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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 4–12 

The Gospel and the Kingdom

Ken Esau

Over the past year or so, our congregation went through a re-visioning project which involved some teaching, community discernment sessions, online feedback opportunities, and finally a ratification vote at our annual general meeting. Our congregation determined that our mission statement should be, “Sharing the love of Jesus to make Christ-followers of all nations.” While this statement has many positives, it makes no mention of God’s kingdom or any synonym of this concept (e.g., “joining God in the renewal of all things”). 1 A quick review of mission statements for Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches reveals that any explicit or implicit mention of kingdom of God is the exception rather than the rule.

We need to engage more fully with the reality of the kingdom of God “now and not yet.”

However, according to the New Testament, Jesus came preaching “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Luke 4:23; 8:1; 16:16), instructing his disciples to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God/Heaven (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 9:2), telling his disciples to “seek first his [God’s] kingdom” (Matt 6:33), and to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10; cf. Luke 11:2). Jesus instructed his disciples about the “kingdom of God” in his post-resurrection appearances (Acts 1:3). Philip proclaimed the “good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” which led to conversions and baptisms (Acts 8:12). Paul entered the synagogue at Ephesus and argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). {5} In Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders, he summarizes his message as “preaching the kingdom” (Acts 20:25), which is also the center of his proclamation during his two years in Rome (Acts 28:31). With all of the centrality of the kingdom of God in the New Testament, it is surprising that this language is so foreign to us today.

But in light of the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), 2 and Acts 1:8, where we are called to be “Christ’s witnesses” all over the world, maybe the omission of kingdom of God in our mission statements should not be so surprising. To some, kingdom sounds elitist or triumphalist or patriarchal, which could explain its absence. Overall, it has not found a central place in the mission and vision of most MB churches. While the Mennonite Church Canada Confession of Faith devotes an entire article to the “Reign [kingdom] of God” (Article 24), no such article exists in the present MB Confession.

What are the dangers of minimizing this central New Testament image in our preaching and visioning? What inadequate “gospels” are being proclaimed because a robust understanding of God’s kingdom is missing? I will suggest here that there are four gospels commonly proclaimed in the Evangelical world that are inadequate because they fail to incorporate Jesus’s larger kingdom vision. For illustrative purposes, I will describe each in a somewhat caricatured and exaggerated fashion. Finally, I will briefly explore what a kingdom gospel might look like.

THE “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE” GOSPEL

The first of these inadequate gospels could be called the “Get out of jail free” gospel, which at various points in history has been the prevailing Evangelical gospel story. This version emphasizes that we are guilty of sin, which makes us worthy of eternal destruction in hell; the absolute centrality of the decision to “believe in Jesus”; and the unchangeable certainty that God’s response to this decision will be eternal forgiveness. The decision to believe converts God’s judgment that a person deserves condemnation into a judgment that they are righteous and welcome in heaven. Moreover, the salvation one obtains in this way is primarily understood as the escape of a person’s soul from their body and from the physical world at death, and their immediate arrival at their eternal spiritual destiny. Discipleship, church involvement, and mission in the world, while helpful, are not inherently necessary. This gospel is exclusively about altering one’s personal eternal destiny.

This gospel is primarily a “spiritual transaction” that leads to an escape narrative, particularly escape from divine judgment but also from any earthly responsibility to participate in bringing about cultural or social change. For many who embrace this gospel, church involvement {6} is optional, as is personal or corporate discipleship. The salvific moment is encapsulated in the salvation decision and nothing else matters, since God has promised to change the person’s eternal destiny as a result of this decision. John 3:16 and Romans 10:13 (“Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”), understood in their most narrow senses (i.e., “believe,” “call”), would be the key prooftexts of those who hold this view of the gospel.

While it is obvious that we should affirm personal repentance, conversion, and verbal evangelism, the “Get out of jail free” gospel cannot do justice to the New Testament’s concern for discipleship, the church, and participating in God’s work in the world. The “fruit” that has come from this gospel is certainly less than the New Testament vision.

THE HIPSTER GOSPEL

A second inadequate gospel could be termed the “Hipster gospel” because it has special appeal to young, socially conscious adults across a wide variety of denominations. This gospel is a direct response to the escapism of the “Get out of jail free” gospel and represents a much-needed correction, seeing the problem as a present world broken by exploitation, racism, division, and sexism. The vision is for the transformation of our local communities and the larger world centered around what I would call the Hipster trinity: peace, love, and justice. Their focus is not so much on personal conversion to Jesus as on living out Jesus’s example: embracing people who are marginalized, denouncing class privilege, and erasing all us-versus-them divisions. Reconciliation in the Hipster view means not primarily (or even necessarily) reconciliation to God in Jesus—although it is assumed that the pursuit of peace, love, and justice is precisely what it means to be reconciled to God (Matt 25:34-30). Their assumption is that the kingdom or reign of God is demonstrated when all humanity stands together holding hands, regardless of religious beliefs, race, nationality, class, or other divisions.

Unlike the “Get out of jail free” gospel, the Hipster gospel is not about changing how God views us. It is about living out and promoting personal and community transformation, presumably leading to the flourishing of human communities and all of creation. However, while this narrative is about personal discipleship lived out now, it collapses the gospel into social ethics and essentially equates Jesus with peace, love, and justice. It largely removes the need to convert to a personal Jesus, replacing conversion with the creation of an inclusive human community that embraces all people as children of God. For this gospel, the church community will only be valued if it is willing to drop all the “boundary markers” that have created us-versus-them separations. {7}

The Hipster gospel is a move toward a gospel that recognizes something of the breadth of God’s kingdom and stands as a healthy critique of the church’s lack of concern for the broken and hurting world outside its doors. Nevertheless, it is prone to reject much of what the New Testament requires in terms of entry into the kingdom and the centrality of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in empowering that kingdom. It is, however, a tempting gospel for those in the Peace Church tradition who place high priority on reconciliation, peace, and justice.

THE MERCEDES BENZ GOSPEL

The third model could be called the Mercedes Benz gospel. Mercedes Benz has long nurtured a brand association with prosperity, luxury, and personal fulfillment. In this gospel, a loving God is reaching out to all humans in the hope that they will respond in any small way so that God can shower them with blessings. These blessings could be joy and peace but are more commonly expressed in physical and material ways. Any human step of obedience or prayer is an opportunity for this rich God to share some of heaven’s riches with the believer. The Mercedes Benz gospel is wildly popular in some circles, no doubt because of its immediacy and its teaching that God is focused 24/7 upon me, my happiness, and my physical needs. God does not postpone blessings until we arrive at some future place (viz., heaven) but is eager to bring some of heaven’s riches into the lives of each believer.

This gospel highlights God’s love and concern for each of us, as well as many Old Testament promises that God’s “covenant blessings” will come upon God’s faithful people in the here and now (e.g., Jer 29:11). Yet it fails to deal adequately with Jesus’s challenging words that discipleship is centrally about taking up one’s cross (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), not about personal prosperity and health. Again, this gospel provides “truth” (God loves each of us personally) but it makes little effort to balance this truth with much of what the New Testament proclaims about the cruciform shape of Christian discipleship.

THE “JESUS AND ME” GOSPEL

A fourth gospel that dispenses with talk of the kingdom of God could be titled “Jesus and me.” The most popular model in the Evangelical world, this one holds that true Christianity is about the initiation and growth of a personal relationship with a Jesus who is portrayed primarily as savior and friend. Conversion is not about getting a ticket to a heavenly paradise but a beautiful and meaningful daily relationship with Jesus that will carry on throughout one’s life and into eternity. The point of discipleship in the “Jesus and me” gospel is to pursue spiritual disciplines that will grow this relationship (e.g., listening to Jesus in prayer and Scripture {8} reading) and avoid any sinful practices that hinder that relationship. Besides evangelism, the main calling of the church is to help individual believers grow in that relationship. So, the church’s ministries are focused on providing preaching, teaching, and worship experiences that lead individual believers to feel closer to Jesus.

These themes of personal conversion, personal relationship with God, and personal discipleship permeate the MB Confession and are central to the vision statements of most MB churches. The shadow side of the “Jesus and me” gospel is that everything becomes “me-centered.” And it becomes the primary role of the local church to offer attendees as many intimate Jesus experiences as possible.

We are seeing the fruit of this gospel in how easily people move in and out of churches or stop attending altogether. It is challenging for teaching pastors, worship teams, and small group leaders to consistently generate the intense emotional experiences that those who long to feel closer to Jesus have come to expect. So when their expectations are disappointed, many will decide that church gatherings are unhelpful in nurturing their “Jesus relationship” and will participate only at their own convenience and in ways they prefer. The availability of quality sermon and worship material online is another substitute for the local church gathering and the community represented there.

In these ways and others, the “Jesus and me” gospel reflects the “me-centeredness” of our culture. To use the metaphor of life as a story, we invite Jesus into our own stories as a supporting character and friend, as long as we remain the center of our narratives. This runs counter to the New Testament’s portrayals of the relationship Jesus has with his disciples: Jesus does not follow them but invites them to follow him as he pursues his mission in the world (Matt 4:19; 9:9; 16:24). Jesus has harsh words for Peter—“Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33)—after Peter attempted to lead Jesus rather than follow. He tells his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14), which significantly redefines friendship. Jesus appears unwilling to accept the role of supporting character in our little “Jesus and me” narratives, which should lead us to question the adequacy of this popular gospel.

THE KINGDOM RESTORATION GOSPEL

So what contribution could a robust understanding of the kingdom of God have to our understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church? In what I call the Kingdom Restoration gospel, the problem is that the whole world is broken and everything (i.e., humans, culture, relationships, the creation) has been tainted and needs redemption. The good news is that God in Jesus has been, and is now, restoring everything to what God intended it to be. The gospel is cosmic and personal and communal and {9} transformative all at the same time. The gospel invites every person on earth to join this story through a personal conversion to Jesus and all that means—forgiveness, worship, discipleship, baptism into the church community, kingdom mission.

The gospel invites all nations to Jesus, but the gospel is bigger than simply a “Jesus and me” warm relationship, as important as that is. There is no restored kingdom without people in worship and service to the King. This gospel is not about inviting Jesus to be a “supporting friend” character in our own story but, rather, about God inviting us into God’s big kingdom story and allowing each of us, with our frail and broken stories, to be redeemed/forgiven to participate in this larger story. There is no kingdom fully restored without God bringing full Jesus-centered shalom into every dark place in all creation, completing his victory over sin, evil, and death. 3 God has created and redeemed a people to be empowered by God’s Spirit to participate in this huge mission which will only be completed when King Jesus returns again.

The Kingdom Restoration gospel walks a fine line between two key biblical truths. It affirms (1) that something real and cosmic happened through Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension that has massive implications for all of creation now. To use N.T. Wright’s words, the “revolution” has begun; God has “won the victory over all the powers of evil” freeing us to be his true image bearers “to worship the true God and work for his kingdom.” 4 Because of this victory, forgiven and restored humans can “seek first” God’s kingdom in their whole lives, participating in God’s kingdom restoration mission for all of creation. God is bringing real and substantive change in the world in our time.

But it also affirms (2) that while God’s kingdom is present and real in powerful ways in our world and we are to live into that reality, this kingdom will be realized fully and finally only with Jesus’s return. This rules out any idealistic or utopian transformationalism with its expectation that everything on earth (people, culture, politics) will “bow down” to King Jesus before his return. The “now but not yet” 5 understanding of the kingdom is clearly evident here and needs to be maintained, but we have often lived with an extremely small “now” and a massive “not yet.” The Kingdom Restoration gospel argues that the biblical text declares a much larger “now” than we have done in our preaching, teaching, and visioning.

An understanding of the “now” part of the restoration of the kingdom of God means at least four things. First, a kingdom has a king at the center, and the good news is that as a result of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God is reigning now in Jesus (Acts 7:56) in a way that is more immediate and comprehensive than at any time since the early chapters of Genesis (Rev 11:15). This gospel is optimistic and hopeful and celebratory because “all authority in heaven and on earth” {10} (Matt 28:18) has been given to Jesus, which radically changes everything. This means that worship in the largest sense of that word is at the core of Christian discipleship. Bowing down before King Jesus is the posture of the kingdom—but the kingdom is still present and God is still king even when people refuse to bow down.

Second, a kingdom needs a territory or location and all creation is now the location of the kingdom of God. G. E. Ladd has famously claimed that God’s kingdom in the Bible “always refers to His reign, His rule, His sovereignty, and not to the realm in which it is exercised.” But he also acknowledged that “a reign without a realm in which it is exercised is meaningless.” 6 It is common to spiritualize the kingdom of God and highlight that it is “not of this world” (John 18:36) but rather “within you” (Luke 17:21), 7 or to claim that there is no connection between kingdom and geography. 8 Although Satan did once claim authority over the kingdoms of the world since they had “been delivered” to him (Luke 4:6), everything changed after Jesus’s death and resurrection—Jesus was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Christopher Wright notes that this means that “the whole earth belongs to Jesus. . . . So wherever we go in his name, we are walking on his property. There is not an inch of this planet that does not belong to Christ.” 9 If every inch of the entire creation is Jesus’s property, then is not the entire creation the “realm” of his kingdom? While in some biblical texts Satan is described as “ruler” or “god” of this world (John 12:31; 2 Cor 4:4), “world” seems to refer not to the physical world but to the collection of all those presently opposed to Jesus’s rightful rule. Jesus is rightful king over all creation while Satan is the present but doomed leader of the worldly rebellion against that rightful kingdom.

The scope of a kingdom is not determined by the extent to which a king is recognized but only by the king’s authority to rule there. To think the opposite would justify humanity’s rejection of Jesus’s authority over the entire creation. And if Jesus is not the rightful sovereign over the whole earth, no human being owes him worship, and he has little right to expect it. But Jesus, the generous and gracious creator, redeemer, and king over all the earth, has all authority over this earthly realm, even if humans tragically refuse to submit to him. Creation is rightfully his, even though it is presently “groaning” for redemption (Rom 8:22). A Kingdom Restoration gospel sees Jesus as the proper king of all creation and the cosmos, and unapologetically invites everyone everywhere to recognize this wonderful truth and voluntarily repent, be forgiven, and worship the only king who is worthy of all worship. 10

Third, in his life on earth King Jesus was creating a new people, inviting people from every nation to become part of God’s people, who are now {11} his cruciform temple presence in the world. The gospel invites individuals to Jesus but then it invites them to join a “team” (viz., the church), where they can be built up, encourage others, and participate in God’s kingdom mission. This new people is unified not by ethnicity, economic bond, national identity, or common language but by a shared relationship to their king. “Family” has been re-imagined to mean identification with Jesus in doing the will of God (Matt 12:50). The Kingdom Restoration gospel highly values both the responsibility “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) and Jesus’s promise that “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Joining the people of God and thus the larger church is not a luxury in this gospel but is at its core—because kingdom restoration is about a new transformed people. King Jesus lives in the midst of his people who collectively reflect him as restored humans in the world, living as signs of the kingdom.

Fourth, a kingdom needs a kingdom ethic, a way of life that reflects the will and character of God in everything. Jesus calls his disciples, empowered by his Holy Spirit, to live out his radical kingdom ethic now. The Great Commission commands us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). Disciples are people who “obey everything” Jesus has commanded and then teach other Christ followers to do the same. The ethics of the kingdom lived out now are not optional in the gospel of the kingdom but part of its core.

This kingdom ethic is about being God’s redeemed image-bearers, living together in community, sacrificially living out the peace, love, and justice of King Jesus, but also imitating his radical hospitality and generosity. Unlike in the Hipster gospel, these are inextricably linked with the person of Jesus, the empowerment of the Spirit, and Jesus’s definition of how they are to operate in the kingdom (Matt 5–7). Jesus is calling kingdom citizens to live out his ethics everywhere as his “ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:20). A Kingdom Restoration gospel highly values living out the ethics of God’s kingdom, both because it demonstrates, albeit imperfectly, the character of God the king to our watching world and because it is central to demonstrating what it means to be truly human, flourishing as God intended.

CONCLUSION

It is my contention that in our preaching and teaching (as well as our visioning), we need to engage more fully with the reality of the kingdom of God “now and not yet,” which plays such a large role in the preaching and teaching of Jesus and the early apostles. A robust understanding {12} of the kingdom has implications for all areas of theological reflection, gospel proclamation, and ethical engagement in the world. While it may be true that kingdom language has been avoided so that we do not stray into Hipster gospel territory or downplay evangelism/proclamation, the dangers of neglecting the kingdom and the implications of such neglect are greater than those risks. We need to consider well what the reality of the kingdom of God present and future can mean for us, our churches, our communities, and our world. Something big has happened NOW, and something big is still NOT YET. But neither part of this truth should be neglected. The Kingdom Restoration gospel is truly a gospel worthy of the name.

NOTES

  1. For a discussion of what should be the focus of a church’s mission statement, see Jason Sexton, ed., Four Views on the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).
  2. This is the contention of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, who argue that the “the Great Commission is the mission of the Church.” What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 241. This is not surprising considering their view that the anthropocentric question—“How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?”—is at the “very heart of the Bible’s story” (69, emphases in the original).
  3. In Christopher Wright’s words, “The gospel addresses all that sin has touched, which is everything.” The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 318.
  4. N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 404.
  5. Or “already but not yet.”
  6. G. E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 20, 22.
  7. It is often noted that a better translation of John 18:36 would be “my kingdom is not from this world” (NRSV), emphasizing its source rather than its non-physical nature. For the location of the kingdom highlighted in Luke 17:21, it is not simply in the “hearts” of believers but “among you” (NRSV) or “in your midst” (NIV; ESV).
  8. DeYoung and Gilbert echo Ladd and others by arguing that biblically, “kingdom doesn’t refer essentially to a piece of land, but rather to ‘rule’ or ‘reign.’ ” Mission of the Church, 119.
  9. C. Wright, Mission of God, 403–4.
  10. “Whatever authority Satan exercises is usurped and illegitimate, provisional, and subject to the final limits set by the earth’s true owner and Lord, the Lamb who reigns from the throne of God (Rev 4–7).” C. Wright, Mission of God, 404.
Ken Esau is a Biblical Studies faculty member at Columbia Bible College where he has taught Old Testament and Theology since 1991. He and Karen attend The Life Centre in Abbotsford, BC.

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