What is the Kingdom of God? And what is the Christian’s role in and relationship to it? These are not simple questions to answer, yet they are incredibly consequential. But why are they not simple to answer? Primarily because of how the Bible talks about it.
Consider some examples of what seems like biblical contradictions about the Kingdom. In Matthew 12, Jesus says that because he casts out demons, the Kingdom of God has come upon you––already. But then, in Matthew 26, Jesus, at the last supper, speaks of his Father’s Kingdom coming in the future––not yet. Matthew 25 speaks of the Kingdom being a place of salvation, inheritance, and blessing. But then, chapter 13 speaks of the Kingdom being a place of judgment. Luke 1 speaks of the Kingdom being the reality that Jesus is ruling on a throne that lasts forever––a position. But then, in Luke 22, the Kingdom is a place assigned to Jesus––a location.
So, is the Kingdom to come one day? Yes. But is the Kingdom present now? Yes. Is the Kingdom spiritual? Yes. But is the Kingdom physical? Yes. Is the Kingdom in heaven? Yes. But is the Kingdom on earth? Yes. Is the Kingdom a place of blessing? Yes. But is it a place of judgment? Yes. Is the church part of the Kingdom? Yes. But is the whole world part of the Kingdom? Yes. And none of this even addresses the never-ending debates about what we are to make of the millennial reign of Christ, which factors into all this somewhere. The complexities are so vast that one researcher developed a bibliography of works on the Kingdom of God in the 20th century alone and found over 10,000 publications!
So, full disclosure: this article will only attempt to clarify some of that complexity. What I do want to highlight is that while a full definition articulation can be complex, a lack of recognition of such complexity can devastate our sense of calling and mission as Christians and as the church.
Advancing, Building, or Participating in the Kingdom
In particular, I wonder about language like “advancing” or “building” the Kingdom.” Though not always intended by those using the language, the language assumes that the Kingdom grows or moves ahead by our hands (of course, by the presence and power of the Spirit). While admittedly an extreme example, historically, such a posture has been the driving force behind problematic and even unjust approaches to church expansion and was also a factor in theologically rooted colonization. The assumption was that taking literal territory or producing converts––willing or unwilling converts––was to build the Kingdom. In more recent days, particularly in church planting and missionary movements, a rationale and conviction for new missional work is, at times, undergirded by a similar assumption that we must grow God’s Kingdom. But is this our relationship to the Kingdom of God? I would say no.
At the risk of falling into the simplicity I just warned against, consider a definition of the Kingdom of God that I have found helpful. Several years ago, Patrick Schreiner wrote a book on the Kingdom of God in which he sought to summarize and simplify some of the vast thinking on the Kingdom. He takes the already/not yet, physical/spiritual, and church/earth tensions and gives a definition that incorporates it all. He notes, “The Kingdom of God is the King’s power, over the King’s people, in the King’s place.”
I find this helpful because if one of those elements is missing or deemphasized, we can fall into error. That is, this definition acknowledges the main focus of the Kingdom––the King and His power. But it recognizes that the Kingdom includes His people––those who submit to his power. Yet, this definition also insists that the King rules in a definable location and space––that location being over all things spiritual and physical, temporal and eternal. And here is the point: this definition does not assume we have any role in the Kingdom beyond faithfully participating in it.
I wonder the extent to which our language about “advancing” or “building” the Kingdom” should actually be “participating in the Kingdom.” It seems such a shift recognizes the reality that we cannot build or advance the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God does not need to be built or advanced, for the King already rules and reigns over all things in all places and does so on a throne that will last forever. Instead, our participation, as the King's people, is simple faithfulness in reflecting the character and nature of this Kingdom.
In our church (and we have mentioned on Until Zion as well), we constantly come back to J.I. Packer’s assertion in Concise Theology (He is actually drawing on John Calvin) that “The purpose of the church is to make the invisible Kingdom visible through faithful Christian living and witness-bearing.” Through our lives and proclamations, we simply testify of the Kingdom we are a part of. Whatever else God––not us––might be doing in the present to make His Kingdom more manifest, our role is to make visible the nature and character of His invisible Kingdom.
Bonhoeffer & The Church
Though I have been thinking about this for a while now, I was recently reminded of this potential malformation of improper views of the Kingdom while reading Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of course, for Bonhoeffer, postulating about ethics in what would become a hostile environment in Nazi Germany, at times, required him to be coded with what he wrote. Sometimes, as some have pointed out, one needs to read between the lines to understand what he’s articulating.
But in reflecting on an impulse he witnessed for the church to expand and occupy “space” in the world, Bonhoeffer draws a sharp distinction between what a worldly impulse creates in the church and what God desires from His church. He says the “space” of the church is “already always something that reaches far beyond it.” In a similar vein to Packer, he goes on to say that “this is because it is not the space of a cult that would have to fight for its own existence in the world. Rather, the space of the church is the place where witness is given to the foundation of all reality in Christ” (63, emphasis mine).
Then, in an attempt to seemingly confront any unholy alliance of the church and the state, he says,
The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than it needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world's reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ (63, emphasis mine).
In other words, a posture of “advancement” or “building” misses the true role of the Christian and the church in the world. Again, while not all who use such terms believe in the type of fighting for space Bonhoeffer warns against, there is nonetheless the potential for deeply problematic consequences for believing our role in the Kingdom is to win territory for Jesus.
If we held to the conviction that our role in the world is to make the invisible Kingdom of God visible in our life and proclamation and that we only need no more space than necessary to serve the world with our witness to Jesus:
How might our politics change? Would we no longer use them as a means by which the Kingdom advances, thus allowing a “by any means necessary” posture?
How might our missional strategies change? Would we lay aside triumphalistic assumptions about changing the world and culture through our particular strategy?
How might our church planting cultures change? Would we leave behind colonialistic assumptions that we must take over particular territories for Jesus?
How might our posture before others who differ from us change? Would we cease finding enemies we must fight to advance the Kingdom but instead see them as people we are to serve?
I hope and pray a posture of faithful participation in the Kingdom accomplishes just that.