In the last decade, a rising generation was begun using a new language for its faith. Instead of using terms like “getting saved” or “being justified,” this generation finds itself attracted to Jesus’ favorite expression, the “kingdom of God.”
My students, for instance, rarely say they have been “saved,” and much more often express their faith as radical commitment to living out the kingdom vision of Jesus. What do they mean by “kingdom of God”?
Evangelicals have sometimes used “kingdom of God” for a focal point, but more often than not, they have used it to refer to the dynamic presence of God in this world. And here the term collapses: Under their hand, “kingdom of God” becomes yet another way of saying we need to have a personal relationship with the Lord. Protestant liberalism has always found this expression suitable to its own theology, but too often it either means cultural development (as in the German theology of the 19th century) or gets washed into the progressive political agendas of social justice activists. Once again, the term collapses into Western social vision.
My contention is that both of these are somewhat flawed. Seriously flawed. We need to move beyond such options.
Jesus chose the phrase “kingdom of God” to express His macroscopic vision for God’s redemptive work in this world—and His choice means this: The kingdom is the society in which God’s will is lived out by ordinary folk. Unfortunately, in our culture, “church” has been reduced to a building, to services in that building or to things done by those authorized to operate in such a building. This, I believe, is the reason many today are grasping for the word “kingdom” and asking it to carry the Gospel.
To understand what “kingdom” means, we need to look at five formative texts in the Gospel of Luke. Then we will grasp why the emerging movement finds its vision in kingdom. We learn that if “church” reduces the Gospel to sin management for individuals, “kingdom” expands the Gospel to God’s redemptive work in every corner of society and world.
The five texts are Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), Jesus’ inaugural sermon (4:16-30), the beatitudies (6:20-26) and Jesus’ response to John’s disciples (7:18-23). Here Mary, Zechariah and Jesus explained that God’s work in this world was now unrolling on earth and that work, in the simplest of terms meant “making things right.” God’s work brings justice, peace and love; it does this for all, and it does it now for those who are willing to fight the kingdom battle.
“Church” has been reduced in our culture. But “kingdom” challenges church along three lines. First, the Gospel is holistic. If Church reduces the Gospel to sin management, “kingdom” expands sin to relationships with God, self, others and the world.
Second, “kingdom” combines the spiritual with the social. It has been far too easy for those of us in the reduced Church to see the work of God in exclusively spiritual categories and to narrow the Gospel’s challenge to a personal relationship with God, which, of course, is foundational. But these five texts in Luke, which pause only briefly to suggest personal relationship, make clear that we are not to stop there. Instead, they emphasize the establishment of a society in which God’s will works itself among ordinary people who are restored to an equal place in God’s society.
The third line ends any satisfaction with individualism. What continues to amaze me in reading these five passages in Luke is that Mary, Zechariah and Jesus find their way into a social vision instead of a simple individualist plan of salvation. When John’s disciples ask if Jesus is the “one who is to come,” Jesus’ answer is not “yes” or “no” but rather “You go tell John that Isaiah’s predictions about the final kingdom society are now starting to be fulfilled because all—the lame, the blind, the poor—are being invited to sit down with us at the table.” From Mary to Jesus, the kingdom vision concerns a society, not just individuals.
I find the emerging movement on the cusp of potential transformation of how we understand the Gospel, how we understand “church,” and how we understand the work of God in our world. They are using “kingdom,” and that terms draws them back into the formative ideas of the earliest followers of Jesus.