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The cutting edge

May 2004 | by James Renihan

An occasional series on doctrinal issues today

The Kingdom of God (2)

by James M. Renihan

In the first article (March ET) we set about the task of defining the kingdom of God. We continue by considering who are its citizens and what are its characteristics.

Who are its proper citizens and heirs? When the disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus replied that to enter it we must become like little children! One of the key values of the kingdom is humility: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

A believing kingdom

The famous interview between Jesus and Nicodemus sheds further light — only those who have been ‘born from above’ may see and enter the kingdom. The sons of the kingdom are not born naturally, but supernaturally.

The New Testament also makes it clear that only believers can enter the kingdom. James puts it like this: ‘Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5).

That is the ‘bottom line’. The citizens of the kingdom are those who have been chosen by God and regenerated by the Holy Spirit — and who consequently are rich in faith, their lives demonstrating that the work of God in them is real.

Age, social status and race are irrelevant. ‘Not everyone who says to [Jesus], “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21).

The difference between the tax collectors and harlots who entered the kingdom, and the religious formalists who were shut out, is very simple. The former believed while the latter did not.

A secret kingdom

Although the message of the kingdom is to be preached, it is still a hidden message. Jesus himself frequently spoke of the kingdom in parables — because the ‘mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’ are revealed to his disciples, not to outsiders.

In one sense it is a secret kingdom — not like Tolkien’s hidden kingdom of Gondolin (rumoured to exist but sealed to visitors), but rather a real kingdom that is invisible to those without knowledge.

Many understand its truths because their eyes have been opened, but others hear the same words and walk away shaking their heads, wondering why some seem willing to take these words seriously.

At root, we are thrown back to the sovereignty of God. He has chosen to reveal the nature of his reign to some, allowing them to participate while others remain outside.

The Lord Jesus himself rejoiced that his sovereign Father, Lord of heaven and earth, had hidden the truth from the wise and prudent while revealing it to babes (Matthew 11:25). Tax collectors and sinners crowd in, while the self-righteous are left out.

An eternal kingdom

When the disciples asked about the future, Jesus’ reply included the present. Before the end can come, he told them, the gospel of the kingdom must be preached throughout this age, and in all the world, as a witness to all nations.

Men and women live as if there were no kingdom — as if, in Peter’s words, nothing has changed ‘since the fathers fell asleep’. They marry and are given in marriage, they work and play and eat and drink, as if there were nothing beyond the tedium of their existence.

But they must be told that they are fallen creatures in a fallen world, rebels against their rightful Lord. Day by day they deepen their condemnation by failing to bow the knee before him.

The nations rage, the people plot in vain. And all the while the King in heaven laughs, for his purposes cannot be resisted and his work shall conquer (Psalm 2). This is what we must preach. God reigns. He is sovereign over all. His kingdom is an eternal kingdom. Unless people repent they will perish.

While invisible to the human eye, the kingdom of God is real and may be discerned with the eye of faith. This ‘believing vision’ ought to captivate us for the service of God. We are his children, his representatives, his servants.

All we do and all we say ought to be governed by this perspective. We must occupy until he comes. We must press on, confronting men with the message that God reigns. He is gracious, he is longsuffering, he is kind — and he commands men to leave their selfishness and become his servant.

Are you weary and burdened? He will give you rest. This is true hope for the future.

A future kingdom

There is something else we must remember. While we know much about the kingdom of God, we do not yet see it in its final, consummate form. It is still, ‘the world to come’ (Hebrews 2:5-9).

In fact, as we look around, we can hardly discern the presence and power of the kingdom of God. Neither could the writer of Hebrews — he said, ‘we do not yet see all things put under [man]’.

We live in a world where the vilest kinds of sin are openly tolerated and even promoted. Our society is saturated with addictions to pleasure, profit and power. The newspapers recount daily the terrible reality of sin and its effects.

But the problem is not just ‘out there’. The professing church also is departing (in many cases has departed) from any semblance of sober, Scripture-based religion. Post-modernism is invading even the evangelical church. Truth is no longer truth, sin is not sin, God has ceased to be God.

Religion is based on emotion, truth is determined by opinion polls, sin is excused as a psychological peccadillo, while God becomes whatever we choose. From the blab and grab televangelists, to Evangelicals and Catholics Together, to the Jesus Seminar — we are surrounded by apostasy from biblical religion.

A derided kingdom

When the news media report on religion, they usually do so in mockery. False religion, especially resurgent Islam, is rife. Someone has said that the greatest worldwide threat to the church is Islam.

In a column published in 1999, George Will claimed that more people in England attend mosques than attend Church of England services. Here in America, there is a growing acceptance of Islam and other non-western religions into the holy pantheon.

Don’t these things trouble you? They appear to utterly contradict all we have said about God’s kingdom. We seem to be regressing not advancing.

But there is nothing strange about this. In every age, even since Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God, the church has lived amidst a crooked and perverse generation. To the casual observer, and perhaps even sometimes to the Christian believer, the kingdom of God seems like a pipe dream — religious slogans without substance in the world of space and time.

If we wrestle with these present contradictions, we are not alone. Asaph also struggled deeply in Psalm 73, as did the preacher in Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah in Lamentations, and the Psalmist who sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept (Psalm 137).

Christ’s kingdom

Yes, indeed, we endure the opposition of the world, the flesh and the devil. But all the while, we fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

He endured the cross, despising its shame, and now sits at God’s right hand. As we focus our attention on him — as we become more and more Christ-centred — we will lose the confusion to which we fall prey.

Do we see everything now the way that we think it should be? By no means. But that does not mean that the kingdom of God is inactive or impotent. To the contrary, we know that he is doing as he pleases. The opposition of the ungodly is nothing to him.

The kingdom of God is the kingdom of Christ. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. While we may not see all that is happening, we need not fear that he is asleep, or uninterested, or has been deposed.

God is on the throne, and his plan is proceeding as he desires. We need not fear, but be comforted. Take your eyes off the world, and fix them on Jesus Christ. ‘Alleluia, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigns’.

The author is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, Westminster Seminary, California