Shortly before His death, Jesus commissioned His followers to make disciples of all peoples.
Through preaching and teaching they were to “loose” the gospel and bind together a community—the Church—that would advance the kingdom and bring God’s glory to bear on earth. But before their commission, they were given a commandment, a new commandment: to love as He had loved. The sequence is important, as the apostle Paul later explained:
If I speak in the tonguesof men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Paul’s message is clear: Unless love is the driving force for all we do, our kingdom-building efforts will come to nothing. At the same time, Christ-love leads naturally to the Great Commission because if we really believe that what we say we believe is really true—that the gospel of the kingdom is “good news,” we can’t fully love others if we keep that news to ourselves. But Christ-love also leads to another commission given thousands of years earlier.
When God formed Adam and Eve, He gave them the privilege of enjoying the fruits of creation, as well as the responsibility of managing its proliferation (“fill the earth and subdue it”). It was man’s commission to partner with God in caring for what is His. And since “what is His” is everything, our custodial responsibility includes the care of flora, fauna, and fellowman, and everything that affects the flourishing of the created order: art, music, literature, government, education, science, the marketplace, and all the institutions and artifacts of culture. Hence, the “Cultural Commission.”
Whereas, the Great Commission is about saving grace—proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, the Cultural Commission is about common grace—shaping culture and building a society that restrains evil, establishes civil order, creates just laws, inspires virtue through truth, beauty, and goodness, and promotes the common good, all the while protecting the rights of the least and last.
Both commissions are responses to the Great Commandment. In fact, love of God and love of neighbor should prompt us to be “double agents”—agents of saving grace and agents of common grace.
Seeing and believing
It is through this dual commission that God’s people work to turn aright, a world turned downside-up with the solutions that only Christianity offers for the pressing problems of the day. Nevertheless, many well-meaning Christians view the Cultural Commission as unnecessary, even counter-productive to the Great Commission.
Recently, a church leader shared with me criticisms from members over his church’s involvement in public school tutoring programs. The feeling was that because such activities are not directed at “soul-saving,” they are outside the scope of the Church’s mission.
What the critics fail to realize is that in a truth-cynical culture, people must see Jesus before they will believe Jesus. Unlike in decades past, Christianity has no privileged status today; rather, it must earn a hearing, just like any other belief system. That means that works must accompany, if not precede, our words; else our words dissolve in the clatter of competing voices on the floor of the spiritual exchange.
Serving our communities in the love of Jesus demonstrates that Christianity is more than another cacophonous pronouncement; it is real, having relevance in the lives of believers and those they serve. So while tutoring a student in the public school setting may not lend itself to sowing the seeds of the gospel, it does have the “pre-evangelistic” effect of prepping the soil. Jesus demonstrated that in His earthly ministry.
The raising of Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, the feeding of the five thousand and later the four thousand, and the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, are among many of Jesus’s miracles that record neither a call to repentance nor a direct or implied gospel presentation. Yet, Jesus’ works of compassion and restoration made God real to a skeptical public, thereby conditioning hearts for the life-giving message that would follow.
There is perhaps no better example of this effect than the story of Daniel, the Old Testament prophet who was caught up in Israel’s exile to Babylon.
A king’s conversion
At the time of his capture, Daniel was a young, handsome, and gifted teenager. He was such an exceptional specimen that his captors quickly pressed him into the service of king Nebuchadnezzar—a position that required his assimilation into the Babylonian culture.
To that end, Daniel was given a new name and a new diet, and made to learn the language and literature of his captors. But while he was in the culture, and absorbing the culture, he did not conform to the culture, instead Daniel stood against the culture in a bold and public way.
First, he refused to defile himself with food contrary to God’s law.
Next, he confronted the king with the interpretation of the king’s dream about the statue of clay, iron, bronze, silver, and gold. I say confronted, because Nebuchadnezzar wielded absolute power over life and death, and Daniel had the chutzpah to inform him that even his authority was under the power of God.
Later, under the threat of execution, Daniel and his three companions refused to bow down to the golden image of the realm. It was no less than a stand for the separation of Church and State.
Daniel understood that the king is not law; but, rather, the law is king, because law comes from an Authority that legitimizes the State and limits its reach to the civil affairs of men—and that Authority is God. As God’s civil servant, Nebuchadnezzar had no warrant to establish a state religion. His authority in religious matters was to protect the religious freedoms of his subjects, not impose a religion on them. It was a limitation that Nebuchadnezzar found hard to accept.
Daniel informed Nebuchadnezzar that if he remained obdurate to God’s sovereignty, he would experience God’s judgment. Nevertheless, the king ignored the warning and was humbled by God, being driven from his throne and society to live like a beast, just as Daniel predicted.
But instead of hardening his heart against God, like the Pharaoh of Exodus, Nebuchadnezzar turned his eyes to God, and was restored. He then set to writing a unique piece of literature—a personal testimony praising God for his omnipotence and justice. It is one of the Bible’s most moving conversion stories; one that some have called the first Gentile Gospel tract.
But what set the stage for Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion was Daniel’s view of faith. For Daniel, religion was not a private matter, never to intrude into the public square. It was a belief system governing all of life, even his role as a public official in a pagan culture. Immersed in the culture, but refusing to be of the culture, Daniel used his position to transform the culture by reminding the king about the limits of his authority and its Origin.
For 2000 years, Christians, in the manner of Daniel, have been transforming culture and working for the betterment of society. From the establishment of the first hospitals and orphanages to the abolition of slavery and the fight against AIDS, Christians have led the cause of the downcast and outcast. It is a witness that even critics are forced to acknowledge, like leftist philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
In a 1999 interview, commenting on the Western ideals of personal liberty, human rights and democracy, Jurgen said, “[These are] direct heir[s] of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love...To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”
More recently, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof praised evangelicals for their work in international relief, noting the size and effectiveness of their organizations as compared to their secular and governmental counterparts. As for their liberal detractors, Kristof writes, “[They] typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.”
He went on to tell about a Polish nun he met while doing a story about the civil war in Congo. Inspired by the nun’s heroic commitment to feed orphans and care for survivors in that war-torn country, Kristof wrote, “I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.”
It is a reminder that when Christians live as double agents of the kingdom, they become “walking letters” that tell of the good news that Jesus lived and preached.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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