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Atlanta, 6 April 2016

Hello! This is the middle lesson of three on the Kingdom of God. Last week we saw that God has always had a kingdom. The O.T. frequently affirms his sovereignty over the nations as King of Kings. In the N.T., Jesus ascends to heaven and accedes to the throne.

We also distinguished two senses of kingdom: rule and realm. The former includes those who freely choose to obey the king; the latter is the scope of God's reign -- the universe! While the kingdom has always existed, at some times it is more obvious than at others. Today we examine the central proclamation of Christ and his followers: the kingdom.
The Kingdom Message

Past, present, future
The Jews expected God to make his kingdom manifest when the Messiah returned and the new age was inaugurated. The age to come was to be marked by extraordinary political and economic prosperity. God's enemies would be vanquished, Israel would be exalted as top nation, and there would be no more sickness or death. Yet rejecting the Messiah (the King), they failed to realize that this kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus. (And although it's not always obvious, we are living in the Messianic age right now.)

Most evangelicals have adopted a view similar to the ancient Jews', through "premillennial" theology: Jesus will return and reign on earth for 1000 years. Some even hold that Jesus must have "failed" to set up his earthly kingdom -- since it is not yet visible, and sin and violence are still rampant all over the planet. Yet this is a misunderstanding.

Already, but not yet
What is the error? It's a failure to grasp the relationship of the two ages -- the present age and the age to come. The "last days" come not at the end, as the rabbis (like many modern believers) supposed, but rather in the midst of this present age. The kingdom of heaven breaks into history, causing an overlap. Or we could say that the end runs concurrently with the final phase of human history. Thus we experience both ages; the kingdom is "already, but not yet" -- a familiar kingdom perspective. Please listen to this explanation if you need clarification about this paradoxical truth. 

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Bible speaks of the kingdom as past, present, and future. It's always been here, it's present today, and it will be revealed in ultimate glory at the end of history. This is also true of our Christian lives. We have already been brought into the kingdom (Col 1:13); we enjoy kingdom blessings now; and yet we pray for God one day to guide us to his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim 4:18; 2 Pet 1:10-12).

Then what about Pentecost? Isn't that when the kingdom came? In one sense, yes, it did "come" at Pentecost, or was made manifest. Yet it has always been here. This may help. In Exodus 19:5-6 God makes Israel to be a kingdom of priests. The kingdom came at Sinai -- even though God was already ruling as King. And he did the same for us (Rev 1:5-6)! The kingdom came, even though it was already there. (Back to "already, but not yet.")

Kingdom in the New Testament
The coming of God's kingdom is a major theme in the O.T. prophets (e.g. Mal 3:1; 4:5), as well as in the Gospels (e.g. Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). This kingdom is not political (John 6:15; 18:36), nor is it visible (Luke 17:20-21). It is entered spiritually (John 3:3,5,7). As more and more embrace the message of the good news, the kingdom grows (Matt 13:31-33).

Since the King is the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6), the kingdom is not about power or coercion, but about love and service. Christians are forbidden to lord it over others or to imitate the rulers of this world. What about "forcefully advancing the kingdom"? The phrase suggests that coercion and perhaps violence are justified, yet this contradicts the example and Spirit of Christ. Note: Eventually the NIV corrected their unfortunate translation of Matthew 11:12.

Jesus came to this earth. Since he's the king, his reign (kingdom) naturally accompanied him. Although in some sense God's people have always been under his kingship, only now under the new covenant are we "in the kingdom" (Matt 11:11). We enjoy the indwelling Holy Spirit, a better covenant, and many other aspects of kingdom life that were unavailable before the death, resurrection, ascension, and accession of Christ. Don't miss the point: As a church we help each other to live and proclaim the kingdom life. 

What, not visible?
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" 
(Luke 17:20-21). This means:
  • It is an exercise in futility to monitor political and meteorological events in an attempt to predict God's final intervention in the world. 
  • Though its effects are powerful, the presence of the kingdom is subtle. The fanfare of those who equate large numbers and decibels with God's kingdom is misguided.
  • The so-called "millennium," derived from an overly literal reading of Rev 20:4-6, must not be construed in a way that conflicts with the teaching of Jesus that the kingdom is invisible. Rather, this figurative number symbolizes the victory of Jesus' redemptive death and the power of his reign.
  • No institution, no group can be identified with the kingdom. 
Further implications
  • First and foremost, the king has a claim over our lives 24/7. He isn't our sovereign at church; he's on the throne continuously. We shouldn't procrastinate or plan to give God our all once Christ returns to reign. He's already reigning (Rev 19:6)! Since we are living in the final age of history, obeying the Lord is a matter of utmost urgency.
  • The kingdom (in the sense of God's rule) is where God's will is done, a sphere always increasing as the sovereignty of God gains universal acceptance. Our planet is under enemy rule; we are the advance troops sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. Working together with Christ, we are helping to create pockets of resistance where His will is done. We answer ultimately not to the governors of this world, but to a higher power.
  • Let's be careful how we phrase things. It's always better to use biblical terminology, even though this may require us to unlearn some of our traditions -- including some favorite expressions.It would be more accurate to say that the church is part of the kingdom, or that it reflects the kingdom. In one sense the church is the kingdom -- just as Jesus is God -- yet to leave it at that is to invite confusion, since we don't mean that the church is the entire kingdom, any more than we mean that Jesus is the Father, or the entire Trinity.
  • We are ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven. Ambassadors reside in a foreign country, representing their own nation. So too Christians are foreigners in the world, representing a different government than the one in charge where we live. 
  • A whole set of implications of the doctrine of the Kingdom is political -- the subject of next week's issue.
  • Another point that emerges is that the kingdom isn't the church.
Is the kingdom the church?
Often I hear brothers and sisters identifying the kingdom with the church. Some even teach that "Seek first the kingdom" (Matt 6:33) means to prioritize commitment to the church of Christ above all else. Yet kingdom and church are not identical. The distinction may be easier to grasp if we substitute the word church for kingdom here and in other familiar passages:
  • "Seek first his church"? No. Matt 6:33 is equivalent with seeking his will (see 7:21). We are to seek God's will and to obey it -- to live under his rule. That's seeking the kingdom! Fellowship of course is an important part of seeking the kingdom, but only one part.
  • "Repent, for the church of heaven is near"? Matt 3:2 is speaking of the coming kingdom. Yet John the Baptist is announcing the coming King. In short, when the King comes, the kingdom is present.
  • "Thy church come, thy will be done"? Hardly. Matt 6:9 refers to the spread of the sphere of God's influence, as more and more embrace his will.
  • "For Thine is the church, and the power, and the glory"? Actually, "glory in the church" is a biblical motif (Eph 3:21). Yet the point is that God Almighty reigns -- and his kingdom (unlike our churches) is perfect.
  • “We must go through many hardships to enter the church of God"? Acts 14:22 refers to the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate fulfillment of all God's kingdom promises. The apostle Paul is encouraging people to remain faithful as Christians. He is not saying they must endure many hardships in order to become church members,
The apostles did not preach the church, but the kingdom. Nowhere in the N.T. is there an explicit passage stating that the kingdom is the church. For clarity, it might be more helpful to say that the church is part of the kingdom, or that it reflects the kingdom. In one sense the church is the kingdom -- just as Jesus is God -- yet to leave it at that is to invite confusion, since we don't mean that the church is the entire kingdom, any more than we mean that Jesus is the Father.

I'd like to leave you with one parting thought. Currently there are two kingdoms: the dominion of darkness, led by the Prince of this World, and the kingdom of God's Son (Col 1:13). And yet Paul teaches that ultimately God will be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). It sounds as if there will be only one kingdom for all eternity. (You mean Satan doesn't rule his subjects forever and ever? That's right.) More on this next week.

The colors yesterday on the Chattahoochee were breathtaking. (Vicki and I enjoy kayaking.)


Last week I taught at Georgia Gwinnett College, on "Science & the Bible," and in Knoxville, Tennessee -- an open Bible question time, plus a sermon from John 20:26-31. This Sunday I preach at North River (Atlanta), on John 4:46-54. Any time you're in the area, please let me know -- maybe we can connect at church.

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Yours in the fight for truth (and against apathy and biblical ignorance),
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