Dr. Robert Schmidt
Editor’s Note: For an preliminary article to this one, see Dr. Schmidt’s earlier essay, “Evangelism of the Kingdom,” The Daystar Journal (Summer 2019).
Jesus’ Evangelism Message
Jesus’ good news was that God’s Kingdom was at hand, it was near. It was good news because the people knew the promises of the prophets. The hungry would be fed. There would be water in the desert, the sick would be healed, and slaves and prisoners would be freed. People would sit under their own vine and fig tree which meant they would have their own home and work. Peace would replace war and, best of all, scarlet sins would be covered with the whiteness of snow.
Might this evangelism message be received with joy today in Europe and America as it was in the first century? Would it stop the erosion of the churches and the loss of a whole generation? No, that is not likely to happen unless congregations and whole church bodies were seen to be agents of God’s Kingdom rather than somewhat fearful defenders of the faith. What would a church look like if it were to be a “Kingdom Church?” Perhaps no better example can be found than that of the church described in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Kingdom Church
Like bookends the Kingdom of God is at the beginning and the end of Acts. At the beginning of Acts the disciples asked, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Then, concluding in the last verses Luke writes, “He (Paul) lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28: 30,31). The Kingdom Church in Acts is not just for Israel; it is for all people. With the Spirit disciples would be witnesses to the ends of the earth (1:8). The Kingdom Church knows no white church or black church, no liturgical church or free church, no Lutheran church or Baptist church. In Acts there is only one church that is doing Kingdom work.
I. Good News of the Kingdom
Evangelism and Property
The Kingdom Church preached Christ, crucified, and raised from the dead, now Lord and Messiah (2:36). Folded into evangelism and fully integrated into the good news, they helped those in need. With the model of the Jubilee (Lev. 25), they sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to all as they had any need (2:44). On the other side of that liberality, is the warning to the wealthy of all ages of what happens to people like Ananias and his wife who exaggerate their generosity (5: 1-11).
Evangelism and Food
As the disciples increased in numbers, and opposition to the faith increased, hunger got worse. The widows of the Greek speaking believers were being neglected in the distribution of food. Seven are chosen to evenly distribute the food, and in this endeavor the word of God continued to spread (6:7). Later, the prophet Agabus said that there would be a great famine all over the world. Then the disciples determined that they would send relief to the believers living in Judea (11:28-30). In his meeting with Paul, the leaders of the Jerusalem church asked Paul and his new Gentile converts to remember the poor, which Paul was eager to do (Gal. 2:10).
Evangelism and Healing
In spreading the good news, the Kingdom Church healed. Peter speaks to crippled beggar, lame from birth and says, “stand up and walk” (3:6). Many signs and wonders are done among the people by the apostles (5:12). Again, Peter in Lydda found a man named Aeneas, who had been bed ridden for eight years and said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you, get up and make your bed” (9:32-34). In the pattern of Jesus, the Kingdom church even raises people from the dead. As widows showed the clothes that Dorcas had made, Peter said, “Tabitha, get up” (9:40). God also did extraordinary miracles through Paul (19:11), even in raising from the dead a young man who fell asleep and fell during one of Paul’s sermons (20:10).
Duly noting the miracles of healing, Luke, both author and physician, like Christians throughout the ages, also used the practice of medicine to bring healing to the sick. To this day, the Kingdom Church brings healing both through prayers for the miraculous, as well as the application of the medical arts.
Evangelism and Liberation of Prisoners
One of Isaiah’s promises of the coming Kingdom, that Jesus quoted in Nazareth, was that he would proclaim liberty to the captives and release of the prisoners (Is. 61:1; Lk. 4: 18-21). The disciples were arrested and kept overnight for preaching that Jesus was the Messiah who was raised from the dead. Because of the pressure of the crowd, they were released the next day (4:21). After healing many and joining still others to the Lord the apostles were arrested again. But during the night the angel of the Lord opened the prison door and let them out with the instruction that they should tell the people the whole message about this life (5:19,20). When he found out that it pleased many people King Herod had James, the brother of John killed. He also put Peter into prison. But again, and angel of the Lord brought him out of prison and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison (12:17).
For healing a slave girl who had the spirit of divination, her owners, losing their source of income, had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison. About midnight, there was a violent earthquake that opened the gates of the prison. Staying where they were, Paul had opportunity to tell the jailer to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. The next morning, they were released by the magistrate and received their apology (16:39). Even under house arrest in Rome, guarded by a soldier, Paul had the freedom to speak about Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God with all boldness and without hindrance (28:16,31).
Evangelism and Reconciliation
Another promise of the coming Kingdom would be that swords would be beat into plowshares and that people would not learn war anymore (Micah 4:3). But for that to happen there would need to be a reconciliation of diverse people. The Ethiopian treasurer is baptized and made a member of the Kingdom Church. Included also would be an erstwhile enemy, a Roman centurion (10:47), Gentiles who were glad when they heard the word of the Lord (13:48), Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris (17:33).
Evangelism and Defiance of Authority
Within the prophetic tradition the good news of the coming Kingdom was always at odds with the unholy alliance between the rulers of the state and the institutional religion. This was true at the time of Jeremiah and Amos; it is also true today. Organized religion benefits from the state if they do little to criticize the crimes of the rulers and injustice within the society. This is how the Sadducees prospered in Jerusalem and why they feared the accusation of their involvement in the crucifixion and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When that message was coupled with the feeding of the poor and the healing of the sick and lame, the messengers had to be suppressed (5:27).
Setting an example for the Kingdom Church of all time, Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). This was not only a cry for freedom to tell the Christian message; it was also an indictment of the Sadducee’s collaboration with the Romans in the unjust murder of an innocent man for “religious reasons” (5:30). Coming out of a synagogue, members attacked Stephen for his wisdom and spirit and brought him before the council. After showing how Christ was foreshadowed and spoken of in the Scriptures, Stephen warned those of the religious rulers that they were the descendants of those who had killed the prophets who had foretold the coming of the Christ (7:51-53).
In the midst of crises the Kingdom church went against the authorities, the culture, the traditions, and even the moral law as it was understood at that time. Yet, perhaps more than any other book on the mission of the church, it provides an exquisite pattern for evangelism and church life today.
II. Meeting the Crises
The church in the book of Acts did not have a neatly defined program to bring about the promises of the Kingdom. Aflame with the Spirit they responded to real crises as they arose. For those cut to the heart for their sins, Peter introduces Christ and invites repentance and baptism for forgiveness (2: 37,38). New believers were poor and were helped; hungry and they were fed, sick and were healed. Prisoners were released but some like Paul stayed in prison and under house arrest to speak of the Jesus and the Kingdom. When the synagogues rejected the message that thrilled the Gentiles, the church started over with a new community. The church in the book of Acts was a creative church, spontaneously meeting the challenges it faced. Might the contemporary church do the same?
Racism and Poverty
Racism and terrible inequality have infected churches as well as society. Suburban congregations and mega-churches embark on building programs with architectural flair while black and brown churches struggle to keep doors open. Prosperous churches have youth counselors to help keep teenagers loyal to the church. In the hood, pastors work to keep their young from getting gunned down. Some Christians join marches for Black Lives Matter, while other Christians complain about traffic delays.
A Kingdom Church forges bonds between churches in suburbia and the inner city. It is a fair exchange. Wealthier congregations pay for the education they receive from those living on the edge. They listen to moms fighting to keep their children fed and respected. They are introduced to a father who went to jail for selling drugs because he could not get a job. In turn the affluent members adopt a stressed congregation and its families and maybe provide work for the unemployed.
The Dwindling Church
Across rural America and in small towns in England and Germany, little churches are struggling to survive. Young people are moving away to find work leaving the elderly to keep up the church grounds and to try to pay the pastor. Though the congregations are shrinking they still seek to remain loyal to their confession and heritage often separating Christians who could be working together for the good of the community. Like the synagogues in Acts, folks are more concerned about their own identity than meeting some of the crucial needs of their community and the strangers (Gentiles) they might meet.
At the same time small towns have boarded up shops and decaying houses, there are literally millions of refugees seeking a place to live and work and raise their families. They flee war, and parched fields, ruthless gangs, and grinding poverty. They are black and brown, with a different language and another identity. Even if they were sponsored by a company or the government will the small towns with conservative values welcome them? What a role for a Kingdom Church! Little congregations come together and throw a party for the new arrivals. Loans are made to set up a business and tools are lent to fix up houses. Newcomers are welcomed to the church. Sometimes their leaders are invited (and equipped?) to lead worship in their own language.
When the synagogues rejected the good news, Paul started over with the Gentiles. In the western world our “Gentiles” are those who have become unleashed from any one dominant world view. Like for the Greeks and Romans of Paul’s day, polytheism is alive and well. Capitalism, patriotism, socialism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a simple love of pleasure fill the contemporary pantheon. Our Gentiles include a whole generation that has left Christian churches. For them, the church is boring, anti-scientific, isolated from real life, and often captive to the culture wars. Some of them really like Jesus but are turned off by the institutional church as they know it.
The pattern of the church in the book of Acts suggests that evangelism of the Kingdom is more important than the present institutional framework of the church. The real good news is that God is King here on earth bringing forgiveness, food, healing, liberation, jobs, homes, peace between peoples and the resurrection of the dead. The realization of God’s Kingdom comes when we confess those sins of diverting resources into the church instead of for the world and actually believing the good news that the promises of the Kingdom can come to pass (Mark 1:15).
Refugees and Camps
Nowhere will the good news of the Kingdom be more welcomed than in camps of refugees. While some live in tented camps bored with endless waiting, others shelter from the rain under bridges or risk their lives at sea. While the world turns its face away with embarrassment, some from the church brings food, and shelter. Doctors and nurses volunteer in dangerous places. But who will bring the good news of forgiveness, love for one’s enemies, baptism, and communion with Christ in such strange and hostile settings?
When the energies of the churches are spent in keeping the institution alive and mission dollars are spent to plant self-supporting congregations little is left for those fleeing danger or despair. In the book of Acts, prompted by the vision of Christ and the Kingdom, the church responded to crises in wondrous ways. Can the contemporary church do the same?
III. The Open Door to Ministry
How did so few people accomplish so much? They were taught by Christ, inspired by the Spirit, gifted in some amazing ways. That’s all true. but, humanly speaking, there is also a glaring difference between Act’s Kingdom church and ours. It is the definition of “The Ministry” and the theological education for it. In most contemporary churches, “The Ministry” refers to men and women who have received their theological education in a university or seminary, devote their full-time to ministerial tasks, and are usually professionally paid for their service. All of this requires money to educate, house, and support those who publicly preach, baptize, and preside at the Lord’s Supper. Then, when money is not available, ministry is limited or just does not happen.
Contrast that with the ministry in the book of Acts. Instead of the ministry concentrated in a profession, it was shared by the apostles, prophets, teachers, elders, (bishops) and deacons. At times, some received donations and at other times, like Paul, they worked at another vocation (18:3). Churches could be planted everywhere, whether people were rich or poor because the ministry was conducted by elders from within the new gathering (14:23). They encouraged one another with the basic Gospel they had heard and celebrated communion with the simple words of institution. If the congregation were large, they could rent a hall (19:9). If there were very few, they could still be a church.
Instead of theological education in a classroom, it was done in the crucible of ministry. The leaders of the new congregations faced doctrinal divides, ethical issues, and false teachers. These were addressed by letters from Paul, James, Peter, and John. Teachers like Timothy, Titus, Apollos, Jude, Priscilla, and Aquila strengthened the ministries. Seminars led by Paul provided continuing education (19:9). When the troubling argument about Gentiles keeping the law came up, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to consult with James and the other leaders there then passed down the compromise to the churches (15:21-29).
Reshaping the Ministry
As congregations dwindle and pastors fear for their salaries, the model of ministry in Acts might provide a ray of hope. No congregation is too small to be the church in all its fullness. Elders can be recognized and equipped for essential ministry functions. If few are hesitant in that town are there some in a neighboring congregation who would love to serve? The seminary educated pastor can go on to serve or even begin other congregations. Can he/she take other work like helping settle refugees in town or running for mayor?
Does that successful suburban church need all that paid personnel? Might they set aside half time for several of them to work in the inner city? Before they go, of course, their replacements would need to be equipped. Once freed up for a new very challenging mission, the personnel would also need to be trained by folks in the community. Most important of all is that the congregations in both suburbia and in the inner city need to see how their attitudes might need to change and be freed up to recognize what ministry is all about.
What happens when congregations are so bound to their own traditions and culture that they are unable to see the mission to contemporary “Gentiles” all around them? Might this be the time to start over and spread the good news of the Kingdom to those who like Jesus but not the organized church? There might be some mission money for this, if not, some self-supporting work? With a reshaped ministry no funds would be required to buy property, pay for seminary training or professional salaries. From a simple Bible class can grow a small church with leaders responsible for baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a commitment to help realize Kingdom promises.
Bringing hope to refugees in dire circumstances might well be the most important mission to be undertaken by a Kingdom church today. And it is happening as we see Christians helping diverse people with medicine, food, and shelter. Even more needs to be done, especially in those places where being refugee is almost illegal and living conditions are vile. Can congregations support missionaries to homeless? Are there Christians today who are willing to take on the struggles to bring good news to those who crave it so badly? In previous centuries missionaries educated churchgoers about the challenges in foreign lands and were even instrumental in changing government policies. Might missionaries to refugees do the same today?
IV. Making Disciples
Denominations, mega-churches, and congregations are eager to “make disciples” of all nations. Yet as this slogan is emblazoned across church publications it is accompanied by statistics showing losses in church membership. The message is clear, the church is hurting, and it needs more members from outside to keep functioning as a church. To the outsider the message sounds just like more advertising placing the church in the same category as corporations and businesses hoping to gain more customers to increase the profits.
When Jesus made disciples, he was not intent on increasing synagogue membership. Instead called them to be his replacements. As he preached the Kingdom, so did they. As he did miracles, so did they. As he was persecuted and suffered, so would they. He did not call the worst scoundrels but rather the disciples of John or one in whom there was no guile. Then Jesus taught in the midst of ministry, what the Kingdom was all about. It was about repentance and about the good news of the Kingdom even if it was a treasure hidden in a field and as tiny as a mustard seed.
Making disciples today is making replacements for Jesus and making replacements for us. For seminary trained pastors it means to use their theological education to equip others for word and sacrament ministry. It is not a simple task and like for Jesus, it might take three years. For missionaries, it is for recognizing and teaching leaders who are above reproach, temperate, sensible, apt to teach, and not quarrelsome. If great theological education took place with letters and onerous journeys by foot, we are blessed with digital Bibles and resources that could not have been imagined even a century ago.
Yes, the Kingdom of God is at hand, even for the churches today. But it will not be easy. Jesus words are so applicable to our situation today, “Repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Repent of all your pride in the church when it is doing well, and repent of your despair when it is not. Repent of your unwillingness to change and your selfish concern for your own congregation and church body. Then believe the good news that God can use the church to help bring about the promises of the kingdom to the world.