Restoring the Concrete Nature of the Kingdom

When many modern-day Christians come to kingdom language in the Bible, they have a hard time knowing what it is. Jesus never directly explains it; he never gives a definition, and the Gospel writers never record the crowds or disciples asking what it is. There seems to be an implicit assumption in Jesus’s day that everyone knows what the kingdom is.

Since the kingdom is nowhere defined, people pour in their own meaning. Some have equated it with heaven and said that Jesus was saying, in so many words, “the kingdom is the place you go when you die.” Others have understood kingdom as referring to the church. From their perspective, Jesus announced the beginning of the age of the church.  Still others have seen the kingdom of God as simply ethics. Jesus’s announcement is a call to social action. Humankind builds the kingdom of God as it “works for the ideal social order and endeavors to solve the problems of poverty, sickness, labor relations, social inequalities, and race relations.”[1]

Evangelicals, in particular, have been prone to reduce the kingdom to God’s rule, power, or sovereignty. George Eldon Ladd disseminated this view in his numerous works on the kingdom, arguing that the dynamic rule is the primary meaning. In more popular evangelical circles the kingdom becomes a euphemism for the rule of God in one’s heart. The kingdom thus coils into an inward, subjective mechanism, a secret power that enters the human soul and lays hold of it.

Regrettably, the defining characteristic of the kingdom in evangelicalism has been abstracted, and the time has come to restore the kingdom to its concrete nature. All the definitions above suffer from reductionism. They take a part of the whole and place it in the center. So how can we define the kingdom?

Expanding beyond the abstract notion of the kingdom as mere sovereignty, I use the following definition of the kingdom: The kingdom is the King’s power over the King’s people in the King’s place. These three realities (power, people, place) interrelate, and although they can be distinguished, they never can be separated. They are like strands of a rope tightly twisted together.

The kingdom must include people—namely, a king and his subjects. The king is representative of the people, and the king also provides shelter and safety for the people through his kingdom. God’s kingdom will contain and be realized through God’s image bearers as servant kings. As Gerhard Lohink said, “A king without a people is no king at all but a figure in a museum.”[2]

In the same way, a kingdom must be a realm. A king without a territory is an enigma. The place of the kingdom cannot be erased from the description and definition, just as a city must be situated. I. Howard Marshall said concerning the kingdom, “While it has been emphasized almost ad nauseam that the primary concept is that of the sovereignty of kingship or actual rule of God and not of a territory ruled by a king, it must also be emphasized that kingship cannot be exercised in the abstract.”[3]

So what is the kingdom? It is concrete; it is earthy; it is people; it is place; it is about Jesus; it concerns the cross; it is about the new heavens and the new earth; it is about community, politics, order, bodies, and human flourishing. It is about power, family, thrones, walls, gates, rivers, and streams. The kingdom is cosmic in scope, and to close the door on the vast picture that the Scriptures use to paint the kingdom is to misinterpret and misunderstand the goal of redemption. In the kingdom of Christ, the ransomed will be in the presence of God living under the law of the King. The kingdom is the basic edifice for entering the story of the Scriptures.

Centering the Cross in the Kingdom Story

God is King. Perhaps we are prone to think of God as friend, or Father, or as some impersonal force or mystical presence. However, kingship is the root metaphor for the Bible’s description of God. But if God has always been King, as the Bible claims, then how can kingship be his sacred mission?

The answer is provided through recognizing that God chose to exercise his kingship through his agents. Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were to be his kings, but they all failed. So a new and true King is crowned. Through Jesus the Messiah, God reclaims his rule over Israel and the world – and he reclaims his rule paradoxically through the cross.

At times an emphasis on the kingdom displaces or at least shifts attention away from a theology of the cross. It seems that we are prone to speak either of the kingdom or of the cross, unintentionally driving a wedge between the two. However, it is precisely in Jesus’s announcement, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” that he presupposes the kingdom will be accomplished by his death. The kingdom is not a higher or more important theme than the cross. These two realities are forever joined; separating them is an act of violence.

If the kingdom is the goal, then the cross is the means. As Ridderbos said, “The kingdom cannot be understood without the cross, nor the cross without the kingdom.”[4] The day the new creation began was the day Jesus died. He was strung up as a common criminal on a Roman cross, and history has not been able to ignore what was a regular spectacle of that day. This was no common death but a substitution for the sins of the world. Kingdom and cross go together. Jesus’s “main message was the kingdom and his main mission was to go to Golgotha.”[5] Kingdom and the cross must mutually interpret each other, and they must be kept in the same orbit.

Conclusion

From beginning to end, the Scriptures present the story of the kingdom. If you grasp the nature of the kingdom, then the Scriptures can be seen as a coherent narrative rather than a disparate collection of stories. The fact that Adam and Eve were to be rulers over the land should inform Jesus’s miracles of healing. The call of Abraham is no longer about some wandering idolater, but about the overarching story of God’s concern for his people. The Wisdom Literature is no longer just a collection of proverbs, but a picture of living the good life under the ideal King.

Most importantly, Jesus’s mission and the gospel of the kingdom come into full clarity. When Jesus announces that the “kingdom of God” is at hand, he is announcing that in his person all the promises of God are yes and amen (see 2 Cor. 1:20). The promises to the people of God concerning their place is realized through the death of their King. The cross is the doorway one must pass through to enter the kingdom.

[1] George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 16.

[2] Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, trans. Linda Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012), 25.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, “Church,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green and S. McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 123.

[4] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming Kingdom (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1962), 169–74.

[5] Treat, The Crucified King, 17.


Editor’s note: this content was taken from The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross by Patrick Schreiner, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary and an elder at Christ Church Sellwood in Portland, OR.

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