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.
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.