Christians are people who have chosen to believe in Jesus. They are also people who have chosen to accept the mission Jesus has given them. Believing in Jesus brings them into a new level of existence, characterized by knowing God, by being loved by God, and by loving him. In short, it introduces them to a relationship with the Creator of all things, an extraordinary concept. Accepting the mission Jesus has given them means being sent out to engage with the world in exactly the way Jesus did. It means that their calling is not just to a relationship with Jesus, but to a relationship with the world.
I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus, a follower, a disciple. I have therefore accepted his mission. But what does that mean?
One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-3 NLT
Jesus explains what our relationship with the world should be by giving us a threefold mission, wonderfully simple, yet profoundly all encompassing. He said simply to his disciples, heal the sick, cast out demons, preach the Kingdom. It is what he did. It is what he wants us to do. Why these three things?
Responding to human need
I believe these three aspects of mission reflect Jesus’ understanding of the needs of the world. He knew that the two major challenges that all of us face in our journey through life are ill health and evil. He recognized the reality that different expressions of these are the cause of all human suffering. When he sent his disciples out to “heal the sick” and “cast out demons” he was challenging them to go out and engage with the suffering of the world. He was saying, “get involved with people in their suffering and pain, and do something about it.” He was saying, “people are sick, people are sad, people are weighed down by the effects of their own demons and the evil of the world… you go and release them from these things that cause them so much misery. Set them free to live a better life, to experience the joy of existence that was my Father’s intention for them from the very beginning.”
That joy of existence, that better life, Jesus called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Preach the Kingdom” was the third thing he sent us out to do. The Kingdom was and is Jesus’ program, his blueprint for a better world. Why did he call it the “kingdom of heaven?” Because it represents a society that is submitted to the kingship of God, that follows the directions that he has given for life since the beginning of time. But why bother with a “kingdom”? Why preach it? If we could be free of sickness and evil, surely that would be enough. We would be happy.
Or would we? Jesus’ understood the human need of a pattern to live by. Despite the modern trend to challenge all “norms” we humans find great security in structure and form. A “normless” life leads to the confusion and anxiety that we see engulfing the Western world just now. Jesus introduced the idea of a kingdom of heaven, not as a political entity, but as a plan for a better life, a better society. Our task as followers of Jesus is to understand the ways of the kingdom, and to both live by them and to offer them to the world as a better way to live.
The church I currently attend has this as its motto, “bringing heaven to earth,” which is a simple expression of this exact concept. We are to “preach the kingdom,” to ourselves, so that we never forget what Jesus taught, but also to the world, so they can know there is a better way, and have the opportunity to adopt this way of life too. This is why when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said that we should always begin with the words, “Our Father in heaven, May your name be kept holy (that is, may people realize and acknowledge your kingship, your sovereignty, your ascendency), May your kingdom come (that is, may people discover and adopt the principles that you have taught us for a good life.)
When Jesus sent his disciples out he was challenging them to be outward looking rather than inward looking. Some Christians’ faith never moves beyond the “me and God” phase, centered solely on their relationship with God, oblivious to the world around, carried away with what God has done for them, and how it makes them feel. It is a bit like falling in love… one thinks of nothing but the beloved, nothing but “me and you… us,” intoxicated by love. It is totally inward looking. Faith in Jesus can be like that, totally inward looking, intoxicated by feelings, by what Jesus does for me. But such a faith is hard to maintain and often falters. Just as a healthy human relationship will eventually refocus outward to the world and the people around, so will a healthy relationship with God eventually refocus outward to the world. A deepening relationship with God will certainly remain the powerhouse of the outward mission, but the Christian life is about much more than just “me and God.”
Supernatural or natural?
There are two ways to understand this mission. The first is to see it in supernatural terms, in a spiritual context. Healing and casting out demons are in this context miraculous activities, requiring special spiritual gifts, as well as the courage and confidence to use them. The practice of such gifts, resulting in miraculous healing or instant release from oppressive evil power, is dramatically life changing whether it is experienced or witnessed, and becomes a powerful force for convincing people of the truth of the message of Jesus. It is exciting to be engaged in such supernatural ministry.
However, such events are relatively uncommon, even if they do occur from time to time and are theoretically possible for all believers. Jesus functioned routinely in this supernatural context, and seems to have encouraged his followers to do the same, but for most believers such signs and wonders are extraordinary rather than ordinary experiences. Many Christians feel that such miraculous signs and wonders are beyond them and better left for experts. If the mission of Jesus is for all his followers, what do I do if I don’t seem to have such supernatural gifts? If try as I might, my prayers seem to seldom produce the miraculous healing I long for. Is there still a place for me in the mission Jesus gave his disciples?
I believe there is, because the threefold mission can also be understood in a “natural” way, which makes it possible for every Christian to participate. What do I mean by natural? Simply this, it means confronting sickness and evil not in a miraculous, supernatural way, but in a more normal, everyday manner. On this “natural” level, historically speaking, Christians have been engaged in Jesus’ mission since the very beginning. Indeed, there have been times in the history of the Western world when the work of caring for the sick has been almost exclusively a Christian activity, especially when the prevailing worldview was far from Christian. Even in our contemporary “post Christian” world, the health and welfare professions have a high representation of Christians amongst them.
Just as “healing the sick” does not apply solely to miraculous healing, so “casting out demons” can be interpreted “naturally” as simply a command to stand against evil and injustice, to expose evil wherever it is to be found, to speak against it and to behave in the opposite spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. Such action is every Christian’s responsibility, whether she or he is a lawyer, a journalist, or simply an ordinary citizen. This too has been integral to the practice of believers since the very beginning, when Jesus first sent his disciples out.
Nothing of this “natural” perspective takes away from a spiritual worldview. We understand the nature of things according to how Jesus explains them: what is good in the world is the result and evidence of God’s existence and benevolence, while the evil in the world is the result of rebellion against God either on a personal, systemic or supernatural level. We act against these things in a natural, as well as a supernatural way. We labour away night and day to care for the sick, to heal when we can, to promote goodness and justice. When miraculous healings happen, or demonic powers are supernaturally broken, we rejoice. As Christians we operate in both the natural and the supernatural worlds. It is not “either or,” but “both and.”
What does the world think of all this?
The secular world copes reasonably well with our actions in the natural context, even applauding the efforts of Christians. However, it is naturally sceptical of our actions and claims about the miraculous. With its “enlightened” scientific rationalistic approach, the secular world sees claims of the miraculous as delusional, and talk of the demonic as scaremongering. All sorts of accusations are levelled at Christians for their willingness to accept or promote the miraculous. Speaking in supernatural terms is seen as something for an ignorant and bygone age when people did not have science to explain things. Christianity itself is often seen as superstitious nonsense, based on myths and wishful thinking.
This naturally creates a tension for Christian doctors like me who work primarily in the “natural” world, but believe fiercely in the reality of the “supernatural.” Yet all modern Christians share the same dilemma – living in an age when science has almost taken on the attributes of the divine, while believing that the true “divine” is something beyond and above science. Science has stopped being a descriptive discipline, seeking to understand and describe the wonders of the universe that God created, and has become instead a proscriptive discipline, seeking to explain why and dictate how we should order our lives. The debate between science and faith rages on, and we are caught in the midst of it. But as for me, I have long since decided to give my primary allegiance to faith in the Creator God. Science and human wisdom are, for me, always subordinate to God and his ways. But that is another debate.
In the meantime we Christians are called to know God and to carry out his mission on earth. We are called to engage with sickness and the suffering of humanity and bring the healing power of God into those situations. As a doctor I am privileged to engage in this in my job. We are also called to engage with evil, and combat its effects on every level we can. And we are called to announce and explain to the people of the world a Kingdom worldview, built on the values of God as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.