The Advent season has me thinking about the kingdom of God — especially in relation to the church. I’ve been doing a little reading of George Eldon Ladd who came to the conclusion some 50 years ago that the kingdom of God was already here but yet to be realized fully at the end of the age. He also made a distinction between the kingdom of God and the church — something I’ve also concluded.
Here is a little of what I’m thinking: The kingdom of God was inaugurated by the first Advent of our Lord. This seems to fit with the prophecies concerning his coming as a baby in Bethlehem. In Isaiah 9, for example, it speaks about a child being born who will bear the weight of government upon his shoulders. He is given such royal titles as Wonderful Counsellor, Might God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Furthermore it says that his peaceful government will be ever-expanding and know no end. Micah too (5:2) prophesies that Bethlehem will yield a ruler of Israel whose origins are from the ancient past. One of the strongest indications for me, that the kingdom of God/heaven was inaugurated by Jesus’ first coming, is that Jesus said in his own home town of Nazareth (Luke 4:18) that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 regarding the Spirit of the Lord being upon “me” and the bringing of good news to the poor, etc, was being fulfilled right before the very eyes of his listeners in him. Truly it was so! Jesus went throughout his region “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23 and 9:35).
But it’s also evident in the ministry of Jesus that the kingdom of God had a future realization. To his disciples he spoke of a future time when he would return and bring about the restoration of all things (Matthew 24, 25). Certainly it is clear that some of the prophecies of Isaiah concerning this future time have not been fully realized at this time — i.e. the beautiful description of a totally peaceful world in Isaiah 11. And of course, there are many other prophecies both in the Old and New Testaments, including Revelation, of a future perfect millennial reign of Christ before the final conclusion of world history, etc.
The church is also spoken of in Scripture as a special work of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18). The rest of the early church narrative in Acts, as well as the teaching of the Apostles in the letters make it clear that the church consists of the redeemed people of God who have been baptized into a discernible body that mediates the presence of Christ by His Spirit in a most particular way (Ephesians 1:23, 2:15-18, and 3). The church, it appears, is the redeemed people of God, Jesus’ bride, who will end up with Him throughout eternity. The Kingdom, on the other hand, is the ever-expanding rule of Christ on earth through his people, the church. Just as Jesus went about preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and doing ministry in his name, so it is the responsibility and blessing of the church today (or any particular church) to invest in the proclamation of God’s good news and the practice of good works in his name.
The implication and relevance of this understanding is very significant, I think, for the life and ministry of the church today. This wonderful season of the year, Christmas, reminds us of the coming of Christ to establish his great and wonderful rule in the hearts of people everywhere — ultimately through his death and resurrection on the cross. Believers in Christ and followers of Him should not only understand the significance of their eternal salvation from God’s judgment upon sin, but also what it means to live as members of His kingdom, living by its principles as delineated in the New Testament — especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). He has given His followers His authority to speak and work in His name (Matthew 28:19, 20). Believers should seek to make disciples with a view to seeing them become participants in Christ’s church.
One way to think of the church is to see it as the more institutional form of God’s kingdom. Its governmental structure, unlike the kingdom, is delineated in the New Testament apostolic writings. If the local church is working right, it should be a place of very specific doctrinal teaching, Christian fellowship, worship, prayer, and spiritual edification for the redeemed (baptized) people of God. It should be the instrument whereby the kingdom of God is expanded in any particular community. By this, I mean that the members of the local church, both informally and formally, should continually find ways to make the message of the gospel known in word and deed.
Christmas is a wonderful time to celebrate the coming of Christ and the inauguration of His kingdom. As was prophesied by Isaiah so many years earlier, Christmas reminds us that “…the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). There is a sense then in which the millennial reign of Christ has already begun but it is to still yet to be realized in a fuller form and time. It may not necessarily consist merely in a literal one-thousand year period in the future (Revelation 20). We should celebrate the coming of Christ, not only as our Saviour, but as our King. How wonderful that we can live under his kingdom rule in these days while we ever seek to expand his kingdom’s influence, and the kingdom itself, through our words and deeds in a large number of biblical ways.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room…