(Re-)defining the kingdom of God in nine words

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I know this has been a recurring theme here, but a concise statement about the kingdom of God on the Gospel Coalition site gives me another opportunity to stress the importance of a fundamental biblical-theological distinction, one that I have been making here for the last ten years and more.

It’s like watching your kid on the merry-go-round, yelling at him each time he spins past: “That’s not the right way to sit on a horse! You’re going in the wrong direction! How many times do I have to tell you?” Actually, it’s probably more like shouting at someone else’s kid.

Jeremy Treat argues that the kingdom of God is the number one thing that Jesus talked about, it’s obviously very important, we need to make sure we understand it, so we need a solid working definition, and he proposes a simple summary in eight words: “God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.” The definition is briefly explained under four headings.

1. The kingdom of God is not about people making the world a better place. It is about God “coming as king to set right what our sin made wrong.” There’s a lot of contemporary talk about well-meaning “kingdom-minded” Christians transforming society, but it has little to do with God. “The kingdom of God is the vision of the world reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ.”

2. God reigns over all things, but he reigns through his people. Adam and Eve were “commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth.” But humanity chose to go its own way. So now God reigns through a people which he has redeemed from the sin that has wrecked humanity’s relationship with God.

3. The sphere of God’s kingdom is the whole of creation. “The Bible,” Treat says, “is the story of God making his good creation a glorious kingdom.” The garden kingdom should have become a “global kingdom where people would rejoice and the world would flourish under God’s loving reign.”

4. The Jewish hope that God would establish his kingdom and restore creation was unexpectedly fulfilled in Jesus.

In practical terms, this is not a bad working model. It properly focuses on God and what he does, it ensures that personal salvation is set within a broad socio-ethical missional framework, and it identifies Jesus as the controversial and improbable figure through whom God would establish his kingdom. The Gospel Coalition is sitting on the horse, at least.

But from a biblical perspective, I think that there is a glaring flaw in the model.

When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand, he means that God is about to intervene in history to put right the political situation of his people, to resolve a political crisis.

Kingdom in scripture is not a creation theme, it is a political theme. It has to do with rulers and nations. Eden is a garden, not a kingdom. The earth is not a kingdom, it is the arena where kingdoms clash—and where they threaten the security and integrity of the nation of Israel. When YHWH is said to be king over all the earth, the thought is of present or future political realities: he has subdued nations under the feet of his people (Ps. 47:2-3); he will be king over all the earth on the day when he fights against the nations which wage war against Israel and restores Jerusalem (Zech. 14:3-9).

So when Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand, he does not mean that God is about to restore creation. He means that God is about to intervene in history to put right the political situation of his people, to resolve a political crisis. How? By overturning the corrupt temple system, casting down the mighty from their seats, installing his crucified Son as king, and renewing the covenant with his people.

This is Part One of the kingdom of God story in the New Testament. It has little immediately to do with the nations. Rome is not the oppressor to be overthrown because it must first be the instrument of God’s judgment on his rebellious people.

But when the early churches looked beyond the horizon of the war against Rome, they became convinced that God had made his Son judge and ruler not of Israel only but also of the nations. This is the crucial argument of Romans 15:8-12. Christ became a servant to Israel to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people. The Gentiles are invited not only to glorify the God of Israel for this reason but also to put their hope in Jesus. Why? Because he is the Davidic king who “arises to rule the nations.”

So Part Two of the kingdom of God story—as told from the perspective of the churches in the first century—is that eventually, through the faithful witness of prophetic communities of this new future, Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world, and in this way the God of Israel, the one God who made the heavens and the earth, would be glorified. The long centuries of pagan idolatry, culminating in the blasphemous rule of Rome over the nations, would be brought to an end, and a new age would dawn.

In this narrative the distinction between creation and kingdom is clear. The creator God chose Israel to be his people, to be a kingdom of priests. He acts politically when he judges and restores his people, when he defeats their enemies, and when he overthrows the old gods, including the god Caesar, and establishes his own rule over the nations.

So let’s redefine the kingdom of God in nine words: God’s management of the “political” existence of his people. That’s as concise as I can get it.

In the Bible it is primarily the story of Israel’s clash with the series of beasts that emerge from the sea in Daniel 7—the great pagan empires of the ancient world, extended to include Rome. It was brought to a climactic end when the beasts were judged before the throne of the Ancient of Days and dominion, glory and a kingdom were given to the Son of Man.

That story has now run its course.

The long-standing, western Christian hegemony that was the fruit of Paul’s mission, the concrete political expression of the triumph of Christ over the pagan gods, has come to an end, and a new age has dawned.

But the basic arrangement stays the same. Our claim is that the creator of all things has chosen a people to serve him faithfully throughout the ages. The “kingdom of God” is still, I think, God managing the problematic historical existence of his people, judging and reforming where necessary, safeguarding their integrity and security when they are under threat from external forces—such as the profoundly damaging forces of modern secular materialism.

The kingdom of God is not what Christians do. It is what God does. Odd that.

Eventually the need for such active management will come to an end, when the last enemy of his people will have been destroyed. At that point, the Son will hand the kingdom, which was given to him as the Son of Man, back to the Father, so that God may be all in (1 Cor. 15:24-28). In the meantime, thinking that we are in the business of restoring creation is as misguided as imagining that we are still waiting for Jesus to descend from heaven on clouds.

There must be something in the water.  Just a few days ago, I was engaged heavily in a discussion around this.

The part where things get tricky is certainly articulating in what sense the “kingdom of God” is a thing, now.  Jesus is still Lord, and God through him is managing the survival and welfare of His people in the midst of the nations, but it doesn’t really look like a kingdom in concrete, political existence.

I mean, what do you call this?

@Phil Ledgerwood:

No, it doesn’t have the political character that it had in the biblical period. That’s largley why I used the word “management”, though that could sound too corporate.

Arguably, it’s not something that we really need to be worrying about. As I said, it’s what God does.

The task of the church is to serve the interests of the creator as a new creation people. “Kingdom” is what God does, through Jesus now, to ensure that we do it well under changing historical conditions.

Evan Hadkins | Tue, 05/21/2019 - 23:58 | Permalink

Ellul points out, in The Meaning of the City, that we are not pictured as heading to a renovated garden but to a transformed city.

God transforms even our evil and rebellion.

@Evan Hadkins:

Yes, but the city is specifically the dwelling place of God, where presumably the redeemed—and perhaps only the martyrs—serve as a priesthood, set in the midst of a new earth, where the nations walk by its light, and are healed, and bring their glory and honour into the city as tribute (Rev. 21:1-22:5). I think there are some rather complicated things going on here, but the basic picture is clear: the new Jerusalem is a new Zion in the midst of a new political order. You might have a look at:

Samuel Conner | Wed, 05/22/2019 - 12:42 | Permalink

The discussion has for me a bit of the feel of haggling over emphasis and terminology. If one of the principal present tasks of the people of God is to “serve the Creator’s interests” (agreed) and if those interests include things like “justice”, “mercy”, “good governance”, “wise stewardship of the planet” (not articulated explicitly here, but similar things affirmed in other P.OST posts, and I think implied in Treat’s summary of the task as to “steward [God’s] creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth”), then whatever you call it, functionally it looks quite the same.

A darker thought that occurs to me is that US evangelicalism is experiencing, and assuredly will continue to experience, crises related to questionable leadership (and I think the upper reaches of TGC are implicated in this), and definitions like this, which invite the identification of “Kindom” as “Church” (the visible bits being “God’s people” & “God’s place”), suggest to me a hint of defensive messaging to fend of what I think is going to become a reform movement, if not a rebellion or an exodus.

@Samuel Conner:

I should have prefaced that I very much appreciate the emphasis on “Kingdom” being “what God does” rather than “what we do”. We don’t need modern equivalents of violent men advancing their conceptions of Kingdom by the means they deem appropriate.

@Samuel Conner:

The discussion has for me a bit of the feel of haggling over emphasis and terminology.

I wouldn’t disagree with that as far as modern practice is concerned, though “kingdom” language is hardly transparent today. The more serious issue is the extent to which we are distorting the biblical witness by failing to recognise how it works in the New Testament context. The “evangelical” church in particular is still massively dependent on the intelligibility and integrity of its reading of the Bible.

@Samuel Conner:

I think you’re right about that.  Apart from staving off the numerical losses, this kind of theologizing is also usually a precursor to explaining why the Church should be focused on “the Gospel” and not social issues.

My take: God’s management of the world through his people.

The kingdom (as conceived by Jesus and Paul IMO) is a world kingdom administered by Jews with righteousness and justice.