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:
- The kingdom of God is the rule of God, the reality of God’s Messiah, Jesus, being the King.
- 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?
‘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)
‘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.