What has been missing within the Church for so long, and consequently the world, is the larger story or narrative in which we find ourselves.
We start out as children understanding the individual stories of the Bible, but we have very little understanding of how the stories necessarily relate to one another, or what function they serve as part of a larger story. We are comfortable looking at and trying to understand them from a 30-foot view, but when we look at them from a 30,000-foot view to see how they all fit together we begin to have problems. We are quick to see and focus only on the individual components of the car, if you will, but not the car in its entirety. Of course the individual components of the car are important, but only because they come together to form the larger car.
Many of the messages we are left with in our churches are the individual components of the car. In some churches you may hear a sermon about the muffler this week or the windshield wiper that week. And, just about every week you hear a message of the engine. But, week after week (maybe even year after year) we fail to hear how the individual parts fit together to make the larger car, which is very important. The muffler message of relationships is very important and needs to be taught and discussed but it is an individual component of something so much larger. The windshield wipers of worship is a fantastic individual component to learn and talk about, but what is the narrative that it fits within? Why is it important for the functioning of the entire car? The engine of salvation that we focus on in our churches is, “You are a sinner and need a Savior. Give your life to Jesus so your sins can be forgiven.” And while the engine of salvation is an essential part of the car, no one is telling us about the car in which the engine runs.
Please don’t think that I do not agree with the above statement of salvation, because I do with every ounce of my being. I am a sinner in need of a Savior and have been forgiven by the grace of God. I am not trying to diminish this truth at all. But the parts of that statement are the components of a much larger car, if you will. The engine is extraordinarily important and makes the entire car run well, but if we only talk about and fixate on any one component, like the engine, we will never see or appreciate the larger car or understand how it all works together for a larger purpose.
Reclaiming and Restoring
We have so watered down the message of Christianity that the average person is not aware that there is more going on than the salvation of the individual. If that is all we believe is happening, and if that is all we believe God is interested in, then it is no wonder that we organize and orient our churches to accomplish that one single goal.
What if there is actually more occurring than what we have known or expected? What if there is more to the identity and task of the Christian than what we have actually known and settled for? What if there is a much bigger story unfolding around us that we find ourselves a part of- that yes, includes the salvation of the individual but also includes God reclaiming and restoring all things! And, what if this reclaiming and restoring involves God using “saved” people to be the means through which He accomplishes this?
If it is true that the Bible is the grand telling of this epic narrative of how God is reclaiming and restoring the entire created order through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and then how God wants to use those who follow the way of Jesus to continue this ministry of reconciliation, how ought that change our perspective and our responsibility within the Church of not just being “saved” people “waiting on heaven”, but rather transformed people used by God for the task of reclaiming and restoring all things? How ought that fundamentally change our lives and our priorities as individuals and as churches in how we view the world, our responsibilities, and how we use our time, energy, effort, and resources? What if our perspective suddenly changed from being so self-centered and church-centered to being completely and holistically God-centered in everything that we do in our lives?
All of a sudden our interests and priorities may become a lot less about us believing that we are the center of the universe, and more about God and God’s reign and God’s glory finally taking center stage in every single endeavor and pursuit in which we find ourselves. Imagine that! It is not about us but about the wonderful and magnificent riches, glory, and mercies of God in all and through all…and how this God has chosen to use us for His larger purposes in the world.
Turning our focus and perspective away from ourselves and toward God is absolutely essential, for when we do we begin to realize that God’s purposes and concerns are different than our own. This may be surprising but God loves the entire created order, or everything He magnificently created, of which we are a wonderful and special part. This may be even more surprising but God is working to redeem all of it. Sin and death are not the natural order of creation, and as a result everything dies. Flowers die. Trees die. Cats die. Dogs die. People die. Stars die. Everything that lives suffers the curse of sin and death, and this is not what God intended from the beginning. God loves his good creation and intends to liberate and restore all of it. This doesn’t mean that God’s love for us is diminished, because it isn’t. It simply means that God is working toward purposes much larger than we could ever imagine, and we would be mindful to not make God revolve around us. Rather, we ought to revolve around God.
I do not want you to think I am playing fast and loose with the language that I am using. Take a look at one example that you know quite well and that makes my point; it is the verse John 3:16. For God so love the [kosmos- orderly, harmonious, systematic universe ] that he gave his only Son. The New Testament was written in Greek and the word that was translated as “world” is the Greek word kosmos. The word kosmos means, “the entire orderly, harmonious, systematic universe,” or the entire created order of which God was the creator.
Paul goes even further when he writes about the redemption of not just those who are the sons and daughters of God but of all creation in Romans 8:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8: 20-23
All of creation groans and longs for liberation and freedom from the curse, just as we do. God has been working throughout human history to liberate and redeem it all, with His great victory culminating in the work and accomplishment of Jesus Christ and the initiation of His Kingdom on earth, beginning with Jesus and continuing through us.
Even the prevailing understanding of the early church was that God was in the process of redeeming and restoring all of creation, but this is not the way we have viewed it or the way we have oriented ourselves in the Church. In fact, I can remember at various times being told to replace the word “world” with my name when reading John 3:16. For God so loved [Brandon] that he gave His only Son. Once again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with personalizing it because we are a wonderful and precious part of that which God created and is working to redeem. But, when we personalize our faith to the neglect of God’s love for the entire created order and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit that still needs to be done in the world through us, we have made ourselves the only purpose of God’s larger plan. This perspective seems quite small and limited. This narrow understanding of individual salvation is exactly what has caused the Church to fixate on the individual components rather than the entire car. Again, the individual components of the car are absolutely important and do their part to hold the car together quite well, but they are not the entire car.
The Bible is a written account of how God created that which he called “good,” but then that good creation was subjected to the disorder of sin and death and in need of rescue, liberation, and renewal. God did not create something “good” only to give up on it and discard it. In many ways, that would seem like defeat and it would not make much sense. Think about it. Did God create something that He called good, only to toss it aside when it gets hijacked? Of course not! Every single part of it is worth redeeming.
God has been working patiently to take back what is rightfully His by reclaiming it, restoring it, and renewing it. It is within this framework that we find God working through willful, sinful humanity leading up to and culminating in Jesus Christ, the liberator of all creation from the bondage of sin and death for the initiation of a new order, a new humanity, a new Kingdom and the bringing together of heaven and earth for the renewal of all things. But, in order for there to be freedom for His glorious creation, the liberator must defeat the hostile and oppressive forces that lead to death, destruction, and decay.
Suppose you have been traveling and have been away from home for quite some time. The anticipation of arriving home continues to grow, as this home is where you find life to the fullest. Your home, which is set alone in some of the most beautifully wooded country imaginable, was built with your own hands and abounds in the wonder and diversity of your handiwork. This is also where you find great delight and joy with your children, some of which are naturally yours with the rest being adopted. While you have been away, your children have been house-sitting and taking care of everything for which you have given them responsibility. Your home is the kind of place that just makes you feel alive and in love with life when you are there with your family.
The landscaping is wonderfully contoured with plants and flowers that awaken the senses. The colors blend together as if to paint a wonderful visual tapestry wrapping around the home. The scents drift upward as a pleasant mixture of heaven and earth. The sounds of a bubbling brook and the gentle singing of the birds and frogs combine in a soothing melody.
The inside of your home is just as magnificent as the outside. Although it is quite simple, each room is perfectly thought out and serves its own individual and unique purpose. All of the woods were hand-selected and crafted into the finest furniture that one could imagine. The artwork that comes alive from the walls is the manifestation of your vivid imagination and steady, creative hands. Each room waits to accommodate in its splendor as if an invitation has already been sent to the next guest. All is good and right at home, under the responsible care of your children…so you think.
As you are driving back into town and turn on the last stretch of road leading home you begin to make out a large moving truck parked in the driveway. Your heart begins to beat a little faster while perspiration begins to bead on your forehead. As you get closer, it looks as if someone has broken into your home. You notice that all of your children have been tied up and loaded on the truck with many of your most valuable possessions. To add insult to injury, the criminal has also been destroying everything else in the process. The loading truck was driven destructively through the beautiful landscaping. The windows of your home have been broken, and each piece of art, designed with your inspiration and love, has been tossed out of the broken windows.
These actions speak louder than words. “You no longer have a home here. Your children are being held captive. All of these possessions are now mine.” Everything that was good and sacred in this heavenly, peaceful dwelling place has been broken, scarred, and snatched away. All you can do is sit there with a sick feeling in your gut, a knot in your throat, and the accompanying sense that you have been violated in the worst possible way.
It doesn’t take long for the feelings of sickness to turn to anger. “Who does this guy think he is anyway?” you say to yourself. “What right does he have to come into my house with a few of his beat-up buddies and hold my children captive? What right do they have to take those things captive that I have put so much time, energy, effort, and love into? To break and tear up such a beautiful, peaceful, and life-giving place? To steal my most valuable possessions and not take care of or appreciate them the way that I do?”
You quickly decide that you can’t let this thug and his thug buddies, bent on taking the people and things that you love the most, destroy your most exquisite handiwork and succeed in their hostile and devious plan. After sizing up the situation and the thieves, you decide that with a well thought out plan you can overpower the ringleader and tie him up. While he looks like a strong man, you know that you are stronger. By your calculations the other henchmen won’t put up much resistance and may very well just run off once the leader is tied up and your children released.
It is finally time to make your move. Slowly you begin to walk along the edge of the woods where you can get a better vantage point looking in through the large window in the back of your house. You wait for just the right moment when the henchmen are all outside next to the moving truck and the ringleader is still inside, and then you make your move. In a full sprint you break through the back door, tackle the ringleader, and easily subdue and tie him up. In the commotion, and as you run out the front door, the other henchmen see what is happening and take off running into the woods.
As you get in the loading truck to untie your emotionally distraught children, you tell them that they are all safe and that the ringleader has been subdued and tied up. Together, you and your children walk back into the tattered house to assess the damage.
As you make your way through your home, you notice that your children are comforting each other and beginning to pick up what has been broken and strewn about in order to put it back together for you. Before long, your children have completely taken over the once broken and violated house. They are following your example by cleaning and straightening up each room, repairing everything that was broken, and putting your handiwork back in order.
In every room that you begin to gather up what has been thrown about and broken, your children also race into and help with the work. You are so proud and appreciative as you realize how blessed you are to have such an amazing family that is helping you reclaim and restore your good home, and help you put all of the pieces back together. Once you are certain that your house is in good hands and are confident that your children have everything they need to get the place back in order, you return to your travels and promise that you will return very soon. The children, anticipating your return and wanting everything in order when your return, work diligently to get your home back in order.[i]
Creation Held Captive
Within this parable we find the larger story that we have been missing. We find the framework for unpacking the great news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to announce. There is the home that was creatively crafted in love to bless all who live there, which is God’s good and beautiful creation. There is the thief who was bent on breaking into the home, holding the owner’s family captive, stealing the owner’s most valuable possessions, and destroying all of the owner’s good work, which is Satan and the forces that work to oppose and destroy God’s good creation. There is the owner of the home, which is Jesus (but was you for the sake of our story), who poured life, imagination, skill, and talent into the design and craftsmanship of the home and then later broke into the home to bind up the thief and release the children who were being held captive. There are the natural and adopted children, the children who follow the way of Jesus, who were all held captive by the thief and then who later helped their father reclaim the home, gathered up that which was scattered and broken, and then repaired and restored the home when the father went away so he could return with everything in order.
The world is like a home that Satan and the powers of evil broke into, took captive, and are bent on destroying. Jesus is the father who broke into the house in order to tie up the Adversary and release His children, the people of the world who follow His way. This is the way Jesus described the state of affairs in our world. Jesus came to break into the kingdoms of the world, tie up the adversary, and free His children to continue on the restorative work in the world through the power given to them by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus understood creation as God’s beautiful and creative handiwork made in love, but also as a creation being held captive, ravaged in the present evil age by the powers and principalities who oppose the glory of God. Jesus told the story this way:
For when a strong man like Satan is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are safe- until someone even stronger attacks and overpowers him, strips him of his weapons, and carries off his belongings. Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. Luke 11: 21-23 NLT
From the perspective of Jesus, there is a strong man guarding a house and this strong man must be dealt with. The strong man has taken control of a place which is not rightly his but that he now calls his own. He has claimed everything in the house as his own property. He has even taken the most beloved possessions captive, the children.
With this understanding there is a sense of injustice and enslavement that must be dealt with and made right. Again, there is something that has been unjustly taken that must be reclaimed, not just the children but the whole house. The home has been broken into and is in need of an eviction. The children being held hostage are in need of a liberator, a savior. And, each one of us has the opportunity to oppose and work against the one who Liberates, continuing the destructive work of the Adversary. Or, we have the opportunity to work toward and join in the restorative work of God in the world by following the example of Jesus. But we are moving ahead too quickly, and it is enough to say for now that an occupying force has broken into the house, is holding it captive, and is bent on destroying it in the process.
The early biblical writers understood that all of God’s beautiful creation, which God declared as “good” from the very beginning, has been subjected to “hostile, proud, raging, destructive forces of chaos [that] oppose God’s will and threaten the very foundations of the earth.”[ii] They refer to an opposing force as the Hebrew word ha satan, which simply means “the adversary” or “the accuser.” Ha satan refers to any adversary or opponent in any situation. But in certain specific instances in the Old Testament, it refers to an angelic being that is at work to oppose and disrupt the glory of God’s good creation. It is an oppositional force that works toward the breaking and fragmenting of individual people, relationships between people, and the relationship between people and God.
In other words, God’s beautiful and magnificent creation, which was once whole, complete, and full of the shalom (or peace) of God, has been hijacked, fragmented, and turned into a battle field that is in dire need of rescue and restoration. This is certainly not to say that humanity does not have free-will in how and what we choose, but it is to say that this is the situation in which we find ourselves- the “tragic intrusion [of evil] into God’s otherwise good creation.”
New Testament writers echo the same sentiment in their understanding of the present evil age and the occupying evil force that enslaves and oppresses humanity and the rest of God’s good creation. John writes in one of his letters that the entire created order, or kosmos, is “under the control of the evil one.”[iii] He continues on in the apocalyptic of Revelation:
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Revelation 12: 7-9
The heavens and those who dwell in them should rejoice and those on earth and the sea should be filled with grief and distress because the adversary, Satan, and other adversarial angels have gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. Revelation 12: 12
Paul describes the adversary as the “prince of the power of the air” who works in those who are in opposition to God.[iv] Paul is clear, however, when he declares that this war we find ourselves in is not against flesh and blood or human beings but against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces in the heavenly realm. Powerful, antagonistic forces are at work to divide, crush, and conquer God’s good creation and use broken humanity in the process for their destruction. It is worth remembering the words of Jesus from the parable of the Strong Man, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.”
There is a great cosmic war raging that is playing out on the stage of human history, and humanity is a means through which the reign of Satan can break into existence into our lives and into our affairs if we allow it. We see the evidence of this every day by simply watching the news or reading the newspaper. We kill each other. We wound one another with our words, fists, and weapons. We cheat, lie, steal, oppress, crush, dominate, horde, and take advantage of one another. If we would only wake up to the reality that our battle is not against humanity itself but against the adversarial forces that work to enslave, oppress, and reign on earth through humanity. This is so critical and fundamental to understand, but it’s one we have not learned so well in the Church. We continue to join in the work of opposition when we make the battle with other human beings.
Paul continues on in another letter writing that the adversary, Satan, is “the god of this age” that blinds the minds of the unbelieving so they may not see the light of the good news of the Kingdom of God.[v] In essence, there are spiritual forces at work in the world who have blinded the minds of unbelievers and who have the power to influence and affect the powers and authorities of this world who work in opposition to the reign and rule of God.
If Satan and the other adversarial forces have enslaved and disrupted all of God’s good creation, have influenced and affected the powers and authorities of this world in order to thwart the reign of God on earth, and have blinded the minds of the unbelieving from seeing the light of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, then we have no other choice than to conclude that this is not what God has intended for his good creation. God does not wish for people to be enslaved and blinded from the beauty, freedom, and life-giving reality of His goodness and love. A strong man broke into a home that was not his own, took it captive, and has worked to divide and conquer it. In order to reclaim the house, someone more powerful must break in, tie up the strong man, and liberate the house.
In this, we may have gotten a first glimpse of the good news that Jesus came to announce in the story of the strong man. In Jesus a covert operation was initiated to break in to the house, tie up the strong man, and then, along with his children, reclaim what is rightfully God’s, renewing and restoring that which has been broken. In Jesus, one oppressive kingdom was broken into and overthrown in order to establish God’s Kingdom here on earth. The Kingdom of God was launched and initiated in and through Jesus to liberate the captives and awaken their hearts and open their eyes to the beautiful, life-giving realities of God. And, those who give their lives to this Kingdom of God give their full allegiance to Lord Jesus and his ways, operating by the holy and righteous standards of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
You can see the problem that we have in front of us. On one hand, the Church has been compromised by those who have found other more valuable “riches and treasures” that they would like the world to come and see, while having buried the most profound and mind-blowing reality that Jesus himself came to announce and establish- the Kingdom of God. And then on the other hand, we have adversarial forces at work to keep the entire created order enslaved and blinded to this reality. These forces are at work to establish and advance the oppressive and destructive reign of Satan on earth while blinding the minds of the unbelieving so they might not see and perceive or hear and understand the Good News of the Kingdom of God and how it could liberate them from their slavery and blindness. In essence, the Church has stopped announcing and living the Kingdom of God, while the world continues to be enslaved, blinded, and unable to hear, see, or comprehend an alternative to the kingdoms of the world. What a dilemma.
This is incredibly important and revealing for the purposes of the Church. If this Good News of the Kingdom of God has been buried, it must be rediscovered and unearthed by people who are tirelessly looking for it and then who are tirelessly announcing it, proclaiming it, living it, while praying that God would open the eyes, ears, and hearts of every man, woman, and child who are enslaved by the forces of evil. We must fight with prayer and fasting against the powers and principalities of evil that keep people from seeing and perceiving and from hearing and understanding so that they may be brought into the glorious freedom of the Kingdom of God. We, as the Church, must be instrumental in working toward liberating the captives by taking the light of Christ and the Good News of His alternative Kingdom into every dark area of people’s lives and into every dark corner of the world. The world does not need more religion; it needs a rescue from the enslaving, oppressing, and victimizing kingdoms of the world. The only alternative to the kingdom of the world is the Kingdom of God. But who is announcing and living out this Kingdom?
It Starts With Us
The Church, by living out the Kingdom of God in our lives, must be the alternative to the kingdoms of the world. We have to be the people with our eyes and ears opened wide to the realities of this home that is being held hostage and the desperate need of a saving and life-giving Kingdom. Otherwise, we just continue as the blind leading the blind.
If there is Good News that Jesus announced and that the enslaved world needs to hear, but they have not heard it because we have not known about it ourselves, then we must rediscover it for our own sake and for the sake of the world so that the riches, glory, and mercies of God can be once and for all revealed, clearly seen, experienced, and lived by all. We must rediscover the Kingdom of God and go on the spiritual offensive rather than sitting idly by and watching the world get ravaged and torn apart by the oppressive forces of evil. We must rediscover the Kingdom of God so that the reign of Satan will be put on the defensive and then rightly overthrown and replaced by the reign of God here on earth and throughout the entire cosmos. So while we wait patiently for the return of our Lord and the fullness of His Kingdom to be ushered in, let us live presently as citizens of this Kingdom, as citizens of heaven on earth, and in a manner worthy to be called the sons and daughters of God for the sake of an enslaved world.
Is there anything more essential for the Christian right now than to go back to the words, teachings, and life of Jesus to understand exactly what He believed his mission to be, to uncover how He announced it to the world, and to [re]discover the Kingdom life to which He is calling us? Is there any cause more important than those who have been blinded to the Kingdom of God to receive sight and those who have been deaf to the Kingdom of God to now hear the Kingdom reality announced by Jesus? Isn’t it more important now than ever that we, as Christians, cast aside our preconceived notions of what we think we believe, and discard those things we have created that keep us from being the means through which the Kingdom of God breaks into the world in power?
Should we not be ready and willing to toss aside empty traditions, rules, protocols, and power that continue to consume us and divide us so that we may stand united as a testament to the world that the Lord is One? Is there any better time than now to put your own self-interest and preferences aside and break free from hollow, empty religion or from an artificial and superficial church? Is there any better time than now to make Jesus Christ and His Kingdom the centerpiece of our identity and purpose in the world?
Let us open our eyes and our ears to the Kingdom announcement of Jesus. Become a searcher and discoverer of His Truth. Join the united movement of those who are asking, seeking, and knocking so that the door will be opened unto us. For it is in this asking, seeking, and knocking that we will once and for all discover, be amazed, and become the fullness of the Body of Christ in and for the entire world.
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[i] This original story is based upon Luke 11: 21-23.
[ii] Boyd, Greg. God at War. Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
[iii] 1 John 5:19.
[iv] Ephesians 2:2.
[v] 2 Corinthians 4:4.