Walter Kim is president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He has spent nearly three decades preaching, writing, and engaging in collaborative leadership to connect the Bible to the significant intellectual, cultural, and social issues of the day. He gave the following talk from the main stage of the 2022 CCCU International Forum; it has been edited for length. To view the full talk, visit the CCCU’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/CCCUvideo).
As followers of Jesus, we live and navigate between brokenness and beauty. On our college and university campuses, we allow a bit of the eternal purpose of God to pierce the veil of our temporal moment and to draw us closer to his kingdom purposes.
I want to turn our attention to a passage that speaks to beauty in the midst of brokenness, from Isaiah 2:1-5:
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
When I became a Christian, I learned what I was saved from — saved from sin, saved from separation from God, from the dominion of Satan. But much of the Christian life has been a journey of learning what I’ve been saved for — what are we saved to do in this world and in the world to come? Amid chaos, we are called to participate in God’s renewal of all things.
Unlike Isaiah, I am not a prophet, but I’m going to make a prophecy: I prophesy that you have either come out of, or are in, or will soon enter into a difficult time. Pretty safe prophecy. And in those difficult times, we have to fight the natural instinct for self-preservation, for vindictiveness.
Now, Isaiah lived in turbulent times. We want to say that we have lived through unprecedented years. It feels unprecedented to us, but in the scope of God’s work in this world, God’s people have actually faced a lot worse. Admittedly, there were moments of economic prosperity and political stability for ancient Israel, but these really were islands of peace within an ocean of chaos. And during the time of the writing of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was terrorizing and engulfing the nations, including Israel and Judah. Judah had a front-row seat to the downward political spiral of the northern kingdom of Israel. Almost with dizzying rapidity in 2 Kings 15, we learn that Shallum had assassinated Zechariah and succeeded him as king. Then Menahem assassinated Shallum and succeeded him as king. Then Menahem lived his life, but his son [Pekahiah] was assassinated by Pekah, who in turn was assassinated by Hoshea, the last king of Israel. And we think we have encountered political turmoil!
And not only did Isaiah [and the Judeans] have a front row seat to this demise and deportation of the northern kingdom; they lived it. The southern kingdom itself experienced the wrath of the Assyrians. If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see the actual threat that Judah experienced [depicted on] massive stone reliefs recovered from the palace of Sennacherib. And that relief depicts the battering rams, the long spears, the flaming arrows — and there are soldiers impaled, naked, on long spears and hoisted up like flags of warning.
How do you respond to such chaos? Where is God in this moment? Is there any beauty in brokenness? Maybe the beauty is in the people of God. But Isaiah points out that the external chaos was matched by internal corruption. Isaiah 1 is a long prophetic litany of the public sins of [Judah]: worship without ethics that God despised; social violence; political corruption; a judicial system that was broken and did not defend the cause of the poor, the widow, the oppressed. Is there any hope?
And into these tumultuous times, God gives Isaiah a vision for the people: “In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of mountains. It will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Isaiah lived in a generationally defining moment for the people of God. And he received a vision that transcends the generations — a reminder of God’s kingship in the midst of chaos and complexity; a vision for us in our moment.
And this is a vision of a multinational work of God that came amid war, persecution, and the existential threat of God’s work in this world. … This is a vision that defied every human instinct for self-preservation. The nations were, in fact, streaming to Israel and Jerusalem — to destroy them. And God was asking for the doors to be open? For their hostility to be responded by our hospitality? What an extraordinary call that speaks to the supernatural nature of this vision.
Notice that all nations will stream up to this mountain. Streams don’t go up; they go down. The natural gravity of chaos is being combated by the supernatural work of grace. And the nations are going upstream to God. The question is: Will we participate? Will we join in God’s work of renewing?
Now, we are embodied creatures. A study in Science magazine reported how the incidental interaction between physical objects shapes our judgment. Resumes that were put on heavier clipboards, according to this study, were judged to be more substantial. The same resume on light or heavy clipboards changed the perception. …
So why on top of a mountain? Because it reminds us we are wired to look up to the mountain and to see transcendence, God’s kingship. For this reason, the Jerusalem temple was put on top of a mountain, to be a physical and spiritual GPS system for ancient Israel. Literally, it dominated the landscape of Jerusalem. If you wanted to know where to go, [you used the Temple to find] your bearings: “Okay, there’s the temple. Yeah. Make a right turn here, left turn there. And you get to Jacob’s house.” But it was also a spiritual GPS. It was a point of reorientation, not just physically, but theologically.
What would you discover in that [physical and theological] reorientation? What architectural journey would you take? Well, you would get to the temple, and on the outside, there was the paraphernalia of forgiveness — the great altar where the sacrifices were given — to remind us of our fundamental need of redemption and the offer of that redemption through the lamb and ultimately the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
But that was just the beginning of that theological journey. From there, you would enter into the holy area, and there on the walls, you would have images of pomegranates and palm trees and cherubim — a reminder of Eden and that the work of redemption, the forgiveness of sins, was just the beginning of the Christian journey. What we are saved from, and what we are saved for. You would then enter into the holy area [and would be reminded that] we are saved for the recreation, the redemption, the renewal of all things — between the first Eden and the ultimate Eden in the new kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth.
Then you get into the Holy of Holies in an architectural structure that was unique in the ancient world: a perfect cube, 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet. Why that structure? … When you enter into a perfect cube, you lose all sense of spatial orientation; you don’t know which direction is up or down. This was intentional. It was an invitation to enter into the redemptive experience of forgiveness … and to lose ourselves in the wonder of who God is, absolutely immersed in his transcendence, mercy, and love.
What you [Christian colleges] do is so incredibly important. You have these years with students where you invite them on that journey to understand redemption better, to know it more deeply in a broken world, to join together in every endeavor that God would give to humanity in the redemption and renewal of all things. …
Something Christian colleges are uniquely able to offer is the context of the great “why” of what we learn. Here is a vision not just simply of individual transformation but institutional transformation. We go up to the temple in order to go out into the world, to be agents of a wise and welcoming justice. “He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his path. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.” Of course, scripture speaks of judgment as judgment against sin, but here judgment is not judgment against sin. It’s not retribution. It is restoration. It is reconciliation. The law that goes out from Zion is not just simply a bunch of rules. It includes the story of redemption, of creation, fall, and deliverance.
In Deuteronomy, we actually hear the reason that the law is given: “Keep them and do them, for they will become your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord, our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and rules so righteous as this law that I’ve set before you today?” [Deut. 4:6-8] There was actually a missional purpose for the law. The way that Israel’s society was ordered was to be an enticement, a witness, an apologetic for God’s presence in the world that would draw the nations to it.
The ways that we pursue education and order the Christian community should be an apologetic for the ways that God would seek to redeem this world. Is the city in which your school resides wiser because of your presence? Are your neighbors able to sense that the way your campus community is ordered is so compelling that they have something to learn from you?
And this encompasses the work of transformation in the domains of life. “He will judge between the nations and will settle their disputes. He will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” The good news of Jesus ultimately contributes not just to personal but to public transformation as well. The judicial system is transformed. The economic system is transformed. Plowshares and pruning hooks for an agrarian society would represent economic flourishing: The dignity of work as each family had a parcel of land given to them by God. And then there was the social cohesion, the means and manners and mentality of war dispensed.
The world longs for such beauty to pierce brokenness. James Choung, vice president of strategy and innovation at InterVarsity [Christian Fellowship], has written and given presentations on generational shifts and the impact on gospel presentations. We all have questions that we ask about life, but it seems that each generation has a gateway question, a leading question that leads to the other questions. For Boomers, the question typically is “What is true?” Hence, the Boomer generation resonated deeply with the apologetics movement. … The Gen X’ers, my generation, our question is “What is real?” That’s why every Gen X pastor has been trained to open up [sermons] with a personal illustration, because we want to establish authentic, real connection. Millennials, their question is “What is good?” And their commitment to justice — to the good — is instinctual. Gen Z’ers, those in college now and coming up, their question is, “What is beautiful?” In a world of ugly, can we find beauty? Every one of us asks all those questions, but each of us and each generation seems to have a gateway question. What does it look like to have a form of faith that sends out beautiful followers of Jesus into this world?
As the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, when I stepped into the position two years ago, I was often asked, “Are you going to fix this?” Or, “Are you going to drop the name ‘evangelical’?” Or “Here’s a list of complaints.” I almost got to the point of saying, “Hello, I’m the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and I’m sorry for whatever it is that you’re thinking.” But I don’t want to give up the term “evangelical.” Because just before I took up my role, I had the opportunity to be a part of a delegation to attend the World Evangelical Alliance in Jakarta, Indonesia, where 800 delegates from 90 different countries were gathered. I did not always understand every syllable that was sung or spoken, but I understood the spirit. And I joined in it. There was a panel discussion in one of the plenary sessions where representatives from Africa and Asia and Europe and South America were discussing what was going on in America. I wanted to turn my name tag over so that no one would be able to see where I was from. But as the discussion unfolded, it really resulted in a plea: “We need you as partners in this work.” I had a lot to think about, and so on the bus ride back from the convention center to the hotel, I headed to the back of the bus, because I needed to find where the fun evangelicals were, and they are always at the back of the bus.
And there they were, and there was a lot of laughter. As I introduced myself to them, and they to me, I discovered that they were Palestinian followers of Jesus and Jewish Israeli followers of Jesus. Think about the complexity of that relationship. And there they were — laughing, loving, learning with each other, and seeking to live faithfully in whatever challenge God would put before them in the years to come.
I am so grateful to be a part of a global community, hundreds of millions of people faithfully following Jesus. How American it would be just to jettison the term “evangelical” because it’s inconvenient to us. I want to be partners with what God is doing throughout the world. And I pray diligently that in an ocean of chaos, your campuses would be places of beauty — the mountain of the Lord, where the nations will be drawn.