The Gospel of the Kingdom

If you follow my blog, you will note that I recently began a series on evangelism and the gospel. This past Sunday, I also began a series at Cornerstone on the kingdom of God, or the gospel of the kingdom.

If you would like, you can listen to my message on the gospel of the kingdom, as well as see my notes, as I have embedded both here in this post. This is not too unlike my second post in my series on evangelism. You can also download the message from iTunes. 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 Mission of the Church

For those who frequent my blog, it’s obvious I have been working my way through the words of N.T. Wright in his Surprised by Hope. Well, I’ve posted three other articles with significant quotes from Wright.

And though I will go back and post some of his thoughts on hell and judgment, last night I read something that really struck a chord in my heart. Though the first two-thirds of the book deals with the deeper theology of things like the soul, the body, the resurrection, heaven, hell, etc, the last third of the book deals with what this all means practically for the church in its mission. And this is just as important.

We all should be aware that theology is not proper theology unless it brings about change in our lives and practical orthopraxy. And Wright takes up this endeavour beginning in his ch.12, which looks at rethinking what salvation and the kingdom of God are really all about.

It is these words that struck the chord:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now. (italics his)

Our mission is not about getting souls saved to go to heaven ‘up there’. Or mission with regards to salvation is, as Wright says:

(1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. (italics his)

We are involved in something here and now. So when Wright says in #2 above that salvation is ‘about the present, not simply the future’, he is not referring to the simple message that, when one gets saved, they get saved by grace now in this life (though such is true). He is talking about the reality that, when we step into the bigger picture of God’s redemptive plan, this means we are being called, in God’s power, to effect change here and now on the earth. We are not now just waiting for the ship to sink and then to get on the heaven island one day when we die or Christ returns, bringing as many ‘souls’ as we can with us by throwing life-preservers. The central message of the gospel of the kingdom is that the kingdom rule of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

As Wright goes on to later say:

He [God] did not want to rescue humans from creation, any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God. (italics his)

Thus, we are to be participants with God in seeing His rule come on earth as it is in heaven. This includes not just seeing whole people saved, though that is very important, but being stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us. This harkens back to what I would call the first Great Commission found in Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This is so essential to our mission. As one church leader reminded a group of us one day: Recreation [in the sense of enjoyment or having fun] deals with re-creating in creation.

God already promises He is going to restore the whole of creation (Romans 8). He already promises that one day there will be a restored heaven and earth together (Revelation 21). Just as we see the kingdom coming already in the here and now through the salvation of human beings, so we can see the kingdom rule of God coming already in the here and now through faithfulness and stewardship of this earth which is God’s (Psalm 24:1).

Of course the question arises: Why take care of the earth if He is going to restore it all one day?

It’s a good question, one I have recently been thinking through with the strong focus on being green amongst many in recent years, something I’m not opposed to but still something I would not intrinsically equate with the kingdom of God, rather seeing it as a part of our call.

But let me counter with some other questions: Why take care of our bodies if one day the resurrection will take place with new bodies? Why pursue maturity in the faith if one day Jesus will do it fully when we see Him face to face?

Well, I think we can answer those questions pretty easily.

If our answer to the one about caring for our bodies is that we don’t need to, then we have moved into gnostic territory. The kingdom of God is about the goodness of all things, not just ‘the spiritual’. And we pursue maturity in our faith because we are called to walk out the gospel of God’s rule that has effected major change in our lives. We are already part of the new creation, aren’t we?

So, why not take up also embracing the reality of being stewards of all things, even bringing foretastes of the one future day into the here and now by seeing God’s rule exemplified in the physical earth. Remember, He is going to restore our bodies and the earth. Why not give a taste to the world now of what will one day be a full reality?

This all goes back to the initial words that I quoted from N.T. Wright, some very powerful and profound words:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now.

The Son of God became flesh and blood for a reason. The Son of God lived a human life on the physical earth for a reason. The Son of God was resurrected in true bodily form for a reason. In modern day terms, we might describe it as a PowerPoint display of what God intends to fully and finally accomplish one day with all creation as His rule and glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).

So let’s take up this call now. Let’s provide a taste, or maybe even more than a taste, of what God will one day consummate in Jesus Christ.

Kingdom of God & Kingdom of Heaven

So I’ve spent some time in the past two articles surveying both the Old Testament and New Testament in regards to the kingdom of God (article 1; article 2). In all, we could easily sum up the kingdom of God as this:

‘The kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority.’ (George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom)

God is King and there is no debating this truth. And it was His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to establish the kingdom rule of God. As the King, He was faithful to announce the good news that the rule of God had broken into human history (Matt 4:17, 23; Mark 1:15; etc)!

But let’s move on to a rather interesting discussion to consider with this topic. When reading the Gospels carefully, and considering the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom, one notices there are two main phrases used to describe God’s kingdom:

  • Kingdom of God
  • Kingdom of heaven (literally kingdom of the heavens)

Mark, Luke and John always speak of the ‘kingdom of God’, while Matthew speaks of both the ‘kingdom of God’ (12:28; 19:24; etc) and the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (3:2; 4:17; etc).

There are some who would look to distinguish between these two different phrases in regards to God’s basileia (Greek word for ‘kingdom’):

  1. Kingdom of heaven – refers to God’s spiritual, celestial reign in the heavens, which is not closely related to His activity on earth
  2. Kingdom of God – refers to God’s rule on the physical earth, usually tied in with Christ’s return for a millennial, or 1000-year, reign.

Yet, if one studies the Jewish culture and theological mindset of the day, one will see the two terms are actually synonymous.

Though somewhat legalistic, the Jews of Jesus’ day stayed away from using God’s name in any sense in case they should break the commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…’ (Exodus 20:7). Thus, they used Lord (Adonay in Hebrew) or The Name (Hashem in Hebrew) to refer to God.

Also, when referring to the God’s kingdom, they would many times speak of the ‘kingdom of heaven’, or as we said, ‘kingdom of the heavens’.

The attempt to not speak God’s name is known as the divine passive.

So, as we turn to the Gospels and note that Matthew’s audience was mainly Jews, we then understand that he would regularly use the phrase ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s]’ to avoid offending Jewish readers. The other Gospel writers, especially Mark and Luke, primarily had a Gentile audience. Thus, they would have used the phrase ‘kingdom of God’, all that their message would have been more accessible to Greek-speaking Gentile readers.

Therefore, we can see that, ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ are synonymous terms. They do not refer to two different realms or entities. This is confirmed when we read these words from Matthew’s own Gospel:

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)

And as Ladd claims in this brief statement:

‘Apart from the reign of God, heaven is meaningless.’ (The Gospel of the Kingdom)

ntwright21In all, N.T. Wright sums it up well:

‘The reverent [expression] “kingdom of heaven”, so long misunderstood by some Christians to mean “a place, namely heaven, where saved souls go to live after death”, meant nothing of the sort in Jesus’ world: it was simply a Jewish way of talking about Israel’s [G]od becoming king.’ (Jesus and the Victory of God)

In my next article, I plan to share how the New Testament teaches that the kingdom of God is a present reality now and will, then, move on in the following post to look at how Jesus and the New Testament writers taught that there was still a future aspect to God’s kingdom.