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The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

At the end of each concert, the two frontmen of the musical group Twenty One Pilots stand together on the stage, put their arms around each other, and smile at their fans as the cheers rise. Throughout the crowd, people lift signs with “Thank You” written on them. After a while the lead singer lifts the mic and gives them his parting words: “We’re Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” As the duo walks off, the crowd continues shouting out their thanks for their music, performance, and, for many, their witness.

Yes, witness. Witness to what? What are the crowds gathering at these shows so grateful for

I believe the reason the fans of Twenty One Pilots are so profoundly impacted by their music is because through it, whether we realize it or not, we are getting a glimpse of, even becoming participants in, the good news of Jesus Christ. 

 

The Art of Our Everyday Work

I need only one song to show you an example of how this duo embeds the gospel into their artwork. They become a witness and a guide for us as we embed the gospel into our “artwork,” that is, the art of our everyday work.

“Trees” is the song Twenty One Pilots always performs to end their shows. Its basic flow traces the dialogue between God and a man who is hiding in the trees, silent and afraid in the face of his impending death. And yet God comes after him, initiating a conversation and showing his heart’s desire to be with him. 

Clearly, this recalls the aftermath of human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, giving voice to the interchange of Genesis 3:8-9. Adam and Eve stood naked and afraid, hiding from God amidst the trees, and yet he came after them. He called them out of hiding and invited them to be known, even in their sin. 

What the song does next is repeat this scenario by repeating the same set of three verses, but building to a much bigger finish. This gives the sense that the same dialogue between God and a man happens again, but with a different outcome. 

And indeed, this is what the good news proclaims! Jesus takes on our shame and faces his impending death, fearful and exposed before his Father as he sweats blood amidst the trees in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of the cross to pass from him (Luke 22:42). But this man, the last Adam, remains obedient to the end (1 Corinthians 15:45, Philippians 2:8). He gives himself up to make our death his own, crying out while he stands nailed upright on one tree amidst others, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is echoed in the lyrics from “Trees”: “Why won’t you speak, where I happen to be?… Silent in the trees, standing cowardly.” 

 

God’s Heart Cry

Then, the climactic refrain at the end of the song invites a response: “I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say, Hello.” This is God’s heart cry. God came in the flesh to be with us, which is what he has been after since the beginning. He’s always initiating, starting a conversation with us. Not from afar, but here, where we are, in the midst of our sin and shame and death, even taking it all upon himself. Then he rose from the grave to new life and Mary saw him standing amidst the trees, mistaking him for the gardener, and he called out to her (John 20:15-16). The cross and the resurrection are God’s song of invitation to know a love stronger than death. 

So when a slight, dark-haired man stands in front of a stadium full of thousands at the end of a show, he sings out the refrain of that invitation: “Hello.” He repeats it throughout the song, bending over his microphone while his friend sits behind him hammering away at his drum set. Then the hellos stop, and after another chorus and some intervening “la la las,” the beat stops. A synth interlude rolls over the crowd. They’re anticipating. Waiting. They know what’s coming. As the two men make their way down from the stage, the security workers in the front lift two large tom drums on either side of the audience from the orchestra pit. A small platform comes next, one beside each of them. Then the spectators become participants. Drumsticks in hand, the two men climb onto the platforms, held up by the people who have spent the last 2 hours singing their guts out along with them. And then it comes.

Confetti drops like a snowstorm from the ceiling as the two men pound their drums in unison. In between beats (buh buh – pause – buda buh buh buh – pause) they point their sticks out to their “Skeleton Clique” (their fan club). And the clique responds, as if coming to life. The crowd shouts a resounding “Hey!” each time, responding to the invitation sung from the stage just moments before. When the music stops, the duo gets back on the stage and says goodbye.

An Invitation to Participate

This is how Twenty One Pilots ends their show, every time. If you’re curious, you can WATCH a recording. They have designed their music and performances with an invitation for fan participation. If my interpretation is right, they have written their music to be sung out so that the singers become participants in the gospel narrative hidden in its folds. This is what Twenty One Pilots has made with their artwork. They’ve not written “Christian music,” but music that nonetheless points to Christ in story-form. 

What about the artwork of our own lives? Have we received the message that we have to make “Christian art” or do “Christian work” to be impactful in God’s Kingdom? With the apostle Paul I say, “By no means!” (Romans 7:13). 

In your home or at work, with your spreadsheets, with your meetings, with your budgets, with your coworkers, with your friendships, with your relationships, with your sexuality, with your (dare I say it) politics, with your grief, with your depression, with your trauma, with every particularity that makes up your particular story…what would it look like to embed the gospel story into your own story? Every single facet of our story can become a witness and invitation for others to participate in God’s Story. 

But we have to know our story to do this. And the best way, indeed the only way to fully know ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We have to let God in, and respond to his invitation. We need to yell “Hey” when he sings “Hello.” The deep desire of his heart is for us to know him even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

 

Reflect on Your Own Story

So reflect on your own story. Write it, draw it, yell it, sing it, dance it, however the Spirit leads. Then invite others to listen to your story. Allow yourself to be known before God as two or three gather around to bear witness to the work of God in your life (Matthew 18:20). In doing so you offer up your story as a prayer, giving voice to the silent dialogues between your heart and God’s, thus training the ears of your heart to recognize your Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3).  

If you’re convinced, come with me and follow the path that Twenty One Pilots have laid, to imitate their artwork as they seem to be imitating Christ’s (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus himself told stories and lived a life that perplexed most, but for those who have ears to hear, he has spoken and lived the very words of life (Mark 4:9-13, Luke 8:8-10, John 6:60-69). Let’s participate in his life, and through our lives invite others to do the same. 

New Creation Now

New Creation Now

Desiring New Creation

We all long for things to be complete, to be whole (James 1:4). We long for our marriages to be whole. We ache for our family relationships to be safe, close, and deep and we want the same for our friendships. We feel the groaning of churches full of broken, still-in-process people, and the difficulty of life within a broken, still-in-process world. We long for wholeness in our communities, cities, and nations. Ultimately, all this longing points to a desire for new creation.

God desires the same thing. In fact, He desires it more deeply, more excruciatingly than we ever could, with a vision for newness that far exceeds anything we could dream up or hope to imagine. His heart’s desire is for the integral restoration–reconciliation–of the whole creation (Colossians 1:20). We, all people and creatures, exist in an interdependent community, which author Wendell Berry likes to call a “membership.” We are members one of another. We belong to one another and to the land.

Genesis 1-2 sets the stage for this membership of God’s creatures. In Genesis 1:24-31, humans and land animals are created on the same day. Humans are unique in bearing God’s image, but not so unique as to warrant our own creation day. We belong to the same land, knit together in mutual dependence on God and all that He had created thus far—sunlight, soil, water, vegetation. God takes up the role of a gardener, calling us into life from the earth like a seed sprouting into a fruiting tree: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” (Genesis 1:24). We are earthlings bonded to the earth and to one another—for good or for ill.

Humans are then called to be fruitful and rule, reproducing the goodness God had made (Genesis 1:27-31, 2:15). We were made to work for the flourishing of this community. But, tragically, we were-—we are—broken.

The curse earned by human rebellion against God’s goodness produces estrangement precisely in the interconnections we were created for. The labor of childbearing and the labor of cultivation are intermixed with pain and toil (Genesis 3:16-19). We and creation have never known a day without groaning since that rebellion (Romans 8:22-23). Infertility. miscarriages, droughts, hurricanes, war, and injustice; all of this brings us back to desire. Our groanings point to a deep desire for something more. We know, our very bodies—and we who are Christ’s Body—know, with every ache and disease and division, that we need to be changed, or perish.

Beholding New Creation

Graciously, this is exactly what God desires: to shape us into something new, to restore us to the wholeness we were made for. The prophet Isaiah looks forward, as through a fog, and voices God’s desire, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19). In the last book of the Bible, John records the same desire as he hears Jesus proclaim in that vision of the new creation, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).

Then, the angel shows John the vision: a city called the New Jerusalem, with twelve foundations and twelve open gates symbolizing God’s story of redemption revealed through Israel and the apostles. (Revelation 21:9-21).

Jesus, the Lamb, illuminates the city from its center, and all the peoples of the earth bring their glory into it—the beauty of each and every redeemed human culture (Revelation 21:22-26). Other creatures live there, too, worshiping God with His restored people (Revelation 5:13, 7:9-12). This is the new creation reality: every culture and every creature living together in the light of the Lamb. This is the integral wholeness for which we were created. Even in the present darkness, we behold the light of new creation shining back at us.

But can we be new now? Is this vision for us who groan in the midst of “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4)? In our time, now, can our desires come to fruition, can they bear fruit and birth a new kind of life? Or are our desires to be cursed with toil and pain, barren and dormant until Jesus comes again?

Embodying New Creation

God would not have revealed our eternal tomorrow if He did not mean for it to change our today. To change us. Today.

When we see God, we’re changed (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:2-3). Paul’s only use of the phrase “new creation” is when he is talking about the present people of God. Paul declares that the thing that matters most as a result of Christ’s work on the cross is this: new creation-that is, the newly created people of God from all possible strata of society (Galatians 3:28, 6:15). Then, in the context of describing the reconciled community, Paul says that anyone who is in Christ is “a new creation; the old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

There is a sense, then, in which the great change of new creation has already come. Not fully—Paul begins 2 Corinthians 5 describing his longing to put off the earthly body and dwell in the heavenly one—but somehow, truly and substantially, the new creation reality is already embodied by God’s people. This is the hope we live in, today, even as we wait for its consummation (Romans 8:24). This is the at-hand Kingdom of which we are ambassadors (Mark 1:15, 2 Corinthians 5:20). This is the truth to which we are called to bear witness (John 15:26-27).

The new creation reality exists in Christ Himself, and in any and all who have been reconciled to Him, to one another, and to the earth (Ephesians 1:10, 2:16).

He taught us to pray for His kingdom to come… later? Somewhere else? No. Here. Now. “On earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10).

If He wants us to pray for it, He wants us to labor for it.

Like a master sculptor bringing stone to life, He is already making us new (Ephesians 2:10). If you follow Jesus, you are His apprentice. Join with Him in the work of new creation. Let us labor for all the earth’s peoples to belong, by the blood of His cross, as we worship the Lamb together in one voice with all the earth’s creatures (Colossians 1:20, Revelation 5:13, 7:10).

Jesus has called us into the world, into all its groanings, so that we, the membership of all God’s creatures, might experience a foretaste of the fulfillment of our deepest desires to become something beautifully new.