Kingdom of God at the heart of divine plan

Defining the kingdom of God has always been a "pickle of a problem", writes Ridley College’s Michael Bird, and we must be mindful of what our role is in our work for the kingdom.

By Michael Bird

The “kingdom of God” was Jesus’ way of summarising his message. In the Gospel of St Mark, we read: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). The kingdom of God, intimated in the Old Testament, saturating the Gospels, and even appearing in Paul’s letters, is a central topic in biblical teaching.

Yet the kingdom of God is a nutty problem with layers of complexity one must unravel in order to grasp a workable understanding of its meaning in the Bible, on the lips of Jesus, and in the diverse interpretive schemes it has held within the church across the ages. The question has always been what does “kingdom” mean and, most importantly of all, what does it mean for me?

The answer to such questions has always been something of litmus test for what “tribe” one belongs to, whether high church, progressive, or evangelical, as each side has a slightly different range of ideas and activities that they tend to associate with the kingdom.

One could imagine the kingdom in idealist terms, a future utopia, a redemptive republic where human beings in their inner life and social structures reflect the embrace of the Father’s love. If so, our task would be to make this kingdom a reality by politics, protest or preaching. Put your shoulder to the wheel of history to hasten the day!

The kingdom could be equivalent to liberation, rescuing the poor and marginalised from their dire estate, a doing of justice for everyone. If so, our task would be to make the kingdom real by imitating Jesus’ own saving deeds towards the poor and disempowered, then by realising his vision of a truly just society. Put on your revolutionary uniform or street protest output to build a more just world today.

The kingdom can be identified as God’s saving reign realised when people experience reconciliation to God through the declaration of the gospel of grace. If so, our task is to proclaim this gospel about the forgiving king and to invite people into God’s kingdom where they can be justified, reconciled and redeemed. Put on your most seeker-sensitive church service and bring your friends to Jesus.

The kingdom is sometimes described as a people ruled by a king, the church in fact, who are the earthly embodiment of God’s royal power and holy calling. If so, the purpose of the church is to extend its kingly power by persuasion, politics and preaching, so that making much of the church is making much of God. So cling to the bishop’s mitre and relish in the raising of the chalice to see God’s kingdom among us.

The kingdom might be considered as creation restored, putting the world to rights, humans and creation living together in harmony, redemption and renewal combined. If so, the purpose of the church is to restore human beings to spiritual and relational wholeness and to tend the eco-system ahead of its own resurrection at the end of the age. Renew your subscription to EFAC and Tearfund to see God’s reign take root.

The problem is that each of these views is saying something that is at least partially true. The kingdom is a future state identified with the new creation. Jesus does relate the kingdom to his own ministry of deliverance from evil powers, illness, oppression and injustice. The kingdom indeed involves forgiveness and reconciliation to God. The kingdom is unthinkable without a people whom God reigns over. Our future hope is not the immortality of the soul, but paradise restored in a new heavens and new earth. So, yes, defining the kingdom has always been a pickle of a problem.

I’ve always appreciated the holistic definition of kingdom of God given by Anglican theologian Graeme Goldsworthy, who, writing from the Aussie tradition of biblical theology, defines the kingdom this way:

The entire biblical story, despite its great diversity of forms and foci, is consistent in its emphasis on the reign of God over his people in the environment he creates for them. The kingdom depicted in Eden is lost to humankind at the beginning of the biblical account. The history of redemption begins immediately when the kingdom is lost, and tells of the way the kingdom of God will finally be established as a new people of God in fellowship with him in a new Eden, a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth. The kingdom is God’s reign over God’s people in God’s place.

To tease that out, God’s kingdom is Christ as king over a new humanity and new creation: potentate, people and place. Where one finds God’s royal and priestly people, where the Spirit is operating among them, where Christ’s gospel is proclaimed, his teaching taught, the signs of his presence given (i.e., baptism and Eucharist), where redemption is a reality, where justice and mercy are pursued – there the reign of God is manifested.

Importantly, Christ’s church is not simply a passive recipient of divine rule; rather, the church makes up an essential part of God’s kingdom as the physical expression of Christ’s royal body in the world. The church embodies the kingdom by summoning people to allegiance in Jesus, inviting them into his forgiven family, and engaging in redemptive acts that shatter the dominion of darkness, setting the captives free, enhance the human condition, and establish human custodianship over creation. In a sense, the kingdom spreads as the church and its work spreads like ink in water.

Can we, then, manufacture the kingdom by our ministries and labours? Do we “build Jerusalem” as the old hymn said? Is not all Christian work kingdom work? I understand the attraction, but I’m allergic to a fully-fledged identification of our evangelical and ethical ministries or our politics and priestly orders with the kingdom.

The danger is more than being too narrow, that kingdom is just and only evangelism, or just and only social justice, or just and only the visible presence of the church. If the kingdom reaches its climax in our doing, then we become the centre of the kingdom’s manifestation rather than God. We must not lose sight of the theocentric aspect, namely, that the kingdom of God is nothing other than God’s kingship and the coming of God as king, specifically, in and through Christ.

Taking cue from N.T. Wright, I’d aver that what we do by our many labours, holy and noble as they are, is not build the kingdom ourselves, but build for the kingdom, prepare the way for the Lord, deliver an embassy to tyrants and despots of what is to come, bring the healing that anticipates the wholeness of a renewed creation. What we do is an anticipation of the kingdom not the limitation or reduction of the kingdom to the church’s own labours. The church is never fully identical to the kingdom; it is the sign of the promise of the kingdom, the earthly precursor to the redeemed community of the new creation.

The Revd Dr Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Parkville.