Of all the terms available, which one did Jesus choose? Here is a list from John Nugent’s fine new book, Endangered Gospel:
Salvation, Fullness of time, End of ages, Redemption, New era, End of days, Restoration, New creation, Day of the Lord, Reconciliation, New age, Year of the Lord, Renewal, New life, Times of refreshing, Fulfillment, Eternal life, Kingdom of heaven
Jesus chooses “kingdom” and that makes a colossal difference.
A week in Northern Ireland speaking about kingdom led me to a number of folks — I can’t speak percentages so no exaggerations intended — who said they were both unfamiliar with “kingdom” and not entirely comfortable with “kingdom.” Why? Many of us — I count myself among them — were nurtured into the faith with other terms: grace, justification, salvation, eternal life and heaven. (Nugent mentions these terms.)
But why did Jesus choose kingdom? What did he mean by kingdom? Nugent is right “we need words that will do for us what the phrase kingdom of God did for the original hearers” (60). He’s also right with this:
To tell the whole story, an author must answer the five Ws (and one H): who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who was involved? What happened? When did it happen? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? How did it happen? (61).
As with most kingdoms, a kingdom “has both rulers and the ruled” (61). The King is God who rules through his Son. But, who are the ruled?
The ruled, then, are those who submit to God’s reign through Jesus. Kingdom people seek first God’s kingdom. We learn in the New Testament that God’s kingdom began with Israel. In fact, Jesus explicitly states that he was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 15-24)…. God did not intend for Israel to always have the exclusive right to be his kingdom people. To the surprise of many, he incorporates other ethnic groups into Israel in a way that changes the rules concerning those who are and are not God’s people…. The kingdom has a people. It has its own specific citizenry (Phil 3:20). It is a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). In our day, it has become fashionable to separate the people of God from the kingdom of God and to speak as if God’s kingdom work happens wherever God’s justice breaks forth in this world. In fact, some people even use the phrase “church centered” to discuss what happens among the local body of Christ and “kingdom centered” to describe whatever good is done outside of the body [and he points accurately here to Reggie McNeal’s unfortunate theory]. (62)
[Nugent’s response?] To speak this way is unbiblical. The local body of believers is God’s kingdom work. We don’t do that work; we are that work! God is building a kingdom, Jesus is the cornerstone, and his people are the building (1 Pet 2:4-9; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Cor 3:9-17). We are the people who submit to the king and seek first his kingdom. We are not a private, insular kingdom. The king wishes to expand the scope of his realm and to welcome as many people into it as possible (63).
2. What is God’s kingdom?
It is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, but did so in surprising ways. The ascension, Nugent argues, is when kingdom theology finally made sense to the disciples. Thus, the kingdom is the “reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation… the new world order … It is Israel’s God intervening in world history to make a better place in this world” (67).
3. Where is God’s kingdom?
On this earth — new creation maybe — but still on this earth. Here the classic Christian sense of going off to heaven messes the Bible’s narrative up.
4. When is God’s kingdom?
The standard answer is right: it is both now and it is also not yet. The emphasis given, however, matters. The delay between the two is for the sake of the mission to all nations.
5. Why was God’s kingdom needed?
Because humans made a mess of God’s world. So God chose Israel to prevent total destruction … and Israel did not always do what God wanted (read the OT!) … and God did not give up on God’s people or the better place vision. The kingdom is needed so the original purposes can be fulfilled.
6. How does God’s kingdom come?
It is a gift. It is God’s Son coming to earth to be what God needed. As a gift, the gift is a rejectable. The gift of the Spirit is also given to empower the disciples to accomplish God’s mission for the better place.
Hence, the crucifixion of Jesus: a sign the gift was thoroughly rejected by the powers.
But the Better Place is not our work; it is God’s work.
But our role is not to fix the world for God. Our role, by the power of God’s Spirit, is to bear faithful witness to God’s saving work on creations behalf (74).