AN ECHO IN THE WILDERNESS: LIVING THE STORY OF THE KINGDOM

In the wilderness of old a voice could be heard. This voice was different from all of the others of the day, yet had a hint of familiarity from the past. The voice captivated people in such a way that many came to hear the words that flowed so roughly from his lips. From a distance, an echo would have resounded as one approached the Jordan River. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1]John the Baptizer emerged to “prepare the way of the Lord,”[2] by announcing that a new way of life was at hand. A way of life that called the one with “two coats” to “share with anyone who has none.” This is the same way of life that reminds “whoever has food” to be willing to do the same.[3] A way that called soldiers and tax collectors to be fair in their dealings with people, as not to inflict oppression.[4] This new way would be the sign that a new society, a counter-system to the kingdoms of the world and sin, was unfolding in their midst. God’s kingdom was to reflect off of a renewed community of faithful followers of the Creator. They would live as a subversive alternative to the social-systems of the day. God was gathering a people that would demonstrate his love, grace, and justice; in the midst of a world that had been stained with sin.  

A Subversive Kingdom

The kingdom announcement, that taught a new way of being the people of God had come, was prepared by John the Baptizer; but fully enacted in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ message taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.[5]” Jesus and his followers assumed that this kingdom was the ruling activity of God, and that it had come to bear in the world of time and space.[6] Many modern Christians assume that the kingdom of God (heaven)[7] is a reference to a place outside of time to where Christians will one day go; this is clearly not what Jesus would have understood. The kingdom is not a location, namely heaven; but rather God’s own reigning activities.[8] It is through God’s reign in the life of his community of Christ-followers that his salvation will extend to the whole world.[9] Currently, “heaven is the control room for earth” because “the one who is in heaven is the one who is ruling on earth.”[10] Unless the kingdom is understood in the context of God’s redemptive plan for both humanity and the cosmos, it will become easy to deconstruct his divine activity into a future experience that does not affect our current way of life. The reign of God is subversive to the powers of this current age of evil,[11] bringing signs of his eventual new creation into the present.[12]Obedience to the gospel of Christ means that a new way of life must emerge from the cultural norms of our day. The prevailing values of civilization are plagued by the domination of sin and therefore lack propriety in organizing society. The structures of this age are vulnerable to injustice, and so the Kingdom of God seeks to set things in the right. This begins in the life of his community. Scot McKnight states: “The kingdom of God, in short compass, is the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life.”[13]

Unfortunately the will of the Lord has not always been manifested in the institutional church, so the kingdom must not be considered its synonym. The church is the tool through which God’s kingdom values should be demonstrated, but it is also possible that a church could fail in this endeavor as demonstrated throughout history. [14] Also, it must be clear that even when God’s rule is alive within a church, the kingdom still extends beyond its activity.[15] God’s kingdom is concerned with the whole universe, not merely humanity. The church is to be the image bearers of God’s reign for the sake of the cosmos.[16]In order to understand the kingdom of God more thoroughly, it is necessary to explore the main features of the Subversive model. A Subversive Kingdom (counter-system) is one that prophetically calls the church to live the values of the gospel, in order to bring signs of God’s justice into the present order. This is a call to live out Christ’s injunction to seek first the kingdom by valuing justice for all people.[17]

Many within the emerging church movement would resonate with such a prophetic call and believe that the church at-large has often failed to live out kingdom ideals.[18] The kingdom as a counter-system sees the poor and oppressed as victims of systemic evil and in need of the love of God through his community, even if this means that it comes outside of the institutional church.[19] Truly loving one’s neighbor is to have a general love for all of humanity, and to express this love through action.[20]Second, a Subversive Kingdom is one that is centered on the ethic of Christ. Jesus is the manifestation of God’s reign and therefore the church must commit herself to the call of discipleship. To follow Jesus is to commit to a radical existence of being a follower, no matter what the cost. During the Reformation period, the Anabaptists demonstrated this kind of life. In his book on the Sermon on the Mount, A Gospel for a New People, Herb Kopp makes the following observation:

The Anabaptists lived by the simple edict that if the words of Jesus in the Scriptures called for obedience, then the followers of Jesus ought to heed and obey. For them “the great word was not ‘faith,’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following.’”[21]

Third, the church is called to be a counter-community to corrupt society.[22] The life of the people of God should be dynamically different than cultural norms. Allowing the reign of God to dictate the values of his people will mean that they come in direct opposition to the dominant practices of the day.[23] The Sermon on the Mount gives us insight on what Jesus demands, as noted by Kopp:

A key verse in understanding the Sermon is 6:8, Do not be like them. The disciples are not to take their lead from the nations of the world nor the society in which they live, but from Jesus himself.[24]

The early church is a shining example of this. The church of the first two centuries seems to have understood God’s reign as a counter-system,[25] to the Roman world of emperor worship.[26] Paul’s announcement that Jesus is Lord was a direct confrontation to the dominant worldview of the first century. N.T. Wright sums up Paul’s subversive kingdom declaration: “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, and at his name, not that of the Emperor, every knee shall bow.”[27] Jesus’ reign is victorious over the powers of this age, and thus his counter-community exists as a proclamation of Christ’s lordship over all.[28] Such a declaration is at the very center of being a contrast-society, one that stands out in a pagan culture, which exists to be salt and light for the transformation of the world. Therefore, it should be noted that a counter-community must not exist in seclusion. A community living in pure isolation from culture has failed to effectively manifest God’s reign.[29]Finally, the Subversive Model understands the kingdom as one that seeks peace and justice. At the root of this understanding may be the concept of Shalom found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, which pointed forward to a day when God would bring peace and justice to the world.[30]

The New Testament compliment to this concept would be the new heavens and new earth spoken of most directly in Revelation 21 and 22. When Christ returns he will renew the cosmos and liberate it from all sin that currently binds it because of the curse of Eden. There will not be any sadness, pain, sickness, or death; no needy persons; no ecological dysfunctions; and no national conflicts.[31] This is because, as verse 22:3 states, there will be no “curse.” God will lift the curse that has plagued the cosmos from the time when sin entered the world. True shalom will have come, with this full realization of the kingdom of God on the earth. If that is the future of how God will exercise his divine will, then this consummation must have implications for our lives in Christian community in the present. The vocation of the people of God is to bring signs of the future kingdom into visible and tangible expression today.[32]

Critical Assessment of a Counter-System

The Subversive Kingdom model has the ability to hold the future in tension with the present. The reign of God is revealed today, in order to point towards the hope of tomorrow. Within the counter-system, the world that God is recreating in Christ is visible and tangible when his people live as an eschatological community.[33] This brings the presence of the end-times into today’s reality, pointing towards when the final act of restoration will be consummated.[34]

The polarity that exists between what has happened through the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God in the first century, and the hope of that resurrection coming to bear in the lives of redeemed humanity and the whole of the cosmos, is often referred to as inaugurated eschatology.[35] The Subversive Model affirms that God’s kingdom is both present and future.[36] In this way, the model avoids the temptation of the Future Hope Model to have a pessimistic view of the current order, which potentially could lead to a lack of concern for it. Many who see the kingdom as only a future reality will ignore social issues such as helping the poor, seeing such as non-essential. Rather than recognizing social action as opportunity to manifest signs of the reign of God, many with this perspective are more interested in looking for signs of the times.[37] The counter-system kingdom is one that is committed to God’s reign being for today in light of tomorrow.[38]

Bearing Signs for Today, Giving Hope for Tomorrow

The voice in the wilderness that once proclaimed that the kingdom had come must echo in the church if she is to fulfill her eschatological purpose. God has set apart a people to be a contrast-society that declares through action that his reign is now, and will also be then. In this way the people of God can truly be missional.

Throughout history, the church has often failed in its missional vocation. At times, even those who held to the Subversive Model have became such separatists, that they failed to take advantage of opportunities to help shape and define the culture around them. Instead of truly being a prophetic voice of justice, many have been content to be a distant whisper. They have lived as merely signs for themselves, rather than for the good of humanity and the world. How can anyone live in contrast to a culture that they know nothing about? Should not a contrast-community strive to influence the values of popular culture, and its understanding of the way of Jesus? It seems that the Subversive Model has a unique opportunity to give a desperate and fallen human race an opportunity to find hope in the present. In doing so, the people of God will be participating in the redemptive story, in which the Creator longs to reconcile the earth and humanity to himself; and they to each other. If the voice from wilderness of old does not echo in the church of today, then the world will not know the restorative love and justice of the reign of God. May the people of God today prepare the way for the Messiah to come, as the voice in the wilderness once did. May the church be the echoing voice that continues to resound, “…the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[39]

Footnotes:
[1] Matthew 3:2, NRSV
[2] Matthew 3:3b, NRSV.
[3] Luke 3:11, NRSV.
[4] See Luke 3:12-14.
[5] Matthew 6:10, NRSV
[6]N.T. Wright, “Whatever Did St Paul do with the Kingdom of God?” June 16, 2007, http://www.ntwrightpage.com (accessed November 1, 2007). MP3 format available only.
[7] Please note that in the minds of Jewish listeners in the first century, it is almost certain that kingdom of heaven was merely a reverent way to refer to the kingdom of God. This is confirmed in multiple sources.
[8]Kraybill, Donald B., The Upside-Down Kingdom, rev. ed. (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990), 20.
[9]Wright, Whatever Did St Paul do with the Kingdom of God?,” http://www.ntwrightpage.com.
[10]Wright, Whatever Did St Paul do with the Kingdom of God?,” http://www.ntwrightpage.com.
[11]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 77.
[12]Ibid., 79.
[13]Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, Living Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 9.
[14]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 77.
[15]Anderson, Ray S., An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 109.
[16]N.T. Wright, “Wycliffe College Refresh! 2006: Ministry in the Power of the Holy Spirit; Creation Renewed,” http://www.wycliffecollege.ca. mp3 format only.
[17]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 77.
[18]Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” February, 2007, Christianity Today Magazine, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html (accessed November 3, 2007). See the section titled, “Prophetic.”.
[19]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 77.
[20]Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith, trans. John P. Galvin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 110.
[21]Herb Kopp, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Luminaire Studies (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Kindred Productions, 2003), 8.
[22]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 78.
[23]Kopp, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 8.
[24]Ibid., 4.
[25]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 79.
[26]Horsley, Richard A., Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World of Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 22-23. Much could be said on this subject of emperor worship.
[27]N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul,” 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: August 25-28, 2007, N.T. Wright Page, http://www.ntwrightpage.com (accessed October, 2007). see pages 4-5.
[28]Bernhard Ott, God’s Shalom Project: An Engaging Look at the Bible’s Sweeping Story, trans. Timothy J. Geddert (Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2004), 112-113.
[29]Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith, 66.
[30]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 78.
[31] See specifically; Revelation 21:4, 6b; 22:1-3a.
[32]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 79.
[33]Ibid., 82-83.
[34]Walter Klaassen, “Pacificism, Nonviolence, and the Peaceful Reign of God,” in Creation and the Environment: An Anabaptist Perspective on a Sustainable World, ed. Calvin Redekop (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000). This is a good resource that demonstrates an Anabaptist perspective on the Christian’s ethic towards creation. It deals directly with understanding the cosmos being renewed as the ultimate purpose of the Kingdom.
[35]N.T. Wright, “European Leaders Conference, 2004,” http://www.ntwrightpage.com (accessed January, 2007). Lecture available as MP3 download.
[36]Synder, Howard A., Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective, 84.
[37]Ibid., 38.
[38]Ibid., 79.
[39] Matthew 3:2, NRSV

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