Jesus is Lord. So, the collective vocation of the church for the last 2,000 years has been, essentially, victoriously waging a war against any idea that would attempt to usurp Christ’s throne (2 Cor. 10:5). We do this not with swords or AR-15s, but with the subversive leaven of a gospel that asserts Christ—not Caesar or self—as Lord.
Hence, one can draw a fairly straight line from the calling of the Israelites to take dominion of the promised land to our calling to disciple the nations (cf. Matt. 28:19). That’s not to say that the church is a geopolitical entity, nor our true home is anywhere other than the consummated new heavens and earth (Heb. 13:14). But we, like the old covenant people of God, are called to wander out into the midst of an unbelieving world, preaching and suffering to bring all those around us into a realization of their true King and ours. Through the church, Jesus is putting all his enemies—sinners like us—under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25; cf. Ps. 110:1).
In the midst of our mission, we can easily fall prey to a disease known in our household as the “yeah-buts.” (As in: “Hey son, can you…?” “Yeah, but….”) Israel contracted a case of the yeah-buts in Numbers 13, when, despite God’s promise to give them the land (Gen. 12:7), they excused themselves from the conquest, intimidated by the beefy, pagan Canaanites and Amorites. A 40-year timeout followed.
We look back and scoff at these stiff-necked former slaves. Surely, we reason, had we passed through the Red Sea, drank water from a rock, and eaten the bread of angels, we would have had faith to march on Canaan, spears a’ blazin’. But our yeah-buts manifest subtler symptoms than are seen in our spiritual forbearers.
“We can’t expect the government to outlaw abortion; after all, the kingdom hasn’t fully arrived yet.”
“Why would we expect the nation to acknowledge a biblical definition of marriage? We’re just one religious voice of many.”
“We shouldn’t expect our leaders to explicitly acknowledge the lordship of Jesus; after all, that would be a theocracy, and we don’t want those nasty things.”
Don’t misread this. Nominalism and formalism don’t advance the kingdom of God. Godly laws and cultures—which are little more than the application of love (Rom. 13:10)—only flow from gospel hearts. Mere laws don’t heal lands (2 Chron. 7:14).
I’m talking more about the popular attitude among evangelicals that is skeptical that the gospel can produce such fruits in society at any scale. Largely to blame are the faulty eschatologies which require a return of Christ wherein he is greeted by a hellhole earth and a discouraged band of Christians who botched the Great Commission. The problem is that you hit whatever you aim at. Aim low, achieve little for the kingdom.
We are in need, thus, to draw encouragement from Joshua and Caleb’s report:
The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Num. 14:7-9).
First, the land is a good land. The earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1). The nations are a drop in the bucket (Isa. 40:15). Jesus is the ruler of the world’s kings (Rev. 1:5), and their hearts are streams of water in his hand (Prov. 21:13). We are called to disciple the unreached peoples of the world and the well-reached, wayward U.S. And since Jesus is present with us through it (Matt. 28:20), it’s not impossible.
Second, the Lord delights in us. Israel received the land in spite of themselves (cf. Deut. 9:4-6), and every blessing we have in Christ is an unconditional gift of grace, too. We ought not to measure the potential success of our mission by our merits. It is true the obstinate disobedience will cost us our cultural impact. The beauty of the gospel is that our sins, repented of and atoned for, don’t disqualify us from living in and spreading the kingdom.
Third, the Lord is with us. The implication is: with us, not them. Their protection is removed from them. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). God commands all to repent (Acts 17:30-31) and kiss the Son (Ps. 2:12). There may be intimidating, hulking giants in the land—filling the cultural landscape with abortuaries dedicated to Molech—but since God is with his church and decidedly not with the unrighteous, we will win. Giants in the land? Please—we have Yahweh. We can bear our crosses gladly and preach boldly knowing the kingdom of God wins in history.
Will we achieve utopia this side of eternity? No. That awaits Christ’s return. But a pessimistic eschatology is no excuse for lazy mission. Let’s dispose of our yeah-but theologies of truncated cultural engagement and believe that here and now, until Christ comes again, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).