Kingdom of God: Disembodied Evacuation, Hippie Propaganda, or Sci-Fi Saga?
Why did Jesus come into the world?
It’s a pretty simple question – but the answers are innumerable:
To reveal God to us
To seek and save the lost
To provide an example for how to live
To defeat sin and death
While I think these are solid answers – I would assert that they all miss the very mission statement that Jesus himself gave:
“To declare that the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Most of my life I had no idea what that actually meant. A picture of men and women floating around on fluffy clouds with harps and angel wings was about the only image I ever had of heaven. I always assumed this was what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the kingdom.
And to be honest – I didn’t want anything to do with that type of kingdom. I’m finding, however, that this kingdom is far more interesting than I ever imagined.
A mustard seed, a buried treasure, seed sown by a good farmer – these are the peculiar glimpses Jesus gives us of his kingdom.
At its simplest – the kingdom is the result of God’s mission to rescue and renew his broken creation. Among many things – it is the new society that Jesus wants to create in this world – right here and now.
But – if that’s true and declaring this kingdom was so important to Jesus, why didn’t I, a nerdy church-kid my whole life, know this?
In his book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr unpacks the curious journey we have taken in our attempts to understand the Kingdom of God.
In the 17th century, a man named John Winthrop held to the belief that the Puritan society would be the “city on a hill” that Jesus spoke of as he headed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, revivalists like Charles Finney preached that, with Christ’s help humanity could achieve perfectionism that would lead to the biblically prophesied Millennium. Utopian communities like Oneida and New Harmony emerged as the desire to live out kingdom values here and now grew.
It was perspectives like these that led to the birth of the Social Gospel at the turn of the 20th century. Believing our trajectory as a nation was enduringly upward and positive – Social Gospel theologians were convinced that humanity was on the verge of outgrowing the selfishness and destruction of the past.
Then came two World Wars.
For most – these two events effectively destroyed the myth of moral progressivism and led to a hard-nosed brand of fundamentalism. This led to a belief that attempts to eliminate poverty and violence were a waste of time. The world was a sinking ship and that our objective as Christians should be focused on getting people off the ship before it went under.
The goal = disembodied evacuation.
So – which is it? Is the kingdom of God a future destination for those rescued from the sinking ship, or is it somehow a mysterious work in the here and now?
I would say both camps were partly correct. Annoying, right?
I think Tim Keller puts it brilliantly:
“God’s Kingdom is present in its beginnings, but still future in its fullness. This guards us from an under-realized eschatology (expecting no change now) and an over-realized eschatology (expecting all change now). In this stage, we embrace the reality that while we’re not yet what we will be, we’re also no longer what we used to be.” – Timothy Keller
I affirm the sanguinity of those who know that God is at work in the world right now, and at the same time I believe that hope and healing will not come into fullness without Christ’s return. I would put it this way:
“The kingdom is both a journey and a destination”
It is both a rescue mission and a perfect outcome, already started and not yet finished. The kingdom has come and is coming.
In the beginningGod created heavens and earth – material and immaterial, very good. He created us to rule God’s good creation as viceroys – image bearers of the triune God, reflecting his character and carrying out his restorative work in the world.
Even after sin enters the narrative, but does not abandon – he pursues. Throughout the Old Testament we are given glimpses of kingdom hope – revealed repeatedly as universal hope through Israel and the Messiah.
In Jesus’ earthy ministry the seeds of the kingdom were scattered, but the soil in the hearts of many was not receptive. Some of his own pupils made it clear they desired a Messiah who would come to kill, not be killed. They often missed the very heart of Jesus’ message and, if I’m honest, I’ve often made this same mistake myself.
Jesus’ kingdom message is not primarily that he was merely a good moral example for us to follow.
Jesus’ kingdom message is not primarily about how to get to Heaven when we die.
Jesus’ kingdom message is not primarily how to have a personal relationship with him that we enjoy privately.
The message is this: Jesus Christ is Immanuel (God with us) and our ruptured relationship with God, healed through his death and resurrection, frees and calls us to bless, redeem, and rebuild the world as his body, a redeemed people from every nation called the church.
In all of this – we are not observers of this divine drama, mere spectators – but participants in it!
So take heart brothers and sisters – we are living between the times. For us, there is no sacred/secular divide, but rather – an invitation to join the chorus of God’s redemption in all we do. We are kingdom builders, proclaiming the goodness of our king, submitting our very lives to the reign of this king.
May we be kingdom people – here and now.