Rethinking the Kingdom of God: Part II

This is a continuation of our series on “Kingdom Confusion” as promised. You can read Part I here.

In this post, I wish to address a somewhat popular cliché that I think misses the mark on what the New Testament (NT) teaches concerning the kingdom of God.

Here’s the cliché:

“Jesus mentioned the church only twice; but he mentioned the kingdom over 100 times. So He really doesn’t care about the church as much as He does the kingdom.”

Have you heard it before? Maybe even passed it on?

Allow me take dead aim at this line of thought. It’s specious reasoning at best.

Separating What God Has Joined

First, let me say at the outset that it saddens me greatly when Christian authors and speakers pit the church against the kingdom and the kingdom against the church. To my mind, this tendency reflects a profound misunderstanding of what the church really is. (I’ve discussed this elsewhere.)

Behold I show you a mystery: Without the church, there is no kingdom. And without the kingdom, there is no church.

As I’ve argued in Part I, the kingdom of God is the manifestation of God’s ruling presence. As such, the kingdom is embodied in Jesus Christ.

Christ incarnates the kingdom.

But note that Jesus Christ is inseparable from His body also (see From Eternity to Here which argues this point from the NT texts).

When the church is functioning properly in a given place, she IS the manifestation of God’s ruling presence. She reveals Christ, that is, she expresses the kingdom . . . the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

She shows forth the rule of God, makes visible the reign of God, and the justice, freedom, and peace that goes with it.

To separate the kingdom from the church is like separating light from visibility.

It’s a serious mistake to do so.

Note that I’m talking about the church as the NT envisions it, not what goes by the name “church” in many corners of the planet today.

Having said that, I believe the “Jesus-only-mentioned-the-church-twice-and-the-kingdom-over-100-times” argument is based on a superficial analysis of the Gospels that is grossly misleading.

This line of reasoning is not dissimilar to those who say “The Trinity is NEVER mentioned in the Bible, therefore, to say that Father, Son and Spirit are three yet one is false.”

The term “Godhead” is only used 3x in the NT. Does that then mean that the Godhead is not mentioned or referred to in the NT? Or that it’s not important?

Hardly.

Everywhere you see Father, Son, and Spirit mentioned in the NT, the Godhead is in view, though not by that specific title.

Let me repeat that.

Everywhere you see Father, Son, and Spirit mentioned in the NT, the Godhead is in view, though not by that specific title.

In like manner, John 14, 15, 16, and 17 are dripping full of the Godhead. So is most of the Gospel of John. Though “Godhead” isn’t mentioned once in that passage. And neither is the word “Trinity.” Yet the Godhead is present . . .  all over the place and in living color.

The Church in Fresh Perspective

With that thought in mind, let me make a radical statement:

The Lord Jesus Christ mentioned and referred to the church MORE than He did the kingdom of God.

But He didn’t do it by using the word “ekklesia.”

Let me ‘splain.

Remember that small band of disciples that Jesus called unto Himself and lived with for 3 1/2 years?

They were “the Twelve” added to what Luke calls “the Women.”

Probably around 20 individuals in all.

Those 20 people were a community that lived a shared life under the headship of Jesus Christ. Christ was the center of their life and fellowship.

In other words: they were the embryonic expression of the ekklesia.

What is ekklesia (church) in the NT? It’s a community of believers who share a common life in Christ, assembly together regularly, and make Jesus central, supreme, and head over their lives together.

Those 20 were the community of the King (to quote Howard Snyder). And that’s precisely what the ekklesia is.

Consequently, every time you see the Twelve with Jesus (and the Women) in the Gospels, you’re seeing the church.

And virtually every time Jesus spoke to His disciples and used the word “you” . . .

“YOU are the light of the world.”

“YOU are the salt of the earth.”

“And when the Spirit comes, He will teach YOU all things.”

“I am the Vine, YOU are the branches” . . .

He was referring to the church.

In addition, when John uses the word “we,” he is most often speaking of the church . . .

“And of His fullness WE have all received, grace upon grace.”

Do you remember when Jesus said, “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it bears many grains”?

The “many grains” are the church.

How about when Jesus referred to His brethren?

“But go to my BRETHREN and tell them I ascend to my Father.”

Or how about when He prayed for His disciples in John 17 and said,

“I’m not praying for these alone, but for THOSE WHO WILL BELIEVE ON ME through their word.”

Who are the “those who will believe on me”?

The church.

Who are the Lord’s “brethren”?

The church.

And on and on and on.

Is She Important?

Yes, the church of the living God is on just about every page of the Gospels. Far more than the kingdom, in fact.

To be accurate, there are 85 unique references to the kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels. And 5 in the Gospel of John. So the Gospels total 90 unique references to the kingdom.

Put that over against the many references to the church given above, and the count is less for the kingdom.

When we come to the NT writings (Acts to Revelation), the kingdom is mentioned 31 times and the church is found 77 times.

The word “brethren” – which refers to the brothers and sisters in the churches – is used 249 times in Acts through Revelation.

The word “saints” (holy ones) which is a reference to the individual believers in the churches is used 60 times.

Now in light of all of the above, can we please stop pitting the church against the kingdom?

To do such is to violate the gospel.

The church (rightly conceived) is at the center of God’s eternal purpose. And she’s the very reason that provoked creation.

Here’s my response to those who would say that the church isn’t important. Or those who argue that the kingdom is more important than the ekklesia. This is part of a transcript of a message I delivered called Who Is This Woman? many years ago. I trust it helps make the point.

“Don’t tell me that the church isn’t important when she appears in the opening pages of holy Scripture, and she reappears at the very end. She’s at the beginning. And she’s at the end. (Eve in Genesis 2 and the Bride in Revelation 22).

Don’t tell me the church isn’t important when your Lord and my Lord is consumed with a zeal that eats Him up for her.

Don’t tell me that the church isn’t important when Jesus Christ gave His life for her and forsook everything to have her. (Ephesians 5:25 says that Christ gave Himself for the church. She’s the pearl of great price, hid in God from before the ages.)

Don’t tell me that the church isn’t important when Jesus Christ sees Himself as indistinguishable from her. She is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh, His very body on earth. (See Acts 9:1-5; Matt. 25:40, 45). How can you say the church isn’t important?

Don’t tell me that she isn’t important when she’s the fiancé of the Son of God, and He’s waiting to marry her. To take her in oneness. How can she not be important?

Don’t tell me the church isn’t important when Paul says, “You, the body of Christ in Corinth, are the corporate Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12; see also 1:12-13; 6:15; 8:12, etc.).

Don’t tell me the church isn’t important when the very last words of Scripture are uttered by her. She has the last word. The last words of holy write come out of her throat. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’”

Don’t tell me that the church isn’t important when she’s the wife of the Lamb. His partner for eternity.

Don’t tell me that the church isn’t important when she is at the very center of the mystery of the ages that Paul unveils in Colossians and Ephesians.

Brothers and sisters, the ekklesia is God’s eternal purpose. From before creation, He has wanted a bride, a house, a family, and a body (a visible expression). That was His original intention. From the beginning, He has wanted a corporate expression of Himself to reveal the beauty of His Son. He has desired to have a counterpart for Him. Why was Eve made? For Adam. To be his counterpart.

The church is not only important, it is the most important thing to God that exists. That’s His girl.

Look in the natural. Don’t tell me that we as the creatures of God Almighty aren’t built this way. When a man falls in love with a woman, there is nothing more important to him than that girl. That’s a picture of the passion of your Lord. He put that in you. He put it in you because that’s how He is. He is in love with you.

And you want to make Him visible. That’s His purpose. To come together. To live together. To share your lives together. You are that pearl. That great and costly pearl that the merchant gave everything for. His servants shall do the same, although we can’t give what he gave.”

A Plea for Change

In summary, you cannot separate the Lord Jesus Christ from the kingdom of God, and you cannot separate the church of Jesus Christ from the kingdom.

Let us, therefore, stop making these categorical separations that don’t exist in the mind and heart of God.

Jesus Christ is the embodiment of both the kingdom and the church. The church is just as predominant in the Gospels as it is in the Epistles.

And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

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  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    The focus of the NT is on Jesus Christ and God’s Eternal Purpose in Him. A big part of that is the ekklesia … as I point out in “From Eternity to Here.” http://www.FromEternitytoHere.org – but ekklesia as God sees it is not the same as “church” as commonly used today.

    Rather than the church being “focused on itself” … which I don’t see … most Christians don’t know what God’s eternal purpose is and how He views the ekklesia.

    You can’t separate kingdom from church, just as Body and Head can’t be separated. One leads to the other when properly understood.

    The problem today is that the Christian world is largely focused on “issues” instead of her Lord and His ultimate intention. “Jesus Manifesto” goes into this in detail.

    Thx. for your comment.

  • Terry

    Frank, can we say that the church’s focus would be better placed on the Kingdom, than on itself? As our eternal focus is on Christ, and He is the good news, and He Himself consistently announced the Kingdom in the proclamation of that good news, can we find our best attention expressed in the same directions? This seems to be what the church of the NT does, and what the one who is the object of our faith has done. The church’s attention today, perhaps, would be seen directed towards itself. You are right, the Kingdom or the Church isn’t an issue of importance over and against one another, but it seems there’s a difference in flow and attention. I’m not expressing this as eloquently as you might, but perhaps I am getting through?


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