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Announcing the Upside-Down Kingdom

4 years ago written by

The call to ministry came just as I turned 19 — unmistakable yet overwhelming. I had been a Christian for seven years, and I enjoyed studying the Bible and reading books that nurtured my faith. At that age, I was already preaching sermons in churches and assuming leadership roles.

Yet my love for God seemed to pale in comparison to my passion for biology and the medical field. “I am doing my best to be a good Christian, so surely God will notice and bless my life plans,” I bargained.

Unaware perhaps of my motivations, I assumed, vaguely, that devotion to God leads to a successful life. I wanted to become a medical doctor since fourth grade — a desire that only grew stronger over the years — so to me, the call to ministry came as a hope-crushing blow; it shattered my dreams. How could the God I loved and served do this to me?

For four years, I resisted my calling before I eventually surrendered to God’s plan. My initial struggle came from the realization that following Jesus could cost more than I was willing to offer. To obey God meant to give up my dream to become a doctor. But once I embraced my calling, God gave me a passion greater than my love for medicine: to study wholeheartedly, apply carefully and teach faithfully God’s Word (Ezra 7:10). This wasn’t the future I first sought to create, so instead of trying to fit God’s plan to my dreams, I had to learn to let God shape my life to fit His vision.

Like me, so many people in the Bible felt disappointed by unmet expectations at some point in their journey with God. Abraham feared that God had failed to fulfill His promise, so with his wife’s help he took things in his own hands (Genesis 16, cf. 17:17–22). Moses confronted Pharaoh in obedience to God, yet felt abandoned (Exodus 5:15–23). Elijah defended God in a spectacular display of power, only to feel cheated by God as he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1–5, 9–10, 14). Jeremiah became depressed and cursed the day he was born when he could not feel God near (Jeremiah 20:7, 14–18). John the Baptist feared that Jesus was failing to live up to the messianic hope (Matthew 11:1–6). Peter objected to the idea that the Messiah must suffer, based on a misplaced expectation (Matthew 16:13–23). Just as these believers felt God had failed them, so also Christians today may feel disillusioned with Jesus when they entertain misguided expectations about His kingdom.

Luke’s Gospel captures this disenchantment with the Messiah in a story featuring Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As Jesus inquired about what the travelers discussed so intensely, “They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend” (Luke 24:17 MSG). Like many, they expected the powerful words and mighty acts of Jesus to result in the deliverance of Israel. “The chief priests and our rulers . . . crucified [Jesus],” they bewailed, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:20–21).

They wanted a militaristic Messiah who would end Roman rule. Instead, Jesus confronted Satan (Matthew 4:1–11), healed the sick (Matthew 4:23–25) and cast out demons (Matthew 8:16, 28–34). They expected vengeance over their enemies, but Jesus told them to love their foes (Matthew 5:43–48). Instead of fulfilling their dream of a new Davidic kingdom, Jesus explained to the disciples that He must suffer, die and rise again for the salvation of the world. This upside-down kingdom message did not match with the hopes of His followers back then, and we have to wonder if our expectations today align with God’s vision of healing for those who are hurting and love for our neighbors.

More unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation of a kingdom in which there were no privileged people. Whether male or female, rich or poor, free or slave, educated or illiterate, devout or irreligious, people of noble status or social outcast, old or young, able or disabled, etc., Jesus called all people to be brothers and sisters in God’s new family. To the sick and ceremonially unclean people, Jesus extended a caring hand (Matthew 8:1–4, Mark 5:25–33). The prostitute and the adulterous gravitated toward His caring holiness (Luke 7:26–50, John 4:1–26). Even “tax collectors and sinners” found in Him a friend (Matthew 9:9–13).

Jesus shattered Jewish norms and turned the social ladder upside down when He announced the only requirement for membership in His kingdom: “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). He calls us to assess our perception and treatment of others, and to embody His inverted kingdom in our culture.

Perhaps the social ramifications of the teachings of Jesus represent the most shocking aspect of His reversal of power dynamics. In a male-dominated society that confined women to the sphere of the family, Jesus included women in His public ministry (Luke 2:36–38, 7:37–38, 8:1–3), taught that God created men and women equal (Matthew 19:4), and ordered husbands to live out marriage the way God designed it (Matthew 19:5–6). Later, the apostles echoed the same message in a subversive use of the Greco-Roman household model: husbands must love their wives sacrificially; masters ought to treat slaves as brothers; and leaders are to possess a servant’s heart (Ephesians 5:25–6:9; 1 Peter 3:7, 5:1–4).

To the disciples quarreling over positions of influence, Jesus issued a stern warning: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around … and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Mark 10:43-44 MSG).

To the very end of His ministry, Jesus consistently modeled for His followers the kingdom He proclaimed. Thus, taking the role of a slave, He washed and cleaned His disciples’ feet and urged them to treat one another the same way. As king of the upside-down kingdom, Jesus gave the ultimate embodiment of His message when He died on the cross, for He came not to be served but to serve and give His life for others (Mark 10:45). He defeated death and opened a new era of God’s reign, marked by transformed hearts and Spirit-filled lives. Jesus calls us to take the life-changing gospel of deliverance, forgiveness, love, justice and service to all people. Are we prepared for our expectations to be turned upside down? Are we ready to proclaim  the upside-down kingdom?

Elisée Ouoba, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biblical studies at Spring Arbor University and a member of the Free Methodist Church – USA Study Commission on Doctrine. He previously served as a missionary in the Central African Republic’s capital city of Bangui and as a professor and pastor in his home country, Burkina Faso. He and his family are active members of the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church.

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[Perspective] · L + L July 2019