It is not our job to extend the kingdom

I came across a comment by someone on Facebook in response to my post about what an apostle does. He suggests, first, that I must come from a typical large church (he couldn’t be further from the truth), that is “not engaging in the Kingdom” (I’ll get on to this), and then asserts:

We MUST be about the work of GROWING the Kingdom, and as such, we are apostles sent out to save the lost.

With the narrative of Acts still very much in mind, there are a couple of issues here that I want briefly to highlight.

First, this activist language of engaging with, growing, extending the kingdom may have some current rhetorical value if it motivates big lazy churches to get off their backsides and do something useful, but it is a very misleading lens through which to read the New Testament.

Kingdom language in the New Testament refers to what a king does. Mostly it has to do with what the God of Israel was about to do in the foreseeable future to transform the state and status of his people in the ancient world. The task of the churches was to bear witness to this coming transformation, first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations. The churches did not grow or extend the kingdom—they were to be a sign or benchmark of the righteousness of God, of what YHWH was about to do to vindicate himself. The spread of the churches throughout the empire did not grow or extend the kingdom—it merely meant that witness to the coming kingdom of God was more extensive.

Secondly, it is not so obvious that the apostles understood their task as being primarily to save the lost. There was certainly a call to the Jews to dissociate themselves from a “crooked generation” of Israel destined for destruction, and to the Gentiles to abandon their idolatry and worship the living creator God. But, as I suggested before, that was secondary to the task of proclaiming—again first to Israel, then to the empire—that God has put his Son in control of history. It was those who believed this politically significant fact and repented of their old ways and allegiances who were “saved”.

The apostles then had the responsibility of ensuring that the emerging communities of Jews and Gentiles who believed that God had put his Son in control of history were fit to bear witness until YHWH acted as king to transform the state and status of his people in the ancient world.

On the one hand, this meant demanding a high level of spiritual and moral integrity from the churches: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” (Eph. 4:1).

On the other, it meant building into them the capacity to survive persecution. The task of an apostle was to construct churches on the foundation of Jesus, who was obedient even to death on a cross and was vindicated for his faithfulness, and to build them from materials that would not be burnt up in the coming day of fire. As my friend Nancy observed in another Facebook comment on the post, the apostles had to ensure the durability of these communities.

So “kingdom” is not what we do; it is not our kingdom. It is what God does to safeguard the integrity and security of his people; it is what he does to establish his reputation in the eyes of the nations. If we wish to preserve the New Testament pattern, then I think we must say that our task, especially in post-Christian Europe, is first to proclaim the good, if controversial, news that God’s Son is still in control of history, and then to ensure that as communities of believers we bear faithful and consistent witness to this fact, in word and deed. What we call “personal salvation” is part of that process, but not the most important part.

Comments

I think that it’s worth keeping in mind the description of what comes after the cataclysm in Isaiah 66.

Isa 66:18 “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory,
Isa 66:19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.
Isa 66:20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD.
Isa 66:21 And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.
Isa 66:22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.

So, there is no doubt that we play some role in the extension of God’s kingdom on the earth (see as a progressively more successful and influential one in Daniel 2 and elsewhere. On the other hand, I object to the term “apostles” being used, as I think it is a term reserved for that first generation of leadership.

It’s a good observation, but my point is not that God does not use people to fulfil his “kingdom” purposes. He used Cyrus, for example; the nations participate in the restoration of Israel; and the churches are certainly instrumental in the transformation of the pagan world. It’s more that the “kingdom” is not something that is extendable through Christian ministry. The emphasis in the New Testament is overwhelmingly on the coming action of God to judge and restore. I think that when we use the term “kingdom of God” we should be talking about what God has done or what he is going to do. “Thy kingdom come….” There is a sense, I accept, in which kingdom is an enduring condition, but it is still a matter of the active rule of Christ and the apostles or Christ and the martyrs. They have authority to judge and safeguard the people of God throughout the ages.

Fantastic word, Andrew. Could it be that the terminology of “expanding” and “growing” the Kingdom of God comes, in part, from the rugged individualism of modern success and prosperity? (“Success and prosperity are MINE for the taking if I only have enough ambition!”)

I was challenged by contributing authors of “Missional Church” in how they framed appropriate ways of talking about “The Kingdom” (particularly George Hunsberger). Speaking of “the reign of God” as a gift one receives and as a space or a realm that may be inhabited “restrains our cultural instincts to think of the reign of God as something we achieve or enlarge.”

I really commend your effort to understand what modern day leaders are going for when they speak of “growing” and “expanding” the Kingdom. But often I’ve wondered if our posture would change with some significance if we spoke more of “announcing and demonstrating” the Kingdom. It seems far more consistent with how Jesus spoke of “The Kingdom.”

I’ve also found something very compelling about placing this Kingdom terminology adjustment in the context of your narrative theology. Something I’ll be chewing on for a while!

Thanks for the comment, Brandon.

The rugged individualism thing may be part of it. But I think that the difference between Europe and America in this respect is instructive.

The church in Europe is in much more of a state of crisis than the church in America. From our perspective the future of the church is not at all certain. We are in a situation very much like that of the exiles or of the persecuted New Testament churches, and so we probably have a better sense of what it means for God to intervene decisively, dynamically, on behalf of his people and for the sake of his reputation.

The church in America is still stuck in some sort of late-Christendom mindset, where it thinks it can still control the situation, manage the crisis. There is certainly faith—in many respects greater faith than we see in Europe. But there isn’t the same “fear” of what the future holds. There isn’t the same sense of narrative.

While I agree that we cannot do a thing without God, I think it’s a mistake to say we do not have a part in the growth of the kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about bearing witness, though that is undeniably a part of the task. It is about making disciples, a very active role indeed!

When the church is passive, the kingdom does not expand. The King is the source of all authority, but it doesn’t stop there; He passes His authority on to Peter to build His Kingdom on earth, literally giving him the keys to the kingdom. Indeed, this kingdom expansion is the dream that Daniel interprets centuries earlier, when the mountain grows to cover the whole earth.

God drives everything, and without Him we are nothing. He does not need us, but He still chooses to use us.

How would you interpret the Bible’s words descriv us as co-labourers with God?

It’s late, and these are good thoughts (many thanks), but briefly:

1. I would argue that making disciples is not extending the kingdom, it is extending the witness of God’s people to the coming of the kingdom.

2. The assumption that the kingdom expands is not clearly biblical.

3. Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, not to the kingdom of heaven, and it’s certainly questionable that this means he has been given authority to build the kingdom on earth. That sort of language is not found in the New Testament. Isaiah 22:22 is an interesting parallel: it suggests that Jesus has handed to Peter his own authority over the disciples, or something along those lines.

4. The rock that becomes a mountain is an earthly kingdom, the people of the saints of the Most High in Daniel, which I don’t think is what Jesus means when he speaks of the kingdom of God being at hand—though there is a connection between the two.

5. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 Paul speaks of the apostles as co-workers with God in building the churches, not in extending the kingdom. There is no reference to the kingdom here.

Andrew,

I like to stop by your blog every once in a while, and I’ve read a couple of your books. I really appreciate your reading of the NT, and I too feel folks “contemporize” too much NT langauage in an unhealthy way for their own advantages, and yet I still can’t seem to shake the sense that your tendency is to flatten some of this language (or “narrow,” if you prefer) in a way that doesn’t allow folks to employ language that picks up on broader biblical categories. Not sure if that makes sense.

So, for example, if I remember correctly, when you speak of the church’s mission, you like to employ new creation language, and rightly so, in my opinion. And yet I notice that creation and new creation language throughout Scripture will speak to “ruling,” “kingdom,” “glory,” and “image”-type categories, among others. This, to me, suggests that there is an appropriate way to use kingdom language for our role as humans and therefore as the church as renewed humanity.

Because of this, when I teach an overview of Scripture, I don’t mind using the kingdom theme as one of the main threads that runs throughout the biblical story, while realizing that each biblical author uses this term in different a more narrow and nuanced senses, though often overlapping in some ways. To me, it’s hard not to use this language when ideas of God’s rule expressed through his people pop up all over the place from Genesis to Revelation. It is a tricky line to walk, but it feels worth walking.

I wonder how you’d respond to this. Thanks.

And yet I notice that creation and new creation language throughout Scripture will speak to “ruling,” “kingdom,” “glory,” and “image”-type categories, among others. This, to me, suggests that there is an appropriate way to use kingdom language for our role as humans and therefore as the church as renewed humanity.

You need to give an example or two. I think it is appropriate to use kingdom language today. Jesus is our king or Lord. He reigns over his people—along with the martyrs, though we don’t make too much of that. He safeguards the integrity and security of the people of YHWH in our changing historical context. My argument is that we place too little weight on that dimension.

But I’m not sure we need to be using kingdom language to the extent that the New Testament does if we are not waiting for a decisive intervention—a “coming” of Jesus as Son of Man—to bring an end to suffering, bring vindication for the churches, and turn the world upside down. In other words, it depends on circumstances.

When it comes to new creation themes, however, I think our responsibility is clear—in faith and obedience we seek to demonstrate in the midst of the nations how God intended creation to be, and by that we are blessed with the original blessing of the Creator, and we mediate that blessing to others.

Thanks, Andrew, for your response. I’d say that based on the creation accounts, humans were created to rule as image bearers on God’s behalf, and to fill creation by ruling it in God’s way and on his behalf, which is why I’d feel comfortable using “expanding kingdom” language.

As far as verses are concerned, image bearing and having dominon over the earth seem nicely linked in Genesis 1:26–28. And it seems to me that such a mandate is never nullified, but instead reinstated to Noah, to Abraham, to Israel and therefore to Israel’s representative and those who follow him as the new humanity. We were created by God to rule his world on his behalf, and to extend that rule, i.e., kingdom.

That’s why I like the kingdom theme as something that can (sort of) hold the biblical narrative together, since one can draw a line from those creation accounts through to Genesis 12 to 1 Sam 7 to Psalm 8 and even into the NT with such texts Rom 4:13; 5:17; 8:17–30 (glorified as a reference to being restored to our ruling position as image bearers); Rev 5:9–10; 21:7 (even the language of inheritance speaks to inheriting and ruling the entire world), to name a few.

Of course, in saying all of this, I’m not suggesting that every time kingdom language (or glory or inheritance or image, etc.) is used that such language is making reference to all of this, but rather that God’s desire to rule his world through his image bearers (humans) never goes away and stands as the key context for understanding God’s calling upon Abraham, Israel, Christ, church, etc. in the biblical story.

But wouldn’t that mean that all humanity, and not merely the church, is engaged in expanding the kingdom? When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand, he is surely not saying that it’s time to fill creation and rule it. He means that God is about to act as king, specifically with a view to judging and restoring his people. There is perhaps a sense in which God is king with respect to creation, but in the New Testament—as I read it—he is king with respect to the political situation of his people. I agree that Abraham is called to be the beginning of a new creation people which receives the blessing of the creator and is told to be fruitful and multiply—I preached on the theme this morning. But there is no kingdom language here, and there is no suggestion in the New Testament that the task of the church is to extend God’s effective rule over the natural order.

To my mind, it makes much more sense to keep creation themes and kingdom themes somewhat apart. The creation narrative that you refer to arguably provides the largest frame within which to understand the purpose of the church, but I don’t think the New Testament is nearly as interested in this dimension as we would like it to be. At stake is not who rules over creation but who rules over Israel, who will judge the nations. As I say, the issue are political rather than cosmic. I think we confuse matters if we use kingdom language in the sense you suggest.

Great summary definiton from you of our task & the good news to proclaim:

“If we wish to preserve the New Testament pattern, then I think we must say that our task, especially in post-Christian Europe, is first to proclaim the good, if controversial, news that God’s Son is still in control of history, and then to ensure that as communities of believers we bear faithful and consistent witness to this fact, in word and deed.”

Andrew,

I’m reading the book of Matthew and am currently going through the parables on the kingdom.

Jesus uses a lot of agricultural metaphors in describing the kingdom. From an interpretive standpoint thematically it appears that the kingdom “grows”.

How would you view these parables in relation to your premise?

Cheers,

Billy

Agreed, the kingdom of heaven is compared to growth processes—wheat grows and bears fruit, weeds grow amid the wheat, a mustard seed grows and becomes a great plant, leaven spreads throughout the dough (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-33). But I would argue that:

1. This is still within the frame of God’s dealings with first century Israel—the process culminates in judgment and renewal in some way or the other. I have suggested before that the mustard seed parable may have in view the emergence of God’s people as an “empire” that shelters other nations, but I think the point is still that God has set something in motion that will achieve his geo-political ambitions, if I can put it that way.

2. In all these parables there is no effort on the part of God’s people to extend or grow the kingdom. The farmer must wait for the seed to bring about its own results. The emphasis seems to be on what God does to achieve his purposes in history.

Hi Andrew, For me Daniel 7 is a critical turning point - vs 13 & 14. After Jesus is resurected and presented before all of heaven the language is about dominion which is everlasting and a Kingdom that shall not be destroyed. In Matt 28 after this heavenly coronation Jesus then asserts to His disciples “All authority ….”, thus His reign over His Kingdom is locked in place and lasts forever. So how does that impact us in 2014? I believe we can walk in the Spirit and evidence His rule and reign in our lives, and thus in our sphere of life demonstrate the Kingdom of God (based upon the premise that where His will is done, his Kingdom has come). I also like the NIV’s take on Daniel, that it is an increasing Kingdom … but that widens the debate and topic further. Be blessed.

Agreed, Rob, though presumably the “coronation” comes after Matthew 28 with the ascension and exaltation to the right hand of God, and I don’t see where the “increasing Kingdom” comes into the NIV of Danile 7.