The Kingdom of God is a rich biblical topic and concept that has a very direct bearing on Christianity as a whole. Mistakes have been made in the past and mistakes are being made in the future regarding the Kingdom. Hopefully, we will be able to see that the topic at hand is not as difficult as Christians have made it and are making it. This treatment of the topic is very brief, but will suffice for the point I am making.
Mistake #1 - Confusing the Kingdom With Particular Nations, Rulers, and/or Leaders.
The theocracy or ‘Christendom’ error has been made numerous times in Christian history. Basically, this mistake confuses church and state into a type of ‘church-state’ that is governed by Christian leaders. I will be quick to point out that this is not a bad thing. After all, should even we as American Christians be casting our votes in elections for Godly candidates when there are Godly candidates available to vote for? I certainly think we should. However, the specific error I am referring to here is the confusion of a certain state (or kingdom, if you will) as being the Kingdom of God. The Church has laid this brick a few too many times in her history. Neither Rome nor Protestants are immune from this error historically. The Roman Emperor Constantine (4th century AD) promised his army victory if they all emblazed the cross on their shields and armor. ‘Christ is Lord’ became their battle cry. The ancient church historian Eusebius remarked, regarding Constantine, “Our divinely favored emperor, receiving, as it were, a transcript of the divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God Himself, the administration of this world’s affairs.” St. Augustine heralded a different view in his brilliant work “The City of God,” written in the 5th century AD, which incidentally is the view I am espousing here. Rome was eventually sacked and fell. However, this model continued to live on. Numerous monarchs over the next 1200 years or so considered themselves to be models of King David of Old Testament fame. Pope Urban II famously quipped, “If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of infidels,” referring to Islam. This was in 1095 AD, and of course if you know your history, the Crusades also happened in this era. Somehow, despite the failures of the Christendom idea, we still have clung to it, even to this day. Protestants are not immune either. Recently in American history, we’ve pushed through the dogma of Manifest Destiny. This resulted from the idea that the United States and its religious freedom was the Kingdom of God. But how free was it? Even recently Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak said regarding the Pope (2006), that “His role is to represent Western civilization.” But is it? Does the Pope himself subscribe to that idea? I find it doubtful that he does. For one reason or another, Christians have not fully relinquished this idea, despite there being little biblical support for it; none in the New Testament. Thus, the confusion of the Kingdom of God with particular regimes, rulers, and leaders lives on, even now.
Mistake #2 - Liberation Theologies and Protestant Liberalism - Associating God’s Kingdom With Social and Political Activism
The first mistake sounds bad enough (and it is), but the second one isn’t any better. Protestant liberalism has a decided tendency to replace and/or redefine the entire gospel with ideas such as “incarnational living.” Essentially, the risen Christ is replaced by us, who now complete His work through social action and sometimes political action. Our loving God and loving others has somehow now become the Gospel. Brian McLaren is normative in this regard, as he delivers an increasingly well known quote from his book entitled “A Generous Orthodoxy.” McLaren opines, “I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents of the Christian religion…It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.” But McLaren’s opinion here misses the point and in effect changes the entire gospel. Instead of the gospel being a proclamation of Jesus Christ’s work on behalf of sinners, it now morphs into our living in imitation of Christ. There is an element of truth in this idea, but it isn’t the gospel, and it’s certainly not how the Kingdom of God is advanced. In short, God’s Kingdom is not advanced by our living like Jesus. In essence, this idea echoes Jesus’ statement “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” made in Matthew 22:37. The problem with making this the gospel is that Jesus wasn’t even talking about the gospel here. He is responding to the Pharisees (Matt 22:36) when they ask Him what is the greatest commandment. Thus, this is law (imperative), not gospel (indicative). Thus, this is not good news, but rather, a command that fallen man is incapable of obeying perfectly.
Closely related to this redefinition of the gospel is the ever increasingly popular idea of inclusivism. That is the idea that a person need not repent and believe the gospel to be saved. Incarnational living and redefining the gospel into law based on the “law of love” (incidentally, found in some form in every religion) are obvious bedfellows. You do not need the indicative of the gospel if the gospel is nothing more than following Jesus’ example, even though following Jesus’ example is only very partially doable at best. Can you atone for sin, for instance? Therefore, those within other religions need not convert to Christianity to be saved, as McLaren has opined above.
What is God’s Kingdom and How Does It Advance?
It’s terribly important to understand what the Kingdom of God is and how it advances, especially in light of the prevalent errors of not only our forbears, but of many people today. Although the incarnational living error is the prevalent one today, the confusion of the Kingdom with nations, rulers, and leaders is not dead either. It is interesting to point out that both errors are along the lines of confusing the Kingdom of God with an earthly political Kingdom. No matter what your view on the millennium, both amillennarians and premillennarians will agree on two things. First, that the Kingdom of God here. John the Baptist announced it and Jesus Christ brought it. Second, both will agree that right now, the Kingdom is not earthly and political. Beyond that, there are differences, but those differences involve what the Kingdom will look like post-Second coming. Therefore, since it is here and it is not earthly and political, it must lie somewhere else. Jesus gives us a big clue as to where the Kingdom is in John 3:3, when He says to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Those who are born again see it and those who are not born again cannot. If the Kingdom of God was earthly and political now, it would follow that it wouldn’t matter if one was born again or not. People would see it. Yet, this is exactly what the two errors propagate. In the first case, everyone ought to see God’s Kingdom through the advancement of it via holy wars, conquest, and the supposed Godliness of its leaders and rulers. In the second case, the Kingdom would be seen clearly by the social activism of the incarnational living of Jesus’ followers. Yet, Jesus says that a person must be born again to even see it. Therefore, the Kingdom cannot possibly be earthly right now. If it’s not earthly and physical and a person must be born again to even see it, it must therefore be spiritual. Those who are born again are part of it right now. The book of Hebrews gives us some insight, saying, “But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) A few verses later, we get more information: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29) Paul’s discourse found in Galatians 4:21-31 is also helpful in this regard. The Kingdom of God is not something we are building through our conquest or social action. It is a kingdom that we receive. The kingdom is not built by us, but by God. “For he (Abraham) was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Heb 11:10) “The heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22), “Mount Zion” (Heb 12:22), that no one can even see unless they are born again (John 3:3). The same kingdom that God has promised to build (Heb 11:10, Mat 16:18-19).
How then, does it advance? Very simply put, it advances through the work of the Holy Spirit via the means of preaching the gospel. The Great Commission, found primarily in Matthew 28:18-20 (also Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38-42), tells us to “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, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” This is precisely able to be done because of what Jesus states in verse 18, that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Great Commission is not the cultural mandate found in Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” The Great Commission is not a mandate to take dominion. Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, has come and taken dominion. Even now, Christ has dominion, which will not be fully brought to fruition until His glorious return. Only those in Christ will ultimately have dominion along with our risen Head. The Great Commission is first a foremost a command to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Michael Horton comments that “The Great Commission is a mandate to gather, feed, and protect Christ’s sheep until the Great Shepherd Himself returns.” Thus, the Kingdom advances by the Holy Spirit’s work through the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel of the kingdom (Matt 24:14) is identical with the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19). Both of them refer to the building of the kingdom by God through the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) encompasses both of these.
Although it has been a staple of theological liberalism to pit Jesus’ words against the words of the apostles, especially Paul, in later books of the New Testament, interpreting Scripture in this manner drives a wedge between the apostles and Christ. Who better than the apostles to interpret Christ’s teachings? Michael Horton addresses this problem, saying, “However, the ‘red-letter’ method of interpretation assumes a deficient doctrine of Scripture. Jesus’ words, teachings, and actions were remembered, related, and interpreted by his apostles. Just as He had promised in the upper room, Jesus sent the Spirit so that they would remember everything that He taught them and would be able to pass it on to others…The whole bible is canon, and Scripture interprets Scripture. Besides revealing a seriously deficient view of Scripture, this contrast between Jesus and Paul rests on a misunderstanding of our Lord’s teaching concerning the kingdom. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is identical to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel of justification. Contrasting the kingdom with the church is another way of saying that the main point of Jesus’ commission consists in our social action rather than in the public ministry of Word and Sacrament. In other words, it’s another way of saying that we are building the kingdom rather than receiving it; that the kingdom of God’s redeeming grace is actually a kingdom of our redeeming works.” As Horton points out, this misses the point. Namely, that Jesus’ message of the kingdom was the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of the new creation, and these things cannot be separated from His promises to build his church (Matt 16:18) and give the keys to the kingdom to the apostles (Matt 16:19). The apostles clearly thought that this entailed preaching, sacrament, and discipline, not social action or confusion with the state or a certain leader. Acts 2 records what the apostles thought Jesus’ kingdom is. Peter’s sermon was hardly about incarnational living, but rather, to repent and believe for the forgiveness of sins. Peter gave the people at Pentecost the gospel (Acts 2:14-36), not a plea for imitation of the risen Christ. This is repeated by the apostles in Acts 3 as well as Acts 17. Likewise, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, pitched the same thing. See 1 Corinthians 15. Therefore, we surely do not need the advice of rehashed theological liberalism coming from men such as McLaren and Rob Bell (whose idea of the kingdom is bringing heaven to earth via loving action) to tell us that the Kingdom of God is here, since as we have seen, when they use this phrase, they mean something completely different than what Scripture does. Instead of finding something positive in the messages of these men, we ought rather look to Scripture, for a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Why praise them for one particular aspect when they have the gospel wrong? Is what they are pitching even Christian? J. Gresham Machen answered with a decisive “no” in his book “Christianity and Liberalism,” written in the early part of the 20th century. It’s amazing how the vast majority of what Machen wrote against nearly a century ago we are battling today in the form of the Emergent Church. It is no more than rehashed Protestant liberalism that the church fought against in another era.
God’s Kingdom will advance, for God Himself has promised to build it. Not by force, not by activism, but by God’s Word. The Kingdom of God continues to advance as the gospel is proclaimed and the Holy Spirit raises dead sinners to life.