Humble Rebellion: Living as Ambassadors of Christ

“The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer” by Jean Léon Gérôme, circa 1863-83

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

How can we expect to reconcile with a world that hates us, or what are we in relation to that great mass of humanity? Should we simply abandon the world to its fate? We are fools if we think we can do so, for the world will always find us in the end. More to the point, we would be rather poor disciples of Jesus Christ, who commanded us to go out into the world making disciples (Matthew 28:19), serving as witnesses to the gospel (Acts 1:8), and living as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).

Sometimes we labor under the mistaken assumption that God is only seeking to reconcile with the Church. On the contrary, God is looking to restore all of creation. (Romans 8:18-25) This entire universe was His good work, and though it has been tainted by sin, it still belongs to Him. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, it was in effect a massive restoration project. However, it was also a rebellion, because in the present age, the earth is under the reign of evil. Therefore, to side with the kingdom of God is to stand against the kingdom of Satan. To live for righteousness is to live in opposition to sin.

When I say God is not looking to reconcile merely with the Church, I am not suggesting that there is some path to lasting reconciliation and salvation outside of the Church or the work of Jesus Christ. I am not advocating something akin to universalism, where every person will have their sins forgiven whether they believe in Christ or not. Rather, I refer to the Church’s role as a witness to the nations.

Throughout salvation history, there has always been such a thing as the people of God. Even before Abraham, there were godly men and women to whom God made promises and with whom He entered into covenants. (See, for example, the covenants made with Adam and Noah, and the divine favor shown to Job and Melchizedek.) However, the most obvious Old Testament example of this is the nation of Israel, which was part of divine covenants given to Abraham and Moses, and which was tasked under both those covenants to serve as a light to the nations. As Abraham was told in Genesis 22:18, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” The Apostle Paul states that this was a prophecy “that God would justify the Gentiles by faith”. (Galatians 3:8)

Throughout the Old Testament, we see that despite the special place of the Jewish people in salvation history, God’s redemptive plan was never restricted to them alone. Rather, God makes clear at numerous points that Gentiles are part of His larger plan. People outside the covenant community, such as Rahab and Ruth, are brought into that community by faith and reckoned among God’s people. The Lord speaks of performing his miraculous works in the sight of the nations (Exodus 34:10, Leviticus 26:45) and of making His holy name great among the nations (Ezekiel 20:14, Malachi 1:11). He commands the Israelites to follow His law that they may be raised high above those same nations. (Deuteronomy 26:16-19) He appoints prophets to speak to foreign lands, as with Jonah, Nahum, Obadiah, and others. He promises a day when, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” (Isaiah 11:9) and,

The mountain of the house of the Lord

Will be established as the chief of the mountains,

And will be raised above the hills;

And all the nations will stream to it.

And many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

To the house of the God of Jacob;

That He may teach us concerning His ways

And that we may walk in His paths.”

Isaiah 2:2b-3

“Abraham and Melchizedek” by Dieric Bouts the Elder, circa 1464-67

The tragedy of ancient Israel is that they did not live up to that divine calling. They emulated the world rather than remaining separate. They allowed it to influence them and not the other way around. Now, the work of Christ has brought to fruition the New Covenant between God and man, one in which, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) The true heirs of Abraham are those who share his faith, not his DNA. (Romans 4:9-25, Galatians 3:6-14) The people of God were never meant to be restricted to one nation, but the way is open to all: we are justified by faith and adopted as sons and daughters of God.

The people of God in this present age are given the same task as those in previous ages: we must serve as a light to the nations, setting an example of righteousness, proclaiming the Word of God, and drawing those who are now far off to come near to God. I must emphasize that this work is accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, but by the grace of God, we become His instruments. We are given the high privilege of participating in this worldwide restoration project. Perhaps the most appropriate passage for us to examine regarding this topic is something the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

2 Corinthians 5:11-21

In his commentaries, John Calvin wrote of these verses, “Here we have a remarkable passage, if there be any such in any part of Paul’s writings.”[1] I could not agree more, though I somewhat disagree with Calvin’s assessment that though every Christian is in some sense “a witness to…the grace of God”, that in fact “…this office is specially intrusted to ministers.” That ministers are the most visible and obvious proclaimers of the gospel, I do not deny, and that they have a special ordination from God, I fully admit. However, Paul has every believer in mind here: we are all ambassadors for Christ. Back in verse 17 of this chapter, Paul identified the “us” of the later verses as “anyone” who is in Christ. Therefore, while Calvin’s focus on the ministry of the Word by ordained ministers of the Word is most admirable, I think we all need to take seriously the role we play in this overarching ministry of reconciliation, which is the task of the entire Church and not just the clergy.

“Raising the Cross” by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1610-11

Paul tells us in this passage that our union with Christ through his saving grace produces a radical change, not only in terms of our eternal destiny, but in terms of our mindset here and now. Even as the people of Israel served as God’s witnesses for all those long years, the Church today is a witness to the gospel truth in a hostile world. Paul tells us that, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (v. 11), but not merely so we can win the argument. Each one of us is made a “new creature” (v. 17), and “the love of Christ controls us”, for we know that “one died for all”. (v.14) The conclusion is that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh”. (v. 16) We are people completely reborn of the Spirit.

Having been reconciled to God, we must understand that God is working to reconcile the entire world to Himself and that we are to be His instruments in that process. God “reconciled us to Himself through Christ”, and as a result “gave us the ministry of reconciliation”. (v.18) The overall tone of this passage prevents us from being judgmental. Were our sins that God forgave so much less severe than those of other people “out there”? Are we any less deserving of divine judgment? The basis for reconciliation was Christ’s saving action to take that penalty of sin upon Himself, not simply ignoring sin, but cancelling out the debt. That is why Paul can say, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation”. (v.19)

Remarkably, Paul tells us that God is actually “making an appeal through us”. (v. 20) And what is our message to the world? “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (vs. 20b-21)

You see, if we focus only on the sins that the world has committed rather than the grace that comes from Jesus Christ, we will never be able to perform the work of reconciliation. It is only when we realize our true place before God and the full measure of what He did for us that we can believe in the power of God to create reconciliation in this world. Jesus Christ became sin on our behalf! He opened up the way for reconciliation. His love is for the whole world, and the judgment for sin will not fall on those who believe, but only on those who reject the Son.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:16-18

That is the basis on which we make our appeal to the world, fulfilling our divine calling as ambassadors of the gospel truth. At last, there is hope for reconciliation, for God has made it possible.

But what does it really mean to be an ambassador? My mind immediately takes me back to the time I spent working for the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C. Although I was actually in my own country, I was working with representatives of a foreign nation, including the Egyptian ambassador. Whenever I answered the phone and spoke with a journalist or member of the public, they automatically saw me as a spokesperson for the policies of the government in Cairo and an agent of the Egyptian state. Some of them did not even know that I was actually American.

The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Washington, D.C. (Author photo)

I have a fairly intimate concept of what it means to live and work in a foreign embassy. We spent much of our time engaging with those around us, whether they were politicians, academics, journalists, or fellow diplomats. We worked daily to promote Egyptian interests by making a positive case for that country. We strove to build relationships that would pay dividends in the future.

This was not all a bed of roses – far from it. There were plenty of people who opposed the policies of the Egyptian government, and they would let us know it. In my particular role in our office, I was the one who typically took any disgruntled phone calls. In this capacity, I often bore the brunt of criticism for policies I myself opposed. My task was simply to respond politely and knowledgably and make the best of it that I could.

Thankfully, being an ambassador for Christ is not exactly like being a representative of a foreign government. The kingship of Jesus Christ is perfect, and if we truly believe that, we will not feel ashamed of the things we are called to defend. Yet, there are some ways in which these experiences are similar. Much like my Egyptian colleagues living in Washington, D.C., Christians living on this earth are not in their true home. Consider what the author of Hebrews has to say about Abraham and, by extension, his heirs by faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God….All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16

Those verses were particularly precious to me when, at the age of 21, I set out on my own to reside in a foreign country where I had no friends or family to comfort me. It was a rewarding time for me, but also a lonely one, and I was quite aware of my foreign status. Even so, to live as a Christian upon this earth is to be an exile and an alien.

When we are made children of God, we undergo a change of citizenship. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14) With this change of citizenship comes a radical change in behavior in which we become a “new creature”. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Our actions and beliefs will thus be markedly different from those of the culture around us. As Paul told the Philippians,

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Philippians 3:18-21

As I have already noted, anyone who sets out to live for Christ is by definition committing an act of rebellion against the false ruler of this world. The true ruler is Christ, but most of the world does not recognize His rule. During his earthly ministry, Jesus devoted much of his time to talking about the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven. He made clear that not all would enter into it. (Matthew 5:20, 7:21, 19:24, and Mark 10:15) Likewise, the Apostle John contrasts the forces of light with those of darkness (John 1:4-5, 9-13), and Paul speaks of a continual battle between the Church and the forces of darkness in this world. (Ephesians 6:12) Therefore, to declare allegiance to Christ will set one at odds with all those who hold to the status quo of discord. The work of reconciliation is not a neutral activity. Scripture tells us that when the Word of God is proclaimed, it does not return to Him void. (Isaiah 55:10-11) It softens some hearts but hardens others. We must be prepared for this.

Fresco of the Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico, circa 1437-45

Our rebellion is not violent, but brings true peace to men. It is not anti-authority, but sees all authority as deriving from the One to whom our ultimate allegiance is due. It is not based upon human pride, but glories in humility. Yes, our rebellion is first and foremost a humble rebellion, for it is not for the glory of any man or woman, but rather the glory of God.

The Lord seeks humble rebels to carry out the work of reconciliation in this world. This means that we are working to remove the discord between God and man by preaching the saving message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Importantly, it also means that we are to combat the discord that exists between human beings. Remember: those two things are intrinsically linked.

The discord in this world is completely antithetical to the gospel, whether we are talking about racism, marital strife, wars, cyber bullying, sexual misconduct, gossip, misogyny…you get the picture. This is not to say that every person who receives the gospel will reach perfection in all of their relationships, nor that the Church will be able to remove all the discord brought about by sin. What it does mean is that we need to try. What is the Church for if not to bring about reconciliation?

A humble rebel is one who seeks to meet the needs of others, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. A humble rebel is not self-obsessed, but sees all of history in the context of the glory of God and His saving work. A humble rebel believes that every person is created in the image of God and that the free offer of salvation is to be made to all, regardless of status or identity. A humble rebel knows by what grace he or she has been saved, and thus does not deny that grace to others. A humble rebel is passionate about reconciliation. And as Ignatius of Antioch wrote, a humble rebel must proclaim the gospel even in the face of persecution, “For the work we have to do is no affair of persuasive speaking; Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world’s hatred.”[2]

Therefore, if we are to be ambassadors for Christ and representatives of His divine kingdom, we must embrace the life of humble rebellion. It is a rebellion because it causes us to stand against the forces of evil and discord. It is humble because it relies upon the power and righteousness of God rather than anything of ourselves. It is also humble because it does not cause unnecessary offense. Again, the cross of Christ is offensive enough – let us not cause unnecessary offense, but speak the truth in love! As the Apostle Peter wrote,

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12

No, not every person will come to see the truth of the gospel simply because we are on our best behavior. In fact, sometimes behavior that is truly good, such as standing up for the truth, is viewed as “bad” by the world. Nevertheless, we must strive to do good.

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…

1 Peter 3:13-18

Let us keep these words in mind as we seek to bring about reconciliation in the world. Let us live the life of humble rebellion against the forces of darkness, that the light of God might shine through us and draw others to the truth!

All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Calvin, John. Commentary on Corinthians – Volume 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library) Page 206.

[2] Ignatius of Antioch. “Epistle to the Romans” in The Apostolic Fathers: Early Christian Writings. Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, translators. (London: Penguin Books, 1987) Page 86.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just