James C. Denison, Ph.D.
Every new idea that has ever burst upon the world has had a watchword. Always there has been some word or phrase in which the very genius of the thing has been concentrated and focused, some word or phrase to blazon on its banners when it went marching out into the world. Islam had a watchword: “God is God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” The French Revolution had a watchword: “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” The democratic idea had a watchword: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” … Every new idea that has stirred the hearts of men has created its own watchword, something to wave like a flag, to rally the ranks and win recruits. Now the greatest idea that has ever been born upon the earth is the Christian idea. And Christianity came with a watchword, magnificent and mighty and imperial; and the watchword was “The Kingdom of God.”
The Gospel of Mark introduces the ministry of Jesus with this message: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV84). Matthew records Jesus’ first preaching in the same way: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).
Here we discover the central theme of our Lord’s ministry and of the Scriptures: the kingdom of God. When we understand this focus, we will understand the biblical and theological basis for Christian education in the church today.
The scene is one of the most dramatic in all of God’s word. The Galilean carpenter stood on a massive outcropping of rock, 1,150 feet above sea level, dwarfed by the gigantic cave behind him.
Just a short distance away stood a brilliant white marble temple built to the worship of Caesar–hence the name of the place, Caesarea. Nearby was the cavern where the Greeks said their god Pan was born. In Jesus’ day, the cave led to a shaft that bored so deeply into the earth its depths were never discovered. The ancients called it the “gates of the underworld” or the “gates of Hades.”
Scattered around the hilly countryside were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. Nearby was one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river to His own people, the Jews.
In the midst of such religious traditions and fervor, surrounded by every kind of god known to his culture, Jesus asked His followers, “Who do you say I am?” One of them declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the Carpenter responded: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:13-18a). Here we encounter the first occurrence of “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament.
Then, pointing to the massive cavern behind him, Jesus added, “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18b). A literal translation would read, “and the gates of Hades will not withstand its assault.”
From her inception, the church has existed to assault the gates of Hades, taking the gospel to the lost world. Central to this calling is the concept of the kingdom of God.
The Old Testament exalts the King. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is consistently viewed as a King. The Jewish people could sing: “The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity” (Psalm 93:1-2).
Moses taught his people that “the Lord will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18). At the end of his life, he again proclaimed God to be the King of Israel: “He was king over Jeshurun [a symbolic name for Israel] when the leaders of the people assembled, along with the tribes of Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:5). The Lord himself announced his rule over the nation: “I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator, your King” (Isaiah 43:15).
He is King not only of the nation but of the nations: “you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15). When Messiah comes, “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isa. 9:7).
Jesus fulfills the kingdom. Jesus began his earthly ministry by claiming to be this Messiah (Luke 4:21; Isa. 61:1-2). He said of himself, “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).
He taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). He instructed us to live by this priority: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
When he returns, Jesus will consummate the kingdom: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory” (Matt. 25:31). At that time, “on his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16). Revelation predicts his glorious rule: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
The church extends the kingdom. After his resurrection, Jesus was asked by his expectant disciples, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). He answered them with his last words before returning to heaven: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The church exists to extend the kingdom of God as Jesus’ witnesses, beginning where we are and going to everyone on Earth. The call of God to his people has always been to lead others to make him their King. The biblical creation stories testify that God is the creating King. The history of Israel shows that he is the ruling King. The law and wisdom sections of the Hebrew Bible taught the Jews how to live in his kingdom. The prophetic books called the people to serve God as their King while awaiting his Messiah to bring that kingdom to Earth.
The Gospels are witness to Christ as the Messiah, the present King. Acts tells the story of the spread of the kingdom. The epistles call the church to faithful life in the kingdom. And Revelation portrays the coming and eternal kingdom of God.
God’s kingdom comes wherever his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). If God is your King, he is the ruler of every dimension of your life. He is King of the clothes you’re wearing and the air you’re breathing. He is King of what you do in private, not just in public. He is King of the money you keep, not just what you give through the church.
The church exists to lead people to make God their King and serve in his kingdom. How does this calling relate to Christian education?
In the Hebrew tradition, a talmid (“student,” see 1 Chronicles 25:8) was committed to a rabbi as his teacher and mentor (see Matt. 23:7-8). In the New Testament, a “disciple” (mathetes) was an apprentice, student, or follower. The Scriptures describe disciples of Moses (John 9:28), the Pharisees (Matt. 22:16), and John the Baptist (Mark 2:18) as well as Jesus.
Rabbinic students selected their teacher, but Jesus selected his disciples (Mark 1:16-20). He called them to leave everything for him: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He then commissioned his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a).
Here we discover the foundational reason for Christian education in the church: to teach converts to obey the commands of Christ so they can extend the kingdom of God.
“Teaching” is one of the gifts and callings of the Spirit (Romans 12:6). Paul was given this gift and ministry: “of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11); “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers,” Saul among them (Acts 13:1).
The primary role of those with this gift is to equip Christians for ministry in the kingdom: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
As teachers of God’s word, we partner with the Holy Spirit, who has been sent to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). We teach by his inspiration and with his help: “This is what we teach, not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
Ephesians 4:11-12 is a key text for understanding discipleship. Compare these translations:
Note the first comma in the King James Version of verse 12. With it in place, the job of spiritual leaders is to equip the saints, to do the work of the ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. With the comma removed (as it should be, according to scholars), the job of leaders is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. See the difference?
We will be held accountable by God for what we teach: “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). As a result, “not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Teaching people “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20) is one of the primary ways Jesus extends his kingdom through the church. Paul instructed Timothy to teach those who would teach others: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).
The kingdom grows through multiplication, not addition. If I were to win one person to Christ every day until retiring at age sixty-five, some 4,380 people would be added to the kingdom. But suppose I were to win you to Christ today and teach you the essentials of the faith so that you could lead someone else to the Lord. Then tomorrow we each won and discipled one; the next day, the four of us each won and discipled one; the next day, the eight of us each won and discipled one, and so on. How long would it take to win the world to Jesus?
Thirty-three days. By that time there would be 8,589,934,592 believers, 1.5 billion more than the planet’s current population.
We make disciples to extend the kingdom of God by teaching people to live for Jesus as their King and to share their faith with others. In this way, the ministry of Christian education is central to the kingdom mission of the church.