A long time ago, in a galaxy not far away, Jesus tells a man, “Follow me.” The man responds with hesitation – but for good reason. “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” Noble request right? Before the man could be totally committed to following Jesus, he had one simple but important thing to handle. After all, if Jesus was who He said He was, then He had a little something to do with the whole “honor your father and mother” bit during Moses’s day. Surely, this man’s order of priority would not be a problem. Right?
Jesus’s reply must have hit the prospective disciple like a ton of bricks. “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt 8:22). Luke’s account of the interlude includes an additional admonition from Jesus: “but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60).
While Jesus’s words seem remarkably harsh at first glance, an earlier statement helps put things into context. “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Lk 9:58). Jesus was reminding those who would follow Him that they would be leaving something. Jesus explains that this world was not His home (yet), but He was here with purpose. First, He would proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (e.g., Mt 4:17), and then He would die (and rise again), so that all who believe in Him might have life (e.g., Mt 12:39-41, Jn 3:16). Anyone who would follow Him – literally follow Him – “must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow” Him (Lk 9:23). Discipleship during Jesus’s earthly ministry was easy to quantify since He was physically present, but still the cost was very high, and He warned His followers to count the cost (Lk 14:28).
While Jesus taught obedience to governing authorities (Lk 20:25), the marching orders for His disciples had nothing to do with revamping or reforming society. The message they were given to proclaim was that the kingdom of the heavens was coming, and that there was need for a change of mind (repentance).
As Jesus’s ministry unfolded, it became increasingly evident that the kingdom would not be inaugurated until He returned again to earth. The disciples would still maintain the message, focusing the listeners’ attention on the future coming of the kingdom (e.g., Acts 1:3; 8:12; 19:8, etc.) and on the need for a change of mind about how one can be righteous in God’s sight (e.g., grace instead of works, through belief in Jesus rather than in one’s own efforts). In Colossians 1:13 Paul explains that “He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son…”
Fast forward two thousand years.
Believers today (just as in Paul’s day) have a citizenship in Christ’s kingdom – but that kingdom isn’t here now in any form. This is why Paul can challenge believers, saying, “…if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). Paul explains further that “when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col 3:4).
We are citizens of a kingdom that isn’t here, and won’t be until its King comes. At the same time we are citizens of various societies and countries. Jesus and the apostles taught us to be good citizens on earth (e.g., Lk 20:25; Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:12-17), but to be zealous for the things of the kingdom.
It should come as no surprise or outrage to us when an unbelieving society behaves like an unbelieving society. Of course it should sadden us, and we should lovingly long for the remedy for each and every individual. But it is vital that we don’t misdiagnose the problem. The problem isn’t simple misbehavior, and it cannot be corrected with judicial controls. Consequently we need to be very cautious when becoming impassioned about judicial controls.
We are not society’s judges, but He is. And He has told us how He will resolve things in the end. What do we win when we try to establish His kingdom here and now? Nothing, and we are doomed to failure in the attempt. But what we lose is the purity of His gospel and the power of His kingdom. We are in this world, so we don’t have the option of disengaging (1 Cor 5:10-11). But as citizens of His (coming) kingdom we mustn’t usurp His authority to judge (1 Cor 5:12-13). So how do we prioritize discipleship and our earthly citizenship? How much effort should we put into each? If we simply follow the examples we have been given (specifically, that of Jesus and the Apostles), we can do both well. They certainly left the planet better off than before they arrived, and we can do the same if we pay attention to their words and deeds.
But if we expect plaudits or agreement from a society embittered against Jesus Christ, and if we are angered, outraged, or broken-spirited when they don’t share a Biblical worldview, then we have a priority problem. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us we need to fix our attention on Jesus (not Facebook, Twitter, the Supreme Court, the Congressional Report, CNN, FoxNews, or ESPN [though I think there may be an exemption for the NFL Network]).
That is not to say we should be ignorant or disengaged (in fact, it is just the opposite), but rather to say that we need to remember what Jesus told a hesitant disciple two thousand years ago (Mt 8:22).