Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Kingdom and Church

After Jesus told his disciples of his return to earth in glory, he told them a parable concerning what would happen before his second coming. It had to do with the kingdom of God and goes thus “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29-31, NIV).

What is it in our lives that could look like the vigorous growth of fig leaves and the coming of summer? John in his greeting to the seven churches, Revelation 1:6 tells us Jesus Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (NIV). This is speaking of the then present situation of John and the Christians of his day. Later in Revelation, as the Lamb is about to begin opening the seals the elders and living creatures sing a hymn of praise that includes the words “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10, NIV). The opening of the scroll is an unfolding of history. It seems clear from Revelation that the kingdom of God is now always present on earth and that it is intended to be a powerful spiritual reality. You may think or have been led to believe, that your church is the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. However, this cannot be true for several reasons.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50, NIV). Churches are assemblies of flesh and blood people and cannot be otherwise by their very nature. They are meant to be servants of the people of the kingdom of God and to have a very important role in enhancing spiritual growth but they are not the kingdom God.

Another reason churches cannot constitute the kingdom of God is that the kingdom of God is a unity of all who are in Christ. If you look at the yellow pages in the phone book you can see there is no ecclesiastical unity wherever it is that you live. Ecumenical unity has never been achieved on any significant scale since the conflict between the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch that is described in Acts 15:1-35.

Just as the kingdom of God does not find its fulfillment in the churches so it is not completed on earth. Its final place will be in heaven. As Paul told the Corinthians “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24, NIV). We find in Revelation 11:15 (NIV) that this kingdom that is handed over to God is that of the world. “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’”

A little further on in Revelation we learn that there is joint rule in heaven by both the Father and the Son. “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down’” (Revelation 12:10, NIV). Hebrews 1:8 (NIV) makes it clear about Christ’s eternal authority. “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.’”

Advertisements

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: The Kingdom Both on Earth and in Heaven

Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church and that the gates of Hades would not overcome it. Then, in Jesus’ next statement to Peter he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18). If we think the church is an earthly entity given the task of finding and strengthening the people of kingdom of God and that the kingdom of heaven is a spiritual realm that exists both on earth and in heaven, then it is reasonable that Jesus was speaking here of two different aspects of Peter’s future apostleship.

Churches are institutions formed in the here and now by Christians to do the things Jesus has given the churches to do. However, “Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV). We can probably read “from another place” as meaning “of a different kind.”

Luke 14:1-24 is a rendition of words Jesus said to Pharisees at a Sabbath meal to which he had been invited. Most of what he said contradicted the beliefs of the Pharisees, however “When one of those at the table with him heard this [the teaching concerning who should be invited to banquets], he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15, NIV). Jesus did not deny then there would be a feast in the kingdom of God but told the parable of the great banquet about who would be enjoying the feast. The next section of the fourteenth chapter is where Jesus spoke about the cost of discipleship.

Electronic Christianity Three

My most humble apologies to any who may have read my post “Electronic Christianity Two” and thought I was trying to base eChristianity on the Nicene Creed. That was not my purpose at all. What I was trying to accomplish was to show there was something solid at the core of Christianity. What I wanted to point out was that just as there is a reality underlying mathematics, physics, and all other kinds of science so there is a reality to Christianity that cannot be ignored. Please forgive me if I was unclear.

Perhaps I should have used the concept of “mere Christianity” that was used by C.S. Lewis to describe his idea of the root reality of Christianity. In any case, at the heart of our belief is the actual reality of a new life that will endure forever. This is the sure promise and the ultimate certainty yet it is not all there is for us in Christianity. Although most of us have probably had our lives greatly changed through the work of the Godhead in us, what also matters is that we are a part of the body of Christ and the body needs all of us parts to be truly whole. This is why I thought up eChristianity. It is conceived as a way to bring together the many of us who are one-person churches; people who have never found their “fit” in conventional churches and provide us a unity with each other.

I am not sure how eChristianity will work but I think it can use what the Internet has made possible. It is meant to enable the coming together of many parts of the body of Christ so Christianity can better withstand the forces operating to reduce its influence in the world and in people’s lives.

Please let me know what you think.

Electronic Christianity

The secular dreams of those who thought the Internet might bring about a better world might be partially fulfilled if it is used by Christians to bring our religion into the electronic age in a way that unites us in a common purpose and hope.

I think the future of American Christianity should lie in what I would call electronic Christianity. What I would give as a name for this new form of Christianity is the term eChristianity. I was surprised when my Google search came up empty for the label. I would have thought someone would have already used it. Perhaps eChristianity is simply too obvious or, perhaps, rather too broad for people’s implementations of Christianity on the Internet. Of course, all of you who read this post are participating in some form of electronic Christianity.

What I hope eChristianity will do is provide a form of Christianity without the current limits of geography, institutions or traditions. This does not mean that it would be without a common core of belief centered on the person of Jesus Christ. The various beliefs of eChristians would be tested in the electronic community by standards of conformity to the Bible, objective truth, rationality, common sense, and reality. I would hope that the form eChristianity takes allows us freedom of faith and understanding in the areas where there is some latitude while restricting the spread of unhelpful concepts of Christianity.

An eChristianity community can bring into being a tangible presence of a people set apart from the rest of the Internet while at the same time providing an actual unity of Christ’s people. Our relationship to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will have an actualization in the oneness of a Christian community joined in electronic communication.

There is further benefit to a form of Christianity imbedded in an electronic community. In our present culture it is far easier to interact with people electronically than it is face-to-face or in other physical ways. Also, almost anybody, Christian or not, is accessible to electronic communication. This fact allows for both a great enhancement of the activities currently conducted in churches and a far more widespread proclamation of the gospel (good news) of Jesus to unbelievers.

This new form of Christian community would not keep groups of Christians from coming together to participate in various activities helpful in their localities, and to join together in celebrations of what Christ has done for us.

The success of eChristianity will require a sacrifice of some part of our status quo from all us who participate. Though this is a small thing compared to the sacrifice of their lives required of some Christians, it is still no small thing. We like our freedom and independence, and our present situation. Unfortunately, unless we do something positive about the state of American Christianity what we like may not matter. Please let me know what you think about eChristianity.

What Did the Disciples Doubt?

Matthew 28:16-20 tells us of Jesus giving the eleven disciples what we call the Great Commission. It is a familiar and much cited passage and yet there is something in it that our adult Sunday school discussion class skipped over that seemed to me of interest. This was the phrase in verse 17 “but some doubted.”

The complete verse 17 (NIV) reads “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Apparently Matthew was the only gospel writer to make this statement as no cross references are given in the NIV for this verse nor does the Oxford Study Bible provide any. As far as commenting on it, the Life Application Study Bible does not refer to it. This is not an extensive survey of possible aids to understanding what Matthew had in mind but it seems our class was not the only people willing to just let it sit there without attempting to understand how it could be true.

Another Matthew, Matthew Henry did not omit a comment on this verse. He writes “All that see the Lord Jesus with an eye of faith will worship him. Yet the faith of the sincere may be very weak and wavering. But Christ gave such convincing proofs of his resurrection, as made their faith to triumph over doubts.” What Henry writes is true in the large view but does not deal with why there were doubts among the disciples, on that mountain, on that day, with the risen Jesus present with them.

The doubt may have arisen from the fact that it was evident by then that the messianic kingdom of Jewish anticipation was not what Jesus had described when he spoke to them in his prior teaching of the kingdom of God/heaven. What was it to be and what was their role in it going to be? This seems to me at the root of their uncertainty and why it can be said that some doubted.

Jesus, as always, was aware of their concerns and, as was typical, gave them a task they had not foreseen. They were to use his kingly authority on earth to make disciples from all nations. They were to make them citizens of the kingdom of God by baptizing them in the names of the Trinity. Then they were to teach them be good subjects of their Lord, that is they would be shown how to obey the commandments Jesus had taught the disciples, love God and love your neighbor.

The disciples were only the first of many Christians who have had uncertainty about the nature of the kingdom of God and their participation in it. These doubts have often been resolved by placing the kingdom in another time or place and envisioning Christians as reigning in it. This is another version of the Jewish expectation and not at all what Jesus taught the eleven disciples gathered that day on a mountain.

Christians have also been distracted from the focus on the kingdom of God that was central the Christ’s teaching by confusing the church with the kingdom. It is clear, though, that the kingdom of God exists both on earth and in heaven while the church is an institution whose purpose is to support the spread of the kingdom and the growth in maturity of all believers. The church is both flawed and temporary, as are all the things of earth. At the end of time it will cease to exist while the kingdom of heaven, and those who belong to it, will endure forever.

Fair Warning

I am always impressed by how well the English use their language. For example, American auctioneers typically say “Going once, going twice, sold!” The English say “Fair warning!” In both cases when the gavel comes down the transaction is settled. The warning given at an English auction says two things. One is that no further offers will be accepted. The other is that the highest bid must be paid.

The Bible contains many instances of God giving people fair warning. Prophecies of destruction tell that a time will come when the cup of God’s wrath will be filled with peoples’ iniquities and it will be too late for people to repent. There are also descriptions of the heavy price that must be paid when people reject God and his standards for human behavior.

Applying this idea to present-day American society is too easy and has been done too often by “premature prophets” for it to have any traction in our culture. Where it has not been applied is to American Christianity. Christians fail to remember that what was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 was religious practices that had their origins in the desert of Sinai at the direct expression of God’s will. What happened there was no less powerful than what happened in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Yet what had been founded in the very presence of the glory of God had become so corrupt that God destroyed it without a chance for repentance and without remedy.

The first three chapters of the book of Revelation give fair warning to the churches of the United States. If their various corruptions are not remedied they will cease to exist in their present form just as the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom John wrote have long since ceased to define the nature of Turkish culture. What are these defects that must be remedied of Christianity is to remain a shaper of American values.

My analysis of our present situation will take the form of descriptions of conceptual churches. These churches are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the cultural church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general. The cultural church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.

The pseudo-Christian church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The pseudo-Christian church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.

The pseudo-Christian church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the pseudo-Christian church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.

The hyper-Christian church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The pseudo-Christian church believes too little, the hyper-Christian church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the cultural church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment among some of its adherents.

The social-activist church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.

The self-centered church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the self-centered church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.

The self-made church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of the first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the self-made church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.

The second denomination of the self-made church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the self-made church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.

There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the rationalist church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The literalist church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a post-modern church.

There is, as there has been since the first century, a heretical church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the new-age church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.

I will end my rather long list of churches with the miscellaneous church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches described here share in it, is that they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.

At this point you may be wondering why I left out the good church—the one like your local congregation—from my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.

What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.

The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.

I do not think there can be a remaking of American society on Christian principles unless there is a return of American Christianity to the truth of Scripture. That will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.

If the regeneration of a significant part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for this change can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its becoming as Christ would have it. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and be able to rejoice in the righting of what has gone wrong.

Otherwise, let what I wrote constitute “Fair Warning.”

A Reformation of American Christianity

I think I would like to make a serious proposal for the reformation of American Christianity. It will be harder for me to get people to respond to the call than it was for Martin Luther. When he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, there was already widespread discontent with the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. The problem now is that the people in organized Christianity are, for the most part, happy with their situation, and those who are not happy pay a very small price when they abandon formal Christianity. The easy part for me to propose reformation is that I do not have to risk my life and my livelihood as Luther did.

American Christianity is also not like the situation in the churches of second-century Asia Minor when John wrote the book of Revelation. However, I think I can define my own list of seven contemporary churches in need of reformation. These are not identified by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition, or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

You may be wondering what these seven churches are that I have experienced and that I would have you consider as needing reformation.

Self-Centered Church

As a member of the self-centered church, I found my life centered on me. It was all about my security, my relationship to God, what God thinks of me, how I might hurt him, my time, my possessions, my personal peace. Me, me, me! I needed some inspiration to lead a different life. I wanted to be surrendered to Christ and be doing things in the purposes of God.

Secular Church

When I was in the secular church I learned much about the Bible, but very little about the reality of God, particularly the Holy Spirit. The information was useful, but not transforming. It was easy to see “spiritual” success as living well. This agreed with my natural inclination. In fact, it taught me I was to do things in my natural ability.

Super-Spiritual Church.

In the super-spiritual church I waved my hands in the air, sang with joy and stringed instruments, heard people speak in tongues but grew little in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. It was just children’s church with grown ups.

Self-Righteous Church

The self-righteous church was set on saving the world, not from sin, guilt and eternal damnation but from poverty, disease and carbon dioxide. I didn’t feel up to the task.

Saintly Church

The saintly church saw holiness in self-sacrifice, abstinence and being different than others. I only measured up on the last count.

Pseudo-Christian Church

The pseudo-Christian church was nice, tolerant and very proud of having adopted the worst tenets of humanism. I found it had kept the name Christian while losing the reality. It would have come out well in a hypocrisy contest with anybody, because it professes to be what it is not.

Servant Church

The servant church was like C. S. Lewis’ good religious people. You feel they are good rather than them telling you so. They are full of love, joyful, peaceful, patient, kindly and self-controlled. You enjoy their presence, though I did not deserve to be there. They are not self-promoting, self-serving or boat rockers. They are what all the churches should be—and are ineffectual at reforming Christianity. Otherwise the other churches would not exist.

Each of these churches will defend themselves against being the subjects of reformation and no reformation will happen in any of them until a crisis comes from outside themselves that forces them to be what God would have them be or cease to exist.