The Priority of the Kingdom

Last week on my blog, I posted my sermon teaching from Cornerstone. I had specifically started a series on the kingdom of God and began by looking at how the gospel and the kingdom rule of God are very intricately connected. You can click the link to hear and/or read my message notes.

So this week, I do the same by posting the audio and message notes below. I continued on in the series by looking at 4 pointers to the priority of the kingdom. And, yes, the kingdom even takes priority over church, God’s ekklesia. Continue reading

The Kingdom of God and the Church

What is the kingdom of God? What is the church? You would probably get 20 different answers from 20 different people. Or, even more, you might get people not too sure, especially when it comes to understanding what the kingdom of God is. I would simply summarise the kingdom of God with these two statements:

  1. The kingdom of God is the rule of God, the reality of God’s Messiah, Jesus, being the King.
  2. The kingdom of God was the message Jesus came to proclaim (just read the Gospels, or do a search for the phrase kingdom of God/heaven in the Gospels)

When considering the kingdom of God and its relation to the church (or vice versa), here are some questions that would probably arise:

  • Are the kingdom of God and the church synonymous?
  • Are they distinct from one another?
  • Is one more important than the other?

George Ladd echoes these questions here:

‘One of the most difficult questions in the study of the Kingdom of God is its relationship to the church. Is the Kingdom of God in any sense of the word to be identified with the church? If not, what is the relationship? (A Theology of the New Testament)

It is Roman Catholic theology that has typically identified the church with the kingdom of God, as espoused in works like Augustine’s City of God (see Book 20, ch.9).

Yet, I believe there are four major points we can gleam within Scripture that show the kingdom of God and the church are not synonymous.

1) The kingdom of God was first, not the church

What we need to realise is that God has been King from the beginning and His kingdom rule is eternal:

The LORD is king forever and ever. (Psalm 10:16)

Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness. (Psalm 45:6)

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. (Psalm 145:13)

There has never been a time when God was not King and there was never a time when He did not rule. But, in contrast, there was a time when the church, God’s ekklesia, did not exist. Even for those who believe the church/ekklesia is actually a continuation of Israel, which I fall into this camp, there was still a time when the rule of God existed but not the church.

Thus, if God’s kingdom is eternal, but the church is not, we find the church utterly dependent upon the King and His rule. And that is good news! Therefore, the rule and reign of God takes precedence over the church.

2) It is the gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church

It is interesting to note that Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 9:35)

The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. (Luke 16:16)

For me, this alone should suffice to show that the two are not synonymous, but rather, the kingdom is of greater import.

3) We are to pray for the kingdom to come, not the church to come

Simply stated, Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom rule of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, not for the church to come.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

E. Stanley Jones made this powerful statement:

‘The Christian Church, while it holds within itself the best life of the Kingdom, is not the kingdom of God. The Kingdom is absolute, the Church is relative – relative to something beyond itself, the Kingdom. The Kingdom judges and redeems the Church, and the Church is potent to the degree that it obeys the Kingdom and embodies the life and spirit of the Kingdom. The Church is not an end in itself, the Kingdom is the end. Jesus never said, “May thy church come on earth as it is in heaven.” He did say, “Thy kingdom come…, on earth.”’ (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person)

Now those are stirring words!

4) We are to seek the kingdom of God, not the church

Finally, in another well-known passage, Jesus declared that His followers were to seek the kingdom and its righteousness, not the church.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

As E. Stanley Jones goes on to state:

‘So let not our cry be, “Save the Church,” but “Seek the Kingdom,” seek the Kingdom, first, last, and always, and “all these things will be added unto you,” including the Church, redeemed and reoriented and single-pointed – the Kingdom. If the Church should perish the Kingdom would remain.’ (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person)

Thus, for me, the gauntlet has landed. These four points make it evident that the kingdom and the church are not synonymous, or more importantly, the kingdom takes precedence over the church. No doubt the church consists of the covenant people of God who have submitted to His rule, and thus, we are the greatest tool of the kingdom…but I get ahead of myself for a later post.

When we take up the challenge to follow Jesus, truly follow him, we are submitting to the kingdom rule of God. And it’s the King who gives significance to his people, the church, the ekklesia of God.

The Danger of Church Planting

In my recent post, Extending Outwards, Not Upwards, I basically emphasised God’s design for His people to be a mission-focused, apostolic, outward reaching people. This is contrary to some people’s philosophy and praxis, desiring rather to build upwards, highlighted in movements such as the church growth movement and mega-churches in places like the U.S.

Now, let me say this: I do not believe big is bad, or that mega-churches are inherently wrong. There are plenty of ‘mega-churches’ around the world, especially in places like the underground church of China, where some churches are 80,000 strong. But the modus operandi and outlook does not consist of building upwards, but remain very mission-oriented and outward extending. Imagine how the Chinese underground church operates with not all 80,000 able to meet together, but hundreds packing into basements and cellars for teaching, fellowship and other such beautiful things.

So big is not bad. But big becomes bad when our outlook and focus become somewhat undergirded with things such as movement fascination, networking programmes and unbridled capitalism. That is where I believe it can become quite the unhealthy practise. Bigger is better and the bigger always engulfs the smaller.

But, while I am absolutely convinced that the church is to maintain its apostolic and mission focus of extending outwards, I also want to point out a possible danger as we consider our call to mission. It centres around the modern concept of church planting.

I know. I sound self-contradictory. And sometimes I do that very well with myself. But I want to share some things where I believe we can lose focus with our concept of church planting.

We must admit, church planting is a huge phenomenon of the past decade. I mean HUGE! Church planting is to today as church growth was to the 80′s and 90′s. Do a Google search on church planting and you get some 532,000 results. It is the fashion of today. And, you know what, I believe church planting is healthy, for, as I’ve communicated, I am convinced extending outwards with the gospel of the kingdom is important. And those who respond to the rule of God will prove quite helpful in starting new ‘church plants’. But there are mainly 3 points I challenge with the current craze of church planting.

1) It becomes quite easy to forget that it begins with the gospel of the kingdom.

The church is not the kingdom of God. Rather than share a whole lot here, I will point you to two articles (post 1, post 2) in which I discuss this more in depth. But what God is doing in the earth is first and foremost about the kingdom rule of God extending into the earth. This is why we are told to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33), rather than seek the church. We are told to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, not that the church come on earth (Matt 6:10).

Yes, I agree that the church is the greatest tool for seeing the kingdom of God proclaimed in all the earth (as I share more here and here). But we start with the rule of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. And from there, those who respond to the lordship of Christ will help form the people of God, the ekklesia, the church, in both its worldwide and local context.

2) We have made it mainly about a movement.

I am not opposed to movements. They happen, and many of them are good. Look down the line of church history. But I am not too excited when we try and push something beyond what we should.

This is what I believe has happened with church planting. And the same happened with church growth. Church growth is not bad. Of course not. Who wouldn’t want to see their church grow? Even God wants the church to grow, which is a sign that His rule is extending into people’s lives and that we are extending outwards. But the church growth movement took on board some unhealthy thinking. It became too concerned with demographics, programmes, and what is hip and sensitive enough to draw the people in the doors. But all of these contribute to a lack of understanding what it truly means for God’s rule to be a reality in our lives, meaning that Jesus is Master and He can actually tell us what to do. I share more here on where the church growth movement misses the mark.

And so, church planting is important. But we have to guard against turning it into a movement, making it the programme. I have a heart to plant out. I continue to keep before the Lord whether He might call us one day to plant out into the inner-city of Brussels, as well as both Flemish and French speaking churches in Belgium. It’s deeply embedded in me. But I don’t do this because I want to start a network that is based solely on church planting as a sign of how healthy we are and how great we are doing. I want to hear the voice of the Lord and go as He sends.

This leads me to my third and final point…

3) Church planting starts with hearing the voice of the Lord.

This is absolutely vital. Read the book of Acts, our kind of basis for understanding church growth and church planting. People listened to the Lord as they went out, or if they weren’t listening, He sent persecution so that they would extend outwards (see Acts 8:1-4). But I love these words that we find in Acts 13 within the gathering of some prophets and teachers from the church of Antioch:

1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)

Did you catch vs2? ‘The Holy Spirit said.’ Absolutely vital!

And, then, we go on to read in vs4, ‘So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit…’

While church planting is a very good, healthy and biblical practise of being the church that Jesus meant us to be by extending outwards, some of the time I don’t get the sense that people are actually looking to discern the voice of the Lord here. Rather, because it is the sign of healthy Christianity in this decade, there seems an immense pressure to actually plant out. We have got to be in and to be in we must plant out.

I think God would rather us listen to Him and not plant out than plant out a church and not listen to Him. That’s important to remember.

And if we hear Him speak, we know we will have the measure of faith, the provision and the resources to accomplish what He asks of us in extending outwards, similar to that guy named Paul that we read about in so much of the New Testament.

So, let us continue to extend outwards, to see the good news of Jesus’ rule proclaimed in all the earth with people responding to his rule. Let us see churches established and growing. And let us keep multiplying. I think this is all of God. But it is of God as we keep the right perspective and hear from Him, rather than make it the move of the decade.

The Greatest Tool of the Kingdom (Part 2)

This is probably my last article in which I will discuss the kingdom of God, at least for now. It’s been a long time coming, but I have been able to lay out what I believe is a healthy beginning to understanding the kingdom. If someone is only just finding this article now, you can click here for the first article and work your way through the series as you find time.

Though my conclusion was that the kingdom of God and the church are not synonymous, I do believe the church is the greatest tool of the kingdom since we are the ones who have submitted to the King. Thus, in the last post, I pointed out three ways in which God uses the church in advancing the kingdom of God:

  • Proclaiming the kingdom
  • Prayer for the kingdom to come
  • Walking in the authority of the kingdom

In the last post I looked at the first two, but in this post, I take up the final aspect: walking in the authority of the kingdom.

Not only are we called to proclaim the kingdom and pray for it to come on earth as it is in heaven, but Christ has also given His church the authority of the kingdom.

How do we know such? Let’s consider a few points:

The Authority of the King

We have made much of the fact that Christ is King. Therefore, we know that He is the one with the greatest authority:

28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29; see also Mark 1:22)

And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)

We also see Jesus’ authority in such passages as these:

…19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:19-23)

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

There is no doubt that Christ, the King, has been given all authority!

The Authority of the King’s Servants

As those who are in Christ, we are, then, able to participate in all that Christ participates in. So, this includes, as we saw, proclaiming the kingdom and praying for it to come on earth. Yet, we must also realise that we are called to participate and walk in the authority of Christ’s kingdom.

Below are a few pointers to show the authority of Christ’s body, the church:

1. Authority over the demonic

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

Here we see Jesus, in a pre-Pentecost mission, had given authority and power to the seventy-two. And when they returned from this assignment, Jesus even said that He saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (vs18), a statement announcing Christ’s conquering victory over the power of Satan and that it was going to happen suddenly (‘like lightning’).

Amazingly, Christ wanted to share His conquering rule and victory with those who were His followers. We do this only in His strength, not our own. But He wants to participate in all that His activities, since we are His body.

‘When they expressed delighted surprise at the power they had exercised, he [Jesus] replied that their mission only illustrated the defeat of Satan – his fall from his place of power (Luke 10:17-18). This is the most important passage illustrating the fact that the Kingdom of God was present not only in Jesus but also in his disciples, both in the smaller circle of the twelve and in the large circle of the Seventy [or seventy-two].’ (Ladd, The Presence of the Future)

2. Authority to resist temptation and the devil

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Paul encourages us that even when we face temptations, with all temptations being common to humanity, God will provide a ‘way of escape’, or literally, an exit or end to the temptation. So this can give us encouragement to endure such temptation. And, one way to endure would be by following in the footsteps of Christ – with the power of God’s Word (see Matthew 4:1-11).

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)

8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (1 Peter 5:8-9)

Not only can we resist temptation, but we can resist the evil one, the devil himself. Now, let us remember that our standing against Satan is to be done with recognition that the battle ultimately belongs to God and Christ. Hence, James reminds us to, ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God.’ Then, and only then, does he encourage us to ‘resist the devil.’ And the good news is that, as we submit to God and resist the devil, he will flee from us!

Though Peter’s words were specifically written to a people going through major persecution for their faith, his words prove very helpful in all areas of our lives. He uses the image of a roaring lion seeking to devour its prey as a description of the devil. Yet, here we are also encouraged to ‘resist him’. And how does one do so? By standing firm in our faith, which is parallel to James’ words about submitting to God.

Such words of Paul, James and Peter remind us of the armour of God that we have been given as described in Ephesians 6:10-18. Take time to slowly read through and consider this passage.

3. Armed with the power of God

Christians have been armed with the power of God, as expressed in many ways in the Scripture:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. (1 Corinthians 4:20)

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:4)

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:19)

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. (Ephesians 3:20)

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, (2 Peter 1:3)

That’s a lot of Scriptures to consider, but I share them to remind us of the truth of God’s Word. What power we have in Christ! What authority we have in Christ! We are the ones submitted to His rule and kingship, and, thus, the church stands as God’s greatest tool for the expansion of His kingdom.

Of course, God can utilise nature, aspects of culture, non-believers, and even Satan himself to advance His own purposes. But it is the church that is now called to pray for and seek God’s rule, proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth, and even be used in the power and authority of the kingdom.

‘The disciples of Jesus not only proclaimed the good news about the presence of the Kingdom; they were also instruments of the Kingdom in that the works of the Kingdom were performed through them as through Jesus himself.’ (Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament)

As theologian Wayne Grudem says:

‘Therefore those who believe in Christ will begin to experience something of what God’s final kingdom reign will be like: they will know some measure of victory over sin (Rom. 6:14; 14:17), over demonic opposition (Luke 10:17), and over disease (Luke 10:9). They will live in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:28; Rom 8:4-17; 14:17), who is the dynamic power of the coming kingdom.’ (Systematic Theology)

Thus ends my detailed introduction to the kingdom of God. This truly is one of my favourite theological topics to study as I think it was the most important message for Christ, the King.

The Greatest Tool of the Kingdom (Part 1)

Not too long ago, I spent some time sharing why I believe the kingdom of God and the church are not synonymous (part 1, part 2). It is the kingdom which takes priority over the church, for it is the church that submits to Christ and His kingdom.

Yet, at the same time, it is definitely true that the church is the greatest tool for the advance of God’s kingdom rule. The reason being is that the church, the ekklesia of Christ, consists of those who are submitted to the rule of the King.

There are three ways in which the church is used in advancing the kingdom of God:

  • Proclaiming the kingdom
  • Prayer for the kingdom to come
  • Walking in the authority of the kingdom

I will look at the first two in this post and the final one in the following article.

Proclaimers of the Kingdom

Not only have we entered the kingdom (John 3:3, 5; Colossians 1:13), but, just as Christ did, we have the opportunity of declaring that God’s kingdom rule has broken into human history.

But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts 8:12)

And he [Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)

30 He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:30-31)

Also, it will do us well to remember that the gospel is the power of God, thus we proclaim a powerful message:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

And, it is the Great Commission that maybe sums it all up:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Jesus had just taught the disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. He was king and He was in charge. Therefore, they could go about the nations, calling people into discipleship relationship with the King. And, even more, the King would be with them until the end of the age.

This is our mission and this is our privilege!

Prayer for the Kingdom

As I pointed out in a previous article, we are not called to pray for the church to come on earth as it is in heaven, but we are called to pray for the kingdom rule of God to come on earth just as it is in heaven.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

In heaven, the will of God is at its perfection. As we pray for His kingdom to invade earth, we can be assured that His purposes will be accomplished. And, as His will is accomplished, we know His rule will be made manifest.

Thus, let the church never cease to pray that His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

These two – proclaiming and praying for the kingdom to come – are the great privileges of the church. There is no other people on the earth that have the opportunity to take part in such. As subjects of the King, let us be encouraged to continue in these two activities.

Click here to read the final article on the church as the greatest tool of the kingdom.