A coming kingdom: Our role in God’s work in the world

The Devil offered him a shortcut. Jesus was starving, alone, and preparing for what would be a heartbreaking three years of ministry. He knew that obedience to the father would lead him to the cross but being full of the Spirit and the Word of God, he chose the long, hard road to the kingdom (Matt 4:1-11).

We, too, are tempted to bring about the kingdom by our brains and brawn. Scripture summons us to receive the kingdom and witness to it by the Holy Spirit, but we often talk of building the kingdom. This is an important distinction to make in a world bathed in humanism. Let’s follow Paul’s lead as he addresses these issues in Corinth.

“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building,” (1 Cor 3:7-9).

Just as Paul and Apollos did good work in establishing the church in Corinth, we too are called to labor well in whatever fields God has placed us in. But it’s clear in this passage that our work as pastors and politicians only bears kingdom fruit because God makes things grow. It is by Jesus’ finished work on the cross, carried out by the power of the Spirit, that God builds his kingdom.

N. T. Wright makes this distinction in his book, Surprised by Hope. He uses the language of building for the kingdom to describe the work that we do unto Christ. God allows the feeble work of our hands to show others what he is like and cultivate blessings that will be brought into the kingdom but he alone will bring it in its fullness on that final day. As we pray “your kingdom come,” we are admitting our powerlessness to actually do so.

When we attempt to build the kingdom with our own hands we quickly cut out three things: prayer, pain, and rest, and we forget it isn’t about us.

Prayerless Work

The prayerlessness of the Western church betrays our worship of human autonomy. We confess a God who is near and all-powerful, yet our lack of prayer reveals a more robust faith in our own efforts. We prioritize productivity over petition and logging hours in the office over spending time on our knees. Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5). This is not a disheartening indictment but an invitation to abide. As we join Jesus in confessing this truth we find the freedom to stop striving and pray. To receive the offer to enter into the throne room of God, to know him and converse with him.

When we take part in prayerless work, we shouldn’t be surprised when it feels fruitless or futile. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other,” (John 15:16-17).

Prayer is not a means of baptizing our own efforts but being washed by the Spirit to do the father’s will. It is only through ceaseless prayer that we can be reoriented and empowered to commit our work to the Lord for the sake of love.

Jesus did not do ivory-tower work, safe from thorns and thistles. Though a Rabbi, he worked with his hands, though blameless, he was crowned with the curse. Jesus wept and washed feet, touched lepers and dead bodies. And at no point do we see him close his heart off to the deep pain of this work. Contrary to a long, lingering portrayal of Jesus in the image of Greek Stoicism, he did not do his work with blunted emotions. The Gospels describe a God in flesh that is fully present to the depths of pain that comes with entering in.

We long for the day when the fullness of Christ’s work will be revealed and we no longer must join him in his suffering. But that day is not yet. In order to be fully alive in our work, we must move toward pain like our savior did, knowing we will find him there.

If we make it Monday thru Friday unscathed and unscarred, we must ask ourselves who is absorbing this pain on my behalf? Is it my employees on the bottom of the food chain, underpaid or unseen? My family? Laborers across the globe we outsource work to without considering the cost of cheap labor? Racial and gender minorities my work culture belittles or excludes? Consumers who are victims of the addictive nature of my products? My parishioners I placate instead of shepherd? We shortcut the kingdom when we avoid pain. We are faithful witnesses to when we absorb pain out of love for our neighbor.

Restless Work

When we extend our work beyond the confines of night and day, rest and play, it’s a good sign we have overreached our humanity. There are cosmic rhythms written into our world, upheld by the one who wrote them, to gently lead us according to our human limitations. Work and sabbath, light and darkness, marriage and babies, lunch and dinner, flowers and friendship. Sickness, disasters, divorce, despair, death. In the beauty of the created world and the devastation of our world gone awry. God promises to lead us beside still waters if only we will rest in him.

As we close our laptops and enjoy the beauty and richness in all of creation our rest points to a father who provides all that we need. As God works in the lives of those around us, he uses our rest to reveal a coming kingdom where we will continually delight in the light of his presence. In our culture, the discipline of rest is a repentant posture we must embody to glorify God as the savior of the world and it’s a way to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It Isn’t About Us  

A military unit or sports team is unified under one name for a common mission. That mission is jeopardized when one player or soldier seeks to glorify his role or gifts above his fellow workers. So too in the church we are called to be united in our submission to Christ’s mission. We scatter throughout our cities each week to participate in God’s work of restoring every square inch of creation, but with communal singleness of heart.

If we are not setting aside time to pray for and with, receive and give counsel to, and mourn and rejoice with our brothers and sisters, something is out of balance. When we are living shoulder to shoulder within the family of God, we begin to see God building his kingdom in a million little ways. When we set aside time to serve each other, we are serving the God of mission and joining forces to invite the world to come and see the good gifts of our father.

We also must recognize that we are among the ranks of image-bearers across the whole human family that God, through his common grace, empowers each day to reflect him and cultivate his world. The discipline of counting the work of our neighbor as more significant than our own returns the glory to the giver of all gifts, the one through whom and for whom is all the praise and honor of good work.

Topics: Christian Life, Kingdom of God, Work and the Bible

About the Author

Teena lives in Tucson with her husband, Reese, and daughter, Cora. She is passionate about vocational discipleship and helping her community live all of life all for Jesus. She is finishing up her M.A. in Missional Theology at the Missional Training Center and serves alongside some amazing people with the Surge Network’s Faith, Work and Rest initiative. She writes about placemaking for the Why I Love Where I Live blog and for her personal blog.