'Kingdom' - maybe 'sovereignty', to be more precise - isn't a word we use or hear much of outside of 'Brexit' chat; and, let's face it, it's very rarely chat, and more often heated debate. That aside, I wonder what kinda things the word 'kingdom' evokes in you? Perhaps, it's the Netflix zombie hit, Kingdom, or Rend Collective's not so recent earworm, 'Build Your Kingdom Here'. Maybe you have a few New Testament bells ringing on what the Kingdom of God is like; yanno, something to do with sheep, coins, and pearls; maybe it conjures theological debates on the one/two Kingdom stuff. I'll say no more!
I may be wrong, but I haven't heard the word 'Kingdom' used amongst Christians in quite some time. It hasn't cropped up in that many sermons (online or otherwise), conversations, or prayers (apart from the Lord's, obviously). And, I'm wondering why that is. So little have I heard it, that I'm actually surprised when it comes up, and I start to wonder, "Ooh, where are they gonna go with this?" It's an exotic word, a word verging on risk, which could lead many people astray if it is not handled well...
I can remember people using the term 'Kingdom' as a linguistic means of appealing to particular Christian 'tribes' in conversations. That's sad, isn't it? The word is so emptied in one quarter, and maybe over-used in others, that it becomes a bargaining chip, mere semantics, little substance.
But when we create such a spiritual disconnect between ourselves and this core aspect of the gospel (Mark 1:15; Luke 9:2; Matthew 10:7), it is little wonder that it becomes a tool, an explication, an exhortation, but perhaps not a daily spiritual reality, not that it can be observed (Luke 17:21). For many of us, Kingdom language is 'too hot to handle'. It must be handled with extreme caution lest we fall into any unhelpful excesses or extremes. It could be that we are actually emptying the power of the gospel by fearfully sequestering Kingdom language away, like a beautiful relic from the 8th dynasty of Egypt. We know it's important, but we're not quite sure how, and there's a little sign saying 'do not touch', so we'd better leave it alone and leave it to the 'experts' to convey to us. We know we are saved, and that's the main thing. Of course we are in the Kingdom. Jesus is King, ergo, we are in the Kingdom of God. And, for many of us, perhaps that's where we leave it: as an esoteric reality. Consider this: Look at society and culture and politics and the arts and the sciences. What kind of kingdom do you see advancing there? The more we retreat, the more culture crumbles. When we diminish our understanding and experience of the Kingdom by restricting it to a particular church culture, or as an entity reserved for those who know what they are talking about, what we are actually doing is contributing to the erosion of society. I know, strong words. But they are words I'm currently reflecting on because Jesus tells us to: "proclaim this message: the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 10:7). If we are to preach it, we are to practice it. (I remember someone saying that John Stott puts the decline of evangelicalism in the UK down to Christians no longer occupying all sectors of society - the sacred/secular divide continues insidiously.) Perhaps we have grown suspicious of the Kingdom? That is, I've attended all too many church gatherings where the Kingdom has been preached in a state of emotional frenzy, mere appeals, declarations and assertions than any substantial tracking with my day-to-day life. It has been mystified to the extent of irrelevance, even though we know it is a core reality and doctrine. I've also attended all too many church gatherings where the Kingdom, ostensibility, has died the death of a thousand theological qualifications. Is it possible for us to be heartily precise in the way we speak of the Kingdom and substantially joyful in the way in which we experience it? Perhaps we're guilty of Orwell's doublethink - where we sing about the Kingdom and ardently pray for it, but when we wake up on Monday morning, it's a distant reality and one which has very little bearing on our day.
We uphold it doctrinally yet dissent from it daily. It's in that far off eschatological category (of consummation), which theologians like to talk about. The Kingdom will fully come with Jesus' return, emphasis on the fully, little talk of the now. Or, maybe, we uphold it in our daily lives, we wave it around like glow-sticks at a gig; but, actually, we have little to no idea what it really means, other than the fact we should rejoice in it, and we do: The Kingdom of God is here, right now, emphasis on the now, little talk of the future. Again, it's just another form of upholding the Kingdom doctrinally yet dissenting from it on the daily. Theological conviction: tick. Functional outworking: probably; it's implicit, right? But, dunno, meh. The Kingdom of God has felt like a lofty task on the regular. A calling I'm unequipped to handle, but a good hearty reminder that I can't live up to its dictates and so I should crawl before the cross and ask for forgiveness. I mean, that's what the pattern of the Christian life is like, right? I am forgiven, I know eternity is on my side, and so I'll galavant through my days and just trot back to Jesus when, at the end of the day (maybe week), I start getting a bit hungry; I've fallen over in the mud and I need him to kiss it better for me; or 'so and so' has started to pick on me. In other words, 'Jesus, will you please make this go away so I can get back to 'it'?' Whatever 'it' is. I go away to come back again, right? There's a rhythm of sending and returning. Yeah, it is right, but we've got it some of it wrong.
Kingdom Discipleship Whose Kingdom does Jesus serve? Jesus didn't instantiate the Kingdom of the heavens so that he can merely make our 'boo-boos' better - though he delights to! And praise the Lord that he does: no smouldering wicks or bruised reeds are extinguished or broken in this kind of kingdom. A part of what it means for us to enter and to remain - to abide - in the Kingdom of God is that as we draw close to Christ we become more like him. 'It' should be a daily dynamic - relationship - where we bring our little kingdoms into his Kingdom. 'It' shouldn't be 'you help me to do my thing and I'll give you praise if it does right.' 'It' is the life of a disciple. The gospel we so often hear is one of forgiveness. It most assuredly is one of forgiveness, that's what the atonement is all about. The good news of the gospel is about no less than that, but so much more. It's about the kind of persons we are, that we are becoming, once we have received Jesus by his Spirit. What kind of disciples do you think are created if all they hear is that the gospel is about forgiveness of sins? Before you think I'm going all 'liberal', allow me to explain! The gospel of forgiveness of sins produces the kind of disciples I described earlier. We compartmentalise the gospel. We think knowing Jesus is just about eternal salvation and no more. No wonder we struggle trying to connect Christ to our circumstances, and perhaps even with culture and what our friends and family are up to. We do not know how to listen, think, and act, as his disciples. So when Jesus says, "follow me" in John 1:43, that is not code for merely 'come and intellectually understand that the true messiah has to suffer.' Jesus' whole life points us to a new way of life through the cross.
We often don't realise we are called to a life of ongoing discipleship! As though the life we have is the vehicle of the Kingdom of God. And that, actually, the Kingdom, the reign and rule of Jesus, has profound implications for our formation and transformation, not just when we first receive Christ, but in the crevices and creaks of our quotidian lives.
James and Jesus I've often been struck by James' imagery where he compares looking (listening) at the word and not doing (obeying) what it says, like someone who has a clear view of themselves in the mirror, but then immediately forgets what they look like when they turn around. How often we do look into the perfect word and think 'yup, I'm done.' I can noetically assent to penal substitutionary atonement, I'll be on my way now til I mess up. "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do." (James 1:22-25.)
These words strike me for two reasons: 1. They are written by Jesus' half brother, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church. Yet, we hear very little of him throughout the life of Jesus other than in Matt. 13:55 and Mark 6:3, where he is mentioned alongside other family members when Jesus' identity/ministry was called into question. Where was James? If he's leading a church now and writing this epistle, why wasn't he there, then? Perhaps he was knocking around, but it was of little note for the gospel writers. But then, why wasn't he at the foot of the cross? Did James look into the perfect law of God (Luke 24:27) - Jesus - and turn away? Is that why he is not named among those gathered around Jesus when he takes his last breath? Perhaps he saw and he was frightened, and so he forgot - he ran. Perhaps that's partly why he uses this image when he entreats the 12 scattered tribes to continue in the faith and not be afraid.
James knows what it's like to have looked at Jesus and turned away.
2. James emphasises the continuation of discipleship in these verses. It's not coming back when we've mucked up (but of course we can and we do), discipleship is about the ongoing listening, remembering, doing. It's about remaining (John 15:4). I recently heard a talk given by Dallas Willard (he's a bit of a hero of mine), and he said this:
"Jesus brings us to a life of continual growth in goodness, rightness and power, and we know more and more of the Kingdom of God in who we are and what we are doing. So that we are caught up in the Kingdom of God in such a way that when death comes, we don’t even know it." Those who keep Jesus' word will never see death (John 8). Or, how about 2 Timothy 1:10: Jesus has "destroyed death". How can that be? This is a primary work of the cross and Willard goes on to say that we also experience this death destruction as we die: "It comes to those whose lives are so caught up in the Kingdom of God, that as the body ceases to function, they are focussed entirely on the environments of heaven, that they don’t know they’re dying, because they’re not." We have been given the Kingdom of God, and we need to learn how to live in it - and how to die in it.
Developing Devoted Disciples Devotions are stunning and necessary, but spiritual maturity - a life marked by ongoing closeness to Christ, learning to be like him - isn't about accumulating spiritual practices. After all, who were marked out for their continual observance of spiritual practices? This is one question where the answer isn't Jesus! It was, you guessed it, the Pharisees. We need to consider this in such a way that the Pharisees do not win. Matthew 6:33: "But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well," said Jesus to a heaving crowd, before the disciples, as he sat on the dry ground.
These words are often trotted out as pithy statements in response to our wanting something really badly. You know the score: "I reaaalllly want that job"; "I reaalllyy like that person". "Yeah, I know, seek his Kingdom first though, yeah? Then let's see what happens."
While this is good advice, it ever so slightly misses the mark. What does it mean to seek his Kingdom as we prepare for a job interview, or exams, or anything for that matter?
Stating the Kingdom does not mean that we will seek it. Often we think it just means thinking good thoughts about Jesus (à la Philippians 4:8), and perhaps making sure we go to church that Sunday, aaaand let's add saying those prayers for that person following that text message. If I do those things then I'm seeking the Kingdom and then God will make it go well for x, y and z. And eeever so subtly we have turned the Kingdom into an economic exercise where we get out what we put in. There is a ring of truth to this; but it is when we stop focussing on the financial outcomes or net gain and, instead, fix our gaze on our fiduciary (trusty) fellowship with Jesus, that we will learn what Kingdom living is like. Take the church in Rome, for example. All sorts of disputes were arising and Paul has to remind them, as they're fussing over freedoms concerning what they can eat and drink, what the Kingdom of God is really like: "For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom above earthly needs, and Paul tells us that the Kingdom is ruled by righteousness, peace and joy. How do we put pursuit of the Kingdom and the character of the Kingdom together? When Jesus says to seek the Kingdom he doesn't say that clothes and food are unimportant, but that we shouldn't 'run after all these things' (Matthew 6:32). You see, it's as we bring the domain of our concerns, our influence, our abilities to the Kingdom of God that the Spirit empowers us with His peace, joy, and righteousness. Christ's Kingdom is all that he has say over, and being united to him, that includes us, but discipleship isn't automatic. It does mean we are saved, being saved, and will be saved, but Kingdom life - spiritual maturity - is when we bring our little kingdoms in line with his effective rule. That is the gospel. That is what it means to repent and believe. Continually transforming our thinking, our ways, our desires by bringing them to Christ. So, it could very well mean you go to church when you weren't otherwise going to go; by doing so you're bringing the domain of your effective rule (how you spend your time, resources, evening) in line with Kingdom values: "do not give up meeting together" (Hebrews: 10:25). In this way, Christ becomes our teacher, as well as our Saviour. And humanly impossible realities and resources are opened up to us, bodily: righteousness, peace, joy. This is what it means to be a disciple. "If we don’t accept this teaching about discipleship as the heart and teaching of the gospel, then the moral substance drains out of our lives, and we don’t know the good we are to do. We lead our lives frustrated, maybe angry, and never know the peace, love, and joy, that’s meant to fill our lives." - Dallas Willard. The Kingdom of God is a reality for each and every Christian. It is also an opportunity for growth for each and every Christian as we continue our lives within the reign and rule of Jesus himself.
How would Jesus live the life you have been given?
Going back to something I wrote earlier, we often pray out of a sense of disruption rather than discipleship. We often pray so that we can be get back to the task 'pre-problem', or whatever 'it' is we were focussing on before. Perhaps what we could be seeking, delighting in, praying for, bringing, engaging with, longing for, advancing/growing (I'll leave that debate with you!), and experiencing in our Christian lives is the Kingdom of Christ, as we follow him, and seek to be like him. Not as an awareness of an esoteric reality but a real engagement and consideration of Jesus' ongoing work. 'It' is the Kingdom. The Kingdom is what we are cultivating (whether we are aware of it or not) and praying we bring into every conversation, celebration, school pick up, essay, lecture, baby feed, sermon and meeting. If you know Jesus, you are part of his Kingdom. His Kingdom is in you (Luke 17:21) . And wherever you go, so does His Kingdom. How does that change the way we suffer? The way we love? The way we think? The way we give? The life of discipleship is an ongoing relinquishing of our little kingdoms into the life of the Kingdom. What we have been given reign and rule over, we are to bring into Christ's Kingdom. Today, which part of your domain are you unwilling to bring under Christ's sovereign rule? Today, where do you get to go in the power of the Kingdom? Recalibrating our hearts and minds so that we can reorient ourselves situationally in Kingdom living is essential. Jesus will not love you less if you don't, but he may ask you why didn't. All too often I read blogs and think, 'YEAH! That's such a great point!' and then I carry on with my google search. If the Spirit has worked any of this into your imagination and heart, then please, rather than getting back to that email, would you pray the following with me?
Quicken me to call upon thy name, for my mind is ignorant, my thoughts vagrant, my affections earthly, my heart unbelieving, and only thy Spirit can help my infirmities. I approach thee as Father and Friend, my portion for ever, my exceeding joy, my strength of heart. I believe in thee as the God of nature, the ordainer of providence, the sender of Jesus my Saviour. My guilty fears discourage an approach to thee, but I praise thee for the blessed news that Jesus reconciles thee to me. May the truth that is in him illuminate in me all that is dark, establish in me all that is wavering, comfort in me all that is wretched, accomplish in me all that is of thy goodness, and glorify in me the name of Jesus. I pass through a vale of tears but bless thee for the opening gate of glory at its end. Enable me to realize as mine the better, heavenly country. Prepare me for every part of my pilgrimage. Uphold my steps by thy Word. Let no iniquity dominate me. Teach me that Christ cannot be the way if I am the end, that he cannot be Redeemer if I am my own saviour, that there can be no true union with him while the creature has my heart, that faith accepts him as Redeemer and Lord or not at all.
(Taken from The Valley of Vision.)
This isn't about making great points, but being reminded where great power lies.