Marks of the Kingdom of the Gospel – Part I

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a two-part series from the China Partnership’s Executive Director. The content was originally delivered as a sermon to an American congregation during their annual missions conference. All names and locations have been withheld in this written version for security purposes. Read Part 2 to finish the series.

“On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.’

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

Acts 4:23-31

The NIV translates Acts 4:23 to say that after Peter and John were released, they went to their “own people” and reported what happened. The gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ separated the Jews, formerly one people, into two peoples. John and Peter’s own people were those that belonged to Christ, the new people in Christ. For the same reason you and I, formerly Gentiles, are now one people with all the saints in Christ. I am privileged and honored to come to you and be with you tonight, my own people. Because of our Lord, we are no longer only Americans and Chinese, but one heavenly people in Christ. I am very thankful and pleased to share with you this passage of scripture and report to you how stories similar to the early church in Acts are happening in China.

There have been amazing developments in the Chinese church in the past three years. I find that the most important question concerning these developments is whether they are from the Spirit and long-lasting or whether they are just a short-term phenomenon. If it is the former, this is worthy ministry; otherwise, it is useless. This question has led me to study the early church in order to discern the marks of true revival. Next time, I will report to you stories of the gospel in China, but now I want to discuss the above passage from Acts.

This paragraph that we just read constitutes the last part of a larger passage comprising of Acts 3-4. Chapters 3 and 4 record the first encounter between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God after Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and the Holy Spirit’s coming and residing in the church. This encounter was directly caused by Peter and John’s ministry of the word accompanied by their merciful deed healing a man lame from birth. The very battlefield and focal point between the two kingdoms is the name of Jesus, nothing more and nothing less. The Jewish authorities strictly forbade the apostles from proclaiming the resurrected Jesus and from performing any deeds in his name. Acts 4:23-31 teaches us about the first Christian church’s collective response to that order and threat from the earthly kingdom.

The passage we are studying contains the only corporate prayer that has been recorded in the entire New Testament. There are other places that talk about corporate prayers and there are recorded personal prayers; however, this is the only place that we hear a corporate prayer, giving us a glimpse into their genuine faith and way of life. People often profess a faith different from what their lives reveal. During life’s difficult times, the way people pray tends to tell us what they truly believe. This prayer, a spontaneous practice of faith, vividly depicts a new world order that controls their behavior.


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There are many ways to approach this particular paragraph. Today, I want to share three important marks of the kingdom of the gospel from this passage. The reason these three marks are so important is that from them you can recognize Christ’s kingdom, or in other words, the features of the true church in this worldly culture. The three marks consist of true personal knowledge of Jesus Christ in understanding the gospel; continuous, voluntary, and active suffering in union with Christ (being missional); and resolutely following Christ in word and deed.

1) True personal knowledge of Jesus Christ

The most amazing fact shown in this prayer is that the entire church now has a distinctive personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, controlled and shaped by his gospel. Jesus explicitly told the disciples three times about his anticipated suffering as the Messiah in the synoptic gospels; however, they did not get it. A suffering Messiah had not existed in their vocabulary and had never emerged in their religious faith. The anticipation of a glorious Messiah crushed the disciple’s faith at the cross. But the politically and socially triumphant Messiah hoped for by first century Judaism disappeared from the horizon of the disciples’ prayers. For the New Testament church, the Messiah predicted by the prophet-king David and by the Holy Spirit is the suffering servant prosecuted and opposed by the worldly kingdoms of both Gentiles and Jews.

The resurrection utterly crushes the devil’s plot and the world’s opposition. It bears a clear mark in the church’s prayer confessing that the Messiah must be persecuted and opposed by this world according to the scripture. The prayer cites Psalm 2:1-2, a royal psalm in its genre. The psalm looks to a future when the Gentile kingdoms will be under the rule of the Davidic Messiah and in it find their joy no matter how they might oppose it and try to throw it off. Within this context, the kings and rulers of the earth in the first two verses are really pointing to the nations and people outside of Israel. With the backdrop of first century Judaism, this would have been interpreted as opposition to the coming Messiah’s glorious restoration and reign over the new nation of Israel. Surprisingly, instead of the disciples identifying Pilate as the Gentiles and rulers, they identify Herod and the people of Israel as the “kings” and “peoples” of Psalm 2 who are opposed to Israel and its Messiah.

This prayer and its use of Psalm 2 shows a hermeneutical departure from first century Judaism. The disciples are now recognizing Jesus as the suffering Messiah according to scripture. Persecution from both the Jews and Gentiles and the suffering of the Messiah were both preordained by the sovereign Lord to whom they pray. It is necessary and inevitable according to Isaiah 46:10 which states, “…whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Here the triumphant Messiah has become the suffering Christ, the holy servant of God.

2) Continuous suffering in union with Christ

This new personal knowledge of Jesus Christ controlled by the gospel is not limited to past, historical events. The prayer further shows that the disciples’ understanding has far reaching theological and eschatological significance. Right after recognizing what Jesus fulfilled in his suffering, the prayer immediately brings the current incident before the throne of the sovereign God. They say, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” The conjunction “and” paired with the adverb “now” provides an uninterruptible connection and continuity between Christ’s suffering, persecution, and the disciples’ immediate experience.

They see what they are going through – threats, persecution, and suffering – as an organic continuation of Christ’s suffering. The suffering of the Messiah from the opposing authorities and culture is now naturally extended to his body, the church. Just like their Lord, threats and persecution from the world is the norm of every day life for the disciples; it is the ordained form of the new life that they are called into. As the result of this understanding and faith, they never pray for the removal or even reduction of the persecution; rather, they just pray that they will be strengthened with boldness to preach Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.

Suffering is no fun for any human being. Our first personal and cultural inclinations are to escape suffering. Why are the disciples so willing to suffer? How did their understanding of who Christ is and their personal knowledge of Jesus totally change from that of Luke 1 to Luke 23? To answer this question, we have to ponder and ask what connects the passion of Christ with the suffering of the disciples?

Luke 24 and Acts 1-2 show us that the resurrection of Jesus, Christ’s teaching of God’s salvific plan in the Old Testament, and the indwelling of the Spirit in the church have turned the metanarrative of human history and culture upside down. God’s redemptive plan, the event of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Spirit’s empowerment of the church all created a new people out of the old Israel. This new people is called and saved into union with Christ, and this union and identification with Christ necessarily imposes Christ’s mission and suffering on the church. In other words, this mission and suffering is an inevitable feature of the Great Commission.

3) Resolute following of Christ in word and deed

The gospel of Jesus Christ terminated all other gospel narratives in this world. Jesus did not come to satisfy Jewish pride, but to fulfill the Father’s saving purpose through his death. Jesus did not come to satisfy Judaism’s political-cultural ambition, but to inaugurate a new counter-culture in his resurrection. Jesus did not come to help realize our American or Chinese dreams, but to bring our every day reality into the heavenly realms through his ascension.

The disciples did not ask for “…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” These are all good, but temporary things. The disciples knew they were called into an eternal kingdom and the hope of life. They prayed that in the face of death, imprisonment, and misery, they would only “…continue to speak God’s word with all boldness.” For the disciples, speaking God’s word is the proclamation of the gospel. Out of this confidence, they prayed that God would accompany their gospel proclamation with mighty deeds to witness to Jesus’s name.

Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Luke to write out the full discourse of this prayer? Because this passage is not simply to recount a prayer made by the early church for historical interest. This Spirit-filled and powerful prayer was made by the disciples on behalf of the entire New Testament church. This is every church’s prayer – this is your prayer and my prayer! This is an eternal prayer that reaches to the heavenly throne and shakes the earthly realm. Just as the Father responded to Jesus’s deeds and prayers in the gospels, so the Holy Spirit responded to this prayer and answered their pleas by filling them and enabling them to boldly speak the word of God for gospel proclamation. In response to the threat from the earthly authorities, they responded with prayer and more resolute following of Christ. This following of Christ is in order to give witness to his name to the world and to reach out by word and deed.

These three marks of the New Testament kingdom of the gospel build upon each other. The foundation is the personal knowledge of Christ according to the gospel.  Out of it comes union with Christ in his mission and his suffering. This is further reflected in the resolution to follow Christ in word and deed. These three marks can be unmistakably found in all true churches.

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Further Reading

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Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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