This Sunday I started a class on the Kingdom of God. I was originally planning on doing a class on the End Times but, in my initial research, I was directed by a professor to read The Presence of the Future by George Eldon Ladd. I understand why I was directed to this book – understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God is foundational to understanding the End Times. However, it’s also foundational to a lot of other things, like the mission of the Church, the present work of God in the world, and what it means to live in the tension between the resurrection and the consummation of all things.
And so, while I originally intended to do a class on the End Times, I punted that to the Senior Pastor, John, and decided on an equally difficult and confusing topic; the Kingdom of God.
Since the class is only being offered to a subset of our church (it takes place during the post-sermon discussion time) I have decided to post summaries of each week’s lesson.
Kingdom of God Week 1: The Debate
“The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” are concepts which were central to John the Baptist’s (Mt 3:2), Jesus’ (Mt. 4:17, 23; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43; Acts 1:3), and Paul’s (Acts 19:8, 28:23, 31) teaching. Even so, we do not find in the Gospels any “definition” of the Kingdom. Instead, we see the language of the Kingdom used in diverse and sometimes apparently contradictory ways. Instead of a textbook response from Jesus, we get parables which describe the Kingdom without defining it.
One of the biggest questions about the Kingdom is whether it is something which we can already experience, or whether it is something which is yet to come.
On the “already” side of things we have verses like Luke 11:20 “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God,then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” and Luke 17:20-21 “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” In these verses, the Kingdom appears to be a present reality.
On the “not yet” side of things we see instances where “Kingdom of God” is used interchangeably with “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16-24), the judgment (Matthew 7:21-23), or as a contrast to hell (Mark 9:47). In these, and other instances, the Kingdom seems to be a future realm which people can either enter, or fail to enter, based on their response to God.
This diverse usage of “Kingdom of God” language has historically caused theologians to choose between understanding the Kingdom as a future age to come or as a present spiritual reality.
Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a present reality, tend to look at Kingdom realities as primarily spiritual, view the movement of the Kingdom as a process of history, focus on the work of the Church to extend the kingdom, and consider the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the questions – “what are the ethical demands of the Kingdom?” and “what can we do to bring the benefits of the Kingdom on earth?”
Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a future reality look at the Kingdom as an “age to come” that will be brought about through a cataclysmic event (i.e., the Second Coming). They focus on the Kingdom as a future act of God (as opposed to something the Church participates in) and tend to devalue the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the question, “who will be able to enter into the Kingdom?” and “when will the Kingdom come?”
There is merit in both viewpoints and theologians from both camps ask important question. However, there are dangers on both side of the spectrum. The biggest problem for both views is that they struggle with interpreting the passages that seem to contradict their position. For instance, those who focus on the “already” aspect of the Kingdom have to view Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings as a literary device used to draw the reader to some ethical conclusion. On the other hand, those who focus on the “future” aspect of the Kingdom tend to come to the conclusion that in passages like Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21 Jesus only meant that the “signs” of the Kingdom were present, but not the Kingdom itself.
There are implications for the ministry of the Church as well. Too much of a focus on the present reality of the Kingdom lead churches to believe that their mission is to “build” the Kingdom, or bring the benefits of the Kingdom to earth, and devalue the simple proclamation of the Kingdom. In other words, they tend to overestimate the role of the Church in regards to the Kingdom.
On the other hand, those who view the Kingdom as only a future reality tend to view the world, and the role of the Church, in far more pessimistic light. If God’s actions are so limited in history, the only hope is for a cataclysmic event to take us out of history. In the meantime, the only mission of the Church is to wait to be saved out of this world and call others to enter the Kingdom.
The question arises, then, can these two usages of the Kingdom (present and future) be reconciled? I believe the answer is “Yes” and the thesis which will be developed over the next few weeks is this: The Kingdom of God is the active reign of God. This working shorthand definition leads to a few conclusions:
First, the Jesus’ coming fulfilled God’s promise of the Kingdom in His very person. But this initial coming of the Kingdom was a mystery. It was an unexpected, but nevertheless real, manifestation of the reign of God. This coming of the Kingdom, while a fulfillment of the promise, was not the final consummation of the promise.
Second, the realities of the Kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus, are present now through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Third, when Jesus returns we will see consummation of the Kingdom. We will see the Kingdom, the reign of God, in its fullest form.
Next week we ask, “How does the Old Testament speak of the Kingdom of God?”
I have attached two resources for anyone with further interest. First, I have listed the usages of “Kingdom” in the Gospels and Acts (pdf) as a source of further study. Second, I have attached my power point presentation from this Sunday.