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Some great evangelists and missionaries have viewed their ministry as rescuing people from the sinking ship of the world. The boat is going down and our job is to save as many as we can from going down with it. “The world is passing away, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
The problem with this picture is not exactly what some critics think it is.
Some point out that the boat is not going down. The earth is the Lord’s. And the heavens are his, too. He will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). So, they say, the idea that Christian ministry is a rescue operation is ill-conceived. Life on the boat, and the boat itself, are going to be totally refurbished someday. What needs to happen now is to get to work, and make progress on that refurbishing.
There is truth in both these pictures of ministry. It’s true that the ship of the world will never sink and become uninhabitable. The new earth is this old earth renewed. But every person on this ship dies. And when they die they are thrown overboard.
Now, if they have a faith-in-Jesus life jacket when they die and go overboard, Jesus comes along and picks them up in his eternal-life salvation boat. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13).
But if they don’t have the faith-in-Jesus life jacket, then they sink and perish. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). So the urgency is not that the boat is sinking, but that all the passengers are dying.
A Beautiful, But Broken Boat
It is also true that the ship itself is a vexing combination of beautiful craftsmanship from the Ship-Builder, stunning intelligence in the most gifted crew (even while they mutiny against the owner), inspiring stories of heroic feats of goodness, and horrifying human suffering. A few things on the boat work flawlessly. Most things break. Just when you think a disease is about to be conquered, a riot kills hundreds of thousands below deck. One day you feel cheerful. The next day you fear for your life.
But it is also true that the Lord Jesus — who made the ship, and keeps it afloat — will one day board the ship in person as the rightful Captain. When he does, all the mutineers and unbelievers go overboard. The believers remain, and everyone who was rescued from death, with a faith-in-Jesus life jacket, will be restored to their place on the ship. Jesus will refurbish the entire vessel and make it a perfect place for eternal joy.
Rescued or Rebuilt?
So do we rescue or do we refurbish?
It is never either-or. It can’t be. Because the rescue is not just rescue from the water, but from wrong-doing. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). The call of Jesus is a call into life and out of sin. Making disciples means “teaching them to observe (= do) all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). So the more rescued people there are, the more likely refurbishing will advance on the boat.
Rescue from darkness makes for refurbished light.
A person who wants to be rescued, but not participate in refurbishment, would have to jump overboard. But he couldn’t do that either. For then he wouldn’t be rescued.
Homeowners and Exiles
Of course the futurologists on board don’t agree about how this refurbishing is going to progress. People like me think the Bible paints a pretty bleak condition on the boat when the Captain finally comes on board. It’s going to be bloody when the mutineers go overboard (2 Thessalonians 1:2-10). And in the meantime one whole deck that was “rescued and largely refurbished” has now gone back into the hands of the enemy (like Europe, and North Africa, and Macau).
And probably these different views of how the refurbishing advances and declines will produce different strategies of ministry. But the point here is: the main difference will not be that one group believes in rescue and the other in refurbishment. The main difference will be the way we talk about and prepare for suffering and marginalization. That is, the difference will be the varying weight accorded to the truth that this is my Father’s world (1 Corinthians 10:26), and the truth that we are sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11).
The best way to strike the biblical balance is probably to beware of seemingly necessary inferences on one side or the other, and to stick with the pictures of life in this age that we have in the New Testament.