Evangelism and the Gospel of the Kingdom

There are, I suggest, two basically different perspectives from which the Christian gospel can be approached. The one we will identify as "Historical Eschatology" and the other as "Immediate Amelioration." I beg your pardon for the big words so will proceed to try and reduce them to common language.

In the first instance, "eschatology" denotes "the dynamic process of bringing events out to a future, end-state goal." The addition of "historical" makes the phrase say "God's long-term, all-pervading work of bringing history out at the goal he intends (which is, of course, the kingdom of God)."

In the second instance, "amelioration" denotes "improving the conditions that presently obtain." And the addition of "immediate" says only that the amelioration is effective beginning now, rather than being postponed to the future. And we have in mind, of course, God's improving "our present human situation"--either on an individual or the social basis (or both).

It is much too neat an oversimplification to see Historical Eschatology as interested only in future benefits and Immediate Amelioration only in present ones. Rather, the issue is how the present benefits of the gospel are to be understood and interpreted.

Historical Eschatology would never deny the reality of "present benefits." However, it does see these as world-historical events whose full significance lies in their being current indications of God's progressing yet still-to-be-consummated work. As foretastes, premonitions, and guarantees, they certainly are valued for themselves--while, at the same time, being even more highly valued for what they promise.

With Immediate Amelioration, on the other hand, these benefits are valued simply for what they are--namely, ends in themselves, the significance of which lies entirely in their ameliorative effect upon the present.

Now, my thesis here is that Classic Evangelism (by which I mean "evangelism as the church has regularly understood and presented it") has as much as invariably understood itself in the context of Immediate Amelioration rather than that of Historical Eschatology.

Under Immediate Amelioration, evangelism has been valued primarily for one dominant benefit and secondarily for perhaps two lesser ones. Primarily, it is through evangelism that an individual comes to accept Jesus Christ and so have his spiritual status immediately changed from "lost" to "saved" ("that whoever believes in him may not perish but [beginning at that very moment] may have eternal life"). In short, through the act of his "accepting Christ," God's primary intention regarding that person has been accomplished. Of course, it is vital that the person proceeds to demonstrate his salvation in his character and public behavior. Nevertheless, the crucial amelioration offered by the gospel came in this accomplished change of status and is not expected from some future event either of the individual's or the history of the world.

Conversely, on this point, the advantage of Historical Eschatology is that--without its in any way belittling personal conversion--the "salvation" of the individual is now understood as also enlisting him into the forward-looking historical process of God's "salvation" of the world. Thus, personal salvation is perhaps now even more significant as a world-historical portent of the kingdom's coming than it is simply as an ameliorative change of private status before God.

Secondarily, from the standpoint of Immediate Amelioration, evangelism serves "church growth," the augmentation or increase of the church. This one, of course, is currently much talked among us; and there is nothing wrong with that--except when it threatens to displace evangelism's primary focus. But on this point, Historical Eschatology would stress evangelism's accessions more as a sign that the coming of the kingdom is indeed underway--this much more than simply as an immediate gain for the Institutional church.

Immediate Amelioration may also value another secondary effect that is, at best, a quite indirect one. However, it could be argued that, the more Christians are won by evangelism, the better chance Christians will have of mounting political power to ameliorate and recast the present social order. Yet, by relating evangelism to the coming of the kingdom, Historical Eschatology looks to the one, true, guaranteed revolutionizing of society--this, instead of to the entirely chancy business of our powers accomplishing immediate sociopolitical betterment.

However, it is the farthest thing from my purpose to imply that--between Historical Eschatology and Immediate Amelioration--one of these views is true and the other false. Both are valid biblical positions, although showing up at different points in scripture. For instance, the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke clearly belong to the school of Historical Eschatology, while the Gospel of John just as clearly belongs to the school of Immediate Ameliorization--yet with each having equal authority and standing within the New Testament canon. Accordingly, our intent, now, is not at all to put down or eliminate the classic evangelism of the Immediate Amelioration school. Not at all; our purpose is rather to keep both perspectives in view by relating them to one another dialectically. We want simply to open out classic evangelism to the new glories it acquires by being cast in the perspective of Historical Eschatology.

Historical Eschatology assumes a narrative account of what God has done, is now doing, and intends to do by way of bringing world history out at the end-state kingdom he has in mind for it. The Bible provides us that narrative; and I here make bold to draw up a synoptic outline of it. Our task, then, will be to find the proper place of "evangelism" within that synopsis. (Of course, no claim is made for this as being the only correct way to outline salvation-history. Others well might want to include some items I omit--and perhaps omit some items I include. So the general idea of an eschatological/biblical synopsis is all that need concern us here.)

A Synoptic Outline of God's Eschatological Plan for World History

  1. The Creation: God's very act of creating the universe perhaps implies a "covenant" with humanity that, if it will continue to live "in his image," the total life of the universe will continue to be as "very good" as God initially declared it to be. And even following the Fall, to Noah, God reaffirmed his own faithfulness to that same covenant--in spite of all.
  2. The Fall of Man: Humanity chooses sinfully to pervert its created status as "the image of God" and thus throws the whole creation out of kilter.
  3. God Covenants with Abraham, through him to form a people (Israel) by which, in God's good time, all the families of the earth shall come to bless themselves (in his kingdom, of course). The Mosaic covenant is simply a later reaffirmation of this one-again, in spite of all.
  4. God Covenants with David that, out of faithless Israel, he shall anoint a line of kings that, again in God's good time, shall eventuate in The Anointed One (Messiah Jesus, of course)--as always, in spite of all.
  5. Jesus' Earthly Ministry: Through it, the Davidic Messiah (and One who is more than just Davidic Messiah) proclaims the at-handedness of the kingdom--and not only proclaims it but bestows upon people the powers of its soon-coming, recruits them for its membership, and teaches them its ways.
  6. Jesus' Death on the Cross: In the upper room, in obvious reference to his imminent blood-sacrifice, Jesus tells his disciples, "I am covenanting a covenant with you, according as my Father covenanted a kingdom to me, that you may be eating and drinking at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:29-30, Concordant Literal Version). With this, it is made plain that scripture's "covenant theme" and its eschatological "coming-of-the-kingdom theme" are in actuality one and the same theme. Both the coming of the kingdom and the fulfillment of God's total covenant promises point to the same event. And in addition, scripture also sees Jesus' crucifixion as marking God's victorious overcoming of the world and all its powers.
  7. Jesus' Glorious Resurrection signifies God the Father's confirmation of that victory and his sending Jesus back into play.
  8. Jesus' Exaltation as LORD puts him in charge at the right hand of power--and thus in position for the final actions of bringing in the kingdom.
  9. Pentecost: The Spirit's "rush of a mighty wind" can be understood as the turbulence, the backdraft, the big swoosh, resulting from the all-powerful thrust by which the Lord Jesus barrels through history and into the kingdom. And the first effect of that "rush of wind" is to pull all sorts of onlookers into its kingdom-bound train, thus bringing them into the body of Christ and preparing them to serve in his mission.
  10. The Eschaton (The End), the finale, the consummation: This is "the return of Jesus" in which he fulfills all God's covenantal promises, eliminates all opposition, establishes the kingdom in fullness and in power, and then offers it all back to God the Father--making him everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:20-28).

At this point, then, it is my purpose to argue that, biblically, the blank space of No. 10 can he filled in by nothing other than "evangelism" (the church's mission of evangelization). I will also argue that this step is just as vital to the synopsis as a whole, to the accomplishment of God's end-state goal, as is any item in the sequence. And of course, classic evangelism--with its "immediate amelioration" simply of saving first one individual and then another--has never managed to give evangelization a setting like this! The classic mode inevitably has seen evangelism as a one-at-a-time, here-and-there, largely individualistic and thus publicly invisible phenomenon. Biblical eschatology sees evangelism, rather, before the fans, as Jesus' grand-slam homer that empties the bases of history ("Run, you guys; don't just stand there looking. Don't you realize we've just taken the World Series?").

Indeed, this new perspective will necessitate something of a redefinition of "evangelism." Classically understood, I think "evangelism" might be defined something as follows: "our inviting and helping others to come to accept Jesus Christ in a way that spells their own personal salvation." There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But I shall now propose an eschatological definition--and then spend the remainder of this chapter demonstrating that it is indeed biblical.

Evangelism is

  1. the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom-victory God has won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
  2. which proclamation triggers the homecoming of those hostages who have been liberated through that victory (or, if you prefer, the harvest of the world's heavy crop)
  3. in order that those so gathered can be incorporated as that end-time community which is "the body of Christ,"
  4. living as bride in readiness for the wedding supper of the Lamb--which "love feast" is the last-day banquet of the kingdom, supplied from the tree of life, as has been God's covenant promise since Day One.

Note, first, that the word "gospel" (Anglo-Saxon derivation meaning "good news") is synonymous with "evangel" (the New Testament Greek derivation meaning "good news"). With those two words, we are simply saying the same thing out of different linguistic backgrounds. So, at least linguistically, "evangelism" must have to do with proclaiming and promoting "the gospel."

"The gospel," in turn, is a technical term bequeathed us by the New Testament. It obviously has in mind but one particular item of good news; for instance, "Dinner is ready" is sure enough good news, although clearly not what the New Testament has in mind as the euangelion. So where did the word come from, and what implications is it meant to carry? Several scholars suggest that the key word euangelion probably came into New Testament usage as a loan from (and a reference to) a Hebrew word of Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains
 are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
 who announces salvation,
 who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

Now, "Your God reigns" [Heb., "Your God is king"] is, of course, simply another way of spelling "kingdom of God"; and scripture regularly understands peace, happiness, and salvation to be marks and characteristics of that kingdom. If, then, this is where the New Testament word euangelion comes from, the word itself can't intend just any and every sort of "good news." No, the bearer of this "gospel," the guy with the feet "how beautiful upon the mountains," is undoubtedly a runner from the battlefield hurrying back to proclaim: "Victory is ours! The good Lord has won it all!"

And to translate this into New Testament terms, then, the Christian gospel would be: "In the world you have persecution. But take courage! I have conquered the world!" (Jn.16:33). "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col.2:15).

Yes, of course, your own personal salvation is important as part and parcel of this total victory; however, quite beyond the implicit individualism of classic evangelism, we can now be much more truly "evangelistic" with a truly biblical "gospel" that proclaims God's universal kingdom-victory (which you personally are invited to join).

The above, you should realize, is commentary on the "a. clause" of our new definition of evangelism; we proceed now to the "b. clause."

The biblical idea of "the eschatological ingathering" goes a way back. Hear these words from Jeremiah--which, by the way, are part of his "new covenant" chapter (and probably not accidentally so):

For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
 and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
 "Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
 and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
 those with child and those in labor, together;
 a great company, they shall return here. (Jer. 31:7-8)

Catch the drift: With God's great victory (in Christian terms, his accomplishment through the death and resurrection of Jesus), he has, of course, liberated all the prisoners of war taken by Evil over the years. And once they have been liberated, the thing to do is bring these hostages home--that is what this ingathering signifies. And "Proclaim! Praise! Shout!"--that is evangelism. It is, at one and the same time, the announcement of the victorious ingathering and also God's means of moving people into that ingathering.

Matthew 9:

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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 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." (Mt. 9:35-38)

Now, of course, Jesus himself is here acting as an "evangelist"--and that not only in his announcing "the gospel of the kingdom" (which is, by the way, a fine phrase for our redefinition of "gospel"). His activity of healing and helping people is just as truly "evangelistic"; those benefits are themselves understood as results of God's victory and as advance signs of the kingdom's soon-coming. So the total package of Jesus' kingdom-words and kingdom-actions constitutes "evangelism."

However, Jesus' word to the disciples should not be thought of as a sociological observation to the effect that the situation of the moment was entirely auspicious for successful efforts in church-growth (nor his actions thought of simply as a sociological effort to ameliorate social conditions). Such considerations affect our evangelistic responsibilities neither one way nor another. No, Jesus is saying that we stand at that point in world history (between Items No.9 and 11 in our synopsis) in which it is urgent for God's harvest to be gathered before the entire operation is closed off by the arrival of the kingdom itself. Jesus stood at that point of world history then; we still stand at it now--and will stand so until Jesus himself returns. Yet, for all you know, that could be tomorrow--so beg the owner to be quick in getting more and more evangelistic laborers into that harvest. Notice, too, that Jesus' call is not for laborers to volunteer but rather for them to be sent. There's a difference; true evangelists are those who have responded to God's call and are acting under his direction--not people who have figured out what needs to be done and so set about doing it on their own. But Jesus wants to speak of the eschatological urgency of evangelism.

Revelation 14:

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earthy is fully ripe." So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped (Rev. 14:14-16)

As a word we much need to hear, this text tells us that evangelism is far from being just another human "good cause," another project the church has come up with as a means of advancing its own interests. Not at all; the evangelistic ingathering is one of the specific and mighty acts of God--in which he has called us to participate with him. Yet it is always his work and not anything we can program.

We now begin a transition into the "c. clause" of our definition. Hear these lines from the Eucharistic prayers of the Didache, perhaps the earliest Christian liturgy preserved outside the New Testament (early second century):

As this bread was scattered on the mountains and yet was gathered and made one, so too may thy church be gathered together from the corners of the world into thy kingdom--for thine is the glory and power through Christ Jesus forever.

And again:

Lord, remember thy community to deliver it from all evil, and perfect it in the love of thee, and gather it in from the four winds, once it has been made holy, into thy kingdom, which thou hast prepared for it. For thine is the power and glory forever.... Maran atha! Our Lord, come!

Notice, with these prayers, that the harvest is not complete simply with the gathering. The gathering is itself purposed to the end of the incorporation (the perfect word) of the body of Christ that is the end-time community. Evangelization is an unfinished work if it stops with the candidate's simply "accepting Christ"; he is not ready for the kingdom until he has been brought home and incorporated into community. The New Testament is entirely clear on this matter--and that at particularly crucial junctures, namely its treatments of the Lord's Supper.

Verses from Luke 22:

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." ... Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body...." And he did the same with the cup after saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.... "
"You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:14-15, 19-20, 28-30)

In sum, Jesus' bread-word here effectually says: "This communal action in which we are participating signifies your becoming my blood-covenanted body in anticipation of the kingdom's imminent consummation." Here is pledged the covenant that forms these individuals into the body which shall become the end-state community of the kingdom. The operative terms are "covenant," "body," "kingdom" (strongly social terms all; in no way individualistic) and with no suggestion that there is anything which rightly can be called "salvation" outside of this social economy. Evangelism will have to break out of its classic "individualism" and into this high order of "socialization" if it is to have any chance of being truly biblical. "Convert individuals in order to incorporate them into a body" is how the Bible has it.

Paul, then, in 1 Corinthians 11:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death.... For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Cor. 11:26, 28-29)

In partaking of the Supper, Paul says, we are working our own condemnation--unless we discern this action as being to no purpose other than that we acknowledge ourselves to be Christ's end-time covenant body and dedicate ourselves to live accordingly, faithfully anticipating the kingdom until the very moment he comes bringing it.

Revelation 19

And finally, then, with Revelation 19, we move to the "d. clause":

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
 And his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
 with fine linen, bright and pure"
For fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." (Rev. 19:6-9)

Do you see any reason why what is there called "wedding feast" ought not also be called a "love feast"? Do you think it could be anything other than what Jesus originally promised as the resumption of the Lord's Supper in the kingdom of God? Can this "bride of the Lamb" be anyone other than the end-time body of Christ we have been eschatologically tracking? And what might be the point of all the evangelistic ingathering and incorporation--except to get us (the whole lot of us) in place for this wedding, this feast, this victory celebration? Evangelism, I hope you see, is no little thing in the eyes of God or in his plan for the world. Happy are those to whom your beautiful feet have run the good news that God's victory in Jesus Christ has made possible the ingathering that can get them (with Christ's whole corporation) to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Copyright (c) 1987