THE CHURCH AND THE KINGDOM
PART 2 IN A SERIES OF 3
The relationship of the church to the kingdom concept in Scripture is of utmost importance for the perspective of the place of the church in God’s historical program. History reveals that much harm has come from the misunderstanding of this relationship. Based upon Augustine’s City of God, the church of the Middle Ages developed the theology which equated the church with the kingdom of God on earth, resulting in the absolute authority of the church in teaching and dispensing salvation grace. In another direction, this equation led to the concept of building the kingdom through the church, forgetting that the fulfillment of the promises of God’s reign is yet future (Cf. Hans Kung, The Church, pp. 90-92).
The equation of the church with the kingdom inevitably leads “to an intolerable glorification of the Church” which “is to forget that the power and the glory of the reign of God are still to come … that the Church is called to pilgrimage, not to rest. It is to forget that the Church is composed of men, and sinful men at that.…” (Ibid., pp. 92-93).
Such exaltation of the church at the expense of the proclamation of Jesus the Lord and the coming kingdom reign has not only often contributed to the failure of the church in its mission of servant in the world, but has also led to dissatisfaction and criticism of the church when it failed to produce a millennial utopia on earth (Ibid., pp. 93-94).
On the other hand, any radical divorce of the church from the kingdom sunders it unbiblically from participation in the salvation program of divine history.
DISTINCTIONS OF THE CHURCH AND THE KINGDOM
Meaning of the kingdom. The kingdom of God in Scripture is the all-embracing program of God’s divine salvation history. All ages, peoples, and saving activities are in some way related to it. It has well been described by Sauer as “the royal saving work of God to the carrying through of His counsels in creation and redemption.” (Sauer, p. 89).
Its comprehensive scope is seen in the prayer for the kingdom which the Lord taught His disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:9). The coming of the kingdom is nothing less than the coming of the reign of God upon this earth. Involved in the term kingdom (basileia) are both the sovereignty or royal dignity of a king, and the realm or territory in which this kingship is exercised (Karl Ludwig Schmidt, “basileia” in TDNT, 1:579-80).
The kingdom of God thus refers to the sovereign rule of God over His creation. Although there is, in the ultimate sense, one kingdom of God, the Scripture uses this term for two distinct aspects of this kingdom. On the one hand, it signifies God’s universal, eternal rule over all creation: “The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all” (Ps 103:19). On the other hand, it refers to the eschatological Messianic kingdom which is to be established in history, which Christ announced as at hand, and for which He taught His disciples to pray. While the first kingdom is ruled directly by God, the second aspect is founded upon covenant promises and ruled through the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the Seed of David. It is the purpose of this mediatorial aspect to establish the reign of God, which is now over the earth, directly upon it, and to make the kingdoms of this world “the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15b).
Stages of the kingdom. The kingdom program has been manifest in several forms as it moves toward the ultimate establishment of the kingdom of Christ upon earth. Founded upon the covenant promises with Abraham, it was begun in an initiatory form in the kingdom of Israel. Not only did God rule over Israel with the manifestation of His Shekinah glory in the tabernacle and the temple, but through this nation the way of salvation was prepared for all nations (Jn 4:22; Ro 11:12-15). The next appearance of the kingdom came with Christ. It was present in His person (Lk 17:21) and also in the power of the Spirit demonstrated in His mighty works (Lk 11:20). Again the glory of God was present, this time veiled in human flesh (Jn 1:14; cf. Lk 9:29-32). The kingdom is now present, working in the church according to the mysteries described by Christ in His parabolic teaching (Mt 13:11 ff.; cf. 20:1 ff.; 22:2 ff.) until the end of the age (Mt 13:39, 49). Finally, the mediatorial kingdom will be consummated in the millennial reign of Christ in glory on the earth (Rev 20:4-6). After the final putting of all His enemies under His feet, the kingdom will be delivered up to the Father “that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:24-28).
The kingdom distinct from the church. From the above outline of God’s kingdom program it is evident that, far from equation, several distinctions must be noted between the church and the kingdom: Not only are the terms church (ekklesia) and kingdom (basileia) never equated in the New Testament, but each has a distinct etymological and connotational meaning. The introduction of the kingdom and that of the church are entirely different. The kingdom is introduced as something “at hand” from the beginning of Christ’s ministry (Mt 4:17), while the church is only the subject of prophecy much later (Mt 16:18). The coming of the kingdom is the breaking in of the perfect heavenly reign of God. It is not the product of growth and organic development as the church of which Christ said, “I will build my church” (Mt 16:18; cf. Eph 2:21-22). Finally, the usage of the terms in the New Testament reveals a clear distinction. In the gospels, the term kingdom occurs many times, while church is used only three times and these in a prophetic sense (Mt 16:18; 18:17). However, in the book of Acts, which forms the historical transition from the time of the gospels to that of the church, the attention of the disciples is turned away from the kingdom by the Lord’s statement that it was not for them to know the times and seasons (Ac 1:6-7), and increasing reference is made to the newly established church. This continues in the epistles, which are addressed to the churches or members of the churches but never to the saints of the kingdom. Only in Revelation does the kingdom again become prominent with its establishment at the coming of Christ. Thus the kingdom appears in Scripture as a distinct concept from the church. Nevertheless, the church shares in the kingdom as a part of God’s purpose to reign upon the earth.
THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH AND THE KINGDOM
The two errors of identifying the church with the kingdom or radically separating them are usually associated with a one-sided concept of the nature of the kingdom. Those who would see the kingdom as the church are compelled to stress the abstract aspect of the kingdom, thus viewing it as the present spiritual reign of God in the hearts of men. Likewise, those separating the kingdom from the church stress the futurity and apocalyptic nature of the kingdom. The kingdom (basileia) includes both aspects. The church is therefore presently related to the kingdom in its spiritual nature but also looks forward to participation in the glorious culmination in the literal apocalyptic manifestation of the kingdom.
Present relation of the church to the kingdom. The relation of the church to the kingdom at present is based upon the fact of her salvation in Christ. In the gospels, the kingdom of God is so closely associated with Christ that in some passages to speak of the kingdom is to speak of Christ Himself. In Mark 11:10 the people cried, “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord,” but in Matthew 21:9 and Luke 19:38 the same language is used with reference to Christ. A similar close relationship is seen in the phrases “for my sake, and the gospel’s” (Mk 10:29), “for my name’s sake” (Mt 19:29), and “for the kingdom of God’s sake” (Lk 18:29). The coming of the kingdom of God (Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27) is the coming of the Son of man with His kingdom (Mt 16:28). Christ even pointed to His mighty work while on earth as the arrival of the kingdom of God (Mt 12:28; Ibid., pp. 588-89).
From these passages it is evident that kingdom is, in reality, nothing less than the salvation of God in Christ. What was announced as imminent in the proclamation of the gospels was begun through the passion and exaltation of Christ. The decisive saving events had taken place, the promised eschatological salvation was present spiritually in the rule of Christ as Lord over the hearts and lives of His people. Temporally they live in this present age, but “spiritually they belong to the heavenly kingdom and enjoy the life of the age to come” (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 35).
This was the message the apostles proclaimed in Acts. Luke says that Christ for forty days between the resurrection and the ascension spoke to the apostles “of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Ac 1:3). Part of His instruction during this period is related again by Luke when he records that the risen Lord opened the understanding of the disciples that they might understand the Scriptures concerning His suffering and resurrection “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Lk 24:45-47). Thus the gospel of the gracious remission of sins through Christ is the message of the kingdom. The Samaritans “believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ” (Ac 8:12). Likewise, Paul’s ministry of “the gospel of the grace of God” was at the same time the “preaching [of] the kingdom of God” (Ac 20:24 ff.). To the end of Acts, both to Jew and Gentile he was “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ac 28:31; cf. v. 23). The person of Christ and His Lordship became the prominent objects of apostolic preaching, rather than the “kingdom,” as in the gospels, because now the reign of God is His. As Küng notes, “The concept of the reign of God becomes of secondary importance; because the glorified Kyrios shows in himself the meaning of the reign of God in which the church lives.” The crucified Jesus has been made “both Lord and Christ” (Ac 2:36) and all authority in heaven and earth are given to Him (Mt 28:18).
The relationship of the church to the kingdom presently involves both her nature and her mission (Sauer, pp. 90-93; cf. Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 354-56). Concerning her nature, the church is first the fruit of the kingdom. The members of the church are those who have been gathered together, as we have seen, by the preaching of the gospel, which is the word of the kingdom. They therefore have their “citizenship in heaven” as citizens of the kingdom (Philippians 3:20, NASB; cf. Col 1:13). So also the “good seed” which is sown during the period of the mysteries of the kingdom “are the sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38, NASB). As citizens, the church is secondly those who acknowledge the regal lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9-10). According to Paul, the gospel carries with it the command to repent (Acts 17:30). Conversion takes place in the act of submission plus the obedience of faith toward the Lord (Romans 16:26; Acts 26:19). It is at the same time the recognition of the kingly rule of God in Christ and entrance into the membership of the church. Finally, the church, as citizens of the kingdom, enjoys certain blessings of that kingdom even while living in the kingdoms of this world. McClain notes this fact when he says, “From His [Christ’s] present throne in the heavens, He is abundantly able to bestow certain of His regal blessings even before the arrival of the Kingdom” (Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, p. 440).
These blessings are manifest and operative in the presence and power of the Spirit by whom the risen Lord is present in His church. Through life in the Spirit, the church already experiences “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5, NASB). The church, as citizens of the kingdom, is called into the service of the kingdom as ambassadors for Christ the King (2 Corinthians 5:20) with the mission of representing “its heavenly government in this world as in a foreign land” (Sauer, p. 92). Under the full authority of Christ, the members of the church are sent forth (Matthew 28:18-20) to proclaim the salvation of the kingdom and the command of God to repent and believe (Acts 17:30; Romans 16:26). Through the church the good seed of the kingdom is scattered abroad in order that sons of the kingdom might be prepared for the arrival of its manifestation in glory (Matthew 13:36-43). In its very nature and mission the church is therefore presently “surrounded and impelled by the revelation, the progress, the future of the kingdom of God without, however, itself being the basilea, and without ever being identified with it” (Ridderbos, p. 356).
Relation of the church to the future kingdom. Although the church is presently related to the kingdom, the vast majority of references to the kingdom in the New Testament look to the future kingdom. The present mystery phase of the kingdom is not the final act; if fact, the disciples make no mention of it in the gospels but rather look to the future establishment of the kingdom (Matthew 19:27-30; 20:21; cf. Acts 1:6). Christ Himself, although referring to the presence of the kingdom Himself and His ministry, specifically taught in the parable of the nobleman that the kingdom was not going to appear immediately (Luke 19:11). The same forward look characterizes the epistles. The kingdom is an inheritance of the believers in the church from which those of the world will be excluded (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5; James 2:5). It is something for which the church presently suffers that they might be “counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (2 Thessalonians 1:5; cf. Acts 14:22) and for which they live fruitful lives that theirs may be an “entrance…abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of…[their] Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). Members of the church stand related to the future kingdom first of all as heirs. In its unity with Christ the church as His body is coheir with Christ of the glory of the age to come when the kingdom will be manifest in all creation (Romans 8:17ff.). Second, as heirs with Christ the church shares in the reign of the coming kingdom. Although believers are often called the servants and slaves of their Lord and are therefore subject to His regal rule, the New Testament avoids referring to them as subjects of the kingdom (Peters, 1:597). For when the kingdom comes, “the saints shall judge the world” (1 Corinthians 6:2) and reign with Christ (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). As the bride, they will be one with Him in His kingdom reign. Thus the church appears in Scripture as vitally related to the kingdom program of God both presently and in the future because of her relation to Christ the Lord, God’s mediatorial King,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ROBERT LLOYD SAUCY (B.A., Westmont College; Th. D., Th. M., Dallas Theological Seminary) is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Talbot Theological Seminary. He previously served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society and addresses that group frequently. He is author of numerous books, including The Church in God’s Program, The Bible: Breathed from God and The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, and is the editor of Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective. He also wrote the “Open But Cautious View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, edited by Dr. Wayne Grudem. His shorter works have appeared in many journals including Bibliotheca Sacra, Grace Theological Journal, andJournal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He also was one of only three scholars who worked both on the original 1971 translation of the New American Standard Bible as well as the 1995 update. Dr. Saucy resides in Anaheim, California.