by Steve Strauss
What is our primary responsibility in a world without Christ, struggling with the poverty, injustice and violence that result from sin?
Have you heard about Engedu?” our house worker asked me one morning. Engedu was a teenager who lived on the street near our home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When I say “lived on the street,” I mean he literally survived in a plastic and tin shelter on the street. Desperately poor, he scrounged for jobs like unloading trucks, and probably resorted to petty theft when he was desperately hungry. Over the years, I hired Engedu to help me with odd jobs like landscaping and we became friends. I encouraged him to connect with one of the evangelical churches in our neighborhood and sometimes he told me that he was attending.
But I hadn’t seen him recently, so I answered, “No, I haven’t heard about Engedu.”
“He died last night,” she said. At first I thought my brain had scrambled her Amharic. This young man entering the prime of life: dead?
“I’m sorry, Chaltu, did you say he died?”
I struggled to piece the story together. “Was it an accident?”
“No, he was sick,” she said.
No more reason for questions. It made sense. I thought of him as a boy, but he was really a young man. Almost certainly AIDS. Probably exacerbated by malnutrition.
At the funeral later that day I was haunted by a question: Had I failed Engedu? Had I neglected my responsibility to him? Had I shared the gospel clearly and forthrightly? I couldn’t even remember for sure. Yes, I talked about Christ with him, but I always thought of myself as “developing a relationship” so that I would have more credibility for sharing. Almost certainly his death was hastened by his desperate poverty. Should I have more aggressively helped him find work, food and medicine?
As I looked around at the funeral in the courtyard of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, I saw dozens of other street boys just like Engedu. They represented a tiny percentage of the thousands of street boys and girls in Addis. What was my responsibility to the Engedus of Addis Ababa who were still alive?
The Engedus of Addis Ababa forced me to ask hard questions about my priorities, and drove me back to the Scriptures to find God’s answers. What is our primary responsibility in a world without Christ, struggling with the poverty, injustice and violence that result from sin? Some would quickly answer that it is to preach the gospel to all people, to fulfill the Great Commission. More than a full stomach or healing from AIDS, people need eternal life. What Bible-believing Christian can argue with the truth that the physical results of societal sin will only last a lifetime, but the spiritual results of personal sin will last for eternity?
But others counter, equally loudly, that the gospel is more than just words. Didn’t Christ also give us the Great Commandment to love those around us as we love ourselves? Can’t we glorify God by showing Christ’s love in meeting human need? In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Are there not times and places where it’s better to let our actions of love and compassion do our talking for us?
For years Christians have argued over the relationship between the Great Commission and Great Commandment. My studies of Scripture convince me that as soon as we pit the Great Commission against the Great Commandment, we are off track. Scripture is clear that the believer’s responsibility is not simply to witness or meet human need. In fact, if we’re asking which is more important, social action or evangelism, our focus is wrong altogether. Our responsibility as New Testament believers is to live as complete kingdom people; we must live with the gospel of the kingdom on our lips and in our lives all the time.
The Old Testament is filled with prophecies that God would send his anointed one to establish a kingdom in which all suffering is alleviated and all wrongs made right. The book of Isaiah gave special emphasis to this hope. Isaiah 61:1-2 promises that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s anointed one would announce a perpetual Year of Jubilee, that year of the Hebrew calendar when debts are canceled and slaves are freed. Though most ancient rulers took advantage of the weak and powerless to grow rich and strong, Isaiah 42:1-4 promises that God’s Servant would not take advantage of the weak. He would not snap off any bruised reeds or snuff out any smoldering candles. Instead, he would quietly and forcefully bring justice and peace. Isaiah 11:1-4 promises that this descendent of Jesse would bring righteousness and justice to the earth, especially for the poor and powerless who suffer the most from injustice.
The Gospels clearly announce that Jesus is the One who fulfills those prophecies. When John the Baptist wanted to know if Jesus was really God’s promised Anointed One, Jesus pointed as evidence to how he fulfilled those Old Testament prophecies (Luke 7:18-23). Numerous texts link Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and his acts of compassion as evidence of the inauguration of his kingdom.1
Jesus is the promised Anointed One who came to establish peace, justice, well-being and shalom-rest for his people. But though the Anointed One has come and announced the inauguration of his kingdom, (Mark 1:15), the Gospels are clear that he did not fully and finally establish his kingdom in all its power. One of the clearest truths about the kingdom that Jesus announced is that it is both already and not yet. Some New Testament texts make it clear that the kingdom Jesus announced has, in some sense, already begun.2 Jesus now rules over the hearts of all who submit to him in faith. Other texts are equally clear that the full and final establishment of Jesus’ kingdom is not yet; it awaits his return to establish his rule of perfect righteousness, peace, and plenty.3 The kingdom is both Christ’s future realm and present reign. Though he has not yet established his rule over his earthly realm, Jesus has already begun his reign in the lives of those who receive him as the Promised King.
Those who have come to faith in Jesus are citizens of that coming kingdom, here and now. Since they claim to be subjects of King Jesus, it is their privilege and responsibility to live out the values of the king who reigns in their hearts. Those values include proclaiming that eternal shalom is found in Jesus alone. But they also include feeding the hungry, healing the sick, helping the poor break free from poverty and working to realize peace and justice—the values of the coming kingdom—on earth. One of the Sermon on the Mount’s main messages is that we are blessed, we enjoy a taste of God’s eternal favor here and now, when we act as kingdom people.
Tarik knows what it means both to proclaim and live as a kingdom person. In his mid-forties, Tarik lives in a Muslim country in South Asia. An old man who lives in Tarik’s neighborhood sells firewood for cooking fuel. The man has grown too weak for the heavy work of stacking the wood, so several mornings a week, Tarik stops by to help him. As he works, Tarik occasionally shares his faith in Jesus.
The Muslim elder has not yet responded to the gospel, but Tarik continues to live out the kingdom value of helping the weak while speaking of the King who came to bring justice to the weak. Through kingdom living, Tarik has earned a reputation as a good man, a powerful witness among his Muslim neighbors who know him to be a follower of Jesus.
In another Asian country, militant gangs ensnare youth with drugs and then, when they are addicted, recruit them to join their group with the promise of “free” drugs to help them sustain their habit. A group of ex-addicts who have come to Christ, partnering with Christian organizations, have opened a center to provide counseling and care for those seeking to break free from their habit. They also provide a clear testimony to the power that Jesus provides. For these men, kingdom living means sharing about the One who delivered them while doing all they can to help others free themselves from the curse of drugs.4
Because the kingdom is already, kingdom people seek to reflect kingdom values in the here-and-now. They seek to fulfill the Great Commandment by promoting political and economic justice in their societies, working to bring reconciliation between ethnic groups, helping the poor develop long-term structures to meet their basic needs, praying and working to heal the sick, and caring for those who are not healed. Kingdom people reflect kingdom values in the way they spend money, schedule time and relate to others.
But because the kingdom is not yet—because only those who enter his coming kingdom will enjoy God’s eternal shalom—kingdom people seek to fulfill the Great Commission with equal fervor. They talk about the great glory of their coming king and the blessings of his coming kingdom all the time. They invite those around them to enter into and enjoy those blessings.
Kingdom people live a seamless lifestyle that proclaims what Christ has done from their lips and demonstrates the values of the kingdom with their hands, without a thought that one or the other is more important. Both should ooze from their lives all the time.
Mark and Debbie live a seamless kingdom lifestyle in rural northern Ethiopia. Mark’s specialty is forestry. He and his family live in an area where the need for wood for fires and construction has resulted in severe deforestation. One particular tree species, the cheba, is especially prized. It is very hard, so it makes excellent tools. Termites don’t eat it, so it makes great wood for building houses. Charcoal made from it is coveted for building fires. Through painstaking trial and error, Mark discovered the most effective way to ensure maximum germination from the seeds of the cheba. Last year his reforestation project distributed thousands of seedlings to local farmers.
Mark and Debbie are ministering to one of the most important physical needs of the people group whom they serve. At the same time, they are quick to share their faith in Christ with farmers and government agricultural agents. Their presence increases the credibility of the evangelical Ethiopian evangelists who partner with them. For Mark and Debbie, kingdom living in northern Ethiopia is not evangelism or planting trees: the two are a single part of their lifestyle and ministry.
Missionaries can provide food for the beggar on the street and tell him about the Bread of Life without a thought as to which is more important. Kingdom people do both.
A mission can send water development workers who speak about the One who gives Living Water, and can also send church planters who evangelize, disciple and show mercy. All are kingdom projects.
Theological colleges and seminaries can and should offer courses in evangelism and christology to prepare students to share Christ. They should also require courses and field education assignments that prepare and motivate students to show compassion to victims of HIV/AIDS, speak out against racial and economic injustice and address the fundamental problems of poverty. Both prepare their graduates to demonstrate the values of the coming kingdom in their here-and-now ministries.
A local church can and should sponsor a micro-economic development project in a two-thirds world country, support a local evangelistic crusade, work toward racial reconciliation and speak out against the immoral or unjust norms of their community. All reflect kingdom values.
Individual believers can and should genuinely befriend unbelievers and reach out to meet whatever needs they may have. And a natural part of developing a friendship, for kingdom people, is to talk about their Best Friend.
Kingdom people live the values of the kingdom and talk about their worthy King all the time. Rarely do they wonder which is more important, because both are natural expressions of kingdom citizenship.
Jember is a woman who understands kingdom living. Imprisoned for seven years by the Marxist government that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, Jember felt the blows of suffering and injustice first-hand. Since her release, she has been dedicated to living out the values of the kingdom in every part of her life. She has been the face of Jesus for the weakest and least influential members of society. Jember coordinates the Integrated Holistic Approach—Urban Development Project (IHA-UDP) in Addis Ababa which responds to the expressed felt needs of the poorest of the poor in targeted neighborhoods. IHA-UDP replaces ramshackle huts with solid houses, provides primary health care, clean water and sanitation, promotes balanced nutrition, sponsors youth centers, and has launched a savings and credit association to help poverty stricken families begin small businesses.
Everyone who knows Jember knows that everything she does is in the name of her Lord and for the advance of his kingdom. One of the most passionate people I have ever met in caring for the weak and powerless, Jember never stops to think about whether she should speak about Christ or act in his name: they both flow seamlessly from her life.
Come with me for a moment to a South Asian country in which followers of Jesus are a small minority. We drop into a village just in time to see a drama team powerfully portray one of the most emotion-charged moments families face in that society: the complications surrounding the payment of a bride’s dowry. The audience is captivated by the drama’s realism and passion. As we watch the story unfold, it dawns on us that the drama is not just the local version of soap opera. It is also demonstrating how biblical truth lays the foundation for joyful family living, regardless of a person’s religious background. The drama team is sharing kingdom values to help build happier homes and to prepare the soil for a more explicit gospel presentation, so that many in the community might themselves become citizens of the kingdom.
Kingdom living demonstrates the intrinsic joy, goodness, justice and compassion of the King here and now. It calls for others to accept the King’s gracious invitation to enter into the eternal blessing of his kingdom. His people live and proclaim the kingdom, seldom thinking about which is more important.
A few weeks after Engedu’s death, I spoke to Moges, a young Christian friend from our neighborhood. He told me how God gave him time with Engedu a couple of weeks before his death. They had been talking, and Engedu mentioned how hungry he was. Without a thought, Moges invited him into a roadside cafe for some sour, spongy injera (Ethiopian bread) and hot, spicy lentil stew. While they ate, Moges talked to him about Jesus, and how he brought meaning and purpose to his life.
Moges said goodbye to Engedu that afternoon assured that he clearly understood the good news of the King and the kingdom. It was a seamless act of fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment from a kingdom believer.
Thanks, Moges, not only for giving me the assurance that Engedu knew how to enter the kingdom, but for giving me a powerful picture of what a kingdom believer looks like.
1. Matt. 9:35;12:18-21; Luke 4:18-19.
2. Matt. 11:12; Luke 16:16; 17:20-21; John 18:13-38; Rom. 14:17-18; Col. 1:12-13.
3. Matt. 8:11; 16:28; 20:21; 26:29; Luke 1:33; 9:27; 11:2; 13:28; 21:31; 22: 16-18; 29-30; Acts 1:8; 2 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 11:15; 12:10.
4. This story and the following story of Mark and Debbie are taken from material that first appeared in Serving in Mission Together, Summer 2003, 7, 9.
Steve Strauss served with SIM in Ethiopia for nineteen years, and is now US director for SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 58-63. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.