Christ in the Comic Strips:
Which Cartoon Above Best Represents the Gospel Most Christians Hear Today?
Today, far too many Christians and churches across America find themselves captive to a paralyzing “crisis of Christology”—a disastrous shortfall in how we see, seek, savor, and speak of God’s Son for ALL he is right now as Lord and King of all.
Primarily, this is because of how many of us have come to Christ to start with. Unfortunately, the saying that “the Jesus we win them with is the Jesus we keep them with” is too often true. That Jesus is “too small.”
In this guest blog post, Brian Steele, pastor at Christ the King Community Church in Bellingham, Washington, analyzes the situation in a very creative way—using “comics”!
He gives us fresh insights to help us walk with Jesus and share him in view of how great our Lord Jesus Christ really is! These challenging excerpts come from his new book, The Field Guide to Finding God’s Really Real Kingdom, coming out in September.
– David Bryant
The following is excerpted and adapted from Brian Steele’s book, The Field Guide to Finding God’s Really Real Kingdom, which will be released in the fall of 2019. Feedback and conversation are welcome at email@example.com.
Christ in the Comic Strips
Christ the Bridge Girder?
A popular comic is often used in evangelism and mission trips to illustrate the gospel message.1 The image does voice some truth of the gospel. But it more loudly proclaims what David Bryant has termed the “Crisis of Christology.”
A solitary person is shown pondering the impossible gap between God and man. The poor soul’s sin carries a death penalty, and the flames of hell perilously await below. In using this comic, the evangelist typically points out to a lost sinner the good news—that Christ’s payment on the cross bridges this chasm so that he can reach eternal life with God.
This carries some truth—but it’s only a partial truth that creates a peril. Does this partial truth even begin to describe the treasure hidden in the field of Matthew 13:44? Is that the fullness of what Jesus meant that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15)? Is this how Jesus instructed his disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 24:14)? If that’s the fullness of the gospel, then Christ is little more than a bridge girder—some metal truss whose sole function is to span a fiery chasm and get walked over. That is a crisis of Christology.
In a church desperately needing a Christ awakening, the gospel often gets reduced to some version of “Jesus died for you. Believe in him, escape hell, and go to heaven.” However, that’s not the gospel of the kingdom. Why? Because it doesn’t address God’s kingdom nor the exalted King. I wish this were a straw man argument. An evangelist who avoids the news of the kingdom undercuts the news that there is now a new King ruling.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
The gospel of the kingdom is good news about the kingdom. And if we don’t share about the kingdom then are we really about the kingdom?
To be fair, the gospel of the kingdom is difficult to preach to people who don’t seem to have mental categories for kingdoms. To be honest, for full disclosure, I’ve even led a missionary effort in Honduras where we used this very same comic strip to share the gospel in a mountainside village.2 We painted this mural on a water tank.
Please hear me carefully on this. The cross of Jesus does bridge the gap between God and us. We are delivered from the eternal consequences of our sin by the sacrifice of Jesus. But we contribute to the crisis of Christology if we avoid preaching, teaching, and sharing about the kingdom.
A typical pushback in American churches is that people “don’t understand kingdoms” since we live in a country that rebelled against a king. But shouldn’t that same logic prevent teaching about justification, sanctification, substitutionary atonement, or eternal punishment for sins? Aren’t these ideas even stranger than the concept of a kingdom? For that matter, shouldn’t the math teacher avoid instruction on differential equations since the students don’t understand calculus? Perhaps the foreign language teacher should avoid Spanish since the students speak English.
The position of “we don’t understand kingdoms” falls apart when you look at the media consumed by western cultures. Our movies, TV shows, and video games are absolutely dominated by kingdom narratives. Every year people spend billions of dollars consuming kingdom stories. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey—all of them are kingdom stories. The opening weekend of Marvel’s “End Game” movie netted $1.2 billion alone. That is a kingdom story if it is nothing else. At the heart of all these movies are the burning questions “Who will reign? Who deserves the throne? Who is king?” Practically all of the entertainment we consume has kingdom themes. We are desperately starving and thirsty for kingdom narratives. Why? Because we were made and designed to live in an eternal kingdom. The kingdom narrative is etched in our very DNA.
Our problem is not that people don’t understand kingdoms. Our problem is that people only understand kingdoms. But we have stripped the kingdom from the gospel. Tragically, in modern culture, virtually the only place you can go and not hear a really good kingdom story is in the church—the body of Christ the King.
The Zoom Problem
Somehow, in our gospel presentations, we zoom in very tightly on atonement theology and often completely miss the larger picture of the kingdom that atonement secures for us.
In our Christological-Crises worldview, we almost entirely focus tightly on the wounds of the sacrificial Lamb hanging on the cross. But then in our limited frame, we miss the sign hanging above that Lamb on the cross that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
Ironically, when Pilate wrote the inscription above Jesus on the cross, he used three languages—Aramaic, Latin, and Greek—so that the widest possible audience would understand that Jesus’ claim to be king landed him on the cross. Yet our modern gospel too often doesn’t bring that same message for its audience. Yes, Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. But don’t stop there. Please! He is the crucified and risen King who began to bring his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. The marks inscribed on the sign above the crucified King are at least as important as the marks of the nails in the hands and feet of the risen King. This is getting towards the gospel of the kingdom.
When the Apostle Paul met with the elders of the church in Ephesus, he had a very instructional conversation with them. He insisted that he didn’t hold anything back but declared to them the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). But what were the dominant theme and primary content of that whole counsel? Paul says that he had testified to the “gospel of grace” and “gone about proclaiming the kingdom” (Acts 20:24-25).
Paul is very concerned that the leaders of the Ephesian church know he gave them a complete account of the gospel. Nothing was withheld by Paul for their benefit. As Paul summarized his teaching, what was the content? Repentance, faith, the lordship of Jesus, and the gospel of grace. Isn’t all of this captured in our comic strip of the poor soul looking to cross the chasm of eternal fire? Yes, except there’s something else. Paul went about “proclaiming the kingdom” (vs.20:25). Anything else? Yes, he was calling people to faith not just in Jesus but in the Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 20:21). His call wasn’t just to prompt people to believe that Jesus exists. Paul was prompting people to give their loyalty, obedience, and trust to Jesus as the Christ—the King. His gospel was immersed through and through with God’s work to establish his kingdom.
It couldn’t be otherwise. The whole counsel of God without the kingdom of God is not the whole counsel of God just as the gospel of the kingdom without the kingdom is not the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel must necessarily include the kingdom. Sharing the gospel without the kingdom is like selling a new car without the engine. Or, more accurately, it is like selling a car without the car. Paul is defending himself against the potential allegation that he’s sold the church in Ephesus a lemon.
Was it only in Ephesus that, for some reason, Paul spoke about the kingdom? Was there some cultural reason for him to put the gospel in a kingdom frame there that’s not needed elsewhere? Not at all. The kingdom was a universal and constant theme as Paul shared the gospel of the kingdom in all of his writings, in all of the places he visited, to all audiences—both Jewish and Greek.
There’s no coincidence that the book of Acts is bookended with kingdom proclamations. Acts begins with Jesus in Jerusalem “appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:1-3). And the book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome saying that from morning until evening he “testified to the kingdom of God” (28:23-24) and that he lived there for two whole years “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (30-31).
The author Luke bookended his account with Jesus and Paul teaching about the kingdom to let us know that is the whole context by which we can understand everything in between.
We Need a New Comic Strip
Perhaps we can hijack that popular comic strip and bend it towards a gospel that includes the kingdom. Would it look something like my own adapted version below?
That’s more like it! Jesus Christ—the King—left his throne in heaven to bring the good reign of his kingdom to earth, making the way, securing his victory, by suffering on the cross. Why? He did it to bring the blessing of God to every family and every nation on earth. It is a campaign of conquest. Not to enslave but to set free. Not to subjugate but to empower. Not to rob but to give. Jesus came bringing crowns with him to restore our rightful place of ruling with him for eternity—beginning right here and now. This is the good news of the kingdom. The news is that Christ is now King. The wicked tyrant of darkness has been defeated and deposed. Our participation in that evil mutiny can be forgiven, and we can be adopted into the royal family of light—becoming heirs of the kingdom. In that, we begin to understand the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13:44).
The Kingdom Story of Scripture
The very narrative arc of scripture has become collateral damage through the crisis of Christology. If you can’t see Jesus for who he is as the supreme King of Kings, then you can’t see the grand sweep of his kingdom coming from the opening to the close of scripture.
The Bible is a kingdom story. Period.
If we want a one-verse summary of the Bible’s narrative arc, then Revelation 11:15 will do nicely: “The kingdoms of this earth have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
A three-verse suite of passages also neatly ties the story together. First, YHWH told Moses, “I will make you a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Then Peter told the early church, “you are a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Finally, the Apostle John tells us in his vision, “you have made them a kingdom of priests” (Revelation 5:10).
Still not convinced the Bible is a kingdom story? Look at the six most common nouns in the whole of scripture:
1. Lord (used 7,484 times)
2. God (3,969)
3. One (2,485)
4. Son (2,331)
5. King (2,314)
6. People (2,213)
Ernest Hemingway is purported to have made a bet with friends that he could write a novel in six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” I believe these six most common nouns in the Bible listed above capture the narrative arc of the kingdom story: “Lord God One. Son King. People.”Or it could also be written, “Lord God. One Son. King-People.”
Take the biblical text from the passion narratives of the four gospels and make a word cloud. Now, look at the central, most important word in the account of Christ’s betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.
Why is “king” the central word of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s passion narratives? Because the Bible is a kingdom story. And Jesus is King.
The four major covenants also have explicit kingdom purposes.
Each of these themes is also captured in the updated gospel comic above. Go back and look at the second comic. Per the Abrahamic Covenant, can you see “all of the families of the earth being blessed” through the “Son of Abraham”? In fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant, can you see how the loving rule of the Anointed One is brought to bear in the kingdom citizens as they love the Lord their God and neighbors? Per the Davidic Covenant, can you see the “Son of David” extending the rule of his eternal throne to the whole world? And per the New Covenant, can you see the bread and cup reminding kingdom citizens not to forget the victory of the cross nor the coming ultimate consummation of the King’s rule?
Resurfacing the Romans Road
Often the “kingdomless” gospel shared with people draws a few passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans—and we call this the “Roman Road of Salvation.” However, the typical Roman Road leaves out Paul’s emphasis on God’s kingdom and instead has a narrow focus on faith, sin, and forgiveness. The hearer is left with only a walk across the gulf of flames by the cross of Jesus. But if we must go down a Roman Road, can we at least always include the kingdom context that immersed Paul’s theology?
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)
If we must draw comics of this cosmic story, can we at least reflect the resounding heartbeat of that story? Doesn’t this updated gospel comic better reflect the core message these Bible passages present as the “gospel of the kingdom”?
For a Christ awakening, let’s take instruction from Jesus’ parable of the four soils (Matthew 13:1-23). Read that parable closely. The seed is the “word of the kingdom” (vs. 19). The good soil represents those who “hear and understand” the word of the kingdom (vs. 23). If that’s true, let’s speak and teach the word of the kingdom so that people can hear and understand the word of the kingdom, yielding a crop of thirty, sixty, or even a hundredfold.
It might seem silly to spend so much time looking at comic strips. But there is something extremely powerful in those simple drawings because they represent the stories in our heads. And stories are powerful. Stories shape our worldview. Personal stories literally control what we can see. The story in your head drives your life in the world.
God’s kingdom is really real. Jesus Christ is the really real king. The story in our head must align with the reality of the world. If our personal narrative does not include God’s kingdom, then we aren’t living as if Jesus is King. And if we are not living as if Jesus is King, we have a true crisis of Christology. In choosing your comic, you are choosing your Christ.
2Photo Credit: Brian Steele, July 2, 2014.
Pastor Brian Steele began looking at the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13:44 in 2012. Since then, seven years of research, meditation, prayer, and study of that single parable has led him to be fully convinced he has still only scratched the surface of the riches of Christ and his kingdom. This cumulative work will be released in a series of books to help others discover the greatness of God’s kingdom. The first book in the series, The Field Guide to Finding God’s Really Real Kingdom, will be released in the fall of 2019.
In addition to being a pastor at Christ the King Community Church in Bellingham, WA, Brian is also a professional geologist and is in (partial) recovery from a birdwatching addiction. He loves exploring alpine wildernesses of the North Cascades while living in Whatcom County, WA, with his wife, Katie.