Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God
Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian. In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God. It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’). The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:
- God is the king of the kingdom
- The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
- To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God
In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible. This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians. It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later. First we will briefly analyse these three implications.
1. God is the king of the kingdom
The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam). The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’. To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal. All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.
2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God. There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age. The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign. This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later. There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience. The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’. I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…
Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible). The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith. The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe. Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’. Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical. Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically. God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it. The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms. As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.” The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.
3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God
Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom. We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.
The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’
Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think. Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself. I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’. What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise. This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties! The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.
God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us. It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church. Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation. In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live. Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.
As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)