Sunday, December 6, 2015

What Happened to the Kingdom?

Growing up in a typical evangelical, non-denominational, Christian tradition, I didn't hear much about the “kingdom of God,” or the “kingdom of Heaven,” as it's also often called. Sure, I got the obligatory and whimsically vague references to “seeking God's kingdom first” and I'd hear about how Jesus instructed his follower's to ask God to bring his kingdom to Earth in the frequently recited “Lord's Prayer.” But there wasn't always enough helpful talk about the nature and function of the kingdom, how we are to seek it, participate in it, recognize it, or even think about it. There are significant historical reasons for why much of the Church has shied away from talk of “the kingdom.” Misunderstanding about what (and when) the kingdom is had led many to look to generic social justice, technological/medical advancements, government, and a tragically misguided hope of man-made utopia as the answer to the Lord's prayer. After bad theology was exposed by harsh reality, the baby was essentially thrown out with the bathwater. In some circles, talk of the kingdom has been forever marred and relegated to “liberal” mainline traditions and heretical groups like the Watchtower Organization. But it will take an enormous effort of censorship on our part if we are to read through the four gospels and not notice Jesus' obvious preoccupation with “the kingdom.” He simply would not shut up about it (especially in the synoptic gospels). He went as far as saying that preaching the good news of the kingdom was the reason for his arrival (Luke 4:43). I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say anything this pivotal to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is worth another look.

Fair notice, this post will probably raise more questions than it will answer. It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the kingdom of God. I mainly plan to focus on what I see as three simple elements of the kingdom of God: the King, his people, and his reign. More on this shortly. I must begin by saying I believe we have truncated what Jesus preached as “the good news of the kingdom of God” into what we now think of as “the good news,” or “the gospel.” The modern American version of the “good news” primarily focuses on the individual's salvation from Hell (and perhaps their transformation into a better person). In other words, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Have you considered inviting Jesus into your heart as your personal savior?” While these sentiments are not untrue or entirely unhelpful, I would argue that they are incomplete. They miss the grander narrative of the good news of the kingdom of God as Jesus told it (of which personal redemption and transformation is certainly an important part). Notice that the “personal savior” pitch can more easily be sidestepped. “That's just not for me,” one might conclude. “I can see that it's really helpful to some, but I have a different truth that works for me,” etc. Jesus' invitation, on the other hand, is not so easily ignored. It has a scope and weightiness to it that must be reckoned with. In no uncertain terms, Jesus declares that he is the rightful King over everything, who is redeeming a people from among a horde of unworthy rebels, and he intends to ultimately confront and eradicate all evil from his universe and to reign supreme over all of creation. His people welcome his reign, while his enemies rage against it. We are in the midst of his redemptive process, and when he is finished every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11). This is what we are being invited into. It's a story that's bigger than any one of us, and to opt out of Jesus' unprecedented invitation comes with immediately felt cosmic implications.

The unmistakable focal point of the kingdom of God is the King (an authoritative title that 21st Century Americans can hardly comprehend), who is sacrificially re-creating a people who will willingly live under his reign now and forever. I believe the language of kingdom (the King, his people, and his reign) is throughout Scripture. Genesis documents how the first humans rejected his reign, thereby rejecting their King, and ceasing to be his people. The rest of the unfolding story of the Bible recounts how he is methodically seeking to restore things to his original intent and good design. He calls Abraham out of a pagan society in order to miraculously create a people who would willingly live under his reign. Centuries later, he rescues Abraham's descendants from their Egyptian oppressors—to create a people, a “kingdom of priests”—with the purpose of reigning over every aspect of their society as their King. These foreshadowings of his kingdom were doomed from the beginning. The people he redeemed were unable to obey his law and live under his reign, as their hearts were cold as stone. But these early hints at kingdom were not without purpose or effect. He used these foreshadowings to articulate the necessity and genius of his ultimate plan. He promised David, the quintessential human king, that from his line would come a Son who would rule over an eternal kingdom. Likewise, Daniel prophesied, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those [previously mentioned human kingdoms] and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (from Daniel 2:44). The eternal Son would come himself, as a perfect human, uniquely capable of living under his Father's reign, and he would create a people from wretched rabble. This people, once freed from their chains, will be empowered by his Spirit to carry out their newfound desire to live under his reign. Where the King reigns, his kingdom comes.

So when Jesus of Nazareth walks on the scene, the people of Israel had been eagerly anticipating the kingdom of God for untold generations. The only problem—and it's a big one—was that they didn't realize what shape it would take or that they were presently unfit to participate. Even Jesus' closest follower's and friends were initially confused about the nature and scope of his kingdom. Shortly before his ascension, his disciples were still asking questions like, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus redirected their focus away from nationalistic dreams of earthly kingdoms with the Great Commission.

God's kingdom does not consist of brick and mortar, geographic conquest, and planted flags. Why are we surprised, though, that his kingdom does not resemble ours? It is, as Jesus explained to Pilate, “not of this world.” I would argue that the kingdom of God can't be reduced to a mere government or even the Church (as an institution), and yet it has claim to these and more. It pleases the Father to subject all things in due time to the lordship of Jesus the Christ. His kingdom is immense, and there is nothing outside of the King's jurisdiction. He stakes his claim to bodies, hearts, and souls. His kingdom boasts citizens from every people group, skin color, language, and culture. There is no line drawn on a map that can define or contain its boarders. Where the king reigns, his kingdom is present in a very real and powerful way. And so his people cry out “may your kingdom come” in every unseen crevice of our hearts. May you reign over our families and in our neighborhoods and cities. As mentioned, I don't think we can reduce the kingdom of God to the Church, but we should get the clearest view of his kingdom within his Church, as his people are faithfully living under his reign.

There seems to be a notably covert, even subversive, nature to the coming of his kingdom that shouldn't be overlooked. Apparently, his kingdom can go completely unnoticed by some. When asked by the Pharisees about the arrival of God's kingdom, Jesus responded with, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,' or ‘There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (from Luke 17:20-21). The King has landed in disguise, easily mistaken by a superficial glance for your First Century average-Josephus. His kingdom spreads as a “good infection,” to borrow C. S. Lewis' term, an organic, grassroots campaign that is transmitted from person to person. It is unofficial and off the grid, often underestimated and ignored by the human powers that be. With a chuckle to himself, God uses the simple things of this world to counterintuitively dismantle the seemingly complex system of Satan's deeply entrenched illegitimate kingdom. If you don't know what you're looking for, you'll never see it. Indeed, Jesus explained to an inquisitive Nicodemus that anyone desiring to see the kingdom of God must first be born again. In Matthew 13, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He gives a similar anticlimactic example of humble beginnings and unnoticed progress with a tale of a woman adding a little yeast to her flour, which slowly works its way through 60 pounds of dough.

So is the kingdom of God here, is it coming, or is it yet to come? The short answer is “yes.” For the long answer, I think it's helpful to look at the coming of David's kingdom. You probably remember how God had stripped from Saul the authority to rule Israel and bestowed it upon a young shepherd boy named David. At David's anointing, God effectively said through the prophet Samuel, “this is my chosen one in whom I am pleased.” You might also remember that Saul continued to sit on the throne for years as an illegitimate king, even causing all kinds of trouble for David and his friends. David waited patiently—even heroically resisting the urge to take matters into his own hands on more than one occasion—for God to bring all of his enemies under his feet and to solidify the authority that was given years prior. “Day after day men came to help David, until he had a great army, like the army of God” (1 Chronicles 12:22). These defectors “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). David's kingdom grew daily while Saul's slowly diminished and was eventually violently overthrown by the hand of God. His kingdom grew somewhat like a mustard seed into a mighty tree.

Likewise, David was used by God to achieve a decisive victory over Israel's Philistine oppressors when he was a young man. Recall how the Philistines had challenged Israel to a winner-take-all death match between two champions. The losing nation would become the winners' slaves. David is of course famous for defeating an enormous warrior named Goliath, and effectively rescuing his countrymen from bondage, with only a sling and his faith. It was many more battles and years later, however, when God had completely subjected the Philistines and much of ancient Mesopotamia to David's reign.

Like David, Jesus has been anointed the rightful King. He accurately claims, “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me,” and yet not everyone currently recognizes his authority. His defeated foe still thrashes about as if he were the king, and, like Saul, he is still permitted to cause great harm. Jesus has truly defeated sin and death on the cross and at his resurrection, yet we clearly still die and are presently feeling the effects of sin in our own lives and in our world at large. The outcome of the war has been decided by Jesus' heroic feat, but for now the skirmishes rage on. The “god of this world” will not go quietly. Death has been defanged and the bondage of sin has been broken through the King's sacrifice and his powerful indwelling and transformative Spirit. However, we still look forward to the day when death will be swallowed up forever and the cancer of sin—rebellion against the King's reign—will be completely eradicated. Jesus patiently waits at the right hand of the Father, while the Father proceeds to make all of his enemies into his footstool.

Jesus invites his people to willingly live under his reign starting now. He is creating a people of light from the spoils of Satan's crumbling kingdom of darkness. He spent much of his earthly ministry describing and demonstrating the kingdom and explaining how its citizens are to behave. It is unavoidably dangerous to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God in a world that is still overrun with people who hate him. Ahimelech, the priest, was murdered by Saul along with most of his family for helping David. Jesus warned would-be-followers to “count the cost” and promised them that in this world they will have trouble. There's no going forward until we accept this, until we take up our cross and follow him. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, caring for others at our own expense leaves us vulnerable in a world that won't reciprocate. The darkness will capitalize on our mercy and will often trample on our forgiveness. Remember that they spit in our Savior's face as he carried our cross. He said “Father, forgive them” as his torturers went to work on him. He is not overcome by evil, but he instead overcomes evil with good. This is how he advances his kingdom—not at the edge of a sword but through a tidal wave of mercy and grace. The First Century Christ-followers understood this. They happily accepted torture, crucifixion, burning, and being made sport of in the Colosseum rather than breaking allegiance to their King and his better kingdom. As Jesus explained to Pilate, had his kingdom been of this world then his followers would have resorted to violence to defend him. The Caesars played a bloody game of Whack-A-Mole with our first brothers and sisters, but with every martyred kingdom-citizen another ten sprouted up behind them. Rome, a powerful empire of unmatched strength on the battlefield, was ultimately no match for the good news of the kingdom of God.

Make no mistake, the King's generous offer of amnesty to those defecting from Satan's illegitimate kingdom is for an unknown limited time. Jesus announced Jubilee, the time of God's great favor, when debts are canceled and mercy flows freely. This era of unprecedented grace will conclude with the King's physical return. He will at this point judge those who persistently love their treason more than their coming King along with the instigator who fancies himself a king. In accordance with their unyielding wishes, both will be permanently removed from his presence.

Like an unassuming mustard seed, his kingdom grows steadily, sometimes incrementally, both in our own hearts and in our world. As Christ-followers, we long to see his reign in every part of our lives. We want our friends, coworkers, and neighbors to partake in the good news of his kingdom too. So we persistently look for every opportunity to demonstrate and declare the joy of belonging to the King and living under his reign. My gauge of who is or isn't talking about the kingdom is purely anecdotal, and I have been seeing what looks like a growing interest among evangelicals (an apparent shift in worship song lyrics, sermon lingo, etc.). My hope is that the "kingdom" will not just become a trending ambiguous buzzword in popular Christian culture, overused and misapplied to the point where it is emptied of all meaning. Instead, let's genuinely consider the words of Christ concerning the good news of the kingdom of God, and let's faithfully proclaim and practice the full story. Beware of bad theology that leaves you cowering in a bunker with a stockpile of canned food and ammo. We can't allow ourselves to be fooled by the clatter and pomp of a defeated foe or to be frightened by the shrieking of the dying darkness. As we look around at a world seemingly spinning out of control, we must remember that our King is working all things together for our good and his glory. Light has come into the world and the darkness has not and will not overcome him. With our hand to the plow and our eyes to the sky, we say with one voice, “May his kingdom come!” 

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