Prepared by Dr. John 3:16 Marshall
Matt. 24:14 “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world
for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
When I was in seminary, 1972-75, we spent time discussing the purpose of the Church. We would compile lists, usually naming fellowship, ministry, discipleship, worship, and missions/evangelism. In this context, missions entails sharing the gospel with those who are not prospects for our own local church; evangelism is sharing the gospel with those who are. Thus, together the two terms encompass the outreach function of a local church. In seminary, we would debate the relative importance of the items on this purpose list. The most vigorous discussions were whether worship or missions/evangelism should top the list.
I submit for consideration a different scenario. Maybe the church actually has only one overriding purpose, to help fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God. If this be the case, we would be more accurate to discuss functions, not purposes (plural), needing to be done by the church to help accomplish its one over-arching purpose.
I call our attention to our Lord’s definitive statement on the church. After Simon Peter’s great confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (MT 16:17), our Master said, “. . .upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (MT 16:18b).
Most churchgoers are acquainted with this much used passage, but rarely do we meet a Christian who can recall what Jesus said next. Without stopping or hesitating, Christ continued, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (MT 16:19).
With this pronouncement, Jesus forever wed the kingdom and the church. The kingdom is the larger, over-arching entity. Entailing more than only the church, the kingdom includes every manifestation of God’s rule in the hearts of people, including, for example, in earlier times, the calling of Abraham, the selection of Israel, the establishment of Judaism, the inspiration of the Old Testament. The Jews became obsessed with kingdom thinking, and longed for the coming of an anointed king of David’s family, who would politically rule over them and the world.
Into this environment, Jesus came preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (MT 4:17; also MK 1:15; LK 4:43). He commanded His disciples to proclaim the exact same message, “As ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of God is at hand” (MT 10:7; also LK 9:2; 10:9). According to our text (MT 24:14), Jesus expects His followers to keep preaching this theme till He returns.
Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom was in line, not with what had become the main Jewish interpretation, but rather with what God had intended from the beginning. Jesus came to initiate the final earthly phase of God’s kingdom. He introduced the true messianic reign, the one prophets and holy writings had foretold.
By His own death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, He introduced “with power” (MK 9:1) into human history that phase of the kingdom which will be consummated by the great cataclysm when He returns to earth to rule over all things as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Till then, the kingdom of God, which is marching victoriously toward this climax, encompasses the church, parachurch groups, seminaries, mission agencies, the Bible, etc. Since all these things, including the church, in the kingdom are subsets of the over-arching entity, each has as its purpose, to help fulfill the mission of the kingdom.
Thus, to accurately list the proper functions of the church we must understand the mission of the kingdom. Without doubt, the primary mission of God’s kingdom is for it to advance, to attack and make inroads into the kingdom of evil.
Jesus said His kingdom is like a grain of mustard seed which grows into a tree large enough for birds to nest in (MT 13:31-32). He said it is also like leaven, which is hidden in three measures of meal, till the whole is leavened (MT 13:33). Our King envisioned His kingdom growing. Until His day, the kingdom had essentially been limited to one nation, but He foresaw a different future. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (MT 24:14). Jesus expected His kingdom to expand.
This world is the kingdom of Satan, and the purpose of God’s kingdom is to invade this realm of darkness. Local churches, the church’s tangible expressions, serve as vital outposts in this enterprise. As embassies in a foreign land, with their members as ambassadors, they exist to help fulfill the kingdom’s mission.
This means missions and evangelism, the practical expressions of the kingdom’s chief mission, are the essential purpose of the church. Thus, we should list, not purposes (plural) of the church, but rather functions of the church, those activities which help accomplish the church’s one purpose, its over-arching mission.
When making lists prioritizing the functions of the church, missions and evangelism should not be included. To put them on the list is to lose them in the middle of a muddle. Even if evangelism and missions are listed as the church’s number one priority, there remains a temptation to rationalize them away by saying, “Oh, we may not be doing well with number one, but we are doing so well with numbers two and three that we are making up for our weakness in number one.” I understand this rationalizing process. I have practiced it for years.
Missions and evangelism, when listed with other objectives, tend to get lost in the shuffle. The surest way to keep missions and evangelism in their proper place is to set them apart as the church’s purpose in helping fulfill the kingdom’s mission, and then to list separately those functions of the church which support this one purpose.
To see the significance of this interpretation, let’s return to my seminary discussion. Let’s say the purposes of the church are evangelism/missions, worship, fellowship, ministry, and discipleship. Notice, evangelism and missions top the list. This places them as the number one priority, but they are in this context viewed as separate and distinct from the other functions. Let me explain.
In this scenario, worship can have its own reason for being, totally separate from mission. We can corporately gather to praise and promote the king, but our worship does not necessarily have to be tied to the mission of the kingdom. Many churches which do a wonderful job of corporate worship do very little outreach.
The same problem is true of fellowship. If it is merely another item on the list, it takes on a life of its own. Its purpose is to make us feel good about one another, to encourage each other, to form for ourselves a spiritual support group. All this can be done without any reference to outreach. In fact, the friendliest churches are often the unfriendliest. Those churches which take great pride in their fellowship are often ones which are so close knit that they are in essence a clique, and outsiders can not break in, and the friendliness of the believers to each other makes the outsiders feel even more ostracized.
Ministry, also, can stand on its own, slipping into a social service, never winning anyone to Jesus. It can become merely a way of believers helping one another when in trouble. Even when it is done by believers for unbelievers, it can be done for its own sake, without any effort to win to Jesus the one helped. What begins as an attempt to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name easily degenerates into merely offering a cup of cold water. A good historical example is the YMCA, which began by asking boys to come play basketball and learn about Jesus, now it asks them to come play basketball.
Discipleship, if set in a list with outreach, can also justify its own existence. In younger years, I once asked the evangelist Hyman Appelman what the greatest danger facing the Southern Baptist Convention was. I assumed he would say liberalism, but he instead replied, “The deeper life movement, for it will cause us to turn our focus inward on ourselves.” Sad, but true. Many of our people take years of training in discipleship, in the deeper walk with Christ, yet never lead anyone to the Lord.
As you can see, evangelism and missions, even if they are number one on our list of purposes, can be crowded out by other items on the list. This will not be the case, though, if instead of missions and evangelism being number one on the list, they are elevated to being the mission of the kingdom. When this is the case, the remaining items on the list have to be viewed and understood in light of their role in supporting the kingdom’s mission. This scenario changes everything.
Worship will still have as its function to praise and promote the king, but it will always seek to lead the worshipper to a specific response for missions and evangelism. The final objective of worship is not adoration or contemplation in isolation, but rather wanting to further the cause of the king who has been exalted. He is deemed worthy of being worshipped by all peoples everywhere. It is interesting to note that the most used worship passage in the Bible (Isaiah 6) ends with Isaiah saying, “Here am I, send me.” This certainly adds more meaning to the offering time in our worship services. It is not merely a time of giving our money, but a time of saying we give our money as a way of saying we intend to give ourselves in service to the king. Bill Hybels, at Willow Creek Church, and Rick Warren, at Saddleback Church, have been leaders in reminding us of the need to view even the worship event itself in the context of evangelism. Even if we can not lead our church to become seeker-oriented, we should all at least move to the position of being seeker-sensitive. Strange and archaic words can be removed from our worship. For instance, say lesson instead of sermon, prayer instead of invocation or benediction. Use words prechristians can understand and glean truth from. Modern sounds and instrumentation can be added to the music, which detract not one whit from our own people’s enjoyment and involvement in worship, but enable nonchristians to not feel too terribly out of place.
In this new scenario, the purpose of fellowship is to be an activity in which the world can look to see one of the main benefits of kingdom citizenship. God puts the solitary in families. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (JN 13:35), but the lost can only see our love for each other if they are invited to spend time with us. Cornelius invited others to join him. The Samaritan woman brought others. Churches which have basketball and softball teams, where a part of each roster has to be nonchristians, are using fellowship with a kingdom view.
The purpose of ministry, when viewed as supplementary to evangelism and missions, is to woo people into the kingdom by showing them the kindness of our king. Steve Sjogren, at Vineyard Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charles Roesel, at First Baptist Church in Florida, have shown how acts of kindness and servant styled ministry can be powerful tools for kingdom expansion. This is not to say we do not minister to our own. We show compassion for our hurting members, we bind up the walking wounded, and make them able to return to the forefront of the kingdom warfare.
The purpose of discipleship, in a kingdom setting, is to promote behavior worthy of kingdom citizenship. Churches must teach their people how to obey (MT 28:19-20). Only in this way can they become great in the kingdom of God (MT 5:19). In it we train people how to grow in grace, to share their faith effectively, to support missions, to plant churches, to translate the Bible and the Jesus Film, etc. In other words, we teach them how to spread the kingdom. MasterLife is an excellent example of how discipleship in personal growth can be dovetailed with an emphasis on outreach.
In this second scenario, missions and evangelism are always held high, and never lost in the middle of a muddle. As long as three-fourths of the world’s population is lost, how can we have any priority higher than advancing the kingdom? It is not right for four billion people to not be bowing at Jesus’ feet. He deserves the reward of His suffering.
Five times our Lord gave the Great Commission. “Go ye therefore, and teach (literally, make disciples of) all nations” (MT 28:19). “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (MK 16:15). “Repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (LK 24:47 NAS). “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (JN 20:21). “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (AC 1:8). Jesus was serious about His followers extending the borders of His kingdom.
Paul the Apostle, above all other kingdom activities, gave himself to spreading the kingdom. We often lose sight of this in light of the fact, as he extended his efforts more and more into the Gentile world, he less and less used the word king to describe Jesus, but instead used the term Lord, which was the term used to describe Caesar, the king of the world in his day.
Missions and evangelism must become, not what we do, but what we are. Everything activity must in some way or another be tied back into the kingdom mission.
There is a way of escape out of losness, darkness, condemnation. Lostness is a terrible thing. My son got lost. My great grandfather got lost.
The kingdom truly is a hidden treasure, a costly pearl, like a joyous marriage feast.