The Kingdom of God Has Come

30 September 2012

“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is come upon you.”

With these simple words, Jesus raised the stakes on the religious leaders. He had just cast out a mute demon, a difficult feat that some rabbis maintained could only be done by Messiah Himself. Rather than believing, the Pharisees had rejected Him again and accused him of casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus pointed out what a foolish thing it would be for the ruler of demons to cast out his own demons, but the real challenge was yet to come.

The real challenge was simple: What if He wasn’t using Satan’s power? What if it was the Holy Spirit? What then?

Then the Kingdom of God is come. God’s rule, already firmly established in heaven, is breaking into earth, and where that is happening, the agents of the kingdom of darkness are being driven away.

The Kingdom is future. One day, we will see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies will be His footstool. As Hebrews 2:5-9 observes, that day has not yet arrived, and so we can confidently say that the Kingdom has not yet come.

But then again, there are little pockets where we see exactly those things happening — God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies crushed under His feet. Jesus was pointing out one such pocket. In that place, at that time, the rule of God was being asserted, which is to say that the Kingdom had arrived.

***

Abram’s servant, seeking a wife for Isaac, met her at a well. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met Zipporah at a well. In the Bible, when a man meets a woman at a well, you can practically hear the wedding bells in the background. So when Jesus meets a woman at the well outside Sychar, we know what is about to happen.

Jesus is going to marry Samaria.

Samaria has had five “husbands,” five nations who possessed her (see 2 Kings 17:24*), and the nation that dominates her now, Rome, is not really her husband. The emperor is just using her for the tax revenue. She’s defeated, hopeless, oppressed — a captive, trapped in the kingdom of darkness.

She meets Jesus, and her world changes. Finally, a man who knows her: “He told me everything I ever did,” she later says. He bypasses the theological smokescreen she throws up on the Gerzim-Zion question (there was a right answer, but she didn’t really care about it anyway). Instead, He speaks to the deep need of her heart: to have reality in her relationship with God, to have life. She drinks the water that He gives, and as He promised, it wells up in her and becomes a fountain of life. All her neighbors hear about it from her, and then meet Jesus for themselves, and He remains a few days in Sychar.

Now here’s the key question: In terms of the kingdoms of light and darkness, what just happened?

Obvious, isn’t it? Yahweh’s reign has come to Sychar, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom of God has come to Sychar. Has it come perfectly? No. Has it come fully? Nope. But has it come truly?

Of course. Where Jesus is, the Kingdom is already forcefully advancing.

***

So the question is, do we believe His promise?

Jesus sent His disciples out, not just with a commission, but with a promise: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all the things that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Do we believe His promise?

If we do, then we know that He is with us wherever we go. As He cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we have the indwelling Holy Spirit in us, always.

If the Kingdom breaks out wherever Jesus is, then why shouldn’t the Kingdom break out wherever His Body is?

***

If we understand that it’s God’s will for the Kingdom to break out wherever we go, then we can pray boldly. He wants to break the domain of darkness through us. From driving away oppressing spirits to freeing broken people, we are agents of God, seeking to establish His reign. Knowing that He sent us out, that He is with us, and that He wants to establish outposts of His reign on earth, we pray as Jesus taught us: “Thy name be hallowed; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

_________________
*many thanks to Michele for pointing out the 2 Kings 17:24 connection.


Mystical Union: Eternal Life is a Dimmer Switch

31 July 2011

When we begin to talk about eternal life (or for short, “life”), we often adopt binary language — you got it or you don’t, end of story.  Then, as a separate issue, we discuss the matter of sanctification. There is, of course, a reason for this.  In the End, there are only two places to be, and two sorts of people to be in them.  Those who have life will live on the New Earth, where God will dwell with His People, and those who have chosen death will die in the Lake of Fire, eternally quarantined away from the God they so despised.  Among the folks who live on the New Earth, some of them will be spiritual giants like Deborah or Peter, men and women who receive great reward.  Others will be…how to put it?…largely spiritual failures.  People who, like Samson, might have shown a great deal of early promise, but frittered it away.  There is a sense in which these are separate issues, the one decided in an instant of faith and the other worked out over the course of a person’s whole life.

In deference to that separateness, many folks will drop “eternal life” language entirely when they start talking about sanctification.  Growing up, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use “eternal life” language in connection with walking with God: “life” was always about justification, never sanctification.

This gets into your hermeneutics, and you begin to read any passage that discusses “eternal life” or “life” as if it were talking strictly about the new birth, which is a serious problem.

But a growing number of commentators have begun to realize that Scripture doesn’t quite speak in that way.  In many passages, eternal life isn’t something you get when you die; it’s something you have now (e.g., John 5:24).  So there is a growing desire to respond to those passages, but at the same time a great fear of impairing justification by faith alone by confusing justification and sanctification, and the result is an odd blend.  These folks discuss the new birth in terms of having eternal life, and then discuss sanctification/growth in terms of experiencing eternal life.

This is a quantum leap forward from where we were, and we should applaud it.  However, it doesn’t quite go far enough to really be following the way Scripture speaks of the issues.

In brief, it’s not enough to talk about having/not having eternal life, and then, separately, experiencing eternal life.  That’s helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible talks.  The Bible talks about not having life, then having it, and then having more life (e.g., John 10:10).

Here’s the difference.  The “having/not having vs. experiencing” model is like a conventional light switch and a blindfold.  The light is either on or off, but how much you experience the light depends on something totally separate — the blindfold.  Maybe it’s on good and tight, and you can’t see a thing, even though the light is on.  Maybe it’s slipped upward just enough that you can see down along the sides of your nose.  Maybe it’s gone cockeyed, and you can see out of one eye, but not the other…and so on.  The light being on is one concern; the blindfold is another, entirely separate set of concerns.

The “not having/having/having more” model is like your basic dimmer dial switch like you might find in a suburban dining room.  Turn the dial just a little, and you’ll feel the click as the switch goes from ‘off’ to ‘on.’  But there’s just a trickle of current flowing; you can barely see the light.  Keep turning the dial in the same direction, and the flow increases, the light gets progressively brighter.  On and off are still distinguishable states, but it’s all on one continuum, not two totally separate issues.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.  He gives us a gift in the new birth, and sanctification is, in this sense, a distinguishable, but not separate, affair.  It’s getting more of what you got to start with.


Preparing for the Kingdom

15 May 2011

Thanks to the controversy-mongering of a certain fellow up in Michigan, heaven and hell are in the news of late.  I don’t intend to spend much time on that here; suffice it to say I take a C. S. Lewis-esque view, myself.  Hell is real, eternal, and utterly horrifying, and nobody is going to enjoy being there.  But I believe they will find it infinitely preferable to being in the presence of the God whom they have hated and avoided their whole lives, in whose presence their cherished illusions must die.

What I’m interested in, in this post, are similar implications of judgment for believers.  1 John presents a picture in which this life is an opportunity to learn to walk in the light.  If we avail ourselves of the opportunity to face God and have our sins exposed by Him now, then when He appears, we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming.  This will not be because we will have arrived at some sort of sinless state — “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” — but because we will have parts of our lives for which there is no reason for shame, and even more important, because we will have acquired the habit of standing in the light and being exposed for who we are.  When Christ is finally revealed and the last illusion is dispelled, the last self-deception uncovered, we will not be ashamed, but relieved.  It is a process we will embrace, because we have been embracing it all along.

By contrast, a believer who spends this life skulking in the shadows is doomed.  The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already dawning; the time will come when it is full day and there are no shadows left to hide in.  When day fully comes, the believer who has spent all his time in the shadows will be caught unprepared, and will shrink away in shame before Christ at His coming.  The Sun of Righteousness will be risen with healing in His wings — but this man cherishes his sickness and will have to be healed against his will.

Now consider how this will matter when it comes to eternal rewards.  The doctrine of rewards is often presented as motivation, as a heavenly profit-sharing program.  Good boys get a city; bad boys get a push broom.

Roughly speaking, that would appear to be true as far as it goes, but it’s a long way from the whole story.  If you have kids, or you’ve ever worked with kids, then you’ve seen them do astonishingly stupid things with the best of intentions.  In the resurrection, we will all be morally perfect, which is to say that our intentions will be good.  But it takes more than good intentions — even perfect intentions — to govern a city.  Results matter, and to achieve good results, you need wisdom.  To whom can Jesus hand the administration of a city?  To whom can He say, “Here, run this city the way I would,” and be confident that it will get done?

To someone who has spent this life growing in the wisdom of the Kingdom.  To a person who has walked in the light, and grown mature through a lifetime of dwelling in Christ, and Christ in him. This is the ethical dimension of the doctrine of rewards.  If the prize is to rule by Christ’s side, then the task today is to make the choices that will cause you to become someone who rules as Christ would rule.

Here, by the way, is how we dodge the classic dispensational foolishness vis-a-vis the Sermon on the Mount.  Now the old folly about how the Sermon is ‘Kingdom law’ and therefore not for today ought not even be considered seriously; the Great Commission is sufficient to refute it completely.  But just to be talking about it, let’s suppose that the Sermon is Kingdom Law, and can’t be applied fully in this present sin-filled age.  Nonetheless, this age is our training ground for the next, which means that we can’t afford to defer all application of the Sermon to later.  If we would be ready to apply Kingdom Law in the Kingdom, we have to begin by doing the best we can to apply it now.

Happily, it turns out that when we do that skillfully, the result is compelling evidence in this world for the reality of the world to come, along the lines of the witness chronicled in Hebrews 11, or the witness Jesus prayed for in John 17.  We are already the citizens of a Kingdom that has not yet come.  But all authority is committed to Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, and we are already His subjects.  By living as His subjects in a world at war with Him, we walk in the light and carry that light out into the dark places of the world, that the kings of the earth may be rebuked and kiss the Son before it is too late.

By words and water, bread and wine, by the sacrifices of praise, by remembering to do good and to share — by New Covenant sacraments and sacrifices — we make war on the powers of this world.  The weapons of our warfare, although not carnal, are weapons, and they are weapons for which God’s enemies have no defense.  Let’s use them, that we might be priests in this life, and joint heirs with Christ as priest-kings in the life to come.


Telos of the Gift: The Christmas Pocketknife

3 April 2011

Once upon a time there was a man named Dan.  God was kind to Dan, and in due time gave him a wife, and then a son — a red-headed, freckled bundle of mischief named Russell.  Russell could barely sit still.  They had to hold him back a year in school because he wasn’t learning to read — not because he couldn’t, or from any lack of intelligence, but because he just had such a hard time focusing.  He didn’t start to like reading even a little bit until Dan introduced him to Tom Sawyer and Br’er Rabbit.  He was that kind of boy.

When Russell was 8 years old, Dan got him a pocketknife for Christmas.  Russell thought it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen: a bright red Swiss Army Tinker.  Large blade, small blade, bottle and can openers, screwdrivers — flat and phillips heads! — a leather punch…the list just went on and on.

Dan set Russell up with a chunk of balsa wood, a cardboard box, and an old leather belt so he could cut things, and Russell had the most wonderful afternoon of his young life reducing all three items to tiny, tiny pieces.  As far as Russell was concerned, heaven had come to earth.  Sitting at the kitchen table with an old cutting board, surrounded by bits of leather, wood and cardboard, Russell wondered what he could do next with his knife.  He looked down at the scarred surface of the cutting board in front of him, a hash of intersecting lines, and the idea struck him.  He went to work, and soon the cutting board sported a crudely carved “Russell” in one corner.

Flushed with success, Russell looked around the room, and his eyes lit on the china cabinet.  It towered to the ceiling, easily twice as tall as he was, a solid rosewood and glass giant looming over him, a tiny David with a Swiss Army knife.  Russell giggled.  Wonder how Goliath would feel about having “Russell” carved into his foot?

Still giggling, Russel lay down on the floor in front of one of the massive claw-feet and went to work….

*****

Now: was the pocketknife a gift?  Was it free?

Of course.

Does ‘gift’ imply that Russell was free to do whatever he wanted with it?

Of course not.

Russell’s father had some general purposes in mind for the gift, and vandalism was a sin against the intentions of his father, the giver.  Russell failed to honor his father.

Of course, had Russell been better educated, he might have thought to argue: “Hey, Dad, wait just a minute!  I thought this was a gift!  You can’t back-load a gift with a whole bunch of rules.  Was it really free, or wasn’t it?”

Happily, Russell’s foolishness was just the ordinary kind, and hadn’t been raised to a fever pitch by a theological education.