What is the Kingdom of God?

27 August 2019

We looked last week at the difficulties inherent in saying that the Kingdom of God is future (which it is) and still trying to maintain that it is somehow a present reality (which Jesus said it was.) That causes headaches, and one of the major questions that arises is “What do we mean by ‘Kingdom of God’?”

So let’s tackle that. I need to begin by observing that we get in a lot of trouble when we over-theologize biblical words in the effort to manufacture theological terms. People who talk/teach for a living love doing that sort of thing–it makes job security for them–but the truth is often much simpler. This is one of those cases.

The kingdom of God is where God rules.

There you go.

All the rest of this post is in anticipation of the acute whataboutitis that afflicts theological discussions. They want it to be more complicated than it really is. 

Does God rule in heaven now? Yes. So that’s part of God’s Kingdom. Will He rule on Earth on the last day? Absolutely. So that’s what the consummated Kingdom looks like. Was God’s rule extended when Jesus cast out that guy’s demon in Luke 11? Yup, sure was. So the Kingdom of God came right there. (See Luke 11:20 and its parallel in Matthew 12:28, and note the verb tenses.)

In between the Fall and the Consummation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God, and said so. His followers preached the word of the Kingdom, and did the works of the Kingdom, as Jesus did. We still do so today (saving where we have accepted the excuses of institutionalized unbelief and allowed ourselves to be discouraged from actually following Jesus.)

From that day to this, anywhere the word of the Kingdom is obeyed and the works of the Kingdom are done, the Kingdom of God has come upon you, just as it once did in Jesus’ day.

Has the Kingdom come in its permanent fullness? No. No more than it did in Jesus’ day. Is the kingdom really, truly present? Yes—just as it was in Jesus’ day. Then He was bodily present. Today, He is present in His Body, and where the King is present, honored, and obeyed, the Kingdom is among you.

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Kingdom Present?

20 August 2019

Let’s just get right to it: Jesus taught His followers to pray for the Kingdom to come…and also He said it had come (Mt.12:28//Lu.11:20). This is one of those things that gives Bible college freshmen a theology headache. (The cure is the same as for an ice cream headache: take it slow, and you’ll be fine.)

There’s a mountain of passages that describe the future Kingdom. These passages are often used to demonstrate that the Kingdom is still future (which it is) and therefore argue on that basis that it can’t be present.

The problem is, if we believe that “The Kingdom is future” means the Kingdom cannot be present, then somebody needs to tell Jesus.

If Jesus didn’t misspeak, then we have no choice but to reckon with the facts revealed to us in Scripture: at the moment Jesus said that, the Kingdom was future, and also in some sense present. We all read Isaiah, and nothing could be plainer than that the lion is not yet laying down with the lamb…and yet, Jesus said what He said.

And once we’re *there*, arguing for the future-ness of the Kingdom is not sufficient to establish that it can’t be present now. You might be able to argue that on other grounds, but just establishing that there’s a Kingdom in the future ain’t gonna do it.

Some folks will want to argue that the NT hardly speaks of the Kingdom outside the gospels, so how important a category can it really be? It’s a good question–but there’s a pretty compelling answer.

The answer has to do with where the Kingdom does come up in conversation. All over the Gospels, of course, which lays a strong foundation. But what about the rest of the New Testament?

  • The very last verse of Acts summarizes Paul’s preaching ministry in Rome thus: “Then Paul dwelt two hole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” If that were the only other place the Kingdom appeared in the NT, that’s enough to make a pretty decent case for its continuing relevance. But there’s more…
  • Luke also summarizes Paul’s preaching in a similar way in Acts 19:8, and Pihlip’s preaching to the Samaritans in Acts 8:12.
  • Paul himself describes his own preaching to the (mixed Jew-Gentile) Ephesian church as being about the Kingdom of God in Acts 20:25.
  • In addition, the Kingdom of God is sprinkled through the epistles as a present reality in some very interesting ways (Rom. 14:17, 1 Cor. 4:20, Col. 4:11).

So it appears as if, throughout the rest of the New Testament, the Kingdom is treated as a present reality. This bothers some folks, because how can it be future if it’s already here? Where’s the logic in that? And besides, if we’re already in the Kingdom, Jesus doesn’t seem to be ruling very well…

I get it, but we’re Christians. We worship the Triune God who is, in His own being, the only possible resolution to the problem of the one and the many. We do some interesting things with logic at times, and this is one of those times. We’re up against some very plain biblical statements, and the thing to do is #BelieveAllScripture, as the kids might say.

So how does this work? If we become obedient, perhaps we’ll find out–but that’s the subject for next week’s post.


For The Healing of the World

16 November 2018

From the beginning, we were always supposed to be about cultivating and guarding the world. After our failure in the Garden to guard the world as we should, we can add healing the world to the list. The world is broken, and we can’t cultivate and protect it if we don’t heal it too. That applies to our own hearts as surely as it applies to the rest of the world.

Of course we’re inadequate to the task — we were never meant to do any of it except hand in hand with God — but it is our job nonetheless. Into our weakness, Jesus came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19)

We are invited — commanded — to follow His example.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:12-14, emphasis added)

How can we possibly live up to that?

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

At Pentecost, the Spirit came upon the Church in power, and from that day to this we are called to attend to the words of Jesus, to practice the ways of Jesus, and to do the works of Jesus in the world. We are united with Him in baptism and partake of Him at His Table, and we are the Body of Christ in the world, because we are what we eat.

We are citizens of a capital city which is presently in heaven, but will one day come to earth. That new city will be the center of the whole world, and the center of the new city is the Lamb, who is its Temple.

“There shall be no night there: they need no lamp or light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light.” (Revelation 22:5)

That future light shines down the corridors of history, and if we have eyes to see, it illuminates our present world well enough:

“If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

May we live in the power of the Spirit that Christ has given to us.


Covering Grace

17 November 2017

It’s not possible to learn a craft—-any craft—without messing up. Whether it’s shoe-shining or surgery, you’re going to make mistakes. And how! So what do you do when you’re in ministry? You’re elbow-deep in people’s lives, at the moments when they’re in deepest pain. You represent God. When you make a mistake, people get hurt — badly. They get a false view of God and other people that can impact them for years to come. You can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Right?

Wrong. That is a lie from the enemy, designed to paralyze you into inaction.

God knows better than anyone that you can’t learn anything without making some mistakes. And He has planned, from eternity past, for your mistakes. He loves the people you work with and minister to, just as much as He loves you. He’s got them, just like He’s got you. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy or a reason to shortcut your preparation. Your diligence is definitely required, or you won’t get better at your craft.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. Don’t refuse to practice your craft because you’re afraid. Get out there. Do your work. Rest on the grace of God that covers you. Trust Him. He’s got you, and everyone around you. Trust and obey.


Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.

Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.

Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another. 

A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.

That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight. 

It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?

Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church? 

I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?

I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there. 

The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?

It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.

It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today. 


The Kingdom Has Come

15 October 2014

In the theology I grew up with, the kingdom of God is future, period.

We were aware that Jesus said the kingdom was near, in passages like this one, for example:

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

We interpreted that the same way you interpret a guy on the street corner with a sign that says, “The end is near.” In other words, “near” meant that it was still future, coming soon.

There’s an obvious way in which that was true. The consummation of the kingdom promises is still future. Obviously, the knowledge of the glory of God has not yet covered the earth like water covers the sea.

I’m aware that people have issues with the eschatology, but let’s not get sidetracked onto that at the moment. For the sake of discussion, let’s grant a future literal kingdom of exactly the kind envisioned by pre- and post-mil theologians.

Granting that, is the kingdom entirely future?

No.

We know it isn’t, because it wasn’t entirely future even in Jesus’ day. Notice what He says in Matthew 12:

Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Has come.” Not “will come” or “is about to come.” Has. In other words, when Jesus cast out a demon, the kingdom came right there. And this is what Jesus meant all along when He said that the kingdom was near. The old King James translation, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” is exactly right. “At hand” is where you keep your cell phone–close enough you can reach out and grab it.

The message of Jesus, from the inception of His ministry right down to the present day, is this: the kingdom of God is close enough to you, right now, that you could reach out and touch it. Do you want to?


That Darned Piggy

26 May 2013

Last Sunday was our joint Pentecost service here in Englewood.  Seven or eight sponsoring churches cancelled their Sunday morning service and met together on a baseball field to share in a joint service of prayer and worship followed by a meal.  As Billy Waters pointed out in his brief sermon, Paul’s letters to the churches are addressed to the “church of God which is at Corinth” or “to the saints who are in Philippi,” not to First Baptist or Third Anglican or even to the church that meets at so-and-so’s house as over against the others.  We believe in One Church in Englewood, and it was as the One Church of Englewood that we gathered.  Of course, there are other churches that weren’t involved in sponsoring the event, and they went on with their regularly scheduled services, which is fine.  All were invited, and all are welcome — they are part of the One Church in Englewood whether they jump in on this particular event or not.  Because I come from a much more sectarian tradition, this kind of occurrence always prompts me to meditate on why I do this, and why I no longer believe that I’m transgressing some boundary of doctrinal faithfulness when I do it.

Biblical truth and Christian love are two virtues which we must cultivate; two doctrines to which we must be faithful, and they cannot be separated such that it’s possible to prioritize one over the other.  The two are not in competition; “I am the…Truth” and “God is love” show us that truth and love are a perfect unity within the Triune Godhead, and they ought to be in God’s creaturely images too.  It is neither wise nor virtuous to set our virtues at one another’s throats.  When we have “love” lacking truth, the prime critique is not the lack of truth.  Love without truth isn’t true, fair enough — but more importantly it’s not really loving.  Likewise, “truth” lacking love is a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal, and of course unloving by definition, but more importantly, it fails on its own criterion — it falls short of genuine truth.  The One who is the Truth is loving, and real love rejoices in the truth.

It is precisely because I care that truth be lived as well as honored on paper that my fellowship and working relationships are as wide as they are.  Once upon a time, Paul came to Antioch and discovered Peter, his breath still reeking of pulled pork, suddenly refusing to sit and eat with the Gentile believers.  Paul could have upbraided him for being unloving.  Paul could have simply criticized his legalism.  But what Paul did, in fact, was rebuke him for not being straightforward about the gospel — and Paul’s subsequent tirade is one of the clearest expositions of justification by faith in all of Scripture.  Christ had spoken; the Gentile brothers were as clean as it gets.  By breaking table fellowship with them, Peter was implicitly succumbing to a “Christ-plus” gospel — of course the Gentile brothers belonged to Christ, but something was still missing because they ate that darned piggy.

Except for the occasional sectarian Messianic Jewish group, we seem to do okay these days on the piggy question, as long as we’re talking about literal piggy.  But we seem to have more than our fair share of metaphorical piggies coming out of the woodwork.  Whether it’s pre-, mid- or post-somethingism, hand-wringing over whether those guys are “radical” enough in the pursuit of Jesus, or whatever — anything that makes you look at someone Jesus called clean and think, “But is he really clean enough?” — lay down your idols and repent.

Christ is among us.  We are His people.  That is enough.