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.)
13 thoughts on “Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God”
Imaging the Kingdom is a helpful way for Christians to make sense of where our ultimate loyalty lies. It also helps to frame our intentions: away from selfish ambition and towards those values that count in the Kingdom – love, joy, peace, &c… What is exciting about this is that it affords the prospect of continuing growth (in grace) which is not threatened by mortal decline. Indeed as a preparation for eternity it becomes an expression of the triumph of life over death. Hallelujah!
Looking forward to more on imaging the kingdom. It’s a powerful meditative focus to step outside of our own little worlds, where we see ourselves as in control and making of this life what we want, to aligning ourselves with God’s proper and blessed reign over all things.
One side note, which you can address/ignore at your leisure, is the sense from scripture of the competing kingdom of Satan and “other gods” which Jesus decisively trumped in his death & resurrection, and yet which we still struggle against (which Greg Boyd highlights in his modern version of the Christus Victor view of the atonement and his “trinitarian warfare theodicy” outlined in “Satan and the Problem of Evil” [interesting side note that Boyd has a new book just out called “Present Perfect: Discovering the Kingdom in the Now”!]).
I don’t see this as all Frank Peretti kind of spiritual warfare, but just that it’s not only about us submitting to God’s PROPER kingdom rule, but also fighting against the kingdom(s) of God’s opposition, who see THEMSELVES as properly ruling this world. I am halfway through a book called “God’s Rivals” by Gerald McDermott, who is talking about other gods (which he feels should be seen as more than “so-called gods”, but not of the same genus as Yahweh), both in scripture and in human religions, as actual powers and rulers (namely, demonic powers). It’s a challenging book because it does highlight many passages and terms that I generally dismiss because I am skeptical of the overemphasis on demons/Satan and such, but which do have some impact on our world…
I bring these up because it does seem to be part of God’s overall sovereign (a kingdom word if there ever was one!) plan to allow competitive kingdoms to even establish themselves on earth (i.e. Jesus called Satan the Prince of the present age) as part of his loving desire to have us voluntarily submit to the true king who ,rather than forcing his will upon us *cough irresistable grace cough* even though he has the ABILITY to do so, would voluntarily sacrifice himself as an example of love for us to willingly love in return and submit to as self-consciously broken/defeated foes who have been overwhelmed by goodness and beauty, rather than simply an act of unopposable power.
So now we who have bowed to the ruler say “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” because we REALLY desire it to thoroughly infiltrate our world, though the day will come when all competitors and rebels will recognize his kingdom in a mixture of awe and damnation.
A long side note.
Your loving fellow kingdom servant,
Thank you for your comments and your ever-ministering heart. I am excited to continue to explore the profound implications of Christ’s victory over death in his establishing of the kingdom.
Interesting things you bring up. I am also guilty of typically dismissing certain things. With regard to Christ’s words on Satan’s ‘princedom’, I would say that Christ was speaking before his death so maybe something is substantially different in the Church age? I am not at all saying that we don’t face demonic oppression – I’ve personally participated in two exorcisms, something I rarely talk about. Still, I believe that it is sometimes a fault to talk about the ‘other side’ too much.
Ed Curtis, sage of Talbot Seminary, once told me regarding another issue that if we only dealt with what was already on our plate we’d have more then enough to occupy us for the rest of our lives. Essentially, I feel that way about the kingdom of God. If you look at Christ’s ministry it was not charactarised by assessing these opposing forces in any sort of exhaustive way. I think that when we speak of the kingdom we will at certain points inevitably speak about the enemies of the kingdom of God, but those don’t seem to be central in any way to Christ’s messages as recorded in the Gospels. I think that if we speak of those things they will be very much on the periphery if at all.
At any rate, Christ’s death and Resurrection is a game-changer. We must deal with the oppression from the ‘other side’, but always in the reality that God has won and has graciously invited us to participate in his programme.
I’d like to explore this issue in greater depth, starting with a read through the Epistles, as I don’t recall them dealing very extensively with the issue of the demonic.
Thank you Greg, as always.
Beautiful. Looking forward to the coming posts on the subject.
Good points, Elijah. And just to clarify, my thought on warring against the kingdom in opposition to God is not primarily in the way of looking for demons everywhere, casting them out, etc. but more recognizing another force at work in the battle for sovereignty besides God & the self (which is how I was always brought up to think).
In terms of post-Christ references to Satanic “rule”, Paul references “the god of this world” (2. Cor. 4.4) along with “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2.2) who is trying to blind the minds of the pre-regenerate (a more positive way of looking at unregenerate, no?) and who inspires some of the evil in this world, along with our own flesh (I would LOVE to have you share some thoughts on the flesh here someday).
So in terms of “warfare”, I’m thinking along the lines of 2 Cor. 10.3-5: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
I think your post is a means of reclaiming the kingdom of God in our hearts/minds and bringing us into obedience to Christ against the powers of this world.
Good words, Greg. Do you think a post on this kind of warfare would be a good thing to explore in this series?
A thought that has been circulating within my brains for awhile now has been the idea of transcendence in art. I think by this I mean to wonder about the veracity of beautific visions through artforms.
Perhaps I mean to ask in what ways is the present state of the invisible Kingdom communicable/transferable. Recently I watched a couple lectures on Plato and Plontinus, and was fascinated by the ‘Aha!’ type moments of interacting with the One (or the Ultimate Good). It is a form of knowledge, but it seems to happen at once, it’s a instant seeing, rather than a learning process.
Certainly I have made myself perfectly muddy, but hopefully you can extract from that jumble what I am trying to ask.
Thanks for your comment. I believe you’re asking how we encounter the kingdom of God through beauty, no? I believe that the answer to this is a very dynamic and dialectical issue (in fact, my Ph.D. is exploring it…) and I hope to write more thoroughly on this in the future.
I am a little confused as to exactly what you are asking, so perhaps you can clarify. I think you may be asking the question I posted above as well as whether or not we receive this as some sort of ‘information’. I think that the kingdom of God can be revealed in many ways and they can be ‘Aha!’ moments and/or a gradual process.
I will answer for Greg and say “yes, we would like you to post something on the ‘powers'” – I think it comes up enough in the kingdom of God motif in Scripture that it would be helpful to include. I wonder if any of Walter Wink’s trilogy on the powers would be useful.
Thank you for answering for Greg. In the docket for this series I was planning on addressing war, politics and violence, and I suppose I was considering that sort of power as something categorically different from the so-called ‘spiritual warfare’, but maybe we should address them all as one unit…
I will respond to Ryan’s response for me and say yes to all he has listed above, acting as if I had previously been aware of Wink’s trilogy and wishing that I had the money to purchase the 6 different books by this guy that are now on my Amazon wishlist.
Ryan, I don’t know if we’ve met in person, but you seem like the kind of guy who I’d like. We should connect sometime!
ALSO, Elijah, I just thought of one more topic: the kingdom and free will. I’ve been thinking a good deal about participation in the kingdom (your post intensified the thought) and it’s funny because it seems like one of the most significant aspects of the kingdom is that, in some sense, participation in it is VOLUNTARY.
I know there is a distinction between God’s kingship in principle and in fact (i.e. God is the ACTUAL real ruler of all, but he allows us/angelic beings to seemingly reject his reign in this world), but it seems to me that if the process of allowing his creatures to freely accept/reject his kingdom is part of HIS kingdom plan, he is still reigning in that, right? It just makes me all the more excited to be part of his kingdom, because he is such a beautiful, benevolent ruler rather than a despotic tyrant!!!