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What exactly is the kingdom of God?

Ask someone to define ‘the kingdom of God’ and brace yourself for an answer that reflects confusion. Is it the same as ‘the church’? Most say no, but the difference they find hard to explain. Yet the kingdom is such a key element in the NT that we must surely try to be clearer about what it is? Here’s a book that sets out to do just that: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the radical mission of the local church by Scot McKnight (Brazos Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-4412-2147-6).  

The author identifies two emerging answers to the question in recent evangelicalism. Many conservatives see entering the kingdom of God as a synonym for being born again, and no more. Others distance it from personal salvation and make ‘kingdom work’ mean any activity that improves the world—like feeding the homeless or digging wells to provide water for African villages. Both views, this book maintains, miss the mark.

McKnight asks what Jesus’ declarations about the kingdom would have conjured up in the minds of first-century Jews. The answer: a matrix of OT themes, like David, king, Messiah, temple, justice, plus ‘Kick the Romans out!’ We need to enter that mindset. To help us do this he shows that there are two ways of looking at the Bible’s story. The common one he calls ‘C-F-R-C’: creation, fall, redemption and consummation—where we get the first two from the early chapters of Genesis, then jump to the crucifixion for the next, skipping virtually all of the OT.

The less widely appreciated way he calls ‘A-B-A Revised’. God’s Plan A extends from Adam to Samuel—when God himself was the only King, ruling through his chosen ones: Adam and Eve to begin with, then Israel. Plan B is God’s concession in allowing Israel a human king. David was the key figure here. His descendants would rule, and their kingdom would be the kingdom of God. Plan A Revised is Jesus, who, while he was the true Davidic king of Plan B, was more importantly the one in whom God himself began to rule again. The citizens of the kingdom are those who submit to his rule.

The title of Chapter 6 nails the heart of McKnight’s thesis: No Kingdom Outside The Church. The two, he insists, are identical—and you will be hard pressed to pick holes in his biblical arguments. If ‘kingdom’, historically, meant ‘Israel’, then the church is ‘Israel Expanded’. As he puts it, ‘The church is the kingdom called Israel now expanded to include gentile believers.’

If church and kingdom are one and the same, there can be no ‘kingdom mission’ that is not ‘church mission’. The work we may do in partnership with secular agencies to improve society are important ‘good works’, but not strictly ‘kingdom works’. Kingdom mission is Jesus-centred and based in the local church—that ‘society within society’ which is meant to be a shop window to the world of the benefits of living under King Jesus.

What a kingdom is like is determined by its king. McKnight examines some of the major titles of King Jesus and shows how these govern the manner in which we as his people ought to live, act and react. And one of the ways we do that is by being a ‘cruciform’ people, willing to suffer and die in order to carry God’s purpose forward.

This book has a powerful and timely message for all those who have given up on ‘church’ in favour of what they mistakenly call ‘kingdom’ activism. It will renew your determination to give yourself wholeheartedly to the local church to make it the living demonstration of life under King Jesus that God intends it to be.

…this prevailing, and seemingly uncorrectable, usage: Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good…  This gauzy definition of one of the Bible’s strongest words is not what “kingdom” ever means in the Bible. (p5)

Scholars have made the kingdom so theoretical and abstract, peppered at times with French and German terms, that church people cry out for clarity. (p10)

Somewhere along the line, someone argued that the Hebrew word “kingdom” meant “rule” or “reign” or “sovereignty” but not “realm”…  Nearly everyone (but not all) fell in line, and a consensus arrived: kingdom meant “rule” and not “realm.” (p12)

The fundamental idea at work here [in the conservative approach] is that the kingdom of God is the dynamic redemption of God in Christ. The word “kingdom,” then, is not a place or a space or a realm or a people with boundaries and kings and a temple. No, “kingdom” refers to the abstract dynamic that God is now at work redeeming individuals in Jesus Christ in this world, and this rule in Jesus Christ will be completed and universal at the eschaton when the kingdom arrives fully. (p13)

To speak of kingdom for a Jew was to speak of Israel, nation, land, law, and a king in Jerusalem. (p13)

I’m about to lay down a new rule: never use the word “kingdom” for what we do in the “world.” (p17)

There is no kingdom that is not about a just society, as there is no kingdom without redemption under Christ. Yet I’m convinced that both of these approaches to kingdom fall substantially short of what kingdom meant to Jesus, so we need once again to be patient enough to ponder what the Bible teaches. (p18)

When Jesus declares that the “kingdom of God has come near,” we need to pause for a moment to see something very special in the “of God.” This is not the kingdom of Moses or Samuel or David or Solomon or any other of the kings of Israel and Judah. This is the kingdom of God as it was before Samuel’s fateful request and God’s accommodation to Israel, and yet this new King will be modeled on David. Jesus is announcing that God once again has established divine rule in the land. (p33)

[Jesus said]  “…the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20–21). While some have suggested—indeed, banked on and written books about this—that “in your midst” means “in your soul” or “inside you,” the far more persuasive interpretation is that Jesus means “the kingdom of God is standing here among you, and I am it!” (p35)

If Jesus is the one and only King, we must surrender to Jesus as the King. There is no kingdom mission apart from submitting to Jesus as King and calling others to surrender before King Jesus. (p36)

Kingdom cannot be connected to holy warfare; holy warfare destroys the kingdom. Jesus’ words are not “Grab some swords and let’s head for the hills surrounding Jerusalem” but “Take up your cross daily.” (p50)

The Pharisees—not unlike many church traditions—equated their interpretations of the Torah with the Torah itself in such a way that not following their interpretations was not following the Torah and therefore disobeying God. We have plenty of Pharisees with us today! (p51)

Jesus used the word “kingdom” because it appealed to his audience; Paul didn’t use that term very often and neither did Peter. John decided that “life” and “eternal life” and “light” and “darkness” worked better in his context. If theology is contextual, then certainly our praxis must also be contextual. (p55)

Where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected, our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. (p62)

Kingdom in Jesus’ world would have meant “a people governed by a king”…  Over and over, the word “kingdom” in the Old Testament refers to a people governed by a king. Any suggestion, then, that “kingdom” means only “ruling” or “reigning” cannot satisfy what the Bible explicitly affirms.  (p66)

As Jesus was the sovereign Son of God but chose in his freedom to enter into the human condition and to die and be raised for us, so we are “free” but choose to enter into the conditions of our society for its redemption (Phil. 2:5–11). (p76)

One might be tempted to side with the diversity and breadth of voices that make the strong claim that kingdom is not the church, but consensus on this one deserves to be challenged. The oddity of this seeming consensus is that there is a widespread lack of attempting to articulate the relationship of church and kingdom other than by way of denying they are identical. (p85)

If kingdom is a people and the church is a people, then it follows that the church people are the kingdom people. The church, then, is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now. (p86)

God chose Israel as his possession and covenant partner. We must begin with Israel and God’s inviolable covenant promise to be faithful to Israel—forever. Once we begin with Israel as the beginning, the church naturally will be seen as the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). (p88)

It seems to me, in light of Jesus as the temple and the Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:4– 9), that we should see local churches as the land promise taking root in gentile territory, or as the land promise expanding into the Roman Empire. (p91)

We have, then, the makings in the church of a kingdom—a king, a rule, a people, a land, and a law. (p91)

If we want to make comparison, we need to compare kingdom now and church now or kingdom not yet and church not yet. To compare, as so many do, church now with kingdom not yet is not fair to the church (or the kingdom). (p94)

This is where I have to lay down what is perhaps the strongest conclusion of this book: kingdom mission is church mission, church mission is kingdom mission, and there is no kingdom mission that is not church mission. (p95)

The kingdom is the people who are redeemed and ruled by King Jesus in such a way that they live as a fellowship under King Jesus. That is, there is a king (Jesus), a rule (by Jesus as Lord), a people (the church), a land (wherever Jesus’ kingdom people are present), and a law (following Jesus through the power of the Spirit… (p99)

The fundamental mission of the church is to mediate the presence of God in this world. We do this when the kingdom mission, or church’s mission, is seen as the prophetic declaration of the gospel, in the priestly mediation of grace and love and justice and peace and wisdom as embodied in the local church, and in the gentle, servant-like rule of King Jesus over us…  A local church embodies—or is designed by God to embody—the kingdom vision of Jesus in such a way that it tells the kingdom story. That is a politic, a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of life.  (p100)

In one simple sentence: what Christians want for the nation should first be a witnessed reality in their local church. Until that local church embodies that desire for the nation, the church’s witness has no credibility. When it is embodied in the local church, that embodiment is the only activism the church needs. (p101)

Politics is a colossal distraction from kingdom mission. Politics entails diminution of our kingdom message, because to speak well in the public forum means we have to turn our gospel-drenched message that focuses on Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection into acceptable, common-denominator language and vision. Instead of talking discipleship and a cruciform life, we talk about values and soak it in the pretentious “Judeo-Christian ethic.” (p101)

What most shocked the Jews living in Jerusalem when the earliest kingdom communities formed was not any of the above but was instead the kind of community that became visible. The people became a family. (p105)

[Re 1 Peter 2:13–3:12]  First, Christians were expected to be good citizens by participating in the community, and second, Peter doesn’t come close to describing benevolence as kingdom work. Like everyone else in the Bible, Peter saw kingdom as the realm of redemption and the redeemed, not what followers of Jesus did in the public sector. (p113)

Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah led to the great revelation: Yes, Jesus is Messiah, but he will die on a cross. Peter’s confession also leads to the first powerful discipleship lesson by Jesus, a lesson repeated three or four times, that if he is Messiah and if he is to die on the cross before the resurrection, then discipleship is cruciform (Mark 8:27–30, then 8:31–33, then 8:34–9: 1). In other words, the character of the king shapes the character of the kingdom and life for its citizens. (p132)

Evangelism is transformed when the full story of Jesus becomes the center of the Christian message. Instead of telling a story of Jesus as (only the) Savior or, even more narrowly, of the need for humans to escape the torments of hell and Jesus as the escape route, kingdom mission evangelism declares Jesus as King and calls people to answer the central question of evangelism: “Who is Jesus?” What they say determines how they live. (p136)

Kingdom mission is church mission is gospeling about Jesus in the context of a church witness and a loving life. Anyone who calls what they are doing “kingdom work” but who does not present Jesus to others or summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior is simply not doing kingdom mission or kingdom work. They are probably doing good work and doing social justice, but until Jesus is made known, it is not kingdom mission. (p142)

Kingdom theology, then, must be redemptive, or it is not kingdom theology. When kingdom is divorced from redemption, it ceases being kingdom and becomes social progressivism, social conservatism, progressive politics, and the betterment of world and culture. (p143)

Opposing the principalities and powers manifests itself first and foremost in a local church unaffected and uninfected by the evil systems of this world. (p156)

If the first word in the moral fellowship under King Jesus is “cross” and the second word “righteousness,” the third word is “love.” (p166)

The primary way we influence the world is by summoning the world out of its worldliness into the church, where true peace can be found. (p171)

Too many Christians think of Jesus’ ethics as a public ethic, so they try to force, or translate, his vision into the framework of Western liberalism’s focus on rights and liberty and justice and equality. This renders unto Caesar what is God’s and needs to be named for what it is: Constantinianism. (171)

The way to inscribe the will of God on the hearts of people in this world is not by way of law or vote but by way of redemption through Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom vision is for his redeemed people and for them alone. We are, of course, called to be salt and light in this world, but the best way to be salt and light is not to coerce the rest of the nation through political power but to witness to an alternative reality by living out the kingdom vision of Jesus in our local church. (p172)

For Jesus and his contemporaries, banquet became the metaphor for kingdom realities because the essence of the kingdom is a celebratory fellowship with one another in peace and love and joy and abundance and safety. (p182)

The overarching theme of Jesus’ utopian vision is that it is a fellowship, a community, a society, and not simply the eternal life of an individual in the presence of God. (p192)

[If you are interested you can read my PDF synopsis of this book.]

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