In His teaching ministry, Jesus was preparing His disciples for their own ministry, for which He had chosen them and was equipping them. Not only a ministry to one another as “brethren,” as brothers and sister in Christ in the fellowship of the Church He was building, but a ministry to others in the world, which would be their mission field.
He used various metaphors to illustrate the nature of their ministry in the world, such as salt, light, and leaven. It was the late Elton Trueblood who pointed out that there is one thing each of these images has in common, and that is the idea of penetration. The salt penetrated the meat in order to preserve it, long before refrigeration. The light penetrates the darkness in order to dispel it. The leaven penetrates the dough, and it isn’t long before it begins to move, spread, and expand. Jesus wanted His disciples to know that He was sending them into the world to be like salt, light, and leaven, penetrating the structures of this world with the truth of His Gospel, having a preserving influence in the midst of a decadent and decaying civilization, serving as “children of light” in a world where so many “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,” and moving and spreading like leaven in His emerging and expanding Church – being “in the world” but not “of the world,” being citizens of this world but having their true citizenship in the kingdom of heaven – belonging to a society that had organized itself with little or no regard for God’s commandments, but sharing life in a new society that was designed to be an outpost of the kingdom of God in this world.
How easy it is for believers to be deceived into believing that they need not concern themselves too much with this world, for after all we are just passing through. This world is not our home, and this is why we pray even as we sing, “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah, pilgrims through this barren land.” However, we are called to be more than pilgrims. We are called to be the people of God. People with a purpose: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). We are a people under orders, calling others to also be reconciled to God, to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, through Jesus Christ who has sent us into the world to be light in the darkness, that others “might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.”
Suffice it to say, the world does not need us as much as we need the world! That is why Jesus said, “As the Father sent me into the world, so send I you into the world” – “Go into all the world, make disciples of all nations” – “You are the light of the world…you are the salt of the earth.” That is also why Jesus prayed, “Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” in the world (Matthew 5:13-14; John 15:16-21, 17:14-15). Without the world, there would be no mission field, no missionary movement, no passion for evangelism. Without the darkness, there would be no need for light. Without the need for preservation, there would be no use for a preservative. Without the dough, leaven would have no purpose. Yes, we need the world, for without the world there would be no need to live these revolutionary metaphors.
Jesus has given us an example. He has not only told us what we are called to do in this world, He has shown us by His own ministry what our ministry in this world must look like, preaching, teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, casting out demons, pulling down the strongholds of evil, freeing the possessed and the oppressed, sharing the Good News of the Gospel, a Gospel of salvation for all who will believe and receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is our reason for being in this world, not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed (i.e. transformed non-conformists), servants of our Servant Lord, “which is our spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1-2).
Yes, contrary to what some preachers preach, and what some Bible teachers teach, we Christians do need the world, for it is the place of ministry God has given us beyond the bounds of our fellowship together as Christ’s Church. When we meet together as believers we are the “gathered community of faith” that is centered in Jesus Christ, but when we go our separate ways and reenter the world outside the Body of Christ we become the “scattered company of the committed.” For far too long there has been a division between those Christians who have been classified as the “personal gospel” adherents and the “social gospel” devotees. This misses the purpose of our calling entirely, for it is not “either or” but “both and.” As I said in a previous post, “There is only one Gospel, with both personal and social implications and applications.”
It was the late John Stott, the highly acclaimed British pastor, author, and Bible teacher who said with regard to these two dimensions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “They belong to each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other.” Neither is the full Gospel, or a means to “the end” that we Christians should be seeking, for “each is an end in itself.” Whether we are talking about evangelism or social justice, salvation or good works, our ministry inside the Church or our ministry outside the Church, that kind of conversation can be misleading. It is easy to get off track, for we are called to do “the work of ministry” wherever we are and whenever our Lord gives us the opportunity to follow His example in a ministry that flows from a heart of love for all people, both believers and non-believers, including a ministry of compassion for “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke (Matthew 25). The love of Christ knows no boundaries. His love is indiscriminate and unconditional, and is the motivation for all we do in our efforts to fulfill the ministry to which Christ has called us. None of us need to justify what we do, whether it is considered evangelism (in its most narrow definition, bringing others to faith in Jesus Christ), or social justice (which is often simply called “good works”); for it is our love for Christ, and His love for us, that compels us to do both, and love has no need to justify itself!