19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Matthew 28:19 – 20
In the Christian community, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘great commission,’ Jesus’s instruction to go out and spread the ‘gospel’ to the world. The ‘gospel’ is generally interpreted as telling people that Jesus loves them and he died to save us from our sins. But what does that even mean? For the past several months, I’ve been thinking that maybe we’ve gotten this all wrong. Like for the last couple thousand years.
Looking through the book of Matthew, here are some of the “commands” Jesus gives (this is not a complete list – not every command is easy to sum up in a succinct bullet point):
- If you have something against someone, reconcile
- Don’t lust after someone – it’s the equivalent of committing adultery
- Love your enemies
- Give to the needy without drawing attention to yourself
- Don’t value possessions
- Don’t worry about the little things
- Don’t judge people
- Know that following me will cost you something
- Heal people
- Rely on Jesus to give you rest
- Feed people
- Forgive people
- Pay taxes but remember that all your wealth belongs to God
- Love God and love people
This is the upside down kingdom that Jesus talked about – peace and justice and forgiveness and love. The upside down kingdom where the rich and powerful don’t control or take advantage of the poor and weak, where people say I’m sorry and I forgive you, where we don’t hoard possessions and worship money. The upside down kingdom where we love each other no matter the color of our skin, our religion, where we were born, or whether we’re gay or straight or trans or anything else. The upside down kingdom where everybody wins because no one loses. The upside down kingdom where the least come first and doing the right thing can cost you your life – or at least your friends and family.
In the spirit of full disclosure – I’m not a theologian, I haven’t been to seminary, and I’ve only been reading the Bible consistently for the last eighteen years. But the theory of substitutionary atonement – Jesus taking our place on the cross to atone for our sins – doesn’t make sense to me. What kind of God – who made us in his image – would despise us so much that he wanted to kill us because of the things we’ve done wrong? And what kind of God kills his own son as a substitute? Because that just seems messed up to me. And what’s more – I can’t find any passage in the book of Matthew that says that’s what Jesus commands.
The upside down kingdom cost Jesus his life and it’s what he asks from us as well – to take up the cross and follow him. Will we do it? Will we really love our brothers and sisters no matter what? Will we redistribute our wealth so that everyone has enough? Will we stop judging others? Feed the hungry? Stop treating someone’s sexuality like a commodity and end human trafficking? Love our enemies instead of making sure that we Americans have the largest defense budget in the world so we can blow our enemies to bits? Spend a little time on social media or reading the news and it sure doesn’t look like it, even when the people speaking, being interviewed, or quoted are Christians.
What would it look like if all Christians worked daily at even this short list of commands? What if Christians had been doing these things for the past two-thousand years instead of just telling people, “Jesus loves you – he died to save you from your sins!” Sorry you’re hungry or homeless or persecuted, but it’s all going to be fine when you get to heaven! Why does it seem like people who aren’t Christians understand the commands in Matthew better than those who say they read their Bibles and love Jesus? Was Jesus killed as a substitute for us or because the rich and powerful wanted to make sure that the upside down kingdom never happened?
Like I said, I’m not a theologian. But there are others out there that have been asking the same question. Here’s an article by Elizabeth Johnson that you might want to read if you’ve been asking yourself the same question or if you’re starting to think about Jesus and his kingdom differently after reading this. You might be surprised at what comes up if you Google, “Did Jesus die to save us from our sins?”
As I write this, I wonder, am I going to receive any backlash after I hit publish? Will people be praying for me? Will they send me scriptures supporting the theory of substitutionary atonement? Will they shake their heads and wonder why I just don’t get it? Will it affect how people at my church think of me? And what about my family?
Or will people stop and think about Jesus’s commands and start to put them into practice? Will anyone dig deeper into Matthew and read EVERYTHING that Jesus commands? If that’s your plan, you might want to take a nap beforehand because it’s a lot! You may want to check out Red Letter Christians for guidance! What I pray is this – that you will reconcile, forgive, stop judging, feed the hungry, stop lusting after people, give away some money, get rid of some possessions, stop worrying about the small stuff, love people (especially those that are hard for you to love) and know that if you do, it’s liable to cost you something.