed the call over to the agency director. The subsequent conversation left me completely frustrated and confused.
The director started by saying that he did not believe that the musician we were trying to book necessarily agreed with what we were doing or how we were doing it. Perplexed, I asked him to be more specific. He said that neither he nor the musician believed that it was a good thing for Christianity to advance politically, adding that they did not think America necessarily had to be “taken back for Christ” by the means we were suggesting.
I continued to press him because I could not understand what he was saying. It was not computing. It would not register. I could not imagine that there could be such a person who did not believe that Christians ought not take America back and “restore it to the Christian values and ideals that we once had.” Even more frustrated, I asked him how, exactly, we ought to move forward as Christians in America if we do not do it politically. He told me something I will never forget. He said, “The Kingdom of God is not dependant upon any political or governmental institution to move forward.”[xi]
That was the first time that anyone who had a very different perspective of the way, life, and message of Jesus had confronted me on my limited perspective of how a Christian should think, act, and behave in our country. Even further, that was the first time anyone had ever mentioned the Kingdom of God to me. It was the first time anyone had ever suggested that God could work and move in the world in ways that were different than anything I had ever known or expected. It certainly got my attention, but I was ANGRY that day. I would have socked that guy in the mouth if we had both been in the same state! How dare this guy challenge my perspective that is so obvious and such a good thing for our country! How dare he challenge a viewpoint that is shared by so many Christians I know! How dare he think that he knows something that I don’t!
Even in my anger, I had to at least admit that my view may have been limited because I had never known or heard anything about the Kingdom of God. I had never heard that the Kingdom of God was a present in-breaking reality in the lives of those who follow the sacrificial way of Christ. Little did I know that I was the one to whom Jesus was referring in His parable. I was the weekly church-attender, the Bible reader, and the one who called myself a Christian (none of which are bad things), but I did not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear and understand the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God. I was a cultural Christian in every sense of the word who had never been confronted with Jesus and his upside-down Kingdom message. Although my love and desire for the Church were great at that time, my attention was directed toward many of the wrong things and toward many of the wrong pursuits.
Opening our Eyes and Ears
Please don’t just easily dismiss what I am saying. You may be the very best person with the greatest intentions for Christ within your church, as I believed I was, but you may have never been confronted with the life-changing and eye-opening reality of the Kingdom of God. You may have never heard about it or even considered it before now. You may have never considered that the cause of Christ in the world could move forward in ways that look very different than the ways you believe it should. You may have never considered how the message and understanding of the Kingdom of God might change your life, your priorities, your church, and then the world in which you live.
For all of your goodness and sincerity, you may think you see, but your eyes may be clouded by cultural lenses that distort this Kingdom reality. Even though you claim to hear, you may not really be able to hear and understand because your hearing is filtered by what you want or think you need to hear. Listen, our hearts can become easily calloused and we may not even know it because we have become religious or gotten caught up in the superficial, dead-end pursuits and pettiness of the Church that have kept the seed of the Kingdom of God from penetrating deep and growing to abundant Life.
Our churches are in desperate need of a new life and a new breath. Our churches are in desperate need of people with open eyes and open ears. Our churches are in desperate need of the Kingdom seed that is sown deep in the rich and welcoming soil of our hearts. Our churches are in desperate need of the life-changing and heart transforming in-breaking Kingdom of God reality. And, our churches are in desperate need for these dead bones in the tombs to come together and resurrect to new life in the power of God. Believe me, when this begins to happen, not only will the Church be transformed, but the world will be changed in power as well.
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[ix] Matthew 13: 1-23.
[x] Ephesians 5:14.
[xi] This is a true story but I left out a portion of it because it was not relevant to my point. The guy actually was not very nice to me when I asked him to explain his perspective. He told me at the end of our conversation that “people like [you] will never get it.” Well I did get it and I forgive you for being a jerk about it. How about that?