I came across a comment by someone on Facebook in response to my post about what an apostle does. He suggests, first, that I must come from a typical large church (he couldn’t be further from the truth), that is “not engaging in the Kingdom” (I’ll get on to this), and then asserts:
We MUST be about the work of GROWING the Kingdom, and as such, we are apostles sent out to save the lost.
With the narrative of Acts still very much in mind, there are a couple of issues here that I want briefly to highlight.
First, this activist language of engaging with, growing, extending the kingdom may have some current rhetorical value if it motivates big lazy churches to get off their backsides and do something useful, but it is a very misleading lens through which to read the New Testament.
Kingdom language in the New Testament refers to what a king does. Mostly it has to do with what the God of Israel was about to do in the foreseeable future to transform the state and status of his people in the ancient world. The task of the churches was to bear witness to this coming transformation, first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations. The churches did not grow or extend the kingdom—they were to be a sign or benchmark of the righteousness of God, of what YHWH was about to do to vindicate himself. The spread of the churches throughout the empire did not grow or extend the kingdom—it merely meant that witness to the coming kingdom of God was more extensive.
Secondly, it is not so obvious that the apostles understood their task as being primarily to save the lost. There was certainly a call to the Jews to dissociate themselves from a “crooked generation” of Israel destined for destruction, and to the Gentiles to abandon their idolatry and worship the living creator God. But, as I suggested before, that was secondary to the task of proclaiming—again first to Israel, then to the empire—that God has put his Son in control of history. It was those who believed this politically significant fact and repented of their old ways and allegiances who were “saved”.
The apostles then had the responsibility of ensuring that the emerging communities of Jews and Gentiles who believed that God had put his Son in control of history were fit to bear witness until YHWH acted as king to transform the state and status of his people in the ancient world.
On the one hand, this meant demanding a high level of spiritual and moral integrity from the churches: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” (Eph. 4:1).
On the other, it meant building into them the capacity to survive persecution. The task of an apostle was to construct churches on the foundation of Jesus, who was obedient even to death on a cross and was vindicated for his faithfulness, and to build them from materials that would not be burnt up in the coming day of fire. As my friend Nancy observed in another Facebook comment on the post, the apostles had to ensure the durability of these communities.
So “kingdom” is not what we do; it is not our kingdom. It is what God does to safeguard the integrity and security of his people; it is what he does to establish his reputation in the eyes of the nations. If we wish to preserve the New Testament pattern, then I think we must say that our task, especially in post-Christian Europe, is first to proclaim the good, if controversial, news that God’s Son is still in control of history, and then to ensure that as communities of believers we bear faithful and consistent witness to this fact, in word and deed. What we call “personal salvation” is part of that process, but not the most important part.