The Coming Kingdom of the Messiah
The Heart of Christianity--The Kingdom of God
Our Christian documents point to one undeniable fact: Jesus was concerned above all with the gospel about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is the center of his entire mission. It is his watchword and the nucleus of all his teaching. He announced that it was "at hand," demonstrated its power in his ministry, promised it as a reward to his disciples, and urged them to pray for its coming. He also assured his followers that they would one day occupy executive positions as ministers of state in the Kingdom: "You have stayed with me through all my trials; and just as my Father has granted me a Kingdom by covenant, I covenant that Kingdom to you. You will eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom, and you will sit on thrones to administer the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luk_22:28-30; cp. Act_1:6; Act_3:21).
These momentous promises were to find fulfillment "in the New Age, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne" (Mat_19:28). The promised New Age would arrive with the Second Coming.
Scholars are convinced that Jesus cannot truly be understood unless we grasp what he meant by the Kingdom of God. However, they are much less confident about their ability to offer a clear definition of the Kingdom. Theological writings often express uncertainty about whether we can ever recover the meaning, which Jesus attached to the phrase "Kingdom of God”;
“It is time someone called the bluff of those who think they know exactly what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.”
“Despite various attempts, it is not possible to define “Kingdom of God” as it is used in the Gospels or outside clearer than to say it stands for the sum total of blessing bestowed by God in Christ and consisting in the highest life in which we are yet truly at home.”
Other commentators sense that something is seriously amiss when the phrase which Jesus used constantly—in fact his own Gospel—is seldom, if ever, heard in Christian circles. Tome Sine points out that “the victory of the future God was the central theme of the ministry of Jesus.” Then he adds. “Michael Green asked during the Lausanne International Conference on World Evangelization in 1974, ‘How much have you heard here about the Kingdom of God? Not much. It is not our language. But it was Jesus’ prime concern.’”
The frank admission of Peter Wagner ought to be disturbing. It is immensely instructive. He confesses that Christians are not using the language of Jesus! In his book Church Growth and the Whole Gospel, he cites George Eldon Ladd as saying that “modern scholarship is quite unanimous in the opinion that the Kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus.” Wagner then comments:
“If this is true, and I know of no reason to dispute it, I cannot help wondering out loud why I haven’t heard more about it in the thirty years I have been a Christian. I certainly have read about it enough in the Bible. Matthew mentions the Kingdom 52 times, Mark 19 times, Luke 44 times and John 4. But I honestly cannot remember any pastor whose ministry I have been under actually preaching a sermon on the Kingdom of God. As I rummage through my own sermon barrel. I now realize that I myself have never preached a sermon on it. Where has the Kingdom been?”
Arthur Glasser, expert on Christian missions, asked,
“When is the last time you heard a sermon on the Kingdom of God? Frankly, I’d be hard put to recall ever having heard a solid exposition of this theme. How do we square this silence with the widely accepted fact that the Kingdom of God dominated our Lord’s thought and ministry? My experience is not uncommon. I’ve checked this out with my colleagues. Of course, they readily agree they’ve often heard sermons on bits and pieces of Jesus’ parables. But as for a solid sermon on the nature of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught it—upon reflection, they too began to express surprise that [it] is the rare pastor who tackles the subject.”
These scholars have put their fingers on a fundamental problem of Christianity as we know it. Contemporary evangelism and indeed preaching in general, though supposedly based on the Bible, do not sound like the teaching of Jesus. While they continue to use his name, they do not reflect his central theme—the Kingdom of God. This remarkable discrepancy was recognized also by the 19th century German theologian, Richard Rothe, who expressed his uneasiness about received methods of expounding the Bible:
“Our key does not open—the right key is lost and until we are put in possession of it again our exposition will never succeed. The system of biblical ideas is not that of our schools and so long as we attempt exegesis without it, the Bible will remain a half-closed book. We must enter upon it with other conceptions than those we have been accustomed to think the only possible ones.”
Our purpose is to show that the missing key, which unlocks the message of Jesus, and indeed the whole Bible, is the Kingdom of God. The key, however, will be ineffective if it is bent out of shape. To make sense of what Jesus taught, we must understand the term “Kingdom of God” as he understood it. If we detach the Kingdom of God from its Jewish, biblical contest and attach a new meaning to it, we create a version of Christianity distorted as its very heart.
Without a grasp of the Kingdom, which is the axis around which all of Jesus’ preaching and teaching revolves, we cannot hope to understand his Gospel message. The candid admissions of the scholars we have quoted suggest that Jesus’ principal theme does not hold the central place in the teachings of the churches we call Christian. Indeed, it is often omitted entirely! This can only mean that their systems of theology are in need of radical reformation.
Such reformation will happen only when the Kingdom of God is: 1) Placed at the center of the salvation message where Jesus always placed it. 2) Defined in its biblical context as the goal of God’s salvation program, as the restoration of sound government on earth under the supervision of the Messiah and the saints. This will depend on Jesus’ return and the resurrection, at that time, of the faithful of all ages.
This reformation of the Gospel might well take its cue from the excellent observation of Professor Burton Scott Easton in his article on “Salvation” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1939):
“Jesus’ statement “the Kingdom of God is at hand” had the inseparable connotation “Judgment is at hand,” and in this context, “Repent” (Mar_1:14-15) must mean “lest you be judged.” Hence our Lord’s teaching about salvation had primarily a future content: positively, admission into the Kingdom of God, and negatively, deliverance from the preceding judgment.”
At present, Jesus’ saving Gospel message remains unclear in the minds of churchgoers. Those who heard the historical Jesus’ call to salvation would have been exposed to a clear, vital message about the coming Kingdom of God on earth. Today invitations to salvation contain little or none of this information. A message confined to Jesus’ death for sins has replaced Jesus’ comprehensive Kingdom Gospel. It appears that the original Christian proclamation has suffered an alarming eclipse. Such a situation threatens the life of Christianity itself, since Jesus always made faith or belief in his Message the condition of salvation.
The amazing absence of the Kingdom of God from current presentations of the Gospel was noted by the Roman Catholic scholar B.T. Viviano:
“As a teacher of New Testament literature . . . it early became obvious to me that the central theme of the preaching of the historical Jesus of Nazareth was the near approach of the Kingdom of God. Yet, to my amazement, this theme played hardly any role in the systematic theology I had been taught in the seminary. Upon further investigation, I realized that this theme had in many ways been largely ignored in the theology and spirituality and liturgy of the church in the past two thousand years, and when not ignored, often distorted beyond recognition. How could this be?”
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