Friday, June 16, 2006

Thy kingdom come!

Have you ever heard anyone say, "We need to be part of building God's kingdom?" Maybe you've said it yourself; I know I have. And with the Emergent focus on missional living and being God's "kingdom agents"--a very good and honorable thing, I might add--I think it's important to recognize the distinction between the church and the kingdom of God. Here's a brief walk through Jesus' "kingdom parables" in Matthew 13, showing why I believe that, while inseparable in some sense, the church is not to be identified or equated with the kingdom of God.

Parable of the sower (13:1-23). The "word [message] of the kingdom" is something sown into people's hearts (v. 19). Thus we see the kingdom as something external to the people, which produces fruit within those who receive the news of it.

Parable of the tares (13:24-30, 36-43). The kingdom is compared to the man who sowed the wheat seeds. Likewise the enemy sowed the weeds (v. 25). Jesus' direct comparison of the kingdom and the sower in v. 24 ("The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who came and sowed good seed in his field") shows that the kingdom is something separate from the wheat, who are the "sons of the kingdom" (v. 38). These sons, the communion of saints, are those given new birth by the word of the kingdom (v. 19; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). They are those who are brought to creation from or on account of the kingdom, and who live a life concordant with their new nature and relationship to the Sower. To make the church synonymous with the kingdom is to make your unbelieving neighbor synonymous with Satan.

Parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (13:31-33). While the distinct aim of these parables is to show the growing, spreading nature of the presently incipient kingdom, as opposed to Jewish expectations that the messianic kingdom would come in one fell swoop, the kingdom-church distinction can be seen again. First off, the mustard seed becomes the tree in which birds perch. It is what creates a home for the birds. The birds are not a tree! And in the second parable, the yeast is a force that spreads through the dough and effects change within it. Thus the kingdom cannot be equated with the world, either.

Parable of the dragnet (13:47-50). This parable perhaps most strongly delineates the distinction. Here the kingdom is likened to a fisherman's dragnet that catches fish in its wake, collecting them for the day of judgment. Rather than equating the kingdom with the church, we see here the principle testified throughout these parables: the kingdom of God is really the eschatological reign or rule of God, the force of which creates the church and exerts influence in the world. The word for kingdom, basileia, really is better translated by "dominion" (cf. Dan. 7:13-14) or "kingship" (John 18:36, RSV).

So as we are a church body gathered to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," I think it's helpful to recognize a few things. First, we are not the kingdom. And Earth is not the kingdom, either; it's the place where the dominion of Christ is worked out. Nowhere does the Bible promise an earthly utopia or theocracy prior to the Second Advent and the great regeneration of all things (Matt. 19:28; 2 Pet. 3:13). (My apologies to any premillenialists and social gospel advocates reading this.) But we are to pray with the desire that the risen and ascended Christ will extend his scepter to free people from death and captivity to sin and the devil.

Second, we don't "go out there and build the kingdom." That's solely the work of Christ as he continues his ministry in the Holy Spirit (John 14:12). Rather, we are "kingdom participants" and witnesses of the King. But there is something we can and must do, for we are entrusted with the keys to the kingdom: The saving effects of Jesus' resurrection-dominion only come in people's lives through the means of grace, that is, the Word and the Sacraments. As the "message of the kingdom" (Matt. 13:19; 24:14) is sown, people are brought to faith and strengthened in it. Apart from the preached gospel, the kingdom is powerless, and no one enters. "He who has ears, let him hear."

(For a little more on the kingdom and mission, please check out what Mark Driscoll has to say. I'm starting to find him as one of the most well-thought and scripturally sound voices in the Emergent movement.)

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