Years ago, the debates in the evangelical world were about the End of the world. These days, among many younger evangelicals such debates seem either pedantic or unnecessarily divisive. In discussing the kingdom of God conversations have moved from When to So What. We’ve become more interested in the ethics of the kingdom – in participating in the community of the kingdom and in doing the work of the Kingdom.
I think this has been, by and large, a positive change in emphasis. But we’re in danger of swinging the pendulum too far and, as a consequence, losing much of Jesus’ teaching. I think that Jesus would have us understand these two concepts – the ethics of the kingdom of God and coming of the kingdom – in relation to one another. I’m convinced of this because of Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 24-25, two of Jesus’ most famous sermons.
Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is widely seen as Jesus’ most comprehensive ethical teaching. It contains the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching on murder/hate, adultery/lust, divorce and marriage, loving our enemies, true spiritual piety, prayer, worry, judging others, and his relation to the law. The Sermon on the Mount is heralded by those who want to emphasize the reality that Jesus has called his people to follow his example and to be a people who reject the ethics of earthly kingdoms in favor of the ethics of the kingdom of God.
Matthew 24 is Jesus’ so-called “Olivet Discourse.” This sermon is followed in Matthew 25 by a series a parables which emphasize the teaching in the discourse. Like the Sermon on the Mount the Discourse is about the Kingdom of God. Matthew 24 is especially interesting to those who are interested in The End. The Olivet Discourse is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse” and it describes “the Son of Man coming in the Clouds.”
For those who want to emphasize the Already of the kingdom Matthew 24 presents a problem. Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse about the signs of the end and the identification of the Abomination of Desolation are either uninteresting or problematic. For those who want to emphasize the Not Yet of the kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount presents a theological problem to be solved instead of an ethic to be followed.
The Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, however, are not as different as they first appear.
The Sermon on the Mount, while ethical, is also interested in The End. Believers are called to endure persecution in order to receive a reward in heaven (5:12). To hate your brother puts in you in danger of Hell (5:22). We need to be careful that we do not love material possessions but instead lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven (6:19-21). In other words, the ethics of the kingdom are built upon the promise of the kingdom, that God in his righteous future reign will reward and punish with justice.
Likewise, while the questions which kicks of the Olivet Discourse, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” are certainly interested in The End, Jesus quickly turns the discussion to ethical commands. He calls his disciples to watch out for false signs and prophets (24:4), to stand firm under persecution (24:14), to be faithful stewards (24:45-51; 25:21), to be always ready (25:13), to care for the “least of these” (25:40). In fact, while the disciples asked When and while Jesus gave signs he also declares that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. In other words, Jesus’ teaching about The End calls for the present action of his people.
We need to pay attention to both the Olivet Discourse and the Sermon on the Mount. The kingdom of God encompasses both the present saving work of Christ in making us new people (individually and together) and his return, when he will bring salvation to those who eagerly await his coming. Be Ready.