When John the Baptist first appeared, he stood on the margins of Jewish society but did so near the very heart of that society in Jerusalem. What did he say? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).
To repent means to completely abandon one’s entire way of living. In personal terms, this involves a complete reversal of one’s thinking, feeling, movements, goals, gods, and relationships. It means questioning everything! In societal terms, it means freedom in relationship to the entire status quo.
When God sent John to the people of Jerusalem and Judea, he had John call them to repent. He wanted them to repent, as individuals and as a community of faith, of their devotion to the six conventional but destructive gods of Olympianity. He also had John give them a compelling reason for doing so: the kingdom of heaven has come near. God’s people both needed to and could repent because God had chosen, at just that moment, to be present in their midst in a qualitatively different way.
Jesus soon asked John to baptize him so that he could identify with us sinners (people needing to repent) and, by doing so, fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). The Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The devil himself then tested the commitment of Jesus to the only true god whose dawning new world John had been proclaiming.
After John’s arrest, Jesus began his public ministry with the same words proclaimed by John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Now, however, there was a crucial difference. Jesus himself was the presence of that kingdom.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness (Matthew 9:35). Jesus himself was the presence of the kingdom of heaven—of freedom, truth, love, and vitality—here on earth. He witnessed to its presence by taking it all over the place, announcing its presence as he did so, and sharing the truth with God’s people about what this kingdom meant for them. He then effortlessly freed them from diseases because those were signs of the presence of the devil’s kingdom of power, darkness, indifference, and death here on earth.
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). God’s people listened to the teachings of God read and explained in their synagogues on the Sabbath. They then attempted to witness to God by applying those teachings in their daily lives. But they weren’t doing well. City and village leaders weren’t leading them like faithful shepherds. They weren’t nurturing and protecting those for whom they were responsible. Instead, they were allowing people with greater power to exploit those with less.
Jesus, himself the presence of the kingdom of heaven, himself the presence of the sovereign freedom of God, was unwilling to accept this destructive status quo. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37).
In response to this prayer, Jesus chose to call and enable twelve of his disciples to be witnesses to the presence of his kingdom: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-8a). Now he has twelve more people aiding harassed and helpless people of God by freeing them, in word and deed, from the power of the devil and his human minions.
Yet, note the restriction that Jesus placed on their witness at that time and place: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5b-6). Mission to the Gentiles would come later when Jesus called and enabled Paul to be his witness to them, but not yet.
I think there is a word for us, today, in these words of Jesus. Right now, in our churches, we too are harassed and helpless. In fact, we are pressed even harder by an Olympian society and culture than the people of Judea were in the days of Jesus. Our Olympian context strengthens, with ever greater rigor, the Olympian personality in each one of us just as it weakens our Christian one. As a result, as Christians and churches, we ail from being primarily Olympian ourselves. Worse: as a rule, we don’t even realize it.
This is why I think Jesus is speaking to us as prophetic witnesses through these words today. He wants us to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel rather than to Gentiles or Samaritans. He is calling us as prophetic witnesses to strengthen his existing churches. Every church that I am familiar with has members eager to witness more clearly to Jesus. These members just need a little help. Jesus will enable us to provide that help by granting us whatever words and signs of his presence he deems most meaningful.
Jesus also wants us to speak with Christians who no longer attend a church. He wants us to invite them back as prophetic witnesses or to help them start a new congregation within an existing denomination.
Our emphasis, then, is not evangelism to non-Christians. Right now our churches, sadly enough, are too harassed and helpless to witness meaningfully to non-Christians. This does not mean, however, that witness to non-Christians is forbidden. Jesus himself helped a woman from the region of Tyre even after he had told her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
We have Christ’s Good News to share with everyone, but right now the emphasis we’ve been given is to strengthen our churches. Jesus wants us to remind church members anew that he has set them free from our society’s devotion to the six conventional but destructive gods of Olympianity. He wants us to share with them whatever words and signs of his presence he thinks will be most meaningful. And he wants us to find his lost witnesses and invite them to join him as he again transforms his Church into an alternative society and culture which again represents, at least provisionally, his Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.