(This post is something I wrote several years ago and reflects my thinking on the topic then. Some of my ideas might have changed slightly since then, but mostly, this represents how I see the subject. This is part two of a series. Read part one here.)
What Is The Kingdom And Why Does It Matter?
A couple of months ago, I began a series of essays related to the Kingdom of God and its role in our lives and our ministry here at Grace Church. This month I want to continue to explore the topic. Specifically, I want to look at how the Kingdom of God is depicted in scripture, and why that matters in our lives and our ministry. Please keep in mind that volumes have been written on this subject, and it is not my intent to write another one. I only want to get us thinking about the topic, and encourage you to search Scripture for yourselves, do additional reading, and consider how we can do a better job of presenting the good news of God’s plan for this world.
So, what is the Kingdom of God? To put it in the simplest terms, the Kingdom is the realm in which God is sovereign. It is God making Himself available to His creation as its rightful Lord and Sovereign. To borrow from John Piper, God is the gospel. The good news is that He has made himself available to us. The Kingdom of God is God’s promise to us as the restoration of the paradise that we lost at the Fall.
In the Old Testament, it was God’s intention for the people of Israel to embody that kingdom. When Israel began its life in the Promised Land, it was a tribal community, structured around the worship of the one, true God. They were established to be the beacon of God to the world. They were to be a kingdom of priests, acting as God’s representatives to the world. In this way, the people of Israel were very close to their origins and purpose as the Kingdom of God.
Soon the people of God grew weary of His leadership and clamored for a human king. They had in their mind the vision of God’s Kingdom as He had promised it to them, but they were impatient and unwilling to wait for God’s leading (1 Sam. 8:6-9). They wanted a kingdom in the mold of their neighbor nations. While God allowed them their king, this was the first step away from God’s original plan for them. In some way, Israel began to take its hope from a Kingdom of God and place all its eggs in the basket of the earthly state. They wanted all the promises of God’s kingdom (peace, prosperity, and union with the Creator), but they mistakenly thought that they could establish God’s Kingdom without God.
Over time, the concerns of the state and the religious practice became blurred so that the state ultimately abandoned the worship of the true God in favor of following the pagan gods. Religious practice became subject to the whim of whichever king sat on the throne in Jerusalem. As the kingdoms of Israel and Judah became more and more mixed with their neighbors, so also religious practice became more and more corrupted. Ultimately, the kingdoms of this world have been proven to be inadequate substitutes for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is established in the hearts of men, and is brought to bear by the power of God. We can’t bring about the promises of God for this world through our own political power. Israel tried it, and eventually, they abandoned God altogether and found themselves under judgment.
We read throughout the prophets that God is angry with the nature of the people’s worship.
Hosea 6:6 (NIV84)
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Micah 6:6–8 (NIV84)
6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
What we see in these verses, and many others, is that God wanted true worship and acknowledgment from his people. He wanted from them only their dedication and loyalty. Instead, the Creator found himself being treated like any other god; simply a being who is supposed to provide blessings just as long as the people buy him off with sacrifices.
Besides cursing, we see something else in the Prophets: affirmation that the promise of the Kingdom of God still stands (see Micah 4:1-5 for a vision of what the Kingdom will look like). We also see in Jeremiah 32:27-34 that God will establish a New Covenant with His people. We know that this covenant is established in Jesus. But why was it necessary to establish this covenant? The failure of God’s people to stay faithful to Him shows us very clearly that the sinfulness of people hinders us greatly in our quest to have communion with our Creator. God establishes the New Covenant through Christ to change the hearts of all humanity. By writing His commands on our hearts, we are no longer slaves to the Law of God, but rather, we are change from the inside out by our knowledge and Holy Spirit filled experience of Christ’s righteousness encompassing us. In short, God’s Kingdom could not be established because the hearts of mankind were not ready to receive it. So in Christ, we have the changing of our hearts, making them fertile soil for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
The New Testament opens with John the Baptist crying out, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2). We also see, without much effort, that Jesus speaks of the Kingdom almost exclusively. The Kingdom of God was at the core of Jesus’ preaching (Mk 1:15; Mt 4:17; Lk 4:43-44). The term “Kingdom of Heaven” appears 31 times in Matthew’s gospel. “Kingdom of God” appears 51 times in the entire Gospels. Jesus taught about the Kingdom in parable, and demonstrated its power through miracles. In doing this, he also established his own credentials as King. Even after the resurrection, during his brief sojourn on the Earth, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom (Acts 1:3). He commanded the disciples to spread the Gospel and teach others all that he had taught them. It stands to reason that if Jesus primarily taught about the Kingdom, then the disciples also should be teaching about the Kingdom.
The apostles Philip (Acts 8:12) and Paul (Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23; 28:31) did in fact speak of the Kingdom of God routinely. They preached the complete gospel. They preached that God came to save not only individuals for Heaven, but also to save the entirety of Creation by re-establishing Himself as the King over that Creation. This is accomplished by the regeneration of the hearts of people, and the establishment of the Kingdom. According to Scripture, the Kingdom of God is both already established in the hearts of people, and not yet complete. It will be complete at the return of Christ to this Earth. It is at that time that we will see all the promises of God in there physical, earthly fulfillment. God has made Himself available to us in a way that was previously impossible. As a result, the Kingdom of God is available to us in a way that was also previously impossible. It dwells within us until the day that we see Jesus face to face. The Kingdom is our future hope until that great day of Jubilee!
If Jesus and the Kingdom were central to New Testament preaching, then there must be something very important for people to understand about the Kingdom of God. Most of the time when Evangelicals talk about salvation we put it in terms of the individual coming to Christ and going to Heaven when she dies. We use methods like the “Romans Road,” and tell a person that salvation is a matter of him acknowledging that she is a sinner, accepting that Christ paid the penalty for his sin, and that in doing so she can go to Heaven for the rest of eternity. While this is true in part, it is incomplete.
In what way is this gospel message incomplete? It is incomplete in the sense that it makes salvation an individual matter. “My God and I have reached an agreement. Now I can be assured that when I die, I’ll go to Heaven.” The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t fully capture the full picture of what God has planned for this world. Yes, God is most definitely interested in saving individuals. Yes, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans a great deal about the individual process of salvation. He tells us how our justification and sanctification are accomplished. He also speaks a quite thoroughly about the individuals freedom of the Law. These are obviously the great truths of scripture. Paul gives us nicely detailed discussion of what has happened to each of us because of what Christ has done for us. In essence, what we have in Paul’s writings are the detailed descriptions of what God is doing on the individual level written to Christians who were trying to understand what their salvation meant for them and how to live it out practically. According to Acts, when Paul preached the gospel, he preached the very big story of what God was doing through all of creation. That is, Paul told the story of the Kingdom of God as established by the anointed King Jesus, through whom, by whom, and for whom all things were created. Do you see the difference? Paul’s gospel message was big picture “Kingdom of God,” while his writings were concerned with explaining how we Christians came to be part of the Kingdom of God, and what we are supposed to do now that we are citizens of that Kingdom.
So what does all this mean for our evangelistic message? First, if we the end result of our gospel message is that you get to go to Heaven when you die, then we have failed to give our hearer the full picture of what God is doing. We will have failed to press upon them the magnitude of salvation. It is not just about me working out a deal with God whereby I get to receive Heaven. Rather, the full story is that God is fixing this entire world, restoring it to its pre-Fall glory. Through the Kingdom of God, He is re-establishing his sovereignty over this world, and restoring paradise for His creation. God is setting things right.
Second, portraying Heaven as our final destination is also inaccurate. Scripture clearly teaches, and the church has always believed in the resurrection of the Saints. “Resurrected to what?” you might ask. Revelation 21 tells us that Jesus is making everything new. This includes a new Heaven and a new Earth. We will be living on this Earth. The point: our final destination is an earthly, physical existence on a re-made version of this earth. God will restore paradise lost and we have the privilege of living in it. So, from my vantage point, talking about Heaven is fine, but our end is not there, and telling people so is inaccurate. Our final destination is the Kingdom of God on this Earth.
Third, by making the gospel highly individualistic we do harm to the individual and the Church. Christians are grown, and they are grown in the Church. The Church, while not equivalent to the Kingdom of God, is the place where the Kingdom should be embodied. The Church should be the place where the values of the Kingdom are seen and experienced in their fullest expression. However, how do you convince someone of the importance of the Church in their lives if their being told up front that salvation is simply a matter between him and God? We create a situation where instead of buying into a vision for the world, we become spiritual consumers. Instead of seeing the salvation as the act of God that changes the world, we view it as the means to my personal happiness. If churches are simply a way for me to get what I need, then I leave my church whenever the mood hits me.
We must be convinced that salvation is about something bigger than and outside of ourselves. When our eyes are opened to the magnitude of what God is doing and planning for this world, we should be driven to both praise of Him and profound humility. Salvation is not ultimately about you and me. It is about the sovereign God taking charge of his creation. It is about God fixing what we corrupted. It is about God bringing due glory to Himself through Jesus. It is about the role that we play in this grand drama. Salvation is so much more than me going to Heaven. The Kingdom of God gives us that vision. The Kingdom of God is becoming for me the thread that ties the Bible together. It is the vision for our ministry. It is the vision for my life and yours.
In the final installment in this series, we will be discussing how the Kingdom of God should act as the blueprint for our personal lives, for our ministry in the world, and how it should inform our goals and strategies as a church.