If you do not know what you are fighting for, you are bound to make mistakes.
In the last post, I talked about the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven, as the terms are interchangeable in the Bible). The term gets thrown around a lot. We Christian folk are always talking about “kingdom work,” “advancing the kingdom,” being “kingdom focused,” and the list goes on and on. Perhaps we see that it is important, or perhaps we think the word sounds cool. Whatever the case, we describe a lot of things as kingdom work without ever really defining our term. And in doing this, we have created some interesting definitions of the kingdom that are nowhere to be found in the Bible.
At the risk of offending sensibilities, I think it is perhaps best to consider first what the kingdom is not.
The kingdom of heaven is not:
Heaven - Now this may sound odd, but let me explain. By simply looking at the title “kingdom of heaven,” it seems that it is nothing more than heaven. However, Jesus gives us a very different definition for the kingdom than the modern understanding of heaven. For starters, defining it this way gives one the idea that it is some thing that will take place in the future, that the kingdom is something down the road. Yet, Jesus is clear, that the kingdom has already come. In some sense, the kingdom is already here.
I am convinced our modern picture of heaven has been influenced more by Tom and Jerry than the Bible. We imagine some place high above us in the clouds where people’s spirits sit around playing harps. It is happy there, and everyone does nothing but sit and relax. More importantly, we think that is the big finish. This fluffy cloudland is the big goal. Our trophy is a harp and a halo, and every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.
But that is nothing more than a cartoon.
People may call me to task on my eschatology here, but I am not convinced that this spiritual realm we call heaven is anything more than a temporary pit stop on the way to a completely new earth. In other words, when a believer dies, they do not go to the place they will spend eternity. Instead, they go to a spiritual heaven where they await Christ’s physical return to earth and their new body.
Whether you agree with me on that point or not, the Bible is clear that our eternity is not spent as spirits. We will have new, physical bodies, and it sounds like it will be on a new physical earth.
Nevertheless, this incorrect understanding of the kingdom causes us to think of it as something that has not happened yet, and that is incorrect.
America - Now, I may make someone mad with this one, but the United States is not the kingdom of God. Please do not hear this as an unpatriotic rant. I love this country, and I thank God for his blessings and provision for it. I am thankful that, of all the countries in the world, God saw fit to bring me into the world on this soil. But hear me well, this is not the kingdom of God, nor was it ever meant to be. If we think that the building of this “Christian nation” is the task of advancing the kingdom, then we think of the kingdom as a past reality. With this incorrect view, the kingdom is fully realized. There is nothing left to come.
Somewhere along the way, I am afraid many Americans confused the kingdom of God with a nation that God had blessed. God is in the habit of rising up nations for a season, and then bringing them low for a season, in order to make his name known. He did it with Israel. He did it with Israel’s enemies like Babylon and the Medo-Persians. God said he caused them to win those battles, and he did so not because he thought those nations were swell. He works in history for one ultimate reason, the reputation of his name.
Unfortunately, if we tie our allegiance closer to the nation than to God’s kingdom, we will be more concerned about the state of the nation than the state of the kingdom. This is why so many supposed Christians in America fight harder to make sure they are not losing control of culture and the government than to see God’s name known among the nations. If it brings glory to God’s name to raise America up, he will do so. If it brings glory to God’s name to bring America low, he will do so. If you are a Christian, you should be okay with that.
Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is certainly more than some nation under God. There is a far bigger battle to be fighting.
The church - The kingdom of God is not equal to the church. Admittedly, this is the hardest one to grasp. It sounds right, and the language many good, Bible-preaching churches use to discuss the kingdom makes it seem like “advancing the kingdom” is soul-winning and adding people to the church.
Nevertheless, this view is not exactly right. For sure, the church is part of the kingdom of God. However, it is not exclusively the kingdom. If it is preached as such, then our task is simple addition. We do whatever we can to get people to participate in the church. This boils down to the numbers game. With this incorrect view, if a church is having a bunch of decisions or sends a mission trip overseas where 250 villagers raise their hand to accept the free gift, then it is really doing a good job.
At best, this misunderstanding causes churches to neglect the other important tasks of the kingdom, like justice and mercy. At worst, it creates approaches to evangelism that are nothing more that manipulative cattle calls.
So, the question remains, what is the kingdom of God? As you were reading, you may have noted an apparent contradiction. I stated that seeing some spiritual heaven as the kingdom means the kingdom has not come, and that this is wrong. Yet, I also said that equating America with the kingdom was incorrect because it makes the kingdom a completed event. Yes, there is a tension there, and this is what Jesus makes clear in Matthew.
Now that we have deflated a few common misconceptions about the kingdom, the next post will attempt a description of what the kingdom is.