When God created Adam, He commanded Adam to “subdue” (steward) the earth (Gen 1:28). Primarily, this is a cultural mandate.
Physically, earth already belongs to God. Scriptures taught that all things were created in, for and through Christ (Col 1:16). Not a single inch of earth does not belong to the Kingdom of God.
But while there was ownership of the physical, God’s Kingdom culture still has to be cultivated throughout earth for her flourishing. This was the cultural mandate to Adam.
The Essence of God’s Kingdom
Let’s pause to think what a kingdom is. A kingdom is the realm where a king has dominion over. It includes the king’s subjects and His land, and his governance over them.
Now think about what a healthy kingdom should look like. A king may have subjects but what if his subjects are disloyal to him? The king may be overthrown in a coup and his kingdom lost in an instance.
Therefore, a healthy kingdom includes more than just subjects, lands and governing rules. It would include non-physical qualities like loyalty, willing submission, respect, trust, equity, justice, mercy, love, meaningful communication, strong relationships, welfare, wellness etc.
These non-physical values within the subjects make up the culture of the kingdom. Culture is like the ground zero reflection of the values of a people.
A healthy kingdom would have a flourishing culture. God knows this clearly. In fact, in God’s Kingdom, culture is His priority. Jesus Himself says: “The kingdom of God does not come with observation,” (Luke 17:20). He then declares, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (v21)
What’s “within” us are the intangible values we carry
What’s “within” us where the Kingdom of God is found? It’s none other than the intangible values God’s people carry. In God’s eyes, these intangible values are more precious than physical emphases. Hence, even while Adam was still physically around, Adam no longer advanced God’s kingdom, because he no longer carried the King’s values as priority. After his life got mired with sin at the fall, he needed to be redeemed and sanctified to be able to overcome sin. Otherwise, with sin overtaking his nature, his authority over earth will serve the devil’s purposes.
This thread of how God values the intangible i.e. priestly values, MORE than the physical i.e. priestly robes, is paramount to understanding what Kingdom on earth means, and how Kingdom advances i.e. culturally. It is consistent throughout Scriptures and God keeps emphasising on it.
Remember what God told Samuel who was looking for the next king of Israel to anoint – “for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). This also after king Saul, a person of great kingly stature by physical measurements, was found to be ruled by sinful attitudes in his heart. So Samuel eventually anointed David, an insignificant shepherd boy, but whom God said, was “a man after mine own heart.” (1 Sam 13:14)
Israel grew powerful and prospered under David’s leadership, who then passed the throne to his son Solomon, who built God a glorious temple. Under Solomon, Israel became the wealthiest and most glorious nation on earth. World’s leaders paid tribute to them! If kingdom of God is measured materially, surely this is it! Yet God had no qualms judging Israel when king Solomon’s heart turned away from Him (1 King 11:11) – Israel’s glory was destroyed in one generation and the kingdom of Israel split into half! God is no respecter of material glory!
Less you think this pattern of judgement was unprecedented. On the contrary, it has always been characteristic of God. God almost destroyed Israel in their entirety for worshipping a golden calf (Exo 32:10); for disobeying him with unbelief in entering the promise land (Num 14:12). God destroyed the glorious temple Solomon built for Him. When God’s people do not submit to His Lordship or carry His priestly values, all physical, material, religious achievement mean nothing to Him.
Therefore, the essence of God’s kingdom is cultural, not physical. God rejects all our religious offerings when our hearts are not right before Him. But when our hearts are fully surrendered, we manifest the most basic quality of Kingdom – Lordship i.e. complete obedience to the King’s will.
Lordship i.e. complete obedience to the King’s will – the most basic quality of Kingdom
Only when God’s will is done can thy kingdom come. This is why Jesus taught, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” (Mat 6:10) In fact, salvation comes from Lordship; and once saved always saved i.e. assurance of salvation, only makes sense if the person has Lordship. Lordship inevitably will conform us into the King’s image (Rom 8:29); where we will bear the King’s value i.e. fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
Hence, for the end of kingdom on earth, what God needs most are not big congregations, physical monuments, material wealth, or religion. What He needs is a people who would revere Him as King and exhibit His values as priests. This culture of Kingship and the counter-cultural values of this kingdom community will inevitably rub against the marketplaces of the world steep into other cultures. This is how salt and light impact communities and nations.
Is there Kingdom culture in your church? Among your community? Or are we just a bunch of religious people steep into religious routines? The converts we make are culturalised into a dead and irrelevant religion, making zero to little impact on the cultures of the marketplaces and nation. Are we content with church growth making quick converts without discipleship that produces disciples of nations? Are we content with preaching about all the means of what makes up kingdom but never pursuing God’s kingdom on earth as our end?
The cultural mandate given 6000 years back by the King to Adam is in fact the Kingdom mandate. And Christ recommissioned the Kingdom mandate to the church – through the great commission. The great commission states that we are to “make disciples of all nations“ (cultural mandate), “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Lordship). Contrary to widespread practice, this is different from “converting everyone everywhere by getting them to say the sinners’ prayer.” Two important clarifications need to be made.
1. Disciples, not Converts
First is about discipleship. A sinners’-prayer-spiritual-conversion-focused-evangelism without subsequent emphasis on a lifestyle of Lordship leads to widespread nominal practice of Christianity. Such has never been God’s intent for what church is.
Examine carefully what Jesus said when he was asked by a law expert, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)Jesus didn’t answer as how modern evangelism methods would e.g. say the sinners’ prayer.
Jesus’ answer was straightforward: Do the greatest two commandments which is to love God with everything (Lordship), and love your neighbour as yourself (King’s values), (“all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” – Mat 24:40) and you will have eternal life! Christ’s answer implies that salvation comes from biblical living. Christ expects all believers to be disciples who surrender it all to follow Him (Luke 14:33).
Deviation from Christ’s Word and way has led to devastating consequences. During reformation, the “church” was a continental empire, but their might was used to suppress worship; and they killed hundreds of thousands to retain their power. In more recent history, Hitler’s Germany was 50% Protestant and 45% Catholic, but it did not stop the nation of “Christians” from embracing “Positive Christianity,” where Christ was presented as Aryan and the Jews denounced. One has to ask again – what’s the point of mass conversions when Lordship and the King’s values are compromised?
So here I say again. It’s never God’s intent for churches to be practising nominal Christianity without emphasis on discipleship / Lordship.
2. The Cultural Mandate is missing because we have not understood “Nations”
Secondly, the understanding of our cultural mandate is missing because we don’t understand why the great commission would use the word “nations”. This is partly because we have looked at the great commission in isolation, and had not considered it from the parts of Scriptures where He reveals His Kingdom heartbeat.
From “Mankind” to “Israel” to “Church”
God’s Kingdom heartbeat is revealed right at the beginning of creation, when He commanded the father of mankind i.e. Adam, to “subdue” the earth. After Adam failed, God called out Abram and said, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:8) and “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 22:18) While God would call individuals, it was clear that His greater purpose has always been for the world – its peoples and their cultures. God is jealous for His Kingdom on earth and has always been in the process of “calling out” kingdom agents who would advance His Kingdom culturally on earth! (note: even the word Church is actually “Ekklesia” in Greek which essentially means His “called out” ones i.e. kingdom agents.)
Note how God calls Israel His “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:6). Israel was more than just “numbers” to God. It matters that His people manifest priesthood not by robes but by values. If they do not exhibit kingdom values, they denounce the very purpose God calls them out for. However, if they live according to their purpose, they would become a holy nation. A HOLY nation is a cultural manifestation, not physical. Again, it highlights what God is after – the cultural mandate.
But this spotlight on Israel then shifts to Christ – Israel’s Messiah. When Israel as a nation rejected Him, salvation went to the Gentiles, who gets grafted into His Kingdom. But less you think God’s story with Israel as His ekklesia is over – it’s just postponed till the times of the gentiles is fulfilled.
23 And they (Israel) also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? 25 For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved.. – Rom 11
A new entity unlike the nation of Israel emerges. Made up of both Jews and Gentiles, as “one new man” (Eph 2:15), the Church is unlike a nation. As an entity, they are not supposed to operate with political sovereignty, amass military might or possess territorial land. But the Church is His ekklesia nevertheless. Jesus emphatically taught all believers to pray daily, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Reexamine Christ’s statement. Isn’t that the Kingdom mandate? God wanted earth! All peoples; all cultures; all nations. Church is His chosen agent to advance His kingdom to earth, as mankind, and the nation of Israel once was!
But it is important to clarify: How would an entity not supposed to have political sovereignty, military might or territorial land bring about the Kingdom of God over all the earth? The answer is found in the gospel Christ preached and the life He lived.
Unlike modern evangelism which often fails to expound on Kingdom, the gospel Christ preached was the gospel of the Kingdom – about the Kingdom of God. And how was the Kingdom like? Christ laid down the most unbelievable standards of Kingdom living. The beatitudes (which I like to see it as the “be” attitudes) begins: Blessed are the poor in spirit.. Blessed are those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness etc. These are non-physical values “within” the believer. Conventionally, kingdoms advance physically by sword and might. But Christ is telling people that the Kingdom of God is discovered in those who live counter-culturally with full dependence on God.
But the Kingdom culture was just too radical as an alternative reality to the world’s. How can anyone believe that by being meek, one can inherit a kingdom? Jesus showed the church how it was done. While Christ never preached His death and resurrection as the gospel, He DEMONSTRATED IT! Through which reveals the EVIDENCE of God’s Kingdom and the EPITOME of Kingdom living! By submitting His will completely to the Father’s even unto death, Christ won a lion-like victory over sin in a lamb-like manner. The love and power of the crucified Christ became a reality, through which the church overcame the shackles of fear, death, unbelief, bondage to sin and condemnation etc. They gained the ability to shine counter culturally, reflecting God’s justice, holiness and righteousness, as salt of the earth, light of the world. This is the alternative reality resounded by the gospel of the Kingdom, witnessed not by religion, but by the lives of all compelled henceforth, to live by the values of Christ their King.
Christ’s death and resurrection was The King’s best testimony about His Kingdom – and today, salvation through Christ forms the central piece of the gospel. However, we have dropped the whole context by which this central piece hangs from – the Kingdom of God. This has led to deep misunderstanding of the mission of the gospel, as we have reduced the end of “kingdom on earth through a culture of Lordship” to “make heaven-focused spiritual converts.” Without emphasis on Lordship as discipleship, and the cultural mandate as mission, the church has grown numerically by means of conversions but is largely devoid of Kingdom culture and the conviction to transform nations.
Spiritual conversions are not without merit – but it merely begins a process and is not the end. To “make disciples of all nations” meant that God is invested in the values of individuals AND the cultures of communities – from families to marketplaces to nations. There are considerations to at least three components. First is personal: Are we first and foremost a disciple? Second is communal / church: Are we making disciples? (not just converts) Third is societal: Are we discipling nations? God’s end is to move in and through these three components till all the nations in the world are culturally reflecting His Kingdom in heaven. Woe to us if we build church as our end; instead of perfecting her to be the means for God’s Kingdom as end. (On this note, I had written about God’s gracious 11th hour warning of judgement for the Singapore church with regards to our apathy toward justice and indifference toward truth)
Revelations 5 records the “beginning of the end”, when the heavenly seals are broken. Christ who was slain is the one worthy to “break the seals and open the scrolls.” As He did, the elders sang: “from every tribe and language and people and nation.. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (v9;10). The vision of God from creation in Genesis, to His end in Revelation, has always been about a Kingdom of priests who He could call His. He will soon return to see to the completion of His restoration of Kingdom on earth, but meanwhile, the church is to “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13) and to preach (plus live out) the gospel of the kingdom.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. – Mat 24:14
- The Old Testament Template – Landa Cope. One of the classics on how gospel is “reduced” if it is only salvation focused and not about discipling nations.
- Myles Munroe’s take on Rediscovering The Kingdom. The cultural mandate very clearly explained. Well watched.
- Dutch Sheets on how the great commission is about discipling nations to see God’s culture on earth:
- NT Wright, scholar and academic on making God King on earth as He is in heaven. There are shorter versions of his videos online.