Letter about “Kingdom” in One.Life

A pastor sent me this note about One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow and I asked for his permission to post his letter and respond to it here. One.Life makes a case that diverges somewhat from some standard understandings of “kingdom.” He asked about it. Here’s his letter and my response is after the jump. I consider this view of the kingdom to be both the historic view and, at the same time, a view we need to recapture.

Hi Scot,

I  received a copy of your book, “One.Life”. This book was a wonderful gift for me. I read the entire book last week. It was so well written and refreshing in many ways. I love the way you included some of your own story in this, especially at the very beginning. Your love for your students and your ministry at NPU came through in a beautiful way. Great job! I simply want to encourage you to know your work is appreciated by your readers! I read the whole book last week and got home and ordered 10 copies so I could give one to each person on our church staff.

I do have one question that I want to ask if you could either share a few thoughts on yourself or maybe point me to some readings to help me: In your book you obviously focus on the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God in a central way. Your premise is that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he meant, and his first listeners would understand this, that the kingdom was more of a global and social vision of God’s dream for the world unfolding – and that this would happen through communities of faith – through the church.

This is a different interpretation than say understanding the kingdom of God as primarily an individual’s person experience with Jesus or their personal spirituality.

So my question is: How is it that you come to this interpretation of The Kingdom of God?  When you say….. the Kingdom of God is … “God’s dream for the world come true” (Page #28) or “Kingdom is not about an experience with God but about a society of God.” (page #29) or “By Kingdom Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth, spreading out from the land of Israel to encompass the whole world.” – I understand this and it rings true, but I’m asking you if you could help me know a bit more about why you believe this is what the bible is teaching? Expand a bit on your section “THE DREAM: SOCIETY OR PERSONAL SPIRITUALITY” (Page #31-32) How do you come to this interpretation as it is indeed different from the way many have understood and taught about The kingdom of God?

Any thoughts or resources on this question would be appreciated and again – love the book!

Sincerely,

This is a good question and I hope many are challenged to go back to the Bible to rethink how we use “kingdom.”

First, I want to offer a few elements of the view I’m essentially responding to. For some the “kingdom” is the social stuff, the be-good-to-others stuff, the justice stuff while “salvation” is the spiritual and conversion stuff. Another way I hear folks talk about this is this: kingdom is social stuff, it is universal stuff, it is the stuff we do to make the world a better place — in this sense, kingdom is much bigger than the church.

Second, I spent a long long while on this blog examining kingdom texts in the NT and I would refer readers to those posts, boring as they might be to comb through to watch the themes emerge. I went through every NT text about kingdom in that series.

Third, evangelicals often do say exactly what you have said: many of us see “kingdom” as the “personal experience of God’s reign.” In other words, we find in the term “kingdom” our evangelical theology of the need for personal conversion.  For such folks, kingdom is little different than the personal experience of salvation. This comes at the term from a modern evangelical angle and almost completely misses the Jewish context. This view of kingdom is hurting the church as much as it is helping because it feeds our individualism.

Fourth, while I can see some conversional dimensions to kingdom in the NT in the “enter the kingdom” sayings, we simply must begin where Jews would have begun: in the Jewish world, the very first connection with the word “kingdom” is “David.” God established the kingdom of David, God cut in half the kingdom of David, God disciplined the kingdom of Israel/Judah, and God promised someday the kingdom of our father David would be restored. When Jesus said, “the kingdom is at hand” in Mark 1:15, the ordinary Jew didn’t say “Wow, I can now get saved” but “Finally, our promises for the Davidic kingdom will be realized.” We must begin here or we get it all wrong.

Fifth, this means that a Jew (and Jesus) would have meant God’s true Society when they said kingdom. Let’s expand this briefly: to say “kingdom” in the 1st Century implies a King (Jesus is that King), a citizenship (Jesus’ followers are those citizens), and a Torah (Jesus’ teachings are the new Torah). One can’t say Kingdom and not think of these things in the Jewish world. Kingdom means God’s messianic society.

Sixth, here’s our problem: we have made “kingdom” so much about personal salvation that we evangelicals have colonized it. Frankly Protestant liberals have colonized it in another way: they’ve made it the Western social liberal democratic agenda. I have no reason to dispute that kingdom has a powerful socially-influential design, but we have made it too much about our personal agendas. We need to go back to see what Jesus meant by kingdom.

Seventh, I have made the suggestion before and I’ll make it again. There is good reason to think that Jesus used “kingdom” for God’s promised society of justice, peace, wisdom and love. I doubt many would dispute this. But I am suggesting that what Jesus called “kingdom” is more or less, sometimes more and sometimes less, than what Paul meant by “church.” I’m fully aware of the Constantinian disaster, of making kingdom/empire the same as church, and in the process wounding church dramatically. But I want to ask us to reconsider a closer connection of kingdom with church, not by equating the two but by seeing kingdom as God’s ideal society where God’s people do God’s will, and seeing church as the (yes) political term Paul chose to describe the embodiment of Jesus’ kingdom vision as he planted such kingdom bodies throughout the Roman empire. One could say the kingdom is the eschatological fullness of what we experience now in the church.

I am then making the suggestion that kingdom is about Jesus, it is about Jesus’ people, and it is about Jesus’ people living Jesus’ teachings. The place where that design is supposed to happen is the local church.

Here’s the problem: church has become so much about religion and personal spirituality that we’ve nearly surrendered the socio-political impact the church is supposed to be as kingdom embodied in this world. I’m asking that we expand our perception of church to kingdom dimensions.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    “I spent a long long while on this blog examining kingdom texts in the NT and I would refer readers to those posts, boring as they might be to comb through to watch the themes emerge. I went through every NT text about kingdom in that series.”

    Here is that excellent series:

    http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2008/04/06/keys-of-the-kingdom-all-in-one-post/

    Scot-

    I appreciate the Kingdom emphasis, but for some reason I feel uncomfortable with the idea of us doing “Kingdom building”. That seems like something God alone does through us simply living out our lives. It is not something that we should specifically have on our “to do” list.

  • Scot McKnight

    Rick,

    I’m not sure if I have used that expression, but since “kingdom” has connotations of a building and a palace and a king and a land, etc, the term “building” is a natural verb that evokes the kingdom being built and growing… and advancing… I’m not sure many think they are “building” the kingdom without God being the power at work.

  • Rick

    Scot-

    Thanks. I am sure you are right, and no, you did not use the term. It is something I thought of, perhaps inserting too much personal concern about the contemporary geo-political issue of “nation building”.

    And I think I am also having difficulty separating the errors of the extreme right and extreme left in regards to “Kingdom” as well.

  • http://www.crackedvirtue.com Brian M

    A Kingdom “not of this world” is what I have long thought this was about – for about 10 years now. My Bible College teaching/training didn’t get me there but pastoring, reading, praying, acknowledging the inner tension of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” all in the hands of God – did.

    I think we are building the Kingdom but not by force. We’re building by surrender.

    I can’t wait to get this book. Taking a long time to show up at our local bookstore, may resort to Amazon.

  • http://www.jeffgreathouse.blogspot.com Jeff Greathouse

    I will be dwelling on your last paragraph today, thanks: church has become so much about religion and personal spirituality that we’ve nearly surrendered the socio-political impact the church is supposed to be as kingdom embodied in this world

  • Justin B.

    I don’t know if this will help the person who wrote the letter, but I found N.T. Wright’s book “Jesus and the Victory of God” very helpful on this subject. It’s lengthy but worth the read.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    Scot, your last several sentences sum it up very well, beginning with your “Seventh” paragraph. The eschatological dimension is really helpful to explain the difference b/n the current Church and the kingdom dream, but also show the deep connection b/n the two.

    Like Rick, I wonder about the verbs that the NT uses in reference to “kingdom” compared to our typical verbs. I wonder if the difference points toward flaws in our current understanding of kingdom or about how it works. Evangelicals have tended to love “advancing” the kingdom, tho the one passage that describes the kingdom as “advancing” is problematic. “Enter” and “receive” tend to be the verbs I recall being used most often in the NT. We hear that the Father is pleased to “give” Jesus’ little flock the kingdom; others “inherit” the kingdom (from the final “death” of the present evil age?) or have an inheritance in the kingdom; we have been “transferred” from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved son; we need to be born of the Spirit to even “see” the kingdom, and receive it like little children if we’re going to enter it. The scribes had the keys to the kingdom, but refused to go in themselves and prevented others from entering (It will be “taken” from them and “given” to others). Tax collectors and the like were “entering” the kingdom ahead of the religious leaders. And, if Jesus casts out demons by the Spirit, then the kingdom has “come upon/among” people.

    I just wonder what difference in our (evangelical) understanding, if any, leads us to talk more about (us) “advancing” the kingdom more than it being “given” by the Father or “received” or “entered” by people.

  • DJ

    It was your writings on the Kingdom a couple years back that got me hooked on knowing your perspective. I have not read One.Life, yet, but I do look forward to it.

    The thing I struggle with here is the following, “I am suggesting that what Jesus called “kingdom” is more or less, sometimes more and sometimes less, than what Paul meant by “church.” I’m fully aware of the Constantinian disaster, of making kingdom/empire the same as church, and in the process wounding church dramatically.”

    If the Kingdom of God is in fact a “thing” which is visible as you describe (people, people doing), but it is not “the Constantinian disaster” or as I would suspect you believe not the Catholic Church (at least not in the way Vatican I or II declare it) or another similar “institution,” then where is it? If you are permitted to say what it is not (as in “the Constantinian disaster”), then can you say what it is or where it is?

    I believe an invisible Kingdom, one in fact defined by individual experience and perspective, is the one theological item which MUST be true and shared by all those who deny Roman Catholicism. Otherwise, how can separation from that church be affirmed. No one can convince me that as screwed up as the Church was at various points, that it was wholly screwed up. Unless it was completely absent of “Jesus’ people, and … Jesus’ people living Jesus’ teachings,” then it was still the closest thing to the Kingdom available. Leaving it would then be wrong.

    The theology of an individually experienced and invisible Kingdom is the one theological must of all those who purposely separate from the RCC or once educated in what the RCC is, choose to remain separated.

    I’m not saying I know for sure this is true, but I do see a theological “logic” here. If you believe that protestantism and separation from Rome is acceptable and affirmed by the Holy Spirit, then you have to believe the primary expression of The Kingdom (now) is that it is invisible and individually experienced.

    If you believe, The Kingdom (now) is a visible and “true society” of “Jesus’ people, and … Jesus’ people living Jesus’ teachings,” then where is it and why is it not the RCC? It can’t simply be “the local church” as you claim. If so, which one or ones? Are some not it? How do I know? And if it’s left for me to decide based on some evidence or factors you might lay out in your book, then isn’t it once again something individually experienced and so declared?

    I hope I’m making sense here.

    DJ|AMDG

  • michael

    Scot,

    good post. I haven’t read One.Life yet but as I read this post I had to think of Dallas Willard’s writings. Would it be fair to say that what you are trying to say fit’s with Dallas’ take that the “personal” part is the invitation to participate in God’s kingdom where “what happens up there is being brought down here”?

    thanks.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    DJ,

    I think the eschatological dimension of kingdom (and church) is important to your question. The dream of God’s society is here, underway, bearing fruit of God’s Spirit, but it is not all here yet. Like the Spirit is a deposit, a guarantee of what’s to come (and also the means of experiencing some measure of God’s dream here and now), so to with the body that is moved and inhabited by that Spirit.

    That said, I don’t think we have to say that God’s dream is either invisible OR the RCC (alone). Part of the ‘not yet’ of God’s dream is their unity, both within and outside of the RCC.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Scot (and others) a question. Scot says “But I am suggesting that what Jesus called “kingdom” is more or less, sometimes more and sometimes less, than what Paul meant by “church.” I’m fully aware of the Constantinian disaster, of making kingdom/empire the same as church, and in the process wounding church dramatically. But I want to ask us to reconsider a closer connection of kingdom with church”

    When I search the bible for the word *church* the first occurances are in Matthew. I did not realize this. Is the word *church* a creation of the new testament? What is the history of the use of the word?

  • DJ

    Freeman,

    Are you then saying that “God’s dream” includes innumerable church divorces and schisms? I think you would have to if you “don’t think we have to say that God’s dream is either invisible OR the RCC (alone).” That’s the Catch-22 I see here. If the “now” of the Kingdom is anything more “visible” than the “invisible” declared by most of evangelicalism…then which “more than invisible” expressions are valid expressions…and who and by what authority gets to declare they are valid expressions.

    Here’s the only way I think this proposal works – the RCC is an apostate church. If it’s not, then this proposal falls apart. If it is, then you can choose not to include it in your “neither visible nor invisible” present eschatological dimension you support.

    I do not believe it is an apostate church. I believe it is quite the opposite. In that case, either I have to affirm the theology of the “now” invisible Kingdom and deny the RCC theology where they are the “fullest expression” of the Kingdom, or I have to affirm that the “now” Kingdom is very much “visible” as I believe Scot is claiming, and I then must wrestle with the RCC self declaration.

    I don’t mean to beat on this, but it is precisely why I try to avoid this talk entirely. I’m not yet willing to take a stand.

    DJ|AMDG

  • http://n/a D. Foster

    DRT,

    The original word for “Church” used in the Gospels is “ekklesia.” It was used in the wider Greco-Roman world for an official gathering or assembly of people for a purpose. A city council could meet for an ekklesia just as the Jews could meet in a synagogue for an ekklesia. Here’s a link to a lexicon:

    http://www.searchgodsword.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=1577

    ~Derek

  • http://n/a D. Foster

    All,

    N.T. Wright, who I believe is a friend of Scot’s, did an excellent audio series in relation to this topic that you can listen to online here:

    http://www.ntwrightpage.com/

    Scroll down to the “Wright Audio/Video” section and listen to “Jesus and the Kingdom,” “Jesus and the Cross,” “Jesus and God,” and “Jesus and the World’s True Light.”

    ~Derek

  • John W Frye

    Julie and I are reading *One.Life* and I want to affirm that this very readable, stimulating book for the American evangelical church is backed by serious biblical and theological underpinnings. Anyone who knows Scot McKnight knows this to be true. I believe Scot in this book is de-Americanizing popular evangelical Christianity and re-kingdomizing it, re-Jesusing it (if I may be so bold to coin those terms). Look at the current young generation gagging on “church,” but fascinated with Jesus. Why? Church has become more about George Bush and right-wing politics and “nice” families and preserving a comfortable way of life. There is nothing to die for in it. Because Scot is a Jesus scholar with a New Testament-saturated heart, he dares to put the energizing dynamic of *Gospel-life-and-death* stuff back into play. I can hear Scot’s passion reverberating in the words on the page. Scot, you are a scholar-PASTOR. Go ahead and accept it!

  • http://stevewilburn.wordpress.com/ Steve W

    DJ, I think the problem is with viewing the disputes of men as correlating with God’s classification of Kingdom. Here’s what I mean. Yes, during the Reformation the RCC and reformers split, and since then protestants have split numerous other times into various denominations. However, a visible view of the Kingdom doesn’t mean that God is forced to take sides in those instances. Nor does it mean that every theological understanding coming out of any of these traditions must be a faithful expression of God’s Kingdom (as in the declaration of the RCC as the fullest expression of the Kingdom).

    Yes the Kingdom is visible (in that it has tangible form in the here and now) but that doesn’t mean it is easy to define. It is certainly not defined by our institutional structures or doctrinal statements. I’m sure everyone would acknowledge that membership in even the best church does not a Christian make. And so it is with the Kingdom that the “Church” (the collection of individuals faithfully following Jesus from all traditions and parts of the globe) is often more amorphous than most of us would like. But that doesn’t make it any less visible or tangible.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    One.Life is indeed a great book.

    As to Kingdom, I like Christopher Wright’s covenantal triangle. He draws a triangle. At the apex is God, the lower left corner is the Israelites and the lower right is the land of Israel. This triangle is inside a larger triangle but they touch at the apex, God. At the lower left of the larger triangle is humanity and the lower right is the whole earth. Wright says that God’s mission is to expand the smaller triangle until it and the larger triangle are one in the same. God, people, land, and a covenant = Kingdom.

    Eden is God, humanity, and the garden. Abraham as God’s servant is promised to become a great nation in a specific land. The return from exile in Egypt is the realization of that promise. Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Luke 4 with announcement of jubilee, resetting the relationships between God, humanity, and the land. Jesus tells us to pray for his “Kingdom” to come. And finally passages like:

    Rev 5:9-10

    “You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
    for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
    10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
    and they will reign on earth.

    The ungodly will be gone. Over what will we be reigning? We are back to Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 where humanity reigns over creation (or in this case new creation) as God’s vice-regents. God, people, land, and covenant.

    However, I somewhat challenge the idea of connecting the Kingdom to closely with the Church. There are passages like:

    1 Cor 15:25

    “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

    Christ reigns over all the earth right now. All the land/earth is his. The covenant exists. The problem is those who will not bow to the King and observe the covenant. God is at work bringing his rebellious subjects back into the fold through self-emptying love, his most visible work being done through the church. But God is at work sustaining his Kingdom even where there is rebellion and I think he is working in the hearts and minds of people who don’t yet know who he is, drawing people toward him.

    How can the church be “the Kingdom” when we don’t occupy any particular piece of land? The whole earth is God’s Kingdom. Identifying the Kingdom of God to closely with the church runs the risk of saying that what is outside the church is not under God’s reign, part of his Kingdom.

  • Deyo

    Scot,

    I too am reading One.Life and thoroughly enjoying it!

    How’s this for the connection between Kingdom and Church? Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom–the realization and vision of God’s reign, which results in the dream society–and the church is now the manifestation of the Kingdom values in the world.

    Something else that’s been bugging me. Why the DOT in one.life? Probably something that’s obvious to everyone else.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    John Frye … you should check out the Frost & Hirsch book called ReJesus! 8)

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Scot … el al,

    Have you read Robert Banks’ book, Paul’s Idea of Community?

    http://www.amazon.com/Pauls-Idea-Community-Churches-Cultural/dp/0801045541/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297875817&sr=1-1

    …he does some amazing work at getting to the nuances of the church — as household/local gathering, as heavenly reality, as loving family, and as functional body. And much more.

    Just wondering….

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I sympathise with Rick and Scot on the first few comments. In prayer I struggle to come up with verbs that avoid the connotation that we are building something and with the notion that the kingdom is some visible thing in a particular place.

    Regarding DG’s comment on the RCC. I have been blessed that there seems, at least in some places, to be a renewed emphasis on the importance of unity in the church. I first encountered this in “Mappiing Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options” by Robert C. Greer (IVP, 2003). I do believe that the division of the church is a serious matter that restrains our presentation of the gospel and the holy spirit. I pray that a spirit of unity may prevail over the spirit of division and precision.

    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

  • http://mikalatos.blogspot.com Matt Mikalatos

    Scot,

    This is great. I think that as an American I’ve always had a hard time understanding the idea of ‘kingdom’ even in a secular sense. After spending some time in Thailand, I was amazed to see the respect and deference given to the King. His picture is on posters and in taxi cabs. You stand and watch a video about him before movies. They play a song in his honor on airplanes before they take off. To deface the King’s image is an act of treason, with serious penalties.

    The definition of kingdom as “any place where the king’s will is done” is a great one. In fact, in Thailand if there’s a coup to overthrow the government, the rebels go and get the King’s permission first (monarchy and government are somewhat separated there).

    I love the way you explain it here. I think most anyone living in a thriving monarchy would be likely to see this as a natural definition rather than the more individualistic definition.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Matt

  • Jeff Q

    All I know is that One.Life has motivated ME to do whatever I can to help create the Kingdom. It broke me out of my “personal acts of piety” which previously described my view of the Kingdom and into a mindset of seeking out and attempting to do what Jesus taught, rather than what the American church has turned it into.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    DJ (12),

    I’m not saying that God’s dream, Jesus’ kingdom vision, includes/intends the various schisms, nor do I think it includes various declarations by popes and pastors, various dogmas, or various acts of abuse by priests, pastors and parents.

    Church disunity is only one bit of evidence that Jesus’ kingdom dream society is still at least significantly in the future. Even before the Reformation, though, or even before the split of Rome and the Eastern church, there were plenty of other sins by those in the Church that showed that Jesus kingdom dream was only partially fulfilled in this age, and there were also, thankfully, many proofs that the kingdom dream was also a present reality in our world in real people, communities and dealings.

    So, to me, the Catholic claim is small potatoes compared to the already/not yet reality of the kingdom in all kinds of ways (not just forms and degrees of unity). Unity is not the only evidence that the kingdom is not yet fully here. Even the unity within the Catholic church is not as deep as God’s dream, but it is not for that reason therefore completely devoid of visible kingdom reality and blessing.

  • Mark E

    Scot:
    I have not read the book yet, but appreciate the post. What I have observed in your discussions on kingdom and is summarized in the last sentence in the second to the last paragraph is your emphasis on the local church. That has never sat well with me, probably because of what you summarize in your last paragraph.

    What I hear is that the kingdom was supposed to happen in the local church, but really hasn’t all that well. Yet the kingdom has been advancing. What are we supposed to make of that? It seems to reinforce my inclination to think in terms of the “invisible” church, or the collection of people here and there that are out there doing the work of the kingdom. Yet you seem to insist that it is happening or should happen in the local church. Is it misguided to think of church, partly or wholly, as those more natural gatherings of people doing kingdom work?

  • scotmcknight

    Yes I agree with Willard.

  • JJ

    Scot,

    Thanks for this post and thanks to everyone who posted on this thread, very helpful and insightful comments.

    It is interesting to review the many different interpretations of “The Kingdom of God”. I just got a letter from someone who said the Kingdom Jesus talked about is all about heaven and the final reign of Jesus after his 2nd coming. Wow – very different from “One.Life”. It does seem to me that given the focus Jesus had on this term understanding it well is crucial to understanding Jesus and his overall message for both individuals and the larger world.

    Grace and Peace

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com dan jr.

    Hey Scot,
    I must tell you how One.Life is being used out here in Syracuse, NY. 6 families and I have moved from around the country to settle down, incarnate in the city and start a church together. We have been in a launch/training phase for the last 9 months, deconstructing our theology and Christian story. I’ve been slaving away writing my own curriculum and then all of the sudden your book came out. It has become a go-to source for my team in finding; accessible language in explaining what God is up to in this world and how we participate in it. Really, it has helped tremendously. People still look at us sideways when we talk about the “Kingdom of God” and our partnership in it.

    It has been an encouragement in my own personal journey as well. As a pastor I’ve been unpacking my theology and reconstructing it for the last 12 years. I’ve struggled with questions from other pastors like “are you Emergent or are you Reformed?” I never felt comfortable on the side of either pendulum. When I read your book it ushered in affirmation that I’d been desiring emotionally in this desert of Fundamentalism I’m surrounded by. I had often thought in my reading of Scripture “Am I crazy to be coming to this conclusion?” But after reading your book I realize now I’m not such a nut. Thanks and press on.


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