The desire to change the world is characteristic of the born again, Spirit filled Christian. Jesus said:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4 ESV)
That verse alone would seem to indicate that a Christian ought to be distressed by the present condition of the world and he or she ought to be encouraged by the prospect for true and lasting change. Things are bad now, but Jesus promises that one day things will be better.
But when will that happen?
And how will that happen?
All Christians, regardless of their eschatological commitments, would likely agree that things won’t be exactly as they ought to be until the physical, bodily return of Jesus Christ to rule and reign over all things to the glory of the Father, forever – amen! But, all Christians would likely also agree that there are things we can and should be doing to make things in this world better in the time between.
But what are those things and how should we pursue them?
The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is possible to seek a good thing in a bad way. He spoke of the nation of Israel who pursued righteousness, but did not succeed in attaining it.
“Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” (Romans 9:32 ESV)
Everywhere in the Bible, we are reminded that it is important for us to seek the right things the right way.
So, what is the right way?
How can, how do, and how should Christians be seeking to change the world?
1. By making disciples
Christians seek to change the world, first and foremost, by making disciples. Before he ascended into heaven Jesus gave his disciples a clear and binding commission. He said:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20 ESV)
It is probably helpful for us to make note of what Jesus didn’t say, by way of final commission, to his disciples.
He didn’t say: “Go and overthrow Caesar.”
He didn’t say: “Go and cleanse the temple.”
He didn’t say: “Go and address every social, economic, and political injustice.”
Rather, he said: “Go and make disciples”.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Jesus is indifferent to the matter of political governance; it isn’t to say that he is indifferent to the matter of false and idolatrous worship; it isn’t to say that he is indifferent to personal suffering or systematic injustice – it is just to say that he mandated a particular approach to his disciples in addressing the brokenness of the world.
A personal approach.
An individual approach.
A heart approach, first and foremost.
It is important for the Christian to remember that Jesus already reigns over all things in heaven and on the earth. He has all authority and he is ruling Providentially over all things and he is committed to having all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose.
So, he’s got this.
He has a plan.
It will all work out – though you and I may only be actively involved in particular aspects of it.
Kings may indeed need to be thrown down – but you and I, as private Christians, are not called to actively pursue that. That is a God sized piece of the plan. As Daniel said, while serving a pagan King in exile:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings”. (Daniel 2:20–21 ESV)
For the world we all want to come about, Kings and Kingdoms may well need to be thrown down, but that will be a thing for God to do. Our job, as individual followers of Jesus Christ, is to make disciples.
We are to go.
We are to baptize.
We are to teach.
And if we have faith, then little by little, soul by soul, heart by heart and house by house, by the grace that God supplies, we will change the world.
2. By maintaining a distinctive witness
Jesus instructed his disciples to wield an influence based upon their distinctive values and character. He said:
“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a ESV)
Salt in the first century world was used primarily to preserve meat. They didn’t have refrigeration in those days, so if they wanted meat to last more than a few hours, they preserved it by rubbing it and curing it with salt. By telling his disciples that they are the salt of the earth Jesus is saying that part of their job is to restrain the world in its head long plunge into corruption.
The metaphor further seems to suggest that the disciples of Jesus will bring flavour in a decaying and tasteless culture. Salt, of course, was added to bring flavour to bland and otherwise inedible foods; in the Book of Job, for example, we read:
“Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt” (Job 6:6 ESV)
Thus, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” he means that they bring a certain flavour; they bring something good; they make the world look, smell and taste significantly better than it actually is.
The metaphor also comes with a dramatic warning:
“but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13b ESV)
Should the followers of Jesus lose their distinctive character and adopt the values, beliefs and practices of the culture, they will have forfeited their usefulness in the plan of God to preserve and ultimately transform the world.
‘In’, but not ‘of’ – that seems to be the sweet spot of Christian influence and witness in the world.
The Apostle Peter commended a similar approach to his people living in the Roman Province of Bithynia Pontus. He said:
“Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:14–17 ESV)
The counsel of Peter boils down to this: live superior lives as worshippers and followers of Jesus and answer the questions of your watching loved ones and neighbours with gentleness and respect.
Answer questions – but do it with gentleness and respect.
And little by little, loved one by loved one, neighbour by neighbour, by the grace that God supplies, we will change the world.
3. By speaking the truth in love
Jesus also told his disciples:
“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14 ESV)
Jesus referred to himself as the Light of the world in The Gospel of John:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV)
Reading those passages together would seem to suggest that Jesus is the light of the world and we are the light of the world to the extent that we faithfully reflect his character and teaching.
The metaphor as used in Matthew 5 seems to suggest a ministry of illumination and guidance. Jesus went on to say:
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14–15 ESV)
As anyone who has ever stubbed a toe or banged a shin while walking through a dark house can attest, a light is only helpful when it is turned on. Thus, we might say that a Christian who knows true things and who believes true things, but who has no meaningful point of contact with the culture has abandoned the mission given to him or her by God.
All New Covenant Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, are sent out into the world as the prophets of God. Peter made that point on the Day of Pentecost. He said:
“But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”’ (Acts 2:16–18 ESV)
The job of a prophet in the Old Testament was to speak the truth of God to wayward people, kings and nations. To abandon that ministry was to invite judgment and wrath upon yourself. God warned the prophet Ezekiel of that very thing:
“If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezekiel 3:18 ESV)
As Spirit-filled prophets now in the New Covenant era, all Christians stand subject to this warning. Our job is to speak the truth of God, in love and Gospel concern, to people, kings and nations and like the prophets of old, we will generally have to do that from the margins of the culture. But as we do that, by the grace that God supplies, then little by little, person by person, ruler by ruler and even kingdom by kingdom, we will change the world.
4. By mediating the blessing of God
The plan of God to change and transform the world has always involved blessing the few for the sake of the many. He said to Abraham:
“I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2 ESV)
Throughout the pages of Scripture, the person in right relationship with God becomes a channel for blessings to flow outwards into the wider world. We see that principle on display in the story of Joseph. The Bible says:
“The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.” (Genesis 39:2–5 ESV)
Being in right relationship with God did not exempt Joseph from hardship. On the contrary, God was with him and blessing him as he served as a slave in Potiphar’s house. Similarly, much later in the biblical story, we see God telling the people of Israel as a whole to remain in exile in Babylon and to pray for the welfare of the city. He said:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5–7 ESV)
According to the Bible, the blessing is not found by escaping our exile, nor by warring against the human agents of it, rather the blessing is given in our exile, for the welfare of ourselves and captors equally.
Like it or not, this is the world that God has placed us in. This is the culture he has placed us in. This is the country he has placed us in. Rather than go to war, the Bible tells us to settle in.
Build your house. Raise your kids. Grow your produce. Spread out. Extend your influence. Shine your light. Seek the welfare of your fellow citizens, your country and your king.
That’s the plan and the basic contours of that plan do not change as we move from Old Testament to New. The Apostle Paul said:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1–2 ESV)
We do not change the world by organizing a mob or by railing against the government. We change the world by living as the followers of Jesus Christ within it. We make disciples, we live our lives, we shine our light, we get involved, we influence from within, we seek the welfare of the city – and we pray. We pray for change, justice, righteousness, opportunity, openness, favour and blessing. And little by little, person by person, generation by generation – by the grace that God supplies – we change the world.
Even still, come Lord Jesus!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.