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The Gospel of Transformation
Distinguishing the Discipleship & Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation
Section II The Gospel’s Relational Outcome of Wholeness
Chapter 7 The Kingdom of God's Dwelling
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.
For the kingdom of God is not about secondary matters
but righteousness and wholeness and joy in the Holy Spirit.
The whole of God’s theological trajectory and relational path in response to our human condition unfold for only one purpose: our redemptive reconciliation to new relationship together in wholeness. This outcome has been perceived as the kingdom of God, the church ‘already’ and the new Jerusalem ‘not yet’ (Rev 3:12; 21:2). Whether its reality is understood as in the present or to come, its discourse in referential terms has been a source both of diminishing our theology of primary matter (as Paul states above) and of reducing our practice to having little experiential significance—specifically of God’s relational response to our human condition. It may be difficult to accept but any such good news composed in referential language can only have a referential outcome, which would not be on God’s trajectory and relational path and thus not have the primacy of the relational significance distinguishing the gospel’s only outcome.
In terms of the relational work composed from the beginning by God’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26), how we experience God’s response may have some variation among us. The what and the who we experience, however, cannot vary from one person to another, from one church to another. By the relational nature of God’s relational response, there can only be one relational outcome to this good news. From God’s definitive blessing through the incarnation and into Paul, the relational outcome composes ‘already’ God’s new creation family in whole relationship together—which always involves by necessity both equalized and intimate relationships without the veil. We are saved to nothing less and no substitutes in order for our ontology and function to be whole. Therefore, we necessarily have to account for this relational outcome in our theology and practice for our gospel to be on the same trajectory and path as God’s response to our human condition.
As we concentrate our focus on the gospel’s only relational outcome, our theology and practice will be challenged, may also be threatened, and perhaps will be resistant to go beyond re-formation to transformation. On the one hand, limiting our focus to what we are saved from is both comforting and comfortable. Extending our involvement to be inclusive of what we are saved to, on the other hand, makes us vulnerable from inner out, requires our whole person in whole relationships, and demands our ongoing accountability for no less without substitutes (as Jesus proclaimed above). The Spirit is present and involved for the reciprocal relationship necessary to take us through this relational process together to complete the relational outcome of wholeness.
Knowing relationally who came remains elusive for the gospel if its experiential truth of whole relationship together is not based on the complete Christology of the whole of God. Likewise, understanding what has come remains ambiguous for the gospel if its outcome does not have the same relational basis. For Jesus, the what he saved to focused on the kingdom of God, which was the relational realm of his qualitative focus from outside the universe (cf. Jn 18:36) that encompasses the whole of God’s whole. As he delineated his kingdom, he also by necessity clarified misperceptions and corrected misunderstanding of the kingdom (as in Lk 17:20-21)—all vital for his gospel and its outcome. Distinguishing and understanding what has come—that is, distinguishing it from our human shaping—has been problematic and necessitates the whole knowledge and understanding from complete Christology. An incomplete Christology is insufficient to distinguish the relationship of God from human shaping, which is necessary to delineate the kingdom in other than referential or quantitative terms.
Each of the canonical Gospels provides its evangelist’s unique portrait of Jesus and his composing of the kingdom of God. Yet, none of them alone is definitive of the whole of Jesus or of the kingdom. Taken together, the whole of God in Jesus integrally emerges and the kingdom becomes definitive in the whole of God’s thematic relational action embodied by Jesus for this new relationship together. Integrally understanding this in Jesus is receiving the qualitative presence of the whole of God and the relational involvement of the whole of God as Trinity.
What emerges from salvation and being born again (from above), and is synonymous with eternal life and the eschatological hope, is the kingdom of God (or heaven, used by Mt to be indirect in reverence for God for Jewish readers). The relational outcome of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed always raised questions and related issues. The primary questions involved in the interpretive issue of the kingdom are inseparable: (1) what is the kingdom that has come? and (2) when does the kingdom emerge? As much as the imminence of the kingdom has been debated, I contend this cannot be adequately answered until the kingdom itself is sufficiently defined and understood. When this is understood, I further emphasize that the question of its imminence becomes secondary—not unimportant, only less significant in the eschatological plan of God’s thematic action.
In his hermeneutical discourse defending his salvific work, Jesus exposed a false eschatological hope of those Jews incorrectly embedded in the Scriptures (Jn 5:39-40, noted earlier). This eschatological hope was the life to come, or the kingdom of God’s kingship and sovereign rule, which John’s Gospel correctly embodied in the full relational context and process of the whole of God. Keeping this hermeneutic in mind, we shift to Luke’s Gospel, who was concerned for a kingdom for all peoples.
The term “kingdom of God” is not found in the OT, yet the reality and expectation of God’s kingship and sovereign rule as vested in Messiah are embedded in the OT. The issue then and now is how the Scriptures are approached, and thereby how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
When some Pharisees questioned Jesus about the coming of the kingdom of God, he could have replied as he did in the above discourse and with Nicodemus: “You study and teach the Scriptures but do you not understand this?” (cf. Jn 3:10) Yet, the clear implication of such a reply came in another response he gave elsewhere: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21).
The focus of Jesus’ response tends to be on “is within you.” Before, however, this can be understood, we need to address the issue Jesus raised about ‘observation’ (parateresis, watching closely), which includes the implication his reply involves. “Careful observation” characterized the rigorous practice of Pharisees observing their covenant code of behavior, which, more importantly, reflected the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework operating in their approach to the Scriptures and their eschatological hope—which also reflected their underlying theological anthropology defining the person by what they do. Jesus implied (as with those in Jn 5:39) that their careful observations through the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework only focused on the quantitative aspects of the kingdom—a process somewhat analogous to the Enlightenment’s scientific method.
Accordingly, the issue Jesus addressed about the kingdom “within you” (en) is less about any measured-temporal sense of the kingdom—that is, “among you collectively,” and thus is present (‘already’, realized eschatology), or “within you,” understood as merely an inward (spiritual) nature pointing to the future (‘not yet’, future eschatology). More significantly, I affirm, Jesus addressed the issue between reductionism of the kingdom to mere quantitative terms as opposed to the qualitative integrity of the whole of the kingdom’s relational significance. This is the major issue of the kingdom in its past, present and future—in Israel’s past, in Jesus’ present, in the whole of God’s thematic action in relational progression to the future—which directly involves how the Scriptures are approached, how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to. When we also adequately address this major issue, we more congruently follow Jesus on his relational path for the outcome of what has come.
The kingdom of God cannot be reduced to quantitative aspects, though it certainly involves them in secondary ways that can never be made primary to determine God’s kingdom. The kingdom can only be defined in whole by qualitative terms, which vulnerably involves the whole person (signified by the heart), though the whole of the kingdom is contained neither in the individual person only nor spiritually within us. Conjoined with this definition, the kingdom can only be determined in function by qualitative relational terms directly involving the relationships together necessary to be whole, the whole of God’s whole in likeness of the Trinity.
This was the qualitative significance that the whole of the Word embodied to disclose vulnerably the whole of God for covenant relationship together in “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20). Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ salvific discourses and work with the emphasis of the kingdom of God for all peoples. A Jewish bias, particularly in a reductionist hermeneutic of their Scriptures, would reduce the whole of the kingdom and preclude access by all, or at the very least stratify the access for others. Thus, it is important in Luke’s narrative accounts to interrelate Jesus’ discourses about approaching the Scriptures integrally with understanding the relational significance of the kingdom of God that has come (cf. Lk 10:21).
This interrelated focus necessitates revisiting Jesus’ demonstrative joy with the Spirit in praising the Father for “your gracious will” (eudokia) in “disclosing the whole of God and God’s thematic action to little children,” not to “the wise and the intellectual” (Lk 10:21). Those who represent “little children” are persons vulnerably engaged in qualitative relational involvement with the whole of Jesus—neither distant relationally by engaging a disembodied Word, nor detached relationally by analytically observing the secondary details of the Word and God’s action, as “the wise and learned” were, incorrectly embedded in the Scriptures. The latter approach includes the referentialization of the embodied whole of the Word, which creates a hermeneutic impasse to the irreducible Subject of the Word (discussed in chap. 3). The whole of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus involves his relational context and process, in which “little children” relationally respond compatibly for the connection necessary for the relational flow of communication, as Jesus made definitive (Lk 10:22). The referentialization of the Word has been a hermeneutical issue through Israel’s history in search of the eschatological hope (10:23-24), and continues to be a hermeneutical issue today in church and academy.
“The wise and the intellectual” (in Lk 10:21) were directly associated with the “careful observation” in Lk 17:20. This evidenced both their reductionist interpretive framework imposed on the Scriptures (and on God’s self-disclosure in the Word embodied), and their reductionist perceptual framework narrowing down the kingdom of God to quantitative parameters without the qualitative relational significance of the whole accessible to all “little children.” This was earlier summarized in John’s Gospel (emphasizing the big picture) with Jesus’ disarming words in his hermeneutical discourse of his salvific work: “You search the Scriptures but you depend on your own perceptual interpretation to signify your eternal life, your membership in the kingdom” (Jn 5:39). Moreover, what is composed from their study of Scripture has a fragmenting impact on the kingdom by redefining its nature and integrity in two ways: (1) it creates false distinctions of who can know about God better than others, and thereby (2) establishes a comparative process that composes members in a stratified system of “better” and “less” (both implied in Mt 21:15-16).
When Jesus illuminated the kingdom, it unavoidably involved the redemptive change implied in “repent” (Mt 4:17, cf. 3:2)—the process from old to new, the old dying and the new rising, which necessarily involved deconstructing human shaping of God’s kingdom. We need to embrace this change in order for his kingdom to clearly emerge from any of our shaping, and thereby distinguish God’s dwelling in our midst—dwelling vulnerably and intimately. This certainly may require changes in both our theology and practice.
In Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus came to fulfill God’s covenant promise and the eschatological hope of Israel as God’s people, not as nation-state. Accordingly, Jesus’ kingdom of heaven had continuity from the OT (Mt 3:1-3; 4:12-17, cf. 25:34). Yet, there was also a clear qualitative distinction about this kingdom (Mt 5:3,10,20; 7:21; 12:48-50; 18:3; 19:14). While the kingdom of heaven was an extension of the old covenant and the fulfillment of its covenant promise, there arrived also directly with Immanuel—the vulnerably present and intimately involved “God with us”—a new and deeper covenant relationship together that he composed in the kingdom of heaven. In relational terms, Jesus fulfilled both the quantitative terms of the old covenant and its qualitative relational significance, which Jesus vulnerably embodied for the direct experience of this covenant relationship together in its new and deeper relational process. And Jesus appeared to further associate this relational significance with his church (ekklesia, gathered body, Mt 16:18-19), which involved building (oikodomeo, to build a house, v.18, whose root is oikos) his household family (oikos and kingdom together in Mt 12:25). Building “with me” is in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love to “gather with me” (synago, Mt 12:30, the root for synagogue, the counterpart to ekklesia) the family of God, both signifying and constituting “the kingdom of God has come to you” (12:28).
Therefore, after Jesus disclosed to his disciples “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (mysterion, hidden, hard to understand because undivulged, Mt 13:11-51), he made the following definitive for every teacher of the covenant relationship who has been made a functioning disciple (matheteuo, rendered inadequately in NRSV as “trained”) in the kingdom of heaven: as persons belonging to the household family of God, they openly share the qualitative relational significance of the new covenant relationship together as well as the fulfillment of the old (Mt 13:52). This involves the full soteriology of both what Jesus saved from and what he saved to—the conjoint function of his relational work of grace only for new covenant relationship together, and thus for only the transformation to wholeness of persons and relationships.
Yet, the mysterion of the kingdom can remain hidden even though they were vulnerably disclosed by Jesus and made directly accessible even to “little children.” This happens for two important reasons, which Jesus identified at the beginning of the above discourse with his disciples (with the parables of the kingdom directed to the crowds, Mt 13:13). First, Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven were disclosed only for covenant relationship together, not for the quantitative aspects and functional implications of his kingly rule. The latter become the focus determined by a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which Jesus identified as an ongoing issue in Israel’s history (vv.13-14). Predisposed by reductionism, what they paid attention to and ignored precluded their understanding (syniemi, denotes putting the pieces together into a whole) and prevented them from perceiving deeply (horao, not merely to see but to pay attention to a person to recognize their significance, encounter their true nature and to experience them). Furthermore, their whole person had been reduced (signified by “their heart has grown dull,” v.15) to function without the critical significance of both qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness, thereby biasing what they paid attention to and ignored. This had a direct relational consequence “to be apart” from the whole of God, to which God’s thematic relational work of grace in Jesus would respond if they opened their heart.
This points to the second important reason the kingdom remains hidden despite Jesus’ vulnerable disclosure and intimate accessibility. Jesus began this discourse saying “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not” (v.11). This was not a selective bias by Jesus showing preferential treatment to some while denying access to others, which he appeared to embed in a system of inequitable distribution (v.12). The significance rather was about relationship and its reciprocity, distinguishing the involvement in the relational epistemic process that Jesus made clear (Lk 10:21; cf. Mk 4:24-25). Jesus was pointing to the terms necessary for the nature of the relational process he was defining, and to the relational outcome or consequence of its ongoing experience or lack thereof. “To know” (ginosko, experience) was not mere referential information, for example, of propositional truths to quantify in a belief (or theological) system. This was experiential truth that “has been given” (didomi in Gk perfect tense, passive voice), hereby illuminating the experiential reality of Jesus’ relational communication of this kingdom knowledge in relational terms “to you” and stressing his ongoing relational process for his disciples to respond back to and be involved with him in for their experience of the truth of new covenant relationship together. This reciprocal relational involvement in his relational process is the nothing-less-and-no-substitute terms necessary for whole knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of heaven—the qualitative relational terms Jesus illuminated, which he affirmed the disciples engaged, however imperfectly, while the others did not (vv.16-17).
These terms for relationship are the terms for adherence that Jesus defined for his disciples (mathetai). These terms for adherence to Jesus are inherent in being his disciples (matheteuo), not only for teachers of the covenant relationship (in his above definitive statement, 13:52) but for all his followers to have qualitative relational significance in the kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel takes matheteuo very seriously, given the evangelist’s emphasis on discipleship. Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel to record a specific imperative in Jesus’ Great Commission, to “make disciples (matheteusate, imperative of matheteuo) of all nations” (Mt 28:19). This further composes the nature and integrity of reciprocal relationship in his kingdom.
These are the qualitative relational terms necessary for new covenant relationship together with the whole of God and for the experiential reality of God’s kingdom to emerge. Without the function of whole relationship together in Jesus’ relational context and process, there is no experiential truth of the kingdom of God, regardless of whether the kingdom is ‘already’ (present) and/or ‘not yet’ (future).
This leads us to a further issue that makes problematic both receiving who came and responding to what has come. The pervading difficulty in the ongoing discussion to define the what and when of the kingdom appears to arise from a similar hermeneutical issue that kept the kingdom hidden from Jesus’ contemporaries. I submit that the prevailing working definition of the kingdom focused on God’s kingly rule becomes an epistemic problem when approached with a similar perceptual-interpretive framework illustrated by those in the above discourse. A primarily quantitative tendency has difficulty understanding the depth of “God reigns” and the qualitative relational significance involved, and consequently tends to reduce it merely to the function of sovereign (kingly) rule. This narrows down the relational ontology of the whole of God and essentially puts constraints on how God functions in that ontology, notably in the incarnation. For example, if the angel’s words to Mary about the child she would birth (Lk 1:30-33) are interpreted apart from the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ whole person and his relational context and process, Jesus can only be a king who rules. This constrains the whole of Jesus and God’s thematic relational action in a ‘quantitative box’ without any further and deeper significance. This certainly has relational consequences for receiving the whole of Jesus and responding to “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Moreover, the focus on God’s kingly rule reflects a predisposition to see God’s rule only on certain terms, tending toward our terms (e.g. as demonstrated in Jn 6:14-15). This predisposition is seen in Israel’s history. God’s thematic action was epitomized in their redemption from Egypt (Dt 4:32-37). Yet, God’s self-disclosure in this redemptive experience was not about showing God’s power and rule, but about perceiving (ra’ah, v.35) the whole of God (“his own presence [paneh, face],” v.37) and God’s ongoing action for relationship together in the covenant of love (cf. 7:8-9). If God’s people only focused on a reduced God, that is, on the quantitative aspects of what God did (power and rule), then their focus would always be essentially about “What have you done for me lately?” and not on the whole of God’s qualitative being (the ontological One) and relational nature (the relational Whole) and relationship together in the covenant of love. This predisposition characterized their wilderness experience and pervaded their eschatological hope, consequently reducing their salvation to deliverance from situations without the relational significance of what God saves them to—the what that has come to transpose them from old to new.
The tendency to see God’s rule only on such terms is a reductionist consequence from an imbalanced focus on God’s kingly rule. The irrefutable reality is, God already sovereignly rules; as expressed in the ancient poet’s reflection in Psalm 93, as Creator the Lord already and always reigns—that is a given. God does not have to prove it, though at times does demonstrate it. Even when the disciples asked themselves on the sea of Galilee, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mk 4:41), his action was not about Jesus proving he reigns, nor a great display of power of the Creator. God simply reigns—a reality that was insufficient to deeply impact those disciples and change their lives in the days ahead with Jesus, which Mark’s Gospel critically portrays of the disciples.
It is also insufficient to make God’s kingly rule the purpose of the kingdom and of Jesus’ salvific work. God’s thematic action since creation is not about ruling, and the purpose of incarnation of the Word (the one and only Son) was not to establish a king to rule. This was a discussion Jesus had with Pilate about being a king and his kingdom, which Jesus qualified by his purpose “to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:36-37). John’s Gospel provides the overarching picture, to which Jesus testified (martyreo, witness as a participant, not mere observer) as of the transcendent and thus of the transcendent God (Jn 3:31-36), intimately making vulnerable the whole of God (exegeomai, Jn 1:18). His truth, accordingly only in relational terms and not referential, was for redemption to be in relationship together as family (Jn 8:31-36). As the Truth to the Father (Jn 14:6), Jesus embodied this experiential truth only for this relationship (Jn 1:14, then 12)—the only relational outcome of this good news. At that time of his farewell discourse, the disciples still had difficulty integrally understanding the whole of Jesus because they were predisposed by their lingering quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework (Jn 14:4-9). Even though earlier they had shifted from the quantitative to qualitative kingdom, they had yet to distinguish the whole of who came necessary to fully understand the whole of what has come.
When Jesus initiated the Lord’s supper for the ultimate table fellowship, he illuminated that the “cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). The disciples had not yet understood the significance of the new covenant for relationship together in the kingdom, since immediately after the supper they disputed about which of them was the greatest (Lk 22:24-30, cf. 13:29-30). While Jesus exposed their reductionism and constituted their relationships in the relational whole of his kingdom, the disciples exposed their need to be changed (cf. Mt 18:1-4)—that is, the process of redemptive change in which the old dies so the new rises. Earlier Jesus pointed to the significance of the new with the parable of new wine (Lk 5:33-39). As previously discussed, this tends to be used incorrectly to emphasize new forms and practices, but the new only involves changed persons experiencing new relationship together (the focus in vv.34-35) that distinguished the new wine communion together of God’s kingdom (Lk 13:29-30).
The process to the new is what Jesus’ salvific work saved us to: the kingdom of God, or its equivalence in John’s Gospel, eternal life. John’s Gospel replaces “kingdom” language with eternal life, possibly in part to avoid any conflicts such language could create with Gentiles, yet more importantly to provide the further and deeper significance of the kingdom in the relational context and process of the whole of Jesus. The kingdom that had come came embodied in Jesus, the whole of the Word. As he told Nicodemus, the qualitative relational shape of the whole of God’s kingdom was “born from above,” not by human shaping but born new by the Spirit as the new creation in the image of the relational ontology of the whole of God, thereby made whole in new relationship together in likeness of the Trinity—just as Jesus asked the Father in his formative family prayer (Jn 17). On this basis, the kingdom of God indeed signifies more than God’s kingly rule; and Jesus embodied that significance and constituted the kingdom in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love for this new covenant relationship together—functioning beyond the quantitative limits of the old to intimate relationship together in the very likeness of the relational ontology (zoe) of the Trinity.
Therefore, Jesus’ salvific work and the kingdom must be understood in this further and deeper relational context and process. The whole of God and God’s action are only about relationship, relationship together, covenant relationship together in the whole of God’s whole, which certainly then is only on God’s qualitative relational terms. And if God’s terms for relationship are interpreted only as kingly rule, this would reduce the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ relational work of grace in agape involvement to fulfill God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. Historically, such rule has been wrongly imposed on others in the name of God for the sake of God’s kingdom. Relationship, by the nature of the relational ontology of the Trinity, however, cannot be decreed, legislated, otherwise imposed, nor can it be unilateral, all of which are assumed in the primacy of kingly rule. In contrast, God’s kingdom is qualitatively defined irreducibly and relationally determined nonnegotiably by the whole relationship of God, and thereby functions in whole relationship together in likeness of the Trinity. And this relational basis renders our shaping of who came and what has come in our theology and practice to fragmentary terms without significance, therefore without the experiential reality of this whole relational outcome.
The experiential truth of who came and the experiential reality of what has come require the following: covenant relationship together necessitates reciprocal relational response and involvement, the function of which needs to be compatible with the whole and holy God from outside the universe. This was the significance of the relational process Jesus both initiated in the incarnation with the strategic shift of God’s thematic action, and made his whole person vulnerable for with the tactical shift of his salvific work. Not only had the kingdom of God come, but most significantly the transcendent, immanent, whole and holy God was vulnerably present and intimately involved for relationship together. There is no latitude to reshape this truth and reality, nor the means to renegotiate our response.
Accordingly, this necessary reciprocal relational response and involvement are reciprocated only on the basis of the agape involvement of family love experienced first from the whole of God’s relational work of grace in the functional shift, which constitutes both the whole person and those persons together in the relationships necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. There is no other relational context and process involving the Trinity’s thematic action, and only this relational context and process composes what is the kingdom of God that encompasses the whole of God’s dwelling, vulnerably and intimately involved with us. That is, the kingdom (‘already’ and ‘not yet’) cannot be separated from the embodied whole of Jesus’ trinitarian relational context and process; the whole of Jesus’ person and actions (in word and deed) illuminated and distinguished the whole relationship of God constituting “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Until we integrally understand this qualitative relational nature and function of the kingdom, we cannot adequately address the present-future issue of the kingdom; nor can we fully interpret Jesus’ relational words that the kingdom “has come” (ephthasen, Lk 11:20) and “has come near” (engiken, Mk 1:15). After John was put in prison, Jesus began “proclaiming the good news of God… ‘The kingdom of God has come near; respond to the good news’” (Mk 1:14-15). “Proclaim” (kerysso) is also rendered “preach”—conventionally perceived in a role of preaching. We can either disembody Jesus’ relational words about the kingdom to merely referential words (preached), which is the pervasive practice preaching has come to signify involving the referentialization of the Word. Or, we can interpret those words of the kingdom as the embodied whole of the Word in relational language. The former just transmit information about God but the latter communicate the relational messages of God in relationship.
Engiken and ephthasen have an abstract sense (a reduced sense) if what has come near, or has come, involves merely referential words (even if it includes deeds) about the kingdom. Such disembodied words would not likely constitute good news to evoke your response, especially if you expect more than words (even if they speak truth and hope). On the other hand, engiken and ephthasen have a distinguished whole sense when what is the Who has come near, and has come, to embody the very kingdom of God itself. Who, as Subject and not merely Object, becomes good news indeed, whom persons can receive (not merely hear words) and relationally respond back to (“repent and trust in the good news”). Words by themselves are not good news (or bad); embodied words become either the gospel to relationally respond back to, or the threat from “bad” news to relationally react against—both of which are played out in the Gospels’ narratives. With this understanding, then the hermeneutical issue for engiken and ephthasen becomes whether Jesus’ relational context and process embodying the kingdom has relational significance for the present or only the future.
Furthermore, the epistemic problem of the kingdom involves not only disembodying Jesus’ words but also reducing his person merely to his deeds—both signifying the referentialization of the Word. Jesus’ deeds (or his ministry) were certainly quantified in history, and this historical aspect is valid and necessary. George Ladd aligned the two to render ephthasen as a fulfillment of the kingdom of God in history (i.e. in Jesus’ ministry) as well as the kingdom’s full consummation at the end of history (Jesus’ second coming, parousia). This makes the kingdom of God both present and future, which is certainly good news. Yet, this perception emerges from a reduction of Jesus’ person to his deeds, and thereby becomes too quantitative and conceptually fragmentary for the kingdom of God to have significance. This is insufficient to understand the significance of Jesus’ words, which was relational language, and his actions, which were salvific as God’s thematic relational action—the qualitative relational function of which constitutes the kingdom of God. Both disembodying Jesus’ words and reducing his person to his deeds create an epistemic problem to integrally understand the qualitative relational significance of the whole of Jesus’ salvific action, and therefore the experiential truth of what Jesus saved us to. What Jesus saved us to is to experience the reality of the kingdom of God’s present relational outcome embodied with Jesus in new relationship together, the relational progression of which comes to completion by the Spirit in the relational conclusion at the eschaton.
The shape of the kingdom of God as the whole of God’s vulnerable and intimate dwelling cannot emerge from reductionism. Reductionism always counters the relationships of the whole, separating or distancing persons in the relationships to be whole—for example, by stratifying relationships in a system of inequality, which Jesus found operating in the temple and throughout the surrounding context. Revisiting the disciples’ dispute about which of them was greatest, Jesus redefined the significance of ruling in relationship together in his kingdom by composing their relationships in unstratified intimate involvement together (Lk 22:24-30). His clarification and correction both pointed them back to the function of “little children” and the need for redemptive change for the new relationship together in God’s kingdom (Mt 18:1-4), and pointed ahead to relationship together with the veil removed (as Paul distinguished, 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 2:14-22). This was the kingdom that Jesus embodied and distinguished for his followers, which was incompatible with reductionism and its counter-relational workings.
Reductionism reshapes the kingdom of God into ontological simulations, and distorts its shape with epistemological illusions. Consequently, we need to fully understand Jesus’ relational context and process for the whole of his kingdom to expose the presence and influence of reductionism. The only shape constituting the kingdom of God emerges from the whole of Jesus embodying the whole relationship of God for new relationship together in likeness, thereby fulfilling God’s thematic relational action in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God’s whole family.
The kingdom of God had come near even before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the good news; Luke’s Gospel provides its biographical roots. Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song pointed to him in their summation of God’s thematic action of grace fulfilling the covenant promise of salvation (Lk 1:46-55; 67-79). As Simeon received the child Jesus into his arms, he confirmed that God’s salvation and kingdom for all had come near (Lk 2:28-32), which the prophetess Anna also affirmed upon meeting the child (Lk 2:38). Then, at age twelve, Jesus took action to initiate the function for the kingdom of God that had come near (Lk 2:49).
As Jesus began to proclaim the good news for relationship together with the whole of his person and action, the kingdom of God had come nearer. As he functioned in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and his salvific work relationally progressed, Jesus increasingly gave shape to the kingdom of God until it had come—whole-ly embodied for new relationship together. This qualitative relational shape is the experiential truth of the kingdom of God accessible to all for compatible relational response to the good news of the embodied whole and holy, transcendent God vulnerably present and intimately involved for the experiential reality of this covenant relationship together—the new creation made whole as family with God’s vulnerable and intimate dwelling.
Just as Jesus demonstrated in his function, “The kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20), therefore compatibly respond relationally to the good news. And as he made definitive an ongoing relational imperative for his followers, “Seek the primacy of his kingdom and the whole of God’s relational righteousness” (Mt 6:33). To help us respond compatibly in the primacy of ongoing reciprocal relationship together, there are further matters to clarify about the qualitative relational shape of his kingdom and some summary issues to address about its significance.
The kingdom of God still signifies God’s sovereign rule, though as a dynamic rule without involving a material realm, as well as signifies God’s eschatological rule with the new realm. In the previous salvific discourse, Jesus clearly identified driving out demons with the kingdom of God (Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20). This was certainly about Christ’s authority and kingly rule. Yet, driving out demons, along with his other healing (cf. Lk 7:20-23), was also part of his deeper salvific relational work to sozo, that is, to make whole those apart from the whole. Thus, the function of God’s reign with this action was not in relation to those made whole but God’s reign over Satan in general, and over Satan’s counter-relational work of reductionism in particular. Even though reductionism’s struggle with God’s whole is ongoing, God’s rule prevails—that is a given, which even the demons understood (cf. Mk 1:24; Mt 8:29-31). To give primary focus for the kingdom to God’s reign is to reduce the relational significance of the outcome for those now made whole for relationship together as the kingdom of God’s dwelling vulnerably and intimately as family (cf. the inclusive table fellowship of those made whole in the kingdom of God, Lk 13:29-30). To reduce this relational significance is to reduce those in the kingdom to relational orphans, which would signify the counter-relational work of reductionism.
When the appointed seventy-two followers returned to Jesus joyfully to report that the demons were subjugated to them in his name, Jesus clearly put his authority and rule into this further and deeper perspective: “I have given you authority to rule (exousia)…over the enemy; nothing will harm (adikeo) you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk 10:17-20, NIV). Jesus shifted them from the quantitative focus of his kingly rule to the qualitative focus on relationship together, with future relational implications. Consistently for Jesus, God’s kingdom implied God’s reign while more deeply involving God’s dwelling, the vulnerable and intimate dwelling which constituted the relational context and process of the Trinity’s presence and involvement in relationship together as God’s whole family. This was the only purpose of the whole of God’s thematic relational action and the significance of God’s strategic shift. Salvation and the kingdom of God are not about the primacy of God’s rule but about the primacy of belonging to God’s kingdom in whole relationship together in the covenant of love. Adikeo essentially involves violating, and thereby reducing, the whole of covenant relationship together, against which Jesus’ reign over Satan will always prevail (cf. Mt 16:18). Thus, our response must always be determined by the primacy of whole relationship together composing his kingdom, just as Jesus made an ongoing relational imperative for his followers (Mt 6:33).
I maintain, therefore, that the significance of God’s present dynamic reign is relationship-specific to Satan, to rule ongoingly over him and his counter-relational work of reductionism; as such, God’s rule is not the primary functional focus of the kingdom with those in covenant relationship together. Though by prevailing over Satan’s struggle against God’s whole, God’s reign is certainly relationally significant ongoingly for those in the kingdom (cf. Mt 16:18). Furthermore, God’s present rule continues until God’s eschatological rule will conclude Satan’s ultimate defeat and the new realm (new heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem) for God’s people will commence. This, I uphold, is the significance of God’s reign and its function in the kingdom, both present and future.
With this focus for the kingdom, we can integrally understand its deeper shape, which foremost involves defining Jesus’ person and the whole of God by the deeper significance than merely what they do, namely rule kingly. This helps us understand the direct interrelation between the kingdom and the ontology of the whole of Jesus. Jesus’ whole person constitutes his relational involvement in the incarnation to make whole the human condition in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love; his embodied function signified the relational ontology of the whole of God, the Trinity functioning as family. Therefore, the kingdom of God that has come is the direct relational outcome (experienced in the relational progression of the present) and relational conclusion (completed in the future) of the whole of Jesus’ salvific relational presence and involvement, nothing less and no substitutes. This means that the qualitative relational significance of the kingdom of God must (dei) by this nature integrally be about being God’s whole family and also involve the relationships together necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity as family. The kingdom, then, in this specific relational context and process can only be on God’s qualitative relational terms—never human terms and shaping, which are always fragmentary at best— consequently irreducible and nonnegotiable in the new covenant relationship together.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly focused on the kingdom of heaven in continuity with the OT, yet also affirmed its relational process to the new. After Jesus disclosed the significance of the parables of the kingdom to his disciples, only Matthew recorded Jesus’ analogy for them as leaders that made necessary the experiential truth of the new of the kingdom (Mt 13:52). The new of the kingdom, however, has its strongest identity in Luke’s Gospel (and developed in his second volume, Acts), whose concern for the Gentiles was an accessible gospel signifying the kingdom of God for all. While there is no shortage of kingdom language to maintain continuity with the OT, Luke integrated the kingdom with a feast composed integrally by all people groups to ensure the new (Lk 13:29-30). Thus, it is helpful to connect various accounts of table fellowship in Luke to further understand the qualitative relational significance of the kingdom and its process to the new. This clarification and correction are critical for ongoingly composing the kingdom in whole relationship together.
We can start with Jesus’ surprising statement to Zacchaeus that he must (dei) by the nature of his salvific work have table fellowship at Zacchaeus’ house, and thus the relational outcome of that experience (Lk 19:5,9-10). Next, Jesus was anointed by a prostitute during table fellowship at a Pharisee’s house to disclose both the agape involvement of his salvific work and the reciprocal relational response by a person made whole (sozo) having received him (Lk 7:36-50). These narrative accounts evidence the table fellowship of the new wine involving changed persons experiencing new relationship together, persons who were not stuck in, constrained by or satisfied with the old but had embraced the new (Lk 5:34-39, cf. table fellowship with Martha and Mary, Lk 10:38-42). Thus, the new wine table fellowship is a function of the new creation, the relational reality of which was constituted by the experiential truth of the blood of the new covenant (with the veil removed) initiating in the present the pivotal table fellowship for this relational outcome ‘already’ (Lk 22:20).
The experiential truth of God’s presence and involvement exposes the fact that artificial and false distinctions are made about “the kingdom of God has come to you.” These distinctions have no functional significance to God’s intentions in response to the human condition, or to God’s desires for relationship together. Yet, their existence to this day further exposes the pervasive influence of reductionism shaping the kingdom contrary to Jesus’ relational path.
The convergence of this new fellowship ‘already’ has the relational conclusion ‘not yet’ at the ultimate table fellowship of the kingdom of God for all in new covenant relationship together as God’s whole without reductionism (Lk 13:29-30). An ongoing issue about the kingdom of God is the tension between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ (whether present or future), yet this conversation has been about a quantitative tension, not a qualitative matter. This tension involves the temporal focus of chronos: the quantitative perception of time denoting a period measured by the successive passing of moments (or events). Despite various references Jesus made to temporal aspects of the kingdom, he was not focused on chronos (cf. his Olivet discourse on end times, Mt 24:36). Having been asked when the kingdom of God would come, he made definitive that it cannot be determined by a quantitative focus (Lk 17:20). Why? Because by its nature, as he embodied, “the kingdom of God is within (or among) you” (Lk 17:21). That is to say, not that the kingdom is spiritual (in the sense of being only subjective and esoteric), but rather the ontology of the kingdom is qualitative; “the kingdom is” (eimi, verb of existence, also a copula) conjoined “within you (pl)” as qualitative whole persons and “among you” in the qualitative relational significance of whole relationships.
The ontology of the kingdom of God is set forth further in Jesus’ statement distinguishing the kingdom as “little children” in relationship together (Lk 18:16). This cannot be measured in reductionist terms like chronos and determined by a quantitative focus, even on the Word. Jesus embodied the kingdom and gave it its qualitative relational shape in kairos (qualitative time, season, characterized by the critical importance and decisive influence of something, see Lk 12:56). Though this certainly happened in chronos of human history, that is secondary to the primacy of the kingdom’s qualitative relational significance in kairos—the experiential truth of which is only for new relationship together with those “little children” who relationally respond back in qualitative compatibility (cf. Lk 10:21, Mt 18:3).
Thus, the experiential reality of relationship together signifies the experiential truth of the kingdom that, I affirm, makes the already-not yet issue rather insignificant and an artificial distinction for the kingdom of God. Such notions serve to diminish the whole of Jesus (who came) and “the kingdom of God that has come to you” (what has come). Without the relational significance of God’s relational response to our human condition, what difference does it make when this relational outcome happens?
Moreover, the whole of God’s strategic shift in the mystery of the incarnation reconstituted God’s dwelling from a quantitative sanctuary (mountain, tabernacle, temple, cf. Jn 4:21) directly to the qualitative sanctuary both “within you” and “among you” as whole persons in the relationships necessary to be whole together with God. This was the purpose Jesus vulnerably disclosed to the Samaritan woman that the whole of God seeks new relationship together with persons only “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:21-24). It is an artificial distinction to separate the kingdom as God’s kingly rule and realm to the future from the present reality of the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God for new relationship together as God’s family. Paul clearly illuminated this experiential truth with the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16) and distinguished this experiential reality in the church (Eph 2:22). God’s kingdom, then, is no less than the kingdom of the whole of God’s vulnerable and intimate dwelling—whose context of family and process of family love are only relational and on God’s whole terms.
Likewise, it is a false distinction to separate out any notion of the kingdom in the present from the present reality of God’s life and action within and among God’s people. This fragments God into kingly rule apart from agape involvement as family, which includes the affectionate expression of phileo, and thus into merely what to do without relational significance. In addition, this reduces the relational ontology of the whole of God and constrains God and God’s action to the quantitative aspects of bios, as opposed to the qualitative significance of zoe. This then shapes the kingdom differently from the qualitative relational “kingdom of God that has come to you”; furthermore, in this same discourse Jesus made clear his position against reductionism, indicating that the kingdom and family were equivalent (Lk 11:17-26). What Jesus embodied into Paul, therefore, and Paul extended, composes his kingdom in the church as family.
What Jesus embodied in whole relational terms cannot be limited to the quantitative aspects of bios. The life Jesus embodied in whole, and in which he constituted his followers, only has significance in zoe—that is, the qualitative relational life of the whole of God, the zoe of the Trinity, of whom having whole knowledge and understanding ‘already’ composes eternal life (given Jesus’ prayer, Jn 17:3,26). The whole of Jesus is the qualitative relational nature of those together born by the Spirit as the new creation. The whole of Jesus’ action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love is the qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation. Jesus functioned only for relationship together as his family and ongoingly constituted his followers as God’s family, even while on the cross (as discussed in chap. 11). His kingdom cannot be distinguished from his family without fragmenting the whole of God’s whole. This signifies “the kingdom of God that has come” not merely as kingly rule but, more importantly, as the function of new relationship together as family. This new relational function is relationship-specific to the whole of relationships Jesus constitutes his followers both in and for: his family, his family in the present as the church, thus the church as God’s family in which the whole of God ongoingly dwells in family love (Jn 14:23; 17:26; Eph 2:19-22).
Therefore, it is a false distinction to say that the kingdom of God is God’s kingly rule and the church is another context of the fellowship of those who have experienced God’s rule, and to maintain that the church is not the kingdom. There is no basis to separate them other than the shaping from reductionism, which involves the human shaping of relationships. The kingdom of God is quite humbly this family of “little children” vulnerably enacted to us in love by the whole of Jesus, through whom we become God’s very own family in new covenant relationship together—however incomplete in the present, nevertheless in the relational progression with the Son by the Spirit to the Father for the complete whole of God’s whole in ultimate communion together. This is the new creation, which in whole ontology and function is the church as family today and the presence of God’s kingdom in the world—however imperfect, yet in the reciprocal relational process with the whole of God for redemptive change to the transformation of persons and relationships together in wholeness.
Understandably, one purpose to separate the kingdom from the church is in order to not associate it with imperfection. While this may have human purpose, it has no basis for significance to the whole and holy God. The original creation was made whole in the image and likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity, yet created with human will and thus the volition “to be apart” from the whole of relationships together—consequently, the human condition. God’s relational grace responded to restore the whole of relationship together. In the new creation, human volition remains necessary by the reciprocal nature of relationships together as family by family love, which cannot be decreed, legislated, or otherwise imposed, as can be assumed for kingly rule. Thus, the choice to be whole or “to be apart” is present and will ongoingly remain in tension with reductionism, notably susceptible to its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions in the life and practice of the church—all of which we are accountable for ongoingly and must always account for in our theology and practice.
At the same time, the new creation has been redeemed to relationally belong to the whole of God’s family, therefore never to be orphaned but in ongoing reciprocal intimate relational involvement without the veil with the Spirit, who will complete the relational process to the perfection of the whole as family in new relationship together with the whole and holy God. In other words, even in the present ontology and function, the new creation goes qualitatively well beyond original creation, human volition notwithstanding; and God’s relational grace in the vulnerable involvement of reciprocal relationship indeed is sufficient basis to ongoingly meet its relational needs. It is this qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation (and the kingdom of God) that will always meet the need in the human condition for wholeness, and thereby will emerge as the light in whatever situation and circumstance “to be apart” it may find itself or may encounter in the world. This is the relational outcome ‘already’ that Jesus illuminates and distinguishes in his defining prayer for his whole family, in likeness of the Trinity (Jn 17).
This challenges our theological and functional assumptions. The theological implication of the above discussion is that our knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of God must by nature cohere with the whole of Jesus and his salvific action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love in order for our knowledge and understanding to be whole. The functional implication is that without this coherence, we lack the experiential truth of the kingdom of God on which to base in relational terms (not referential) our integral belonging to God’s whole family in the innermost (not merely as a belief), or even the eschatological hope of belonging. Without congruence with both Jesus’ whole person and his whole relationships, we cannot be on the same relational path with him. This lack tends to leave Christians in the emotional condition (often unknowingly) of, and renders their relational condition to, relational orphans, of which many Christians experience the relational distance, especially as members of churches.
Until we are accountable in our response to be compatible with Jesus’ reciprocal relational terms, we will always require his clarification and correction—much like Peter, who struggled to be vulnerable with his person and intimate in his relationships. Relational orphans are never acceptable to Jesus for composing his kingdom in the church, much less for building his church as family.
When the kingdom of God’s dwelling is understood as unfolding in his church, the basis for the church must be defined and determined by complete Christology. That is to say, Jesus’ whole person and his relationships (both within the Trinity and with others) are definitive for the church’s theology and practice, and therefore determinative of its ontology and function. Nothing less can be compatible with the theological trajectory of God’s relational response to our human condition; and no substitutes can be congruent with Jesus’ relational path.
As discussed throughout this study, God’s thematic relational action unfolds from original creation in the convergence of all the following: the covenant relationship of love, the kingdom of God, the new wine fellowship, the new creation of God’s family, and the church as God’s whole family. The flow of this relational outcome ‘already’, progressing to its relational conclusion ‘not yet’, is the integral relational responsibility of the Spirit (as Jesus’ relational replacement) and the church in reciprocal relationship together as family.
As we transition from the kingdom to the church, it may appear premature to identify the church in the Gospels and establish ecclesiology in the narrative life of Jesus. Yet, the church in wholeness is rooted in and emerges from only complete Christology. An incomplete Christology is the basis for ecclesiologies shaping the church other than the whole of God’s whole family.
When Jesus revealed “I will build my church,” the Greek term he used for church was ekklesia (Mt 16:18). The term meant the assembly or gathering of those who were called out (ekkletoi). Ekklesia also has roots in the OT; it is the term that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) uses for Israel as the covenant community (qahal, Dt 9:10)—suggesting Matthew’s Jewish emphasis as the apparent reason why only this Gospel records Jesus’ statement about the church. This embeds the Christian church in the context of God’s dealings with his chosen people and their covenantal relationship (Ex 19:5, Dt 7:6, Heb 8:10, 1 Pet 2:9-10). The NT extends this salvation history as the Father pursues a people for himself in his eschatological plan (Lk 1:17). This was Jesus’ salvific relational action in complete Christology and full soteriology to build his church.
The term ekklesia itself appears to have only limited descriptive value for what his church is (its ontology) and does (its function). As far as function is concerned, ekklesia is a static term that is not useful to define the church (notably the local church). We need a more dynamic understanding for the church’s ontology and function than merely a gathering. The functional significance of his church emerges when we focus on the process Jesus implied in his statement above, and that he embodied in his life and practice—and made further evident in post-ascension discourse with various churches (discussed later in this chap.).
In Jesus’ disclosure “I will build my church,” the term for build is oikodomeo. This term denotes building a house, derived from its root oikos meaning house, home, family, that is, a family living in a house. These terms were conjoined later with their significant cognates illuminated by Paul: oikeios, belonging to a certain family (Eph 2:19); oikodome, building (Eph 2:21); oikonomos, a person who manages a family (1 Cor 4:1). The function of these relational terms points to the relational process of the new creation family of God and building his family together. This provides us with the vital relational context of his church and the dynamic relational process for the function of his church, both of which Jesus vulnerably embodied progressively in his trinitarian context of family by his trinitarian relational process of family love. On this basis, the church as God’s family was distinguished by Jesus even before the cross, and was fully constituted by his salvific work during the week of equalization to the cross—the relational work that the Spirit came soon afterward to mature for completion, and that Paul, not Peter, would later distinguish for the church’s whole ontology and function. Therefore, ecclesiology is necessarily integrated within a complete Christology to establish the experiential reality of the gospel’s relational outcome in full soteriology. Any ecclesiology that is not functionally integrated within complete Christology is insufficient and lacks wholeness. This points ahead to Paul’s irreplaceable pleroma theology for the church to be whole.
It may be argued that church today bears little resemblance to the church that emerged in the first century. The validity or invalidity of this discussion also depends on our perceptions and understanding of the church being built in Jesus’ disclosure.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, this was for “my house” (oikos) to be a context for communion (notably communication through prayer) together with God “for all peoples” (Mk 11:17). During his crucifixion when the curtain was torn open to reconstitute the temple, this removed the relational veil between God and his people for a new context and process of relationship together. This context of God’s intimate dwelling shifted to the new relational context for God’s people to have communion directly in relationship together Face to face without the veil. Relationship together in this new context, however, was only on God’s qualitative relational terms—irreducible to human shaping and nonnegotiable to human terms—just as Jesus initially disclosed to the Samaritan woman at the well about God’s strategic shift. God’s terms (“Listen to my Son”) involved following Jesus in relational progression to his Father to belong to his new family, which he redefined as functionally distinguished from his biological family (Mt 12:49-50). It was in his trinitarian relational context of family by his trinitarian relational process of family love that Jesus composed his followers in transformed relationship together as family in the new relational order with no veil. Just as he relationally established Mary and John with each other, becoming family together while he was on the cross, it was this gathering (ekklesia) of his followers being “built” together in relationship who formed his church.
The church, which emerged with Jesus, is thus the direct relational outcome of his relational dynamic involved in establishing the new relational order for the human relational condition; they are inseparable. The formation of his church is vitally integrated with Jesus’ vulnerable relational work to equalize persons from ontological and identity deficit and intimately involve those persons in the relationship together necessary for the new relational order of wholeness—signified by the new wine communion. His church follows him on his relational path, and thereby is composed by transformed persons in transformed relationships together as family.
If church formation is separated from this relational process, then church is no longer about his family and becomes subject to human shaping of relationship together. At best, human shaping can only be incomplete and thus fragmentary. His church as family is a function only of whole relationship together. Yet this relationship has significance only as a function of transformed relationships—that is, redeemed and reconciled relationships together with the veil removed, which Paul illuminated and distinguished for the church. By its nature, these are the relationships together necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus prayed to the Father. Therefore, church formation must (dei, not opheilo) involve equalizing persons, whose hearts then open to each other and come together intimately in the relationships as family in the new relational order—coming together to be and live whole among themselves, and in integral function to live and make whole in the world.
This is what we need to perceive and understand about his church, and thereby how we need to function to be his church in likeness. Anything less in church formation is insufficient to be whole, the whole of God’s whole family on God’s relational terms, and becomes merely a substitute from reductionism shaping a different ontology and function of the church. While such shaping has been prevalent throughout church history to the present—even through the Reformation, in spite of its re-forms—there appears to be little if any understanding that such churches remain contrary to the church Jesus builds. This condition is unacceptable in complete Christology, wherein Jesus’ critique of churches makes it inexcusable for churches to continue on a contrary course.
Even after the incarnation, Jesus continued to provide the clarification and correction needed to build his church into the wholeness of God’s family. The pervasive influence of reductionism shaping churches is directly addressed in Jesus’ post-ascension discourse to help us further perceive and more deeply understand the purpose and function of his church and for ecclesiology to be whole—along with holding churches today accountable for nothing less and no substitutes.
In the flow of God’s relational response, the distinguished Face of Subject Jesus continued to turn to his family not only to bless but necessarily to challenge for the new relationship together in wholeness that distinguished his church. We need to look back into his face and be accountable to his feedback for the church today.
It is important to understand the experiential truth that in Jesus’ claim that seeing him was seeing the Father, he vulnerably disclosed in this twofold ontological and relational reality (ontological One and relational Whole) the importance of both what constitutes God’s triune being as well as what matters most to God. God’s self-disclosure embodied in Jesus was the who and what of the whole of God, and of how God only does relationships to be Whole. It is in this trinitarian relational context by this trinitarian relational process that the whole of God’s thematic action is extended in response to the human condition for relationship together as family in family love. While those who respond back cannot experience ontological oneness (heis eimi) with the whole of God, they can have in reciprocal relationship the experiential truth of relational oneness (en eimi) together with the Trinity. The experiential truth of en eimi with the Trinity is the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for Jesus’ followers to have heis eimi with each other together as his church for the ontological oneness to be whole in likeness of the Trinity (kathos, in congruence with the Trinity, Jn 17:21-22). The whole of Jesus embodied nothing less than who, what and how the whole of God is in his relational work of grace only for relationship together and to make relationships together whole, God’s whole on God’s terms. His formative family prayer constitutes his followers together in this qualitative relational significance that matters most to God. Therefore, his church lives “ontologically one,” heis eimi together, en eimi the relationships with each other necessary to function to be “relationally whole” in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity specifically as family, not in referential likeness to a concept or characteristic.
Jesus’ composing for ecclesiology to be whole did not stop with the end of his formal earthly ministry; that was only the prelude. He had other defining interactions specific to his church, which can be considered his post-ascension discourse for the ecclesiology definitive for his church to be whole.
After the Spirit came to his church for its development and completion, the face of Jesus shined on Paul to engage him in relationship for his transformation and called him to be whole to clearly distinguish the church’s wholeness for the experiential truth of the gospel (Acts 9:1-16; Gal 2:11,14). Then Jesus challenged Peter’s perceptual-interpretive framework for making distinctions about persons/peoples, in order to redeem his bias in relationships that created barriers in his church preventing all persons from coming together in transformed relationships as God’s family without the veil (Acts 10:9-36; 15:7-9). In family love Jesus clarified the full significance of his relational work of equalization to establish the function of his church also as equalizer, and thereby the ecclesiology of the whole was being made definitive. Yet, what was formed (and likely only reformed for Peter) theologically was not always made functional in practice, which was the reason Paul later had to chasten Peter in family love for him to practice the relationships together necessary to be whole as God’s church family congruent to the truth of the gospel.
What initially unfolded from Peter in the early church was a hybrid theology: reshaping God’s self-disclosure communicated only by God’s relational terms and fragmenting the whole of Jesus and redefining his person in a narrowed-down epistemic field—all based on the limits (and convenience) of Peter’s reduced terms that substituted God’s relational terms and Jesus’ relational path with referential terms to referentialize the embodied Word on a de-relationalized path. Moreover, hybrid theology not only divides theology but also separates theology from function (even unintentionally), such that its practice can be simply neither congruent nor even compatible with its theology, and consequently reducing (even inadvertently) both to a fragmented condition. This fragmentary condition is easily ignored or unrecognized by those in the fog of a limited epistemic field, whose knowledge and understanding are not defined and determined by complete Christology that includes Jesus’ post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology.
The hybrid process of dividing Christ is also evident in Jesus’ further post-ascension communication with various churches. In this relational discourse for ecclesiology to be whole, Jesus’ family love exposed reductionism in church practices to hold them accountable for engaging in a fragmenting process in order to have the integrity necessary to be whole as his church (Rev 2-3). The skewed emphasis of the secondary over the primary in churches was clearly evident in his post-ascension discourse. We need to continue focusing on this discourse (noted previously). Examining his discourse with these churches will help us fully understand the functional and relational significance of Jesus’ continued involvement in the ecclesiology needed for churches to be whole—God’s relational whole only on God’s qualitative relational terms.
A hybrid process emerges clearly in the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29). Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much like unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thereby engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially, which may suggest a pragmatic approach to church practice in Thyatira.
In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledged this church’s extensive “works” (ergon, work that defined them, Rev 2:19): “love” (agape), “faith” (pistis), “service” (diakonia, service, ministry that benefits others, especially compassion to the needy), “patient endurance” (hypomone, enduring and not giving in to bad circumstances, in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience with respect to persons), and that their “last works are greater than the first,” indicating not a status quo situation but actually doing more ergon than before. Yet, their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) Jezebel’s teaching. What they let pass, permitted or allowed is important to understand in the above context.
Jezebel (probably a byword symbolizing the OT character of Jezebel, cf. 1 Kg 18:19) appears to be a woman (or possibly a group) accepted within this church fellowship. The practice associated with her teaching probably refers to compromise with prevailing activity related to trade guilds prominent in the city, which “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (2:20, NIV). What is significant to understand here is not the obvious disparity of this teaching and practice with the desires of God. What is more significant is how these prevailing influences of the surrounding context were absorbed into the practices of this church along with all its other so-called good works acknowledged above. This is not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism, and goes beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity to the deeper issue about participation in a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive framework. This is the lens that determined what they ignored and paid attention to, thus the lens by which they practiced their works. When reductionism is not negated, its influence then affects how those other works would be engaged with something less and some substitute for the whole of persons and relationships, therefore raising critical issues of their qualitative and relational significance, and their wholeness since the fragmenting process is not disengaged—issues needing to be raised in churches today.
Theologically, Thyatira demonstrated a weak view of sin, namely without sin as reductionism that was the normative character of their surrounding context and was embedded in its collective order. Functionally, they also lacked relational involvement with, or maintained relational distance from, God in the process of reciprocating contextualization needed to distinguish their identity as God’s family in that surrounding context without being determined by it; and any pragmatism in their practice became a euphemism for reductionism—the rationalizing composing ‘a wide gate and road’. Their tolerance was essentially a fragmentation of both their theology and function in a hybrid process, consequently they reinforced the counter-relational work of reductionism and functioned incompatibly to being whole, God’s relational whole on God’s whole terms. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than that observed in the Thyatira church.
As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is reductionist—most notably with a reduced theological anthropology—our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The underlying issue critical for our understanding is the ontology and function of both the person and persons together as church; and the challenging question remains: Is it reduced ontology and function or whole ontology and function? The relational demands of grace, however, clarify for church ontology and function that nothing less and no substitutes than to be whole is the only practice which has any significance to God (as Jesus made definitive about worship, Jn 4:23-24). Additionally, Jesus’ lens of repentance (the turn-around in relational terms of the whole person) in conjoint function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts—in other words, holds person and church accountable for nothing less and no substitutes. This is the ontology and function that composes ‘the narrow gate and road’ leading to whole life (zoe) and its theology. And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23, as he did with Peter); that is, he examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable to be whole in the relationships that hold together in the innermost as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11). In their effort to be relevant and possibly pragmatic in the surrounding pluralistic context, by engaging in a hybrid process the Thyatira church overlooked (knowingly or unknowingly) in their many admirable church practices what was necessary to be whole and to make whole (cf. a similar error by the church in Pergamum in a reductionist context, Rev 2:12-15).
Being whole always involves the issue of reductionism. That is because what prevails in (en) any context of the world is reductionism. Jesus calls his followers relationally out of (ek) these contexts in order to be whole together as his family, then also relationally sends them back into (eis) those surrounding contexts to live whole together as his family and to make whole the human condition (as defined in his formative family prayer, Jn 17). Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement, church practice is functionally based on just en (in) the surrounding context and thereby shaped in its influence. Modern contextualization of the gospel, for example, has not made this distinction and thus has been subject to reductionism. This is problematic in function for the ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God and God’s terms to constitute the whole of who we are as church and whose we are.
Without the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement, there is no engagement of a culture’s life and practice in the surrounding context with the necessary process of reciprocating contextualization. In conjoint function with triangulation, reciprocating contextualization provides the relational process imperative for the qualitatively distinguished identity of a church to function in the surrounding context without being defined or determined by what prevails in that context, even in its culture. That is to say, without this reciprocating relational process in church practice, there is no consistent functional basis to negate the influence of reductionism. This leaves church practice susceptible to subtle embedding in the surrounding context, or engaging in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion, despite the presence of apparent indicators of important church practices illuminating its identity. This is illustrated in the various churches Jesus addressed, each notable for its own variation of church practice that parallel church practices today. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than witnessed in the Thyatira church (Rev 2:18-29, discussed previously). This is evident increasingly in the other churches Jesus addressed, as we look next at the church in Laodicea (3:14-22).
Laodicea was a rich city, the wealthiest Phyrygian city, ten miles west of Colossae. It was known as a prosperous banking center, for its textile industry and its renowned medical school. Their residents had great pride in their financial wealth, fine clothes and famous eye salve. But Laodicea lacked a natural water supply. Hot water was piped in from hot springs and cold water came from the mountains. Both were lukewarm by the time it reached Laodicea. Since hot water was preferred for bathing and cold for drinking, there were frequent complaints about their water as inconvenient to their exceptionally comfortable lifestyle. This background gives important context for Jesus’ discourse and helps us understand further the significance of his concern for ecclesiology to be whole.
To Jesus, how the church in Laodicea functioned was just like their water: lukewarm. Though tepid does suggest that their church practice was “hot” earlier, church life and practice was now comfortable, self-satisfied and complacent, essentially status quo of what prevailed (3:16). Their self-assessment reflected the perceptions of the surrounding city: that they were rich and had everything they needed (3:17a)—relatively speaking, of course, since the comparative process always makes such self-definition provisional. More importantly for those whose self-definition is based on what they do and have, Jesus addressed the illusion of those perceptions and exposed their reductionism (v.17b). They functioned in the epistemological illusion of reductionism, consequently their church practice was without functional substance and relational significance. For Jesus, their lukewarm practice was not only inconvenient but distasteful (“I am about to spit you out of my mouth”), which Laodiceans could readily identify with given their water condition. Moreover, their neither-cold-nor-hot practice was a lie of reductionism implying their fragmentary theological assumptions. First, there is no intermediate condition of church practice between being God’s whole as family or not, that defines its existence. Jesus held this church accountable for their integrity—even “cold” was better than a lie—which is how family love functions with its working assumption. Then there was the assumption of their theological anthropology that defined them by what they did and had, which determined their church practice. Both assumptions involve reduced ontology and function.
The Laodicean church practice should be familiar to Western churches, notably in the U.S. Yet, this is not merely about relative affluence and comfortable lifestyles. This is about the first major issue of what defines the person, and how this eventually determines how church practice functions. The surrounding context of Laodicea defined itself by what it did and had. The human person was perceived from the outer in, thereby functionally reducing the importance of the whole person from the inner out signified by the heart. In this quantitative process, both the importance of the whole person and the primary priority of whole relationship together are replaced by secondary areas of interest and concern. Substitutes are made for the functional substance of our heart and for the quality of our relationships. Substitutes involve any alternative that reduces the qualitative and functional significance of being whole as persons in relationship together. These substitutes from reductionism are what the church in Laodicea accepted (intentionally or inadvertently) from its surrounding context of the Greco-Roman world to determine its church practice, consequently creating the illusion (the epistemological illusion of reductionism) about the well-being of their existing condition. This false sense of self-understanding is ongoingly promoted, reinforced and developed by Satan, who encourages churches with Christian substitutes in ontological simulation (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15)—which Jesus addressed further in two other churches.
While Jesus exposed the Laodicean church’s reductionist substitutes and deconstructed their illusion, he also extended further family love by making his whole person vulnerable to them for the redemptive change imperative in relationship together to be whole (3:18-19). He was clarifying for them that relationship together on God’s terms is incompatible with any reductionist practice. As family love always functions, he redefined them to pursue their whole persons from the inner out to be redeemed to come together in transformed relationships. This is signified in Jesus’ well-known words which followed—an intimate relational message of family love for his church, usually taken out of this context. The classic image of Jesus knocking at the door (v.20) is a metaphor of these deep desires of the whole of God to have intimate relationship with his family—signifying the new wine communion together. The change they needed, therefore, must (by its nature as signified in the Trinity) be a relational change transforming their practice from a mere gathering without relational belonging (church as orphanage) to whole persons intimately involved in relationships together as family (signified by “open door,” hearts coming together in intimate communion). This metaphor clearly illuminates that redemptive change is the relational imperative for his church; and the absence or lack of redemptive change in the church renders it to the illusions and substitutes from reductionism—notably shaped by human contextualization.
This metaphor is helpful to locate the ongoing involvement of Jesus with his church: pursuing his followers for transformed relationships together as family with the veil removed. We cannot continue to reduce Jesus’ intimate relational message of family love for his church in this metaphor by perceiving it only for the individual, as is Christian convention. This metaphor of Jesus’ relational work of grace needs to be returned to its full context for use in ecclesiology. Therefore, the significance of Jesus still knocking should not be lost on even the most mature Christian because it is a relational key in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole (cf. 3:7-8). This metaphor functionally interacts with the metaphor of church as orphanage to make whole his church.
Any church practice “to be apart” continues to function with the veil. This misrepresents the gospel and is a contradiction of God’s desires specifically for the new creation family in likeness of the Trinity, which Jesus constituted earlier with his defining family prayer. Since what integrally reflects the life of the Trinity is church practice only in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology of intimate interdependent relationships as family, any alternative to the relationship of God’s whole family always becomes church practice shaped as an orphanage, notably operating as an organization or as a voluntary association (cf. church in Thyatira and trade guilds). This either-or defining process is an ongoing tension for church practice. For churches to address the influence of reductionism, even in pragmatic practice, they need the presence of the whole, God’s whole. This is the whole that the relational function of the Trinity ongoingly provides as the church’s integral relational basis and ongoing relational base, by which Jesus knocks on church doors. Therefore, embracing the relational function of the Trinity emerges as the primary issue facing churches to define and determine how they will function both within themselves and in the world.
This relational issue was involved in two other churches Jesus addressed. The next church, the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3), had “a reputation of being alive” apparently in the prevailing perception, although the city hosted many pagan cults whose practices pervaded the surrounding context. The implication here is that this church lived behind their “reputation” (onoma, used as the substitute of what a person actually is). Even with their reputation of being alive, Jesus made no such assumptions about them. Rather he examined how they functioned through the qualitative lens penetrating inner out with family love. Uninfluenced by the surrounding bias, he exposed what existed beneath the outer layer of “being alive”: “you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the sources of life, thus being unaccompanied by something) based on the fact that “I have not found your works complete in the sight of God”—that is, incomplete or fragmentary based on God’s terms, not as defined by the surrounding context. With the perceptual-interpretive framework Jesus makes definitive here for ecclesiology, their “works” (ergon, works denoting what defined them) were not “complete” (pleroo, to fill up, make full, complete or whole). In other words, what defined them was not whole. What was missing in their church practice?
Since no explicit sins such as idol worship and sexual immorality were mentioned (as in Thyatira), their incomplete deeds point to something more subtle or lacking. Their activity was perceived as alive, yet likely in the quantitative aspects of bios, not the qualitative function of zoe. Their reputation signified only a substitute (onoma) of the integral identity of who, what and how his church is, consequently lacking the integrity of wholeness. While Jesus’ polemic about soiled and white (leukos, bright, gleaming) clothes described those incomplete and a remnant who weren’t incomplete respectively, bright clothes symbolized those who participated in God’s life (3:4). Participating is about relationship and involvement together, which soiled clothes symbolized a barrier to, or either precluded or maintained with relational distance. Any type of “soiled” clothes—whether stained by blatant sin or dirtied from subtle incomplete work—would have this relational consequence. I conclude this all implies the following: their deeds were not whole because they were substitutes from reductionism; and they were not whole because what defined them was based on reductionist practices; thus how they practiced church was separated or distanced from the relational involvement of God’s life, unaccompanied by the vulnerable presence and function of the Trinity, because of their sin of reductionism—in what defined their persons and determined their relationships together, and thereby in how they practiced church.
The issue of not being complete and being whole started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. When God declared “not good for human persons to be apart,” God started with Adam and Eve the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family. This was now fulfilled by Jesus—as he declared “I will not leave you as orphans” and sent us the Spirit for completion—in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love.
This relational context and process were not the primary function of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry, so Jesus critiqued what they “filled their church” with, as he does all churches.
In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), qualitative substance was lacking. This reflected a shift in how they defined themselves from the inner out to the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo). Their lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially meaningless—though worth an image in comparative reductionists terms—while the validity of their work (apparent service and ministry) was relationally insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to wholeness of life. These are severe critiques Jesus made of a church that at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive—unlike the Laodicean church’s lukewarmness. The choice essentially of style over substance is not unique to the church in Sardis. In fact, the distinction between style (for appearance and image) and substance is blurred in many current church practices. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears to be and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers, when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success that many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work—or value to validate their position in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks, “What are we filling our churches with?” The above is not the dynamic of pleroo that distinguishes the pleroma of Christ (as Paul illuminated, Eph 1:23).
Family love functions for the integrity of relationship together to be whole, and for accountability for anything less and any substitutes. Thus, Jesus’ critiques were ‘a critique of hope’ in his call to be whole—a functional key in his involvement for ecclesiology to be God’s whole family. When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai, v.2) is to emerge as new, whole persons. This was not about self-determination but redemptive change—the relational imperative. They needed to be transformed in the inner-out aspects and functions (metamorphoo) of a person, while being redeemed from the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo) that did not give full importance to the qualitative function of the whole person (signified only by the heart). Their outer-in over inner-out way of defining themselves determined what they paid attention to in how they did relationships and how they practiced church—which were not complete but fragmentary and thus without wholeness. This certainly diminished their relationships both with God and with each other, though they were unaware of this condition due to the simulation and illusion of reductionism that critically reduced their qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness; consequently they ignored the lack of qualitative relational substance.
With the lens of repentance by the function of family love, Jesus called them back to what they had “received” (lambano, v.3) in relationship from the beginning: his whole person, not just his teachings. As disclosed in John 1:12, lambano means to embrace and follow him as person-teacher—that is, be his disciples not as students in the rabbinic tradition but as adherents in relationship together in progression to be whole as God’s family, thereby pointing to his formative process in the ecclesiology necessary to be whole. In other words, Jesus called them back to be whole in the qualitative function of relational work inherent in who, what and how the Trinity is, and therefore who his followers are and what his church is: the whole of God’s family distinguished by whole relationship together. For nothing less and no substitutes of this relational reality, they needed to become transformed persons from the inner out who vulnerably engage in the relational work necessary to integrate equalized and intimate relationships together to be his church family in the new relational order.
The rigorous nature of this relational process makes church practice more susceptible to reductionism; church practice accordingly is also tempted to use the easier (also read pragmatic) alternatives of reductionist substitutes—notably with a less vulnerable shaping of relationship together. The lack of primary involvement in this definitive relational work for church practice becomes even more acute with the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4).
Jesus consistently disclosed knowing these different churches’ “works” or deeds (ergon, what defined them). The list of the Ephesian church’s deeds is impressive: their “toil” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort); their “endurance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; signifies character that does not allow losing to circumstances, cf. church in Thyatira); they maintained the doctrinal purity of the church under trying circumstances and did not tolerate falsehood, unlike the Thyatira church and its hybrid theology; they even suffered repercussions for Christ’s name and yet endured the hardships to remain constant in their faith. This list forms a composite picture describing how they were, what they did and were involved in, which essentially was extremely dedicated in major church work and which can also describe a number of successful churches today.
Jesus knew not merely the information about their deeds but also knew (oida) the nature of them, and the extent of their functional significance. It may seem somewhat perplexing that Jesus was not impressed with this church and even felt to the contrary about their church practice: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (v.4). As noted previously, if this were not Jesus’ own critique, we would easily discount this as a misguided conclusion or uninformed allegation. Yet, his discourse here for the integrity of ecclesiology raised a serious issue of church function, which is crucial to account for in how we practice church ourselves. His critique makes conclusive the very heart of his desires for ecclesiology to be whole.
The term “abandoned” (aphiemi) means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself or let alone—which would include functionally maintaining relational distance even while in close physical proximity or in mutual activity. Aphiemi is the same term Jesus used in his promise to “not leave his followers orphaned” (Jn 14:18). Connecting these relational messages provides the context and process for the function of ecclesiology to be God’s whole. In the church context at Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the whole person and not giving primary priority to whole relationship together. They worked hard doing things for God but the relational process necessary for their functional significance was deemphasized or misplaced in their effort. This often happens as churches develop and the goals of church growth become the priority of church practice. In the process, as the Ephesian church demonstrated, there is a subtle shift in which the means become the end and its primary purpose for relationship together to be whole is abandoned or made secondary.
As the term hypomone for “perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances and situations such that persons (especially God) unintentionally were ignored in relationship, inadvertently left in relational distance or emotionally forgotten. This is a common relational consequence when secondary matters (such as situations) become the priority over the primacy of relationships. Their hypomone was in contrast to the Philadelphian church’s hypomone, which was a reciprocal relational response to Jesus’ desire (“you have kept my word”) for relationship together (3:8,10). What distinguished them from the Ephesian church was the latter’s referentialization of the Word. Enduring “for the sake of my name” (2:3) narrowed down “my name” to “name without my person,” that is, apart from relationship together. By “abandoning” their involvement in relationship together (however unintentional or inadvertent), their focus shifted to their persevering character of not giving in to bad circumstances. Thus, their endurance for the sake of “name without my person” also stands in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience, endurance, longsuffering with respect to persons; the former is about dedication in hard work (characteristic of the Ephesian church) while the latter involves relationship with mercy, grace and family love (cf. Mt 18:21-22, Rom 2:4).
Despite what would usually be defined as significant church practice reflecting sound ecclesiology, there was distance in their relationships leaving them in the condition “to be apart,” indicating a well-run orphanage and not ecclesiology of the whole. They did not have the relational involvement of family love, which is the only involvement having relational significance to God (cf. Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a priority over ministry to the poor, Mt 26:8-13, par. Jn 12:1-8). This is further demonstrated by their reduction of the truth to mere doctrinal purity. They forgot that the Truth was vulnerably disclosed only for relationship together on God’s terms, which they were effectively redefining on their terms. Essentially, their referential terms reversed the priority order of Jesus’ paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26) that clearly defined the first priority of discipleship as intimate involvement in relationship together, not focused first on the work to be done for serving (diakoneo). Consequently, they also compromised their identity as the light, which is rooted in their relationship with the Light (Rev 2:5b, cf. Mt 5:14-15); this was also contrary to Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Since they focused primarily on what they did—indicating their theological anthropology in how they defined themselves—they paid attention to related situations and circumstances and less important issues, while ignoring the primacy of relationship together in family love. Functioning with this perceptual-interpretive framework of a reduced theological anthropology resulted in the relational consequences of forsaking their first love that reflected the lack of relational involvement in their church practice and signified their renegotiated ecclesiology.
This was the relational involvement Jesus called them to turn around and get back to for them to be whole: “Repent, and do the relational works you did at first” (2:5). Jesus was restoring their misplaced priorities and more deeply made discipleship definitive by further illuminating the relational significance of his paradigm for serving. This involved the first priority of discipleship, which is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus in the relational progression to the whole of God’s family—the formative process in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole. His ecclesiology is the ongoing relational outcome of discipleship in this relational progression to the whole of God; and this by necessity vulnerably engages reciprocal relationship with the Trinity and conjointly is intimately involved in reciprocal relationships together as church family in likeness of the Trinity. Both discipleship and ecclesiology are distinguished whole only in the primacy of these relationships together, which emerge only from the relational outcome of God’s relational response.
The basic complaint Jesus had against this church is about the primary issue facing all churches for defining their ontology and determining how they will function: embracing the whole ontology and relational function of the Trinity, and embodying church practice in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology, therefore in congruence with and ongoing compatibility to Jesus’ defining prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26). In all that the Ephesian church was doing (which was a lot), they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole of God and did not function in the context of family and process of family love constituted in the Trinity. By their lack of relational involvement, they indirectly demonstrated a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving, as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something, however dedicated. For Jesus, this correlation is irrefutable for ecclesiology to be whole. Whether Jesus’ complaint against this church included both their relationship with God and with each other is not clearly indicated in the text. Yet we can strongly infer that it included all their relationships, because their primary emphasis on their work reflected the three major issues ongoing in life: (1) how they defined themselves, which further determined (2) how they did relationships and thus (3) practiced church. These three major issues are always deeply interrelated, and also in integral interaction with the primary issue of the Trinity, noted above, thereby together they need to be accounted for in ecclesiology in order to be whole.
The practices of both the churches in Ephesus and Sardis were contradictions in function that reflect the subtle influence of reductionism. What they focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to become embedded in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion, mainly (pre)occupied by the secondary over the primary. Moreover, the relational function of the Trinity cannot be understood in theological propositions nor experienced in church doctrine, even in its purity. By reductionist practice, these churches demonstrated how their practice (“abandoned the love you had at first” 2:4) and their understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” 3:1) became decontextualized from what was primary, and embedded in human contextualization. In their ironic struggle to remain distinct in a pluralistic Greco-Roman context, the Ephesian church stopped paying attention to the greater context that defined them and distinguished their significance. In their effort to be significant (or popular) in their surrounding context, the Sardis church ignored the primary context that constituted them. That is, they were removed, diminished or deemphasized from the relational context and process of the Trinity and needed to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the function of reciprocating contextualization in the ek-eis relational involvement that Jesus made imperative to distinguish his family in the ecclesiology to be whole and to make whole. Without this reciprocating relational dynamic, church practice increasingly finds its functional basis only en (in) the surrounding context, in which reductionism prevails.
Whatever a church’s surrounding context may be, we can expect the prevailing influence of reductionism to affect the whole of church practice. It will, that is, unless there is the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement to definitively distinguish church purpose and function from beyond merely its position en the world. Jesus’ church’s purpose and function in the primacy of relationship together to be God’s whole family necessitate nothing less and no substitutes for this whole, as the terms of God’s relational grace demand. Without function in the relational terms of grace in reciprocal relational involvement, reductionism is able to shift grace’s demand for nothing less and no substitutes than the whole in church practice to anything less and any substitute (cf. “Did God really say that?”). The shift entails the following: (1) This shift is qualitative, thus cannot be observed in quantitative terms, as the Thyatira church’s increased amount of “good deeds” demonstrated and the Laodicean church’s wealth, fine clothes and medicine illustrate; (2) This shift is ontological, away from the inner-out whole person, thus cannot be understood by an outer-in ontology of personhood, as evidenced by the Sardis church’s inability to understand its true condition; (3) This shift is relational, thus cannot be experienced in any other human activity than the primacy of intimate relationships together, as signified by the unawareness of the Ephesian church’s diminished experience in their level of relational involvement together. The lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness are prime indicators that a shift has taken place.
We need to underscore repeatedly: as long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is narrowed down to referential terms, our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice; most importantly, therefore, having the lens of repentance in integral function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts. Jesus is emphatic in his discourse: “all the churches” need to “know that I am he who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23)—that is to say unequivocally, examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable for their integrity to be whole in relationships together as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11).
These churches were not unique in church formation and they cannot be considered exceptions in church history. Each church has a counterpart in the contemporary church that must be taken seriously because of Jesus’ critique for his church to be whole:
All these churches have in common what continue to be critical interrelated issues needing epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction: a weak view of sin not including reductionism, and a fragmentary theological anthropology reducing ontology and function.
It is not sufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, en the world; their only significance is to function ek-eis (whole relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole family and, by the nature of this whole function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. That is, the church’s whole ontology and function makes whole the human condition; his church does not reflect, reinforce or sustain it. Jesus communicates directly to us about the whole of ecclesiology in his discourse, and the relational message we need to learn to listen to and receive him in about the Thyatira church is clearly illuminated: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerate,” which the other churches also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context directly diminishes the wholeness of church practice and minimalizes their relational involvement with God, with each other in the church and with others in the world. For churches to get beyond practice merely en the world, they need a different dynamic to define their life and determine their practice.
By searching hearts Jesus communicates clearly to us that church function in its innermost is about being whole, not merely engaging in correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church ontology and function en the world must by its nature be integrated with the ek (movement out of) relational involvement with the whole of God as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic. This reciprocating relational process negates the continuous counter-relational work of Satan and its reductionist influence (Rev 2:24) by ongoingly engaging, embracing, experiencing and extending God’s whole in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personness and the church constituted in and by the Trinity, that is, only in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the Trinity.
In his relational discourse Jesus communicates a critical relational message to us that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the existing social order—matters we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our working assumptions of humanity and society. Since we do not live in a vacuum or in social isolation, our practice is either shaped by the surrounding context we are en (thus embedded) or constituted by what we enter eis that context with. In the latter function, for eis to define life and determine practice necessitates the ek relational involvement to disembed us from a surrounding context in order to transplant us into the whole of God’s relational context and process, hereby integrally constituting God’s whole for the eis relational movement back. This reciprocating relational process signifies the relational demands of grace compatible with the working assumptions with which Jesus came eis the world and his assumptions of humanity and the existing social order with which he engaged the world. On this basis, Jesus (as well as Paul) ongoingly challenges both our theological anthropology and our ecclesiology for the only purpose of wholeness.
For our practice both as person and persons together as church, disembedding from the influence of reductionism to transplant into God’s whole is the issue we need to understand in relational terms and not in conventional referential terms. Without the function of nothing less and no substitutes, which grace demands for person and church, wholeness is diminished and the whole is minimalized—that is, functionally no longer whole. For church practice to fulfill its divine purpose and function, it must account in its function for being relationally transplanted in the whole of God and God’s theological trajectory and relational path for its globalizing commission “sent to be whole” in integral relational function with its “call to be whole and holy” (as Jesus pointed the Thyatira church to, 2:26-29).
Jesus’ post-ascension discourse is not merely an addendum for his church; it is what in pre-ascension he vulnerably embodied with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God and ongoingly accounted for within the whole of God’s intimate response for whole relationship together. After his church had opportunity to establish its practice in his integrated call and commission, his relational message communicated in family love the critique of hope necessary for all churches also to embody in its practice the qualitative relational function to be God’s whole family in likeness of the Trinity. Now in deeper reciprocal relational responsibility, his church is ongoingly accountable for the whole of God’s whole as family with compatible relational response back. And his post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology is clearly definitive for his church’s response to be whole as God’s new creation family, and for his church to live and make whole as equalizer for God’s new relational order in response to the human condition. His relational communication for ecclesiology composes church function—necessarily by the nature of the church’s whole ontology—only in relational congruence with his embodied function as the equalizer in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love, distinguished by nothing less and no substitutes but the triune God’s irreducible whole on God’s nonnegotiable relational terms.
For the church to have this relational outcome in likeness of the Trinity, it has to emerge and flow from the redemptive change that constitutes the new wine relationships together in wholeness without the veil. As demonstrated by the inauguration of the new wine table fellowship (Lk 5:33-39), redemptive change requires an ontological and functional change from inner out that is distinguished from what shapes human contextualization.
Therefore, Jesus’ post-ascension discourse unanswered involves ignoring, rejecting or otherwise not responding to Jesus’ whole person and the relationships he embodied. Complete Christology, by its whole relational nature, composes both discipleship and ecclesiology to integrally build the whole ontology and function of his church family. Unanswered, churches today struggle for relational significance—unable to be the kingdom of God’s dwelling in family together and thus to avoid composing a gathering of relational orphans, without any significance for their human condition and any good news for the human condition of others.
When our discipleship and ecclesiology are not distinguished integrally by the transformation to wholeness of what Jesus saves us to, this condition signifies both of the following: (1) the cross we use is fragmented and needs to be reconstructed, and directly interrelated, (2) the whole of God’s dwelling remains behind the curtain and still needs to be reconstituted to remove the veil in order for relationship together as family to connect in wholeness.
When our cross revolves around sacrifice, it becomes embedded in an ontology and function that reduces both Jesus on the cross and our theology and practice of the cross. We need to embrace the whole person on the cross (as discussed in chap. 4), whose sacrifice tore open the curtain to reconstitute the relational context of God’s dwelling in the direct relational process that permanently removes the veil for intimate relational connection Face to face, heart to heart. Only this intimate relational connection composes belonging (in relational terms, not referential) to God’s whole family and experiencing God’s dwelling in wholeness (not in part or merely in name). Our cross must, by the nature of Jesus' cross, constitute God’s new dwelling.
The prevailing cross still used today needs to be reconstructed with Jesus’ whole person building his kingdom into his church family. When the second criminal asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus equalized him and embraced him in whole relationship together. This was not a unique circumstance but an integral extension of the whole person and relationships Jesus embodied. In his whole ontology and function on the cross, then, Jesus was building his church in the primacy of whole relationship together as family when he connected his mother Mary and his beloved disciple John in new creation relationship together distinguished by family. Our cross must, by the nature of his cross, also be constructed to build his new creation family.
His new creation family, however, certainly requires redemptive change (“repent” as Jesus proclaimed, Mt 4:17) for this reconciliation to be composed in the primacy of whole relationship together. Redemptive reconciliation requires hard choices and deep changes from inner out. This unavoidably necessitates epistemic and ontological humility, just as Jesus made requisite in the first beatitude for the identity formation of those belonging to his family (review Mt 5:3 discussed in chap. 5). To build his family Jesus clearly distinguished the primacy of his family over what is only secondary, and which cannot be used to displace or be a substitute for the primary position and function of his family. For example, “Who is my family…persons who respond relationally to my Father is my family” (Mt 12:48-49). Biological family represents only one of many ways that preoccupation with the secondary reduces the primacy of his family (as Paul made definitive, Rom 14:17), all of which require redemptive change. These of course are hard changes to choose, likely getting to the roots of our own identity or self-worth. All of this by design converges on the cross, that is, when whole-ly constructed.
What also by necessity converges on the cross is all our sin, specifically all reductionism. This necessarily includes reduced ontology and function, reduced theology and practice, notably engaged in relationships unequalized from inner out and lacking intimacy—all of which need to be transformed for the outcome of wholeness. Obviously, this condition necessitates the deep changes from inner out (transformation, metamorphoō) that any incomplete changes (metaschematizō) or re-forms will not accomplish. Critical for us to embrace to address this condition, then, is this mutual understanding assumed by Jesus in “It is complete” (teleo, Jn 19:30):
The cross of Jesus’ whole person does not allow for redemptive change to be optional and for redemptive reconciliation to be negotiable. Rather his cross makes them unavoidable and inexcusable, and therefore demands the relational outcome of transformation to wholeness—both in our person and in our relationships.
When our cross is so constructed and constitutes God’s new dwelling, then our discipleship and ecclesiology become distinguished integrally by the transformation to wholeness that Jesus saves us to—already, with nothing less and no substitutes.
This is the integral relational dynamic unfolding God’s relational response to the human condition, which the whole of Jesus embodied into the whole of Paul to embody the kingdom into the church—integrally both to illuminate the experiential truth of the good news of whole relationship together and to distinguish the experiential reality of the gospel’s outcome of whole relationship together as God’s family to make whole the human relational condition, and even to address this condition as it may be reflected, reinforced or sustained in the different shapes of churches. With their gospel and its only outcome composed in whole, Jesus and Paul (discussed further in the next chap.) out of necessity challenge any and all human shaping of the primacy of whole relationship together. Their challenge continues to be urgently necessary because human shaping renders both the gospel and the church without their qualitative and relational significance in the innermost.
With its narrowed-down epistemic field, the referentialization of the Word continues to turn away from the distinguished Face vulnerably present and involved in relationship—with the prevailing relational consequence of church and academy turning to a more probable theological trajectory and a less intrusive relational path. We cannot persist in the sin of reductionism and claim to have the gospel, and most importantly experience its relational outcome of wholeness. Therefore, the relational message of Jesus for his followers to be whole still communicates unavoidably today to pursue us for our reciprocal relational response: “Seek the primacy of his kingdom’s whole relationship together and its relational basis, the whole of God’s relational righteousness,” who vulnerably and intimately dwells with us only for this relational outcome.
The kingdom into church into…?—this is an open question that we still need to address and account for today.
 In his study of the term mathetes (disciple), Michael J. Wilkins makes a case for calling Matthew’s Gospel a manual on discipleship in Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 126-172.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 54-78.
 For a discussion of this notion, see George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 103-117.
 For further contextual information, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
©2015 T. Dave Matsuo