In the first two posts of this series, I reintroduced the blog, updated our personal story, and began to discuss what the phrase sign of the kingdom means by a brief look at the Kingdom of God in Scripture. I ended the last post with a list of major options that scholars take when talking about the Kingdom of God and in this post I want to defend the last of these, that the Kingdom is related to the church and world variously. In other words, there is no univocal (singular) meaning of Kingdom in scripture.
Stanley Grenz notes that Jesus “spoke of the kingdom as both a realm over which God rules and God’s reign, rulership, or right to rule (Theology for the Community of God, 474).” This means that the Kingdom can be defined as a particular sphere of influence where God’s power is active and acknowledged and as the authority to rule that is God’s by virtue of God’s nature as Creator and Sustainer of the universe. When reading Scripture it is important to notice the context that the word “kingdom” is used in because this will often times define for us which aspect is being emphasized in the passage.
Let’s take a helpful example of how context affects word usage by examining the word ball. When I use the word ball, I could be referring to a soccer ball, a football, a baseball, a basketball, and on and on I could continue. Only when I use the word ball in a particular context can you understand which specific ball I’m referring to at that time. For example, “He dribbled the ball down the field and scored a magnificent goal past the outstretched goalkeeper,” would clearly show that I’m referring to a soccer ball . “He intercepted the ball, ran past four defenders, and dove into the end zone,” shows that the ball I’m talking about here is a football. In the same way, when reading the Gospels (and the rest of Scripture) it is important to see how the Kingdom is being referred to in context because that will reveal which aspect is being emphasized at that time. It may be one or both aspects and only the context can offer the clues necessary to understand which aspect or aspects are the focus.
Further the kingdom has two temporal aspects: it is already inaugurated in the present through God’s sovereign activity and power, yet it will only be fully realized at the return of Christ. A good but still imperfect analogy would be engagement and marriage: engagement means that there is already a deep commitment founded on love between the couple, an already active bond. Marriage is the public covenanting before God and community to maintain that bond of love, yet the bond was already present before the marriage vows were taken. The marriage vows confirm and deepen the bond, in a sense fully realizing it by vowing to a lifetime of commitment. In the same way we see God’s power at work in the world for reconciliation and restoration and his rule over the group (realm) called the church, but this rule and realm are not complete until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord when he returns. Looking at all of these aspects together will help us to see how the Kingdom, world, and church relate.
Kingdom and World
God is de jure (in principle) the ruler of all creation, yet because he allows us freedom, he is not yet de facto (in fact) the ruler and king of all humanity. God does not exercise authoritarian, coercive force to bring this rule to bear, but instead, “God has given humans the privilege and responsibility of acknowledging his rule. In our sin, however, we have rejected the kingship of the Creator. Thereby we have erected an enclave of rebellion in which another- Satan- appears to reign (Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 476).” In this sense the Kingdom of God, defined as God’s right to rule here, is over the entire world whether or not it is realized; God is always in charge but that doesn’t mean that everyone has acknowledged this rule.
While all of Scripture points up the rule of God over the world, this rule is most specifically related to Kingdom in Matthew 13:24-30, the Parable of the Weeds. Here we see the entirety of the world, the wheat and the weeds, referred to as part of the Kingdom. The weeds are that group who don’t yet realize the rule of God, while those who have understood this rule are the other aspect (realm) of the Kingdom which we see in Scripture.
Kingdom and Church
It would be a mistake to equate the church and the Kingdom completely because the Kingdom as shown above is more vast than just the group of believers called the church. However, the church is a special aspect of the Kingdom, that place on earth where God’s de jure (in principle) rule becomes de facto (in fact). In these people we see that the power of God’s Kingdom is already active, forming a people set apart and empowered to work for the reconciliation of the world. God’s power, God’s rule over this realm is already active and realized, yet it is not complete; it cannot be complete while humanity is still in a fallible state, affected by sin, the Devil, and the world to turn from God’s rule. Again, as above, the Kingdom will only be completely realized when we enter the new heavens and new earth. Until that time, the church is a foretaste, sign, and instrument of the Kingdom of God.
While some want to emphasize Kingdom as God’s rule over the world to the exclusion of the church and others want to focus on the church as Kingdom, I want to see it as a more inclusive category, encompassing both the church and world in different, but complementary ways. The Kingdom is that realm where God already rules, the church, and the Kingdom is the entire world as it relates to God’s sovereign right to be King. It isn’t just one or the other. This seems to me to do justice to the full import of Scripture in a nuanced and careful way that focusing on either aspect alone doesn’t.
In the closing post of this introductory series, I’ll examine more in-depth what it means to say the church is a sign of Kingdom.