At the high school where I teach, I'm always impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of our students. You can feel it in the hallways, in classroom discussions, at social events. These kids are passionate. They want to storm out into the world and transform it for Jesus Christ. It's an exciting atmosphere, and as teachers, we wouldn't have it any other way.
But what does it really mean to go out and impact the world for Jesus? My students and I often wrestle with this question in class. And as I talk with these aspiring world-changers, I've noticed how easy it is for us to focus on the big, "top-down" sorts of goals—the same principles and priorities the world values.
They talk about getting into the right college, securing the right career, being able to influence the right people — this is how they will serve God. Haven’t we all thought such things? It is so tempting to believe that if we could have the right political power, the right economic power or the right media power, that somehow we would advance the kingdom of God.
I remind my students that Christians have long wrestled with this temptation. Even in Jesus' day, many Jews looked for such things in a messiah. They wanted political deliverance and a political kingdom. They wanted someone who could physically rescue them from Caesar’s rule, and they weren't all that interested in the Messiah who offered forgiveness and deliverance from sin and ushered in the kingdom of God by sacrificing His own life.
Really transforming the world
I'm not suggesting we shouldn't encourage our kids to dream big, to consider how we can use our gifts and talents to best transform the world for Christ. Christians should absolutely seek to reclaim politics, to reclaim media and economics — these things should all be used to honor His name. But as I look at the heart and history of Christianity with my students, I challenge them to consider the real mission that Jesus spoke about, the mission He actually modeled for us.
Jesus taught His followers about the kingdom of God, and how that kingdom is extended on earth. In Western minds, the concept of a kingdom tends to refer to territory and power. Great Britain, the Roman Empire — power expanded by violence and blood and power. This is how we usually view the idea of a kingdom. But Jesus' teaching on the kingdom of God was very much in keeping with the Jewish understanding of the word.
Kingdom, in the Jewish mind, usually refers to a place and a situation where the king's will is done. That distinction is key to understanding what Christ's mission is for His followers. Jesus wants to extend His reign on earth, to extend it through His sons and daughters. But His will is not for us to pursue power and influence and territory. His will is for His followers to do the will of the King, to put God's Word and love into flesh, just as He did.
Almost daily, I present two challenges to my students. The first is to try to obey God in every way — to reclaim one situation, one moment, one inch of territory whenever the opportunity arises. The second challenge I give them is to not give away something that is part of God’s kingdom. Every time we succumb to the will of the evil one instead of the Lord, we give away one situation, one moment, one small piece of the kingdom of heaven. Every day, regardless of our position, we have the choice to extend the kingdom or contract the kingdom.
And as these students prepare to head out into the world, I say to them, “So, you’re going head out to college. And when you get there, you'll face choices every day. You must decide whether you will do the will of God in class, in the dorm, at the weekend party. And you will either give away a square inch that belongs to the King by refusing to do His will, or you will take back a square inch that the evil one now has as you do the King’s will."
This is the real mission of Jesus that we must help our young people see, to be the presence of God in a broken world. The kingdom is extended not through the positions we hold or the power we wield, but by doing the will of the Father. By loving our neighbors, by loving our enemy, by caring about sinners.
Each time we put into practice the will of God, His kingdom is extended by a small amount. How much territory will you give up? How much will you gain?
This article was adapted from the That the World May Know film series, Volume #14: The Mission of Jesus. For inspiring weekly devotions from Ray Vander Laan, download the That the World May Know mobile app. Find it on iTunes today.