Even in the throes of execution, at least one middle-eastern terrorist couldn’t stop thinking about the Kingdom of God. The Bible tells us the criminal we call the “thief on the cross” found forgiveness and reconciliation with God when he looked over to Jesus and cried out for mercy. What we don’t explore is how this penitent outcast worded that sinner’s prayer: Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom (Luke 23:42).
Of course the Kingdom was on his mind. After all, hanging over Jesus’ head were the words “King of the Jews.” This man had seen Jesus dressed up in purple and ridiculed as a king by the Roman soldiers. He had heard passersby mocking Jesus as obviously a fraud, since the Kingdom couldn’t come through a man cursed by God and hanging on a tree. Or could it?
CONFUSION ABOUT THE KINGDOM
Jesus’ inaugural sermon was all about the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ last words before leaving His disciples were all about the Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18-20). And that’s the way it should be. Jesus was everywhere, all the time talking about the Kingdom of God. He told us to pray for the Kingdom’s coming (Matthew 6:10). He told us to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). I wonder if we know what He was, and is, talking about.
The Kingdom of God is the central proclamation of both the Old and New Testaments, and yet it is probably the most easily misunderstood phrase in the Christian grammar. Part of that is because we, as contemporary Westerners, aren’t accustomed to seeing kings and queens carrying out any sort of real function.
We speak of the “animal kingdom” as the abstract category of all the animals. We see homecoming queens crowned at the high school football stadium in the fall. Our daughters dress like movie princesses for the church Fall Festival. We tend then to translate the Kingdom language of the Bible into similar terms. The “Kingdom of God,” we think, is simply the aggregate of all the saved souls and Christian activities going on in the world. Or it’s a metaphor for the Great Commission or for our denominational programs or for our collective spirituality.
The Kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus, in continuity with the prophets before Him and the apostles after Him, is no mere metaphor. In Christ, God is tearing down the ruling structures of this present order and replacing them with the dynamic reign of God in Christ Jesus. Many of the missteps Christians have made have been in failing to discern between the aspects of the Kingdom that are here now and those that are yet to come.
THE KINGDOM . . . NOT YET
In one sense, the Kingdom of God is obviously not come. This was one of the most persistent stumbling blocks for the people of Israel after the resurrection of Jesus. The people knew the promises of the Old Testament about the Kingdom, and it wasn’t just about deeply meaningful quiet times leading up to heaven after death. The Kingdom meant a reversal of the curse in all its forms. Evil spirits would be exorcised. Disease would be eradicated. Storms would be stilled. Predatory animals would be tamed. The people of God would rule over nature and enjoy their inheritance together, as promised. Best of all, the most menacing aspect of the curse for sin, death itself, would expire.
Jesus pointed to Himself as the onset of that future Kingdom. He lived among the wild beasts, with no harm (Mark 1:13). He spoke to the winds and the waves, and they silenced immediately (Matthew 8:23-27). He spoke and diseases retreated (Matthew 8:16-17). The demonic beings not only recognized His right to rule, they begged Him for mercy whenever He showed up (Mark 1:23-24). Most importantly, Jesus overcame the sentence of death on humanity when God raised Him from the dead and granted Him the inheritance to sit at His right hand and rule over everything.
But this doesn’t seem to be true. We live in a world of cancer wards and divorce courts and tsunamis and shark attacks and concentration camps. And all of us, including the people reading this page right now, are heading toward certain death. Is it any wonder, then, that people in the first century and in the twenty-first might ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?”
The Gospel recognizes this tension. The Book of Hebrews tells us that we’re right to note that we do not see, as we were promised, all things under the feet of a ruling humanity (Hebrews 2:8). Yet, the Bible says, we see Jesus, crucified but crowned with glory and honor.
The Kingdom is meant to be invisible, apart from the eyes of faith. It doesn’t arrive, Jesus tells us, with shock and awe in the Eastern skies (although that does eventually happen). It arrives in unobservable ways, like yeast working through bread or a seed germinating in the ground or, in fact, like an embryo stirring in a virgin’s womb.
The Kingdom of God announced in the Bible points us, first of all, to the fact that something has gone awry in the universe. By seeing the vision of the future of peace, justice, and Jesus, we are able to gauge what about life in the now is twisted and cursed. That’s important because we are tempted to see whatever we experience as “normal.” When we hear the Kingdom pronounced, we see how God created the universe to be. The Spirit prompts us to pray for its coming and to groan at the satanic counter-kingdom around us in the now.
This future reality also frees us from the tendency to see our lives as having meaning only in terms of whatever we can hold on to in the short sweep of our seventy or eighty or ninety years. We can bear persecution because we know we’ll one day rule over the nations. We can lose our things to calamity without falling apart because we have a future inheritance of the whole cosmos.
THE KINGDOM . . . ALREADY
But the Kingdom is not exclusively a future reality, fit for the prophecy charts of people who like to talk about such things. Jesus tells us the Kingdom is a present reality, invading the old empire of Satan and turning it back. If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, Jesus announced, The kingdom of God is in your midst (Matthew 12:28).
Most Christians have recognized that the Kingdom is, in some sense, here, but many have confused exactly where and how. Because the Bible speaks of the Kingdom ruling over the nations and putting enemies under the feet of the people of God, some have thought we ought to merge the church with the state, and punish spiritual transgressions with the civil law. But Jesus told us that weeds would grow up along with the wheat in the field of the wheat, and that we ought not to tear up the field uprooting things right now. The division between sheep and goats would happen at the Judgment Seat, He said, not at the courthouse.
But while we don’t exercise authority over the outside world, the Kingdom’s present focus is where Jesus is right now ruling: in His church (Ephesians 1:20-23). What He’s doing in the church now reflects what He will do one day in the cosmos at large. Preaching is a sign of the Kingdom, as Jesus transforms people into new creations with His Word. Baptism is a sign of the Kingdom, marking out the boundary between those who have already been judged in Christ and those whose judgment awaits. The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the Kingdom, as God grants a foretaste of the marriage feast of Kingdom come. Church membership and discipline are signs of the Kingdom as we announce to the world those who will be the universe’s future kings and queens.
The Kingdom then shapes the makeup and mission of the church right now. Our churches aren’t to be segregated according to carnal divisions of skin color, ethnic background, or economic class because the Kingdom of God is bigger and broader than all that. We don’t show partiality to the wealthy and powerful because, in the Kingdom of God, the last is first and the first last.
The gifts we use in the church to teach or to change diapers or to play the drums in the praise band or to clean toilets, these point us to the fact that we have an eternal calling in the Kingdom of God, as joint heirs with Christ.
As such, we live out a new way of life that calls our neighbors to the Kingdom justice they see demonstrated among us. This is, we witness (albeit imperfectly and waveringly), what the whole universe will one day look like. As we point to the Kingdom among us in the invisible Christ, we groan at the wreckage around us and pray for the day when, as the hymn puts it, “every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.”
HOW TO ENTER THE KINGDOM
The present and future reality of the Kingdom ought to remind us that only the righteous will inherit it. Lawbreakers cannot enter into the Kingdom as the children of God, but are cut off from it. The Bible, and our own consciences, make clear that all of us, one by one, are disqualified from the Kingdom. There is only one human being whose conscience is clear before the tribunal of God’s holiness. The Kingdom belongs to Him, and to those who are hidden in Him.
When we proclaim the Kingdom, we proclaim ourselves criminals. But then we look to the cross of Christ and, like another crucified criminal before us, we cry out: Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.
Russell D. Moore is senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a member of Highview Baptist Church, also in Louisville.