Why is the ‘kingdom of God’ such a tricky theological notion? In a group discussion on ‘Kingdom Theology” at the Christian Associates Global Connect recently we managed to talk for some time about the topic – it’s the core of the gospel, it’s here but it’s still to come, it’s now and it’s not yet, it’s not the same as the church, and so on – before anyone thought to ask what this thing actually is. When Jesus said that the kingdom of God was at hand, what exactly was he referring to?
To be honest, even once the question was asked, people seemed reluctant to venture what might be called a ‘biblical’ answer – that is, an answer that precedes current practice and experience. The instinctive hermeneutic of an organization such as Christian Associates is a very pragmatic one: whatever looks or feels or smells like the work of God gets labelled the ‘kingdom of God’. It’s our missional banner, it’s a rallying cry, our cause, our campaign. Whatever it is exactly, it’s what gets us to our feet.
What I want to suggest here is that the reason we have such trouble explaining the ‘kingdom of God’ is essentially a hermeneutical one – an issue of how we read and interpret the Bible. It is that we have taken the category out of the narrative-historical context that originally gave it meaning. Words and phrases are not watertight semantic containers; they leak meaning and need constantly to be refilled from the story or argument in which they are situated. If they are transferred to another context – a systematic theology, for example – they will sooner or later be refilled with new contextual meaning. The vessel may have a wonderful antique biblical appearance, but the stuff swirling around inside is likely to be of rather different intellectual provenance. The original integrity of language and thought, context and meaning, has been sacrificed to the interests of what is in effect an anachronistic theological or religious rationalism.
If we are going to understand ‘kingdom of God’ specifically as a biblical category, therefore, we need first to empty out the various modern theological ideas that have been poured into it, restore it to its biblical context, and observe carefully as an original argument laps over the side of the container and refills it. I think we will then find that the old meaning – in this case, old wine in old wineskins – is actually much more potent than the new.
The kingdom of God in modern theologies
Evangelical theologies typically understand the ‘kingdom of God’ in rather general terms as the manifestation of the rule or will of God. The kingdom appears first in the ministry of Jesus – in the healings and exorcisms, for example. It is encountered subsequently wherever the will of God is enacted on earth as it is in heaven. It is often thought of as the sphere or domain of divine presence and influence, which is not necessarily coterminous with the church. Indeed, in many respects the kingdom of God is conceived as a sort of ideal counterpart to the flawed and often inglorious institution of the church – and perhaps this inherent platonism ought to have alerted us already to the flawed nature of the modern doctrine. Then the kingdom of God is expected to reach an absolute fulfilment when Jesus returns to establish a final reign, either in continuity with or utterly disjunct from our present earthly existence.
The phrase ‘kingdom of God’, therefore, is understood to define a dynamic of divine sovereignty that exists patchily and elusively in the ‘now’ but will be brought to perfection in the ‘not yet’; and arguably this constitutes the central metaphysical narrative of evangelical belief. For a detailed exposition of the conventional argument have a look at G. E. Ladd’s essay ‘What is the Kingdom of God’.
It is probably fair to say that modern evangelicalism has tended to emphasize the inner spiritual dimensions of this narrative: the kingdom is realized principally through conversion, perhaps accompanied, as in the Gospels, by supernatural signs of the kingdom. Not surprisingly, however, this apparent bias has encouraged others to emphasize an outward dimension to the kingdom of God, finding in the concept a warrant for social and political transformation.
It would seem to make sense to seek a resolution to this dichotomy. Perhaps the kingdom of God should be understood both as inner, personal and supernatural and as outward, social and political. Whether in practice conservatives and progressives, Reformed and emergents – or however we draw the battle lines – could ever be persuaded to get along with each other, it surely makes good theological sense to recombine the two parts of the dualistic puzzle in a satisfying whole.
Good theological sense perhaps… but does it help us to understand Jesus’ proclamation any better? Only to a limited extent. It is a recurrent failing of modern theologies that the contextual particularities of the biblical narrative are exchanged for universal formulations. So in the case of ‘Kingdom theology’ we naturally speak of an abstracted and generalized rule of God rather than of a particular act or event or instance of divine rule. Jesus, however, is not much interested in theological abstractions: what concerns him is something much more pressing, immediate, concrete, and basically historical – and the corrective purpose here is not so much to maintain that the abstractions are wrong but to insist that the particularities are right.
To give an analogy… Suppose a girl has fallen into a river swollen by flood water. A man on the bank sees the child’s dilemma and leaps into the water, at great personal risk, to save her. People may subsequently wonder at the nature of human courage or theorize about the evolutionary benefits of such altruistic risk-taking. But it was not courage in the abstract that rescued the girl, that intervened in her story and saved her from drowning. It was the particular, contextual and absolutely necessary act of courage that rescued her.
Or perhaps better… After a lengthy legal process a judge finally overturns the conviction of a man wrongly accused of rape, despite considerable pressure from the police and women’s rights activists. The case might later become a cause célèbre, a model of good legal process, but the man’s freedom depended not on justice in the abstract but on a particular controversial act of judgment.
What the New Testament is concerned about would be primarily – in terms of the analogies – the survival of the girl or the vindication of the man and their subsequent life-stories. My argument is that the language of the ‘kingdom of God’ has in view a decisive event of rescue and vindication, when God acts sovereignly, to ensure the future of his people and rewrite the corporate life-story.
The particular coming of the kingdom of God
Jesus’ begins his ministry as a prophet to Israel, in the manner of John the Baptist, by calling Jews in Galilee to repent because the time is fulfilled, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Matt. 3:1). The message is addressed specifically to Israel – not to the whole world – and has reference to an imagined event in a realistic and foreseeable future, within the lifetime of the present generation, in view of which Israel should repent or risk destruction.
The coming kingdom of God is associated with the vindication of the Son of man (Lk. 17:20-37), with judgment on the people (eg. Matt. 13:47-50), with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Mk. 9:47), and with the restoration of the people following judgment (cf. Lk. 13:29; Acts 1:3, 6-7). The ‘coming of the kingdom of God’, therefore, refers to the expectation that Israel’s God was about to act in the course of history and through the circumstances of history to radically transform the condition and status of his people.
The argument is anticipated in Isaiah 52:1-10. The prophet addresses the ruins of Jerusalem: Israel has been ‘judged’, devastated by the Babylonian invasion, but YHWH is about to bring back the people from exile and restore the city; this ‘good news’ that YHWH is about to act as king and demonstrate through the concrete circumstances of the return from exile that he ‘reigns’, which is a good news of peace and salvation, is proclaimed to Zion; and this act of salvation, this demonstration of the power of Israel’s God, will be made known to the nations.
So Jesus proclaims the imminence of the kingdom of God as part of Israel’s story. The theme cannot, therefore, be understood apart from Israel’s story: it is not a notion or argument or condition that can be abstracted from the story and made to work autonomously, in independence from its narrative and historical context.
From a tiny mustard seed
The nature of the clash between this historical or diachronic reading and the prevailing generalized or synchronic reading of modern theologies can be conveniently illustrated from the article on ‘Kingdom of God’ in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (626):
…the kingdom began as an inward reality that would grow to dominate the whole earth until ultimately the kingdom “of our Lord and of his Christ” would swallow up the kingdoms of the earth. Then God would dispense judgment and personally rule over his people, assisted by those who voluntarily accepted his kingdom: the poor, the weak—those who became Christians.
This is an excellent definition… except for the fact that it gets the time frame all wrong. The kingdom of God began not quite as an ‘inward reality’ – more as a small and seemingly inconsequential reform movement (cf. Matt. 13:31-32). But over the coming centuries it would grow to dominate the whole of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, to the extent that the birds of the air came and made their nests in its branches. The metaphor is a political one: it is used by Ezekiel to describe the reach of the Assyrian empire:
All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. (Ezek. 31:6)
When in Revelation the seventh angel blows his trumpet and voices in heaven declare, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever’ (Rev. 11:15), the apocalyptic narrative connects this with ‘judgment’ on pagan Rome. This climactic event marks the moment at which YHWH comes to rule over his faithful people, through his anointed king, in place of the demonic and political forces of pagan imperialism. Those who suffered for the sake of the good news about the impending kingdom of God – the ‘martyrs’ of Revelation 20:4 – came to life and reigned with Jesus for a thousand years. In this respect at least, Augustine was right: the ecumenical church – the church of the oikoumenē – embodied or represented the sovereignty or reign of the one Creator God over the nations.
Kingdom ever after
If we take the ‘kingdom’ language in the New Testament to refer essentially and consistently to the historical process by which Israel’s God transformed the status of his people in relation particularly to the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, what are the implications for the church now, nearly two thousand years later?
By saying that the kingdom of God has come we mean that the church owes its present existence to the fact that at a critical juncture God wrested his people from the grip of hostile powers – from the various political hierarchies that wittingly or unwittingly constituted a threat to its existence, from the demonic forces that lurked behind the institutional powers, and ultimately from the threat of destruction and death. The worst that the rulers of this world could do was murder and destroy. But those who were baptized into Christ had the assurance that if they suffered with him, they would also be raised with him. Not even death – not even the gates of Hades – could overcome this transitional community.
If this is the basic story, then there are, it seems to me, two consequences to be drawn from this for the post-eschatological church – indeed, for the post-Christendom church.
First, the kingdom of God has come – as Jesus said it would – and therefore Christ has been installed as sovereign over his people and will not be displaced by other powers, whether religious or political or cultural or cosmic. So what is at stake here is not primarily the missional expansion of the kingdom (though that is, of course, a relevant corollary) but the concrete recognition that Christ is Lord, that he embodies in himself the exclusive rule of YHWH as the one Creator God over his people.
Secondly, the kingdom of God has come and therefore the church should have no fear of its enemies. It is very much to the point that when the people of Israel pestered Samuel to appoint a king for them, the reason they gave was that they wished to be like the other nations, with a king to judge them and ‘go out before us and fight our battles’ (1 Sam. 8:20). At the heart of the issue of ‘kingdom’ is the question of how Israel is to be governed and safeguarded in the midst of other more powerful nations; it is a question of how it is to compete and survive.
When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, he was addressing precisely this issue: God is about to change radically the terms on which his people exists amongst the nations, how it is governed, judged and safeguarded from its enemies, from the forces that seek to suppress or destroy it. The fact that the kingdom of God has come, anticipated in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, enacted through the faithfulness of the early communities of disciples, means that our identity and security as a people are grounded in a persistent, faithful, fearless self-giving love.
The beginning not the end
So I would argue that if we are going to use ‘kingdom of God’ language in a missional context, we have to keep these two related thoughts in the foreground: the kingdom of God speaks of the fact that Christ has been made Lord and king over this people to the exclusion of all other loyalties, and that there is nothing that can overcome this people, not even death.
But this means that the kingdom of God is not an end in itself: it is the means by which the church, the people of God, fulfils its calling to be – I would say – new creation. In the discussion my friend Wes very helpfully recalled the argument of his teacher John Howard Yoder that ‘kingdom of God’ is the agency by which the ultimate goal of the renewal of creation is realized. Kingdom is not the end-point of mission but the starting-point: it is the basis on which we venture to live uniquely for the creator as an authentic historical witness to the renewal of humanity.