(This an old essay I wrote several years ago. It reflects my thinking on the subject of the Kingdom of God at that time. The topic of the Kingdom of God and its implications for us as Christians will be a reoccuring theme on this blog, so this is a good place to start. This was a three part series, and parts two and three will follow over the next couple of weeks.)
I’ve been undergoing a bit of a theological awakening of late. It’s funny how that happens. Normally it starts for me with a comment stated, or a sentence read. It strikes me at the time, but I put it in the back of my mind, and it will pop back up some time later. Lately, the issue is the Kingdom of God. If you’ve been in church the past few weeks, you know that I’ve been focusing on this in my sermons from the Gospel of Mark. I can’t exactly explain why, but the idea of the Kingdom of God has become utterly fascinating to me. However, so I don’t sound as if this is just some sort of academic exercise to me, or a theological mind-bender to pass the time, you should know that this is actually becoming a passion of mine. I’m beginning to think that the Evangelical church for the past 50 years or so has missed the critical teaching that lends complete understanding to the Gospel message. Apparently, I’m not the only one who is wrestling with this issue, as there are many Evangelical scholars and pastors who are rediscovering Jesus’ teaching as well.
Before I unpack that thought, let me take you back to the beginning of this journey. It began for me while I was still in seminary. As I studied the gospels, I began to notice that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God. I don’t mean that he talked about it a little, or only sometimes, but that the Kingdom of God was his ministry focus. As I’ve begun to study the New Testament more broadly, I’ve discovered that Paul also preached about the Kingdom. There are eight references to this in book of Acts, and Acts 25:30-31 states specifically that he spent his time in Rome teaching about the Kingdom and the King. I began to ask myself why I, growing up in the independent Evangelical church world, had never heard this before. How could I grow up in serious Bible teaching churches, and yet I can’t recall hearing anything about the Kingdom of God?
In searching for the answer to this question, I began to read church history books that focused specifically on the history of the Church in the United States. Many of these works challenged my view of the world, the Church, and my faith. However, I’ve found these Christian historians to be both accurate in their assessments of the American church, and to be a needed voice in our current church climate. While doing this research, I believe I’ve come to understand the identity of the two culprits who stole the Kingdom from us. These evaluations are not original to me, but they are gaining real credence in academic and pastoral circles, so it is important for me to share them.
The first of these thieves was Modern Liberalism. These old school liberals did not believe that the miracles of the Bible were literally true, nor did they believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ. By removing the Spiritual/Supernatural/Miraculous elements from the Gospels, these liberals effectively neutralized the powerful message of salvation. They were left with Jesus the guru, the teacher, the Buddha, but not the Savior. In reaction to this liberalization of theology, many independent churches were born. This includes our own Grace Church of Harmony, which was formally known as Grace Reformed Church. When the German Reformed denomination chose to merge with others and form the United Churches of Christ in 1969, our church chose to become independent.
The fact that many of our churches were born out of reaction to a larger movement was necessary, but not without consequences. Whenever a movement is spawned by reaction, it tends to be guilty of over-reaction. The liberals believed that they were responsible for bringing God’s Kingdom to fruition on earth. Since they stripped the Gospel of the spiritual, the fixing of this earth’s problems was simply a matter of education, money, philanthropy, pluralism, and unfettered tolerance of any worldview. Essentially, they became humanists. As they talked more and more about the Kingdom of God, Evangelicals, fearing to be lumped in with the liberals, talked about it less and less. We let them take our Kingdom from us.
Unfortunately, the second Kingdom thief was a little closer to home. It was us. More specifically, it was the theological system of Classical Dispensationalism. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a Dispensationalist, but there are objections to the widely accepted, early incarnations of this system. What is the big problem? As I see it, the early Dispensational understanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God was sorely lacking. Specifically, it was taught that Jesus came preaching the Kingdom in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, that the Kingdom and its King were rejected, and that from that point forward, Jesus’ teachings concerning the Kingdom were meant for the future Millennial Kingdom. This reduces the teaching of Jesus to the point that it has little or no application for us.
In truth, this line of thinking has never worked for me. If we believe that Jesus’ teaching was not meant for today, then we are saying that the primary subject of Jesus’ instruction, the point of his miracles and statements, the likely understanding of both his disciples and critics, has no bearing on our lives as followers of the King. Really? Are we really going to ignore the hot topic of the Gospels? This is an untenable position for me.
Out of this objection, as well as several others, arose the system called Progressive Dispensationalism. It is from this system that we get the idea of the “already/not yet” Kingdom. You’ve heard me say this in each of my sermons from Mark. The Kingdom is already established in the hearts of Christians, but is not yet established in its full physical glory on Earth. The former was established at the Cross (1st Advent), the latter will be established when Christ returns (2nd Advent). It should be noted that the vast majority of Dispensational scholars have adopted this view.
When we come to understand that the Kingdom of God is established, this opens up the Gospel in a way that has been lost to us for decades, if not an entire century. You see, the Kingdom of God gives completeness to the Gospel message. Without it, our message of hope is small, misleading, and anemic.
This is my challenge for you this month. Pick one or all of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) read it/them with a keen eye towards references to the Kingdom of God. Take notes about what Jesus said and taught concerning the Kingdom. Next month, I will comment on why our version of the Gospel message is incomplete and misleading without the inclusion of the Kingdom of God.