Today in this continuing series to define what is missional, we tackle the Kingdom of God. If you haven’t been following along, I’ve previously summarized the series, and you can catch up there; some of the entries require an understanding of prior material, though this one largely does not.
So I danced around this one a little, perhaps assuming it was part of the lexicon where it was not… and in some ways, I wish now that I’d begun with it. But here we are. We’re mostly just going to talk about the Kingdom, and I’ll “missionalize” it at the end. Now that I’m typing, I recall my note-taking days in college, when “Kingdom of God” was always simply “Kθ” — and it still is, if I’ve got a literal pen in hand. “K” for Kingdom (obviously) and the Greek letter theta as the first letter in Theos, God. Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is generally accepted that the terms are synonymous and I will use “Kingdom of God” to refer to both. The Kingdom is not some place where a passphrase uttered to Saint Peter will get him to use his keys to open the gate and let you in. But we already knew that, right? (While we’re on the subject of keys, I’d like to point out that Jesus kept and still holds the keys to death and hell, so we ought to stop trying to figure out so diligently who’s getting sent there.) I haven’t immersed myself in so much “Kingdom” writings and thought all at once since my charismatic days. Shame on me… but let’s dig right in. What is the Kingdom of God?
After summarizing a variety of major views and interpretations of what the Kingdom of God is, G.E. Ladd says,
The perplexing fact is that when we turn to the Scriptures, we find an almost equally bewildering diversity of statements about the Kingdom of God. If you will take a concordance of all the Bible, look up every reference in the New Testament alone where the word “kingdom” occurs, write down a brief summary of each verse on a piece of paper, you will probably find yourself at a loss to know what to do with the complexity of teaching.
(Gospel of the Kingdom, p.16) We can summarize a few brief points on the Kingdom:
- The Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
- The Kingdom of God is an inheritance which God will bestow upon his people. (Matthew 25:34)
- The Kingdom of God is a realm into which the followers of Jesus Christ have entered. (Colossians 1:13)
- The Kingdom of God is a future realm. (2 Peter 1:11)
We’ll stop here, because we can already see the beginnings of what appear to be plainly contradictory statements. If we delve deeper into the parables and sayings of Jesus on the Kingdom, it only gets “worse.”
This future coming of the Kingdom will be attended with great glory. Jesus told of the day when the angels “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers…. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13: 41, 43). On the other hand, when asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or, ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’ (Luke 17:20-21).
(Gospel of the Kingdom, p.17.) George Eldon Ladd was extremely influential in sorting out a definition of the Kingdom of God which provided an understanding of these paradoxical statements, and is the source of the “already/not yet” view of the Kingdom which has gained fairly wide acceptance, from progressive dispensationalists to John Wimber and the Vineyard movement. Most discussions of the Kingdom of God would almost take his name and/or his work for granted. I’ve been quoting from his address, “What is the Kingdom of God” (in the book I’ve referenced, a collection of addresses), and I quote this same foundational address:
When the word refers to God’s Kingdom, it always refers to His reign, His rule, His sovereignty, and not to the realm in which it is exercised. Psalm 103:19…
The Kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority. When this is once realized, we can go through the New Testament and find passage after passage where this meaning is evident, where the Kingdom is not a realm or a people, but God’s reign. Jesus said that we must “receive the kingdom of God” as little children (Mark 10:15). What is received? The Church? Heaven? What is received is God’s rule. In order to enter the future realm of the Kingdom, one must submit himself in perfect trust to God’s rule here and now.
We must also “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). What is the object of our quest? The Church? Heaven? No; we are to seek God’s righteousness—His sway, His rule, his reign in our lives.
(Gospel of the Kingdom, pp.20-21) Yet Ladd notes that a reign without a realm is meaningless, and so “we find that the Kingdom of God is also the realm in which God’s reign may be experienced.” Summarizing, he says that the Kingdom is three different things: God’s reign, his present realm, and his future realm with the fullness of his reign. (Ibid., p.22.)
Confused? Hold on while we synthesize the latter two opposing meanings. Ladd describes a way in which the passing of the old age is not an instant switch-over to the new age, or coming Kingdom of God. As described, the coming Kingdom is so powerful that manifestations or elements of it break through from the future into the present, so that the Kingdom of God is not only a “not yet” realm, it is also an “already” realm. The period of time when this occurs is bounded by the advents of Christ — it began with his first coming, and will end with his second. Marcus Borg described it by saying, “Because the future coming was so near, the Kingdom was also present; the future Kingdom cast shadows (or flames) of its coming before it; the power of the end-time was breaking into the present.” (Marcus J. Borg, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God” in The Christian Century, April 22, 1987, p.378). The concept of a God standing in a vantage point outside of time and space fits well with this… his future Kingdom has a unique habit of invading the present. If this makes it a kind of anachronism, it is the reverse of the type we typically know… and it is therefore troublesome to our way of thinking.
One of the reasons why John Wimber was so influenced by this view had to do with the way that Jesus equated the coming Kingdom with the power of the Holy Spirit in what Marcus Borg called “one of the ‘bedrock’ Kingdom sayings.” (Ibid., p.379). Luke 11:20 says, “But if I am casting out demons by the power of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” As Borg says,
The phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ points to the divine power, active and known in the present, to God acting in strength… The coming of the Kingdom is an epiphany of God, an epiphany of the Spirit. [(emphasis added) This view of the Kingdom as Spirit-epiphany] creates a new way of life. Jesus spoke not only of the coming of the Kingdom, but of entering the Kingdom, or of being in the Kingdom. In short, ‘Kingdom of God’ referred not only to teh reign or power of God, but also to life lived in response to God as King. The phrase pointed to the Spirit of God (God’s kingly power) active in this world, and to the way of life engendered by the Spirit (life in the Kingdom of God).
(Ibid., p.380.) The connection between the Kingdom and the work of the Spirit provides clear point of resonance for Wimber and other charismatics. Ladd’s explanation of the “already but not yet” nature of the Kingdom provides a sound theological framework for explaining why supernatural events such as healing occur, but are not guaranteed at any given moment.
Although the language of the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” does not occur in the Old Testament per se, the concept there is clear, and the roots of understanding the concept can be seen in the Old Testament. David Wenham plausibly suggests Daniel chapters 2 and 7 as the primary linguistic and conceptual background for the concept in the New Testament, with their repeated references to “a future kingdom” which is established by God but in which the saints are given a share of God’s rule over it. (David Wenham, “The Kingdom of God and Daniel” in The Expository Times 98 (Fall 1987), pp.132-34). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the future hope of God’s rest and the shalom he describes can be seen as descriptions of the fullness of God’s reign, such as the messianic passage in Isaiah 11 where the lion lays down with the lamb. Further, Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of the “new age” which the nation of Israel had been awaiting, and in Jesus’ message of the Kingdom as the fulfillment of the Jewish escatological hope there is a connection of the Kingdom of God with the Old Testament. When Jesus dialogues with Nicodemus in John 3, he explains that no man can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of the Spirit, recalling God’s promise to put his Spirit within his people (Ezekiel 36:27). “The Kingdom of God is a spiritual order which can be entered only by a spiritual rebirth.” (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, p.84)
Jesus preached a message of the Kingdom of God — this much is not in dispute. The concept or the story of the Kingdom of God can be used as a hermeneutic through which we may read and understand the Bible and its overarching narrative as we understand the “already” and “not yet” aspects of the Kingdom being held in tension throughout the story, the “not yet” of the future increasingly breaking through to become the “already” of the present. Indeed, I once made a gift of a pair of reading glasses to a former professor and friend. On the inside of one lens I had decalled the word “Already” and on the other lens, the word “Not Yet.” I also made a pair like this for myself as an illustration of how the Bible narrative — and the Christian life in general — may be approached with the “eyes of the Kingdom.” By virtue of the commission of his followers by Jesus — exemplified in the Johannine form, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” — we have become engaged in the same mission as Jesus, the same for which he sent the Spirit to enable us to do that which he sent us to do, and the same for which the Father sent him. This mission is best understood as the extension of the Kingdom of God, to work for the establishment of those characteristics of his reign such as peace and justice, and to work for his reign to be expanded through an increase in the subjects under his rule. This latter expansion can be understood both numerically (i.e., more people) as well as, for lack of a better word, qualitatively, i.e., those who place themselves under his rule seek to expand the ways in which they submit to his reign in their lives. In each of these ways, the Kingdom expands and the reign of God is extended.
As we have seen, the concept of being missional is tied in with the Missio Dei, this sending of God. Clearly the nature of the mission is of primary importance, and here I have concluded the discussion of the Kingdom of God by saying that its expansion is the mission. As I reconsider many of the discussions of “missional,” I find that much of it describes concepts relating closely to the Kingdom of God. We may say that it is missional to be among and feed the poor, and it is. But it is also a fundamental characteristic of the Kingdom of God. In feeding the poor, we exemplify Jesus’ treatment of the poor, and we help bring justice… another fundamental characteristic of the Kingdom of God. So while it may be true that feeding the poor (to use one of many possible examples) is missional, it is only so because it expresses the Kingdom of God. Here, then, we may add an important descriptor to our understanding of what it is to be missional: to be missional is to express and extend the Kingdom of God. This can therefore be a much shorter way of explaining the term, at least in “churched” or theological circles, since we have no acute need to describe all that the Kingdom encompasses in those contexts, nor to attempt to load the word “missional” with meaning which is already incorporated in the missional end, the Kingdom of God. This observation alone should help us in feeling a marked decrease in the need to spill more ink on the subject by prepending the word “missional” onto a host of Kingdom-oriented concepts. (Though I expect it will not.) If the connection between missional endeavours and the Kingdom of God is seen, it also decreases or removes the need for a missional hermeneutic since again, it is encompassed in the existing Kingdom of God hermeneutic. On this basis I would not necessarily oppose missional readings of scripture, but I would relate them clearly to the story of the Kingdom of God. This idea does require some further evaluation to fully determine what nuances change, if any, in our reading of Scripture by reading with missional eyes rather than Kingdom of God eyes. It must be observed that “missional” does not equate with the Kingdom of God, it merely expresses our engagement in the mission to extend the Kingdom of God. These are fundamentally and inseparably linked — but are not synonymous or interchangeable terms.
So far as we’ve considered what the slippery definition of missional entails, we’ve looked at two words with their own coloured past as regards their definition or understanding: Missio Dei and Kingdom of God. Differing perspectives exist as to what all three of these terms mean, and some of the definitions are rather imprecise… such as with the Kingdom, or precise enough, but not the same… such as with Missio Dei. Different uses emphasize different nuances, and one can still find people who will disagree about the meaning. Since the term missional itself incorporates these two terms — in fact, all three interrelate — is it any wonder that a precise definition of missional has so far been hard to encapsulate?
(Note that where I quote page numbers, they are taken from the editions of the books to which I referred, which may not match the editions to which I’ve linked, owing to republication since my dusty copies were produced. On that note, it may well be that clearer or more recent sources exist, but in writing this article I entered my study and confined myself to my personal library.)