Good News of God's Kingdom - Guest Post by John Nugent

We're in for a treat today. John Nugent provided me with his non-trimmed down article on the Kingdom of God. A shortened version was published in the Christian Standard last year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Also, I recently preached a sermon on this topic.

Part One: The Good News
Marriage Analogy
Marriage has fallen on hard times as of late: divorce rates are soaring, children are being born out of wedlock, Christians are marrying unbelievers, and same-sex unions are escalating. Indeed, there is widespread confusion as to what marriage entails. Such confusion stems partly from our culture’s tendency to mistake the benefits of marriage with marriage itself. It is true that after marriage a man and woman are properly positioned to have children, whether the goal is to enjoy their company, pass on the family name, or ensure care in old age. It is equally true that spouses may savor romantic moments, experience guilt-free intercourse, share material possessions, and enjoy certain economic privileges. These benefits of marriage cannot and should not be denied; but neither do they define what marriage is.
From a Christian standpoint, marriage is a lifelong commitment that a man and a woman make before God and His people, and consummate in the marriage bed. By these actions they bind their lives exclusively to one another out of the conviction that they can best serve God together. Apart from this context, marriage can degrade into a contractual relationship by which two individuals, still independent, seek to secure the benefits of marriage while the investment potential is still promising. The sad but inevitable result of this kind of agreement is that it is easily dissolved when the benefits wane and the arrangement becomes less convenient or is seen to be less advantageous.
Insightful Christians have claimed that a similar fate has befallen the Gospel message. [fn. 1 See the numerous writings of the Gospel and Our Culture Network.] They believe that a good number of Christians have confused the benefits of the Good News with the Good News itself. I have to admit that I was skeptical of these claims at first, but recent experiences in local churches, seminars, and college classes have convinced me otherwise.
Good News Exercise
When teaching about the nature and mission of the Church, I typically begin with a simple exercise. I hand each participant a blank index card. On that card I have them answer the following question: “What is the Good News that Jesus and his followers proclaimed?” Then I collect the cards, mix them up, and read through the stack. The answers are much the same: “Jesus loves me as a friend and will help me through the tough spots in life,” “My sins are forgiven and my guilt is removed,” and “Jesus died so I may be raised from the dead to receive eternal life.” Though these statements reflect important components of what Jesus has done and what benefits we may receive through him, participants are often surprised to learn that these benefits by themselves are not the gospel message that Jesus and his followers preached; that is, according to Scripture.
I expose them to the biblical message in the most straightforward way I know. I hand the participants another index card. Each one contains a different verse from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts in which the Good News Jesus or one of his followers preached is summarized in a sentence or two. One by one they read the verses aloud and by the time they are done the message is clear. According to Scripture, the Good News that John the Baptist preachecd, [fn. 2 Matt 3:1-2] [fn. 3 Matt 4:17, 23; 9:35; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:11; 16:16] Jesus commissioned his followers to preach, [fn. 4 Matt 10:7; Luke 9:2, 60; 10:9-11] Jesus said would be preached until the very end, [fn. 5 Matt 24:14] Jesus preached after his resurrection, [fn. 6 Acts 1:3, and Jesus’ followers preached in their earliest mission work [fn. 7 Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23; 28:31] was the Gospel of God’s in-breaking kingdom. Here are a few representative verses: Jesus preached,
  • “John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Matt 3:1-2)
  • “Jesus went…proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)
  • “…[T]his gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt 24:14)
  • “I (Jesus) must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:42-43)
  • “[Jesus] appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3)
  • “[Philip] preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus.” (Acts 8:12)
  • “[Paul] declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)
From these verses we may trace a kind of evolution of the Good News. John the Baptist preached about the kingdom of God, Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, and Jesus’ earliest followers preached about the kingdom of God and Jesus. Today, however, many Christians retain Jesus’ central place in the Good News, as they should, but then they omit all reference to the kingdom of God or replace it with the latest trend, such as, liberation, enlightenment, or individualistic salvation.
My aim in this essay is not to trace the complicated history of how “kingdom” language has slipped out of many Christians’ explanation of the Good News, nor to claim that those who do not use such language do not understand the Good News. People may certainly comprehend the same Gospel but use different terms to discuss it. I only want to raise awareness of kingdom language, clarify its meaning, and suggest a few reasons why recovering such language can empower churches to a fuller witness today. Having fulfilled the first of these tasks, I now turn to the second.

Part Two: What is the Kingdom of God?
Common Misconceptions
This essay is not the place for an exhaustive introduction to the kingdom of God, so I will briefly address some common misconceptions and then suggest a more biblical view.
First, the kingdom of God is not simply “heaven,” as in the place where God currently resides. Whereas Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” more than “kingdom of God” (as opposed to Mark and Luke), the reason has nothing to do with location. Instead, Matthew, being a respectful Jew writing for a Jewish Christian audience, is honoring God’s name by not overusing it. He uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as a circumlocution—that is, a roundabout way of conveying “kingdom of God” without saying “God.” Furthermore, as the Lord’s Prayer indicates, God’s kingdom entails God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.” So whereas heaven is and has always been under God’s reign, the Good News is that God’s rule is extending beyond his heavenly abode.
Second, the kingdom of God should not be confused with the person of Jesus. Some surmise that because the kingdom existed in Jesus, he must be the kingdom. For them, to say that the kingdom has come is the same as saying that Jesus himself has come. More accurately, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom, taught authoritatively what that kingdom is like, and reigns now over that kingdom—but he is not the kingdom itself. As we will see, the kingdom of God is a social reality ushered in by the first and second advents of Jesus, but Jesus himself is not the sum total of that reality.
Third, the kingdom is not simply inner spiritual experience of the divine, as in “Jesus reigns in my heart.” Support for this understanding is gleaned from Luke 17:21, where Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is within you” (NIV). However, the word translated “within” here is better translated as “among”—a translation supported by the plural “you” in the Greek. The strictly internalized reading may be prevalent in certain kinds of popular Christian writing, but it is not supported by other Scriptures and misses Jesus’ point in this verse. This verse is better understood as referring to the reign of God that broke out amidst the lives of first century believers. No other passage locates the kingdom with the individual alone.
Fourth, many have identified God’s kingdom with human liberation in history gained by overtly or covertly replacing pagan governments with Christian ones. This was the position of the zealots of Jesus’ day, many of Jesus’ disciples, some contemporary streams of liberation theology, and certain circles lobbying for a Christian America. Yet Jesus rejected those means for carrying out God’s will. Instead, he began forming a non-territorial people whose mission required seeking first God’s kingdom in every land and was not contingent on one particular government.
Finally, we should avoid equating God’s kingdom with the Church. Though the kingdom is sometimes made manifest in the Church, God also exercises his reign beyond our “walls.” Though the reign of God operates in and through us, it also pioneers ahead of us and cleans up after us. God is sovereign not only of the church but of all creation. More precisely, the church is a sign, foretaste, and herald of the kingdom. It is a sign to the extent that it points others toward the reality of God’s kingdom. It is a foretaste insofar as one may partially experience the kingdom in the church’s life. It is a herald when it proclaims the kingdom’s nearness and nature.
Jewish Narrative View
How, then, should we understand the kingdom of God? Though they did not get all the details right, let me suggest that we see it similar to how the Jews of Jesus’ day did: an age in history to be ushered in by the Messiah in which God’s reign over all of creation would be made manifest. To understand this view, we must briefly review the broad scope of the biblical narrative. We must ask both what God has been doing since the beginning and how he is working toward the end. In presenting this narrative I must speak in general terms and paint in very broad strokes. More could be added about Old Testament laws and the significance of Jesus’ life and death, but I have chosen to narrate only enough details to help the reader gain a basic grasp of the nature of God’s kingdom.
In the beginning, God created humanity that we may enjoy his generous gifts to us: gifts of living, shaping our own lives, enjoying others, enjoying God’s creation, and enjoying God. Human sin has distorted these gifts and prevented our full enjoyment of them. It has alienated individuals from themselves, each other, creation, and God. This has resulted in reckless living, strife among people, separation from God, and death itself. God was not content to leave his creation in this condition. He chose to form a people, Israel, whom he would teach what it means to live according to God’s design and through whom He would show the world what that living entails. God does not mandate such living for his own benefit, but that his creatures may fully enjoy his gifts to us. Israel struggled throughout its life to fulfill its calling. God comforted Israel through prophets by proclaiming a future Israelite who would inaugurate an age when all people would be obedient to God and God’s original intentions for creation would become reality.
This promised age, the kingdom of God, began with the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became human. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus made possible the way of life God intends for all creation. In living, Jesus showed us what it means to live rightly. In dying and rising, he released the stranglehold sin and death formerly held on our lives and creation. In forming a people, the Church, and inhabiting them through his Holy Spirit, he furnishes us the place and power to embody and bear witness to God’s kingdom. However, God’s reign has not yet been fully realized. Out of love for all humans and desire that more may enjoy his reign, God has allowed the kingdoms of this world to continue for a time. Their perseverance and resistance to God’s reign diminishes our experience of God’s gifts and stands as a reminder that his kingdom has not come in its fullness.
Yet opposition to God’s reign is not the final word. Christ promised to return. When he does, the counter-kingdoms of this world will be vanquished permanently. God will raise his faithful who have died and gather them unto his faithful who are alive and he will dwell among them forever in the new heavens and earth.
Now, But Not Yet
One of the most puzzling aspects of God’s kingdom is its “now” but “not yet” status. By this I mean that, although the kingdom began in Jesus, it clearly has not come in its fullness. As a result, we experience it only partially now and we await its fulfillment when Christ returns. This tension has often been explained by comparing two critical moments of WWII, D-Day and V-Day. On D-Day Allied forces delivered the fatal blow to Axis powers that secured their eventual victory. Though the Allies could confidently celebrate their victory, the war did not end that day. Axis powers continued to fight for a loosing cause before finally surrendering on V-Day. Similarly, Christians know that the death and resurrection of Christ are the defining moment in the establishment of God’s kingdom. Yet the lame duck opponent of God’s kingdom will endure until Christ returns to consummate his reign and subdue his enemies permanently.
So from a Christian standpoint, history may be understood as two overlapping eras: the old and the new. The old era is the age of “the world,” which stretches backward in human history before Christ. The new era began with the ministry of Christ and extends forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom and serves as a foretaste of it. The old era, however, did not end with the ministry of Christ. It persists as a “lame duck” regime and will continue to do so until Christ returns and God places all things under his feet. [fn. 8 1 Cor 15:20-28] The overlapping of these two eras has created, in effect, a third era that stems from the beginning of the new until the end of the old. This era, from Pentecost to Parousia, is that of the church. During it we experience the kingdom of God in part, but not in full.
By this we see that the Good News of the kingdom and the Gospel of Jesus are one and the same. They are fused so tightly together that one cannot be properly understood without the other. The Good News is that Jesus the Messiah has come, that he has inaugurated God’s kingdom, and that through his death and resurrection we may inherit this kingdom. This inheritance is not something we must die to experience, though we will likely die and be raised before we experience its fullness. New life in Jesus begins when we are baptized into his body, the Church, whose mission is to seek first God’s kingdom.

Part Three: Kingdom-Driven Church
As leaders in the Restoration Movement have rightly sought to restore key practices of the early church, it may now be time to revisit the way the early church articulated the Gospel message. The most pressing reason for this is faithfulness to the teaching of our Lord and his Word. This does not mean that those who omit kingdom language are being unfaithful, although it may suggest that we think that our way is better. Of course one may point to the letters of the New Testament where kingdom language is employed less often. It is important to remember, however, that whereas the Gospels and Acts focus on the Gospel message and its delivery to new hearers, the NT letters were written to converted believers and thus presuppose an audience who has already heard and accepted the gospel message, even if imperfectly. Their concern is how churches should order their lives according to this message in particular times and places over and against challenges to this message within and beyond the body. Nevertheless, even when they do not employ “kingdom of God” language, the teachings of the NT letters are based on the truth that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have changed the course of world history, that this change is the fulfillment of Israel’s expectations, that it means new life for believers now, and that it will be fully consummated after Jesus returns.
Take the Apostle Paul for example. Although he seldom employs kingdom language in his letters, he often speaks about the Gospel in ways that highlight the Jewish narrative view of God’s kingdom—that is, the re-alignment of time and life signaled by the coming of the kingdom in Jesus. Below I paraphrase a few of the most obvious passages:
  • Ro 6:4, 13; 7:4, 6; 8:5-17, 23 Newness of life and first fruits of the Spirit,
  • 1 Cor 7:31 Present form of this world is passing away
  • 1 Cor 10:11 The end of the ages has come upon us
  • 1 Cor 13:8-13 Now we know in part, then we will know fully
  • 1 Cor 15:20-28 Christ as first fruits, then we follow, then the kingdom is handed over to God
  • 2 Cor 6:2 Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation
  • 2 Cor 5:16-17 In Christ creation is new, everything old has passed, everything has become new
  • Gal 1:3 Christ set us free from the present evil age
  • Gal 4:4 God sent Christ when the fullness of time had come
  • Gal 6:15 New creation is everything
  • Eph 2:11-22 In Christ there is a new humanity
So whereas there is biblical precedent for talking about the Gospel without using the phrase “kingdom of God,” such alternative language should at least reflect the narrative structure of the Good News about Jesus and the kingdom, as do the NT letters. “So what?” you may wonder, “What are the practical implications of this adjustment in how we articulate the Good News?” Let me conclude by suggesting two ways that restoring kingdom language might empower the witness of local churches.

New Life in Christ
One way restoring kingdom language can empower the church’s witness is by emphasizing the new life of the kingdom that Jesus offers believers now. I have been preaching the Good News of Jesus and the kingdom of God for over a decade now and, frequently, many who hear it for the first time flood me afterwards with appreciation. The reason is almost always the same. Many Christians think that, although Jesus came to fix their afterlife, he left their miserable everyday life mostly intact. Of course, they have heard preachers talk about repentance and new life (most preachers understand this quite well), but for some reason it never clicks for many believers that their life now is supposed to be radically different from that of non-believers. They assume that this life, even in Christ, is meant to be a drag, whereas abundant life begins in the hereafter. They believe that now we live in Christ’s suffering and only then we will enjoy his resurrection.
This results, at least partially, from well-intentioned Christian communicators (whether popular authors, radio personalities, or local church teachers) preaching Jesus without emphasizing the narrative framework of the Gospel. [fn. 9 An example of this is chapter three of D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion, 4th ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996), 31-36. Kennedy presents the gospel as follows: (a) Grace: heaven is a free gift that cannot be earned; (b) Man: man is a sinner who cannot save himself, (c) God: God is merciful and doesn’t want to punish us but just so he must punish us, (d) Jesus Christ: Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay the penalty for our sins and to purchase a place in heaven for us, and (e) Faith: we can we receive this by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life.] From the hearer’s perspective, there is a big difference between “Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead so you may inherit eternal life after you die” and “In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom so that you may live in newness of life now and may experience the fullness of that life when Jesus returns to finalize God’s reign.” This does not invalidate other, more familiar elements of the Good News, but it does put these other important things–how the cross of Jesus pardoned our sins, vanquished God’s enemies, and so on—into the narrative framework shared by the Gospel’s earliest advocates.
When people hear this for the first time, they often receive it as good news. It means that old self-abusive habits need not remain with them until death. It means never again being alone. It means not being judged according to social status, talent, biological relations, or academic credentials. It means there is a real-life body of believers who value them as Jesus does. It means that this kingdom-seeking, spirit-empowered, cross-patterned body will be with them each step of the way to warn them of dangers, pick them up when they fall, appreciate and incorporate their unique gifts, and love them tirelessly. This is why Jesus could say of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9), and of his followers, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
One of the reasons God raises up leaders is to cast a vision of the possibilities of life under God’s reign. Unfortunately, people seldom rise above the vision that is set before them. We all view and experience life within certain parameters that we have inherited, developed, or learned from others. It is difficult for us experience life beyond these parameters. We come to expect from life and ourselves only what our imaginations have been formed to perceive. When all we expect from faith is a happy ending, we may only live a mediocre life. But when a vision of the abundant life of God’s kingdom is set before us, we may blossom with the new life Christ intends for us.
To Do and To Be
A second way restoring kingdom language can empower the church’s witness is by elevating the “to be” of the church’s mission alongside the “to do.” Put differently, the kind of corporate life believers share is just as important as the tasks they carry out. In the past decade or so, visionary leaders have sounded something of a rallying cry among our churches to clarify our purpose. They have directed us to church growth books and encouraged participation in seminars aimed at getting churches to ask the same kinds of questions that successful businesses ask, namely: What is our purpose? What is our mission? What do we exist “to do”? If we could only focus on such questions, they propose, we can streamline our life together so as to major in majors and avoid time-consuming distractions.
We were right to recognize the truth in this cry, that if we as God’s people are not intentional about our mission, we may unknowingly drift from it and fail to bear fruit. The problem, however, is when the church’s mission is driven by a truncated gospel message. If the Good News is that Jesus died for our sins to secure us a pleasant afterlife, then the purpose of many streamlined churches becomes, in practice, to get as many people as possible to fulfill the bear minimum necessary to share in the resurrected life. However, if the good news includes, among other aspects, immediate newness of life according to God’s kingdom, then the “to be” of the church’s mission is just as important as the “to do.” Our job is not simply to spread the Good News about Jesus and his kingdom; we must embody that Good News in our life together.
Jesus’ parables about the kingdom were not pie-in-the-sky visions of the distant future; they were pictures of the new reality Jesus was making possible—a reality which demanded an immediate response that would transform how his followers viewed the world and lived their collective life. This new life is central to Christian witness. It is what makes us savory salt, bright light, infectious yeast, and a city on the hill worth noticing. The kingdom of God must serve as the rudder that guides Christian decision-making. We must always ask how this or that course of action will both lead others to Christ and give them a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. A decision that accomplishes the former without the latter is deficient because if it fails to reflect God’s kingdom, then it is not Christ to whom we are leading them.
For example, unbelievers may be drawn to Christ more easily if we were to give up on racial or social reconciliation and choose to be churches that focus on only one particular race or economic class. This choice would remove one possible barrier that would prevent a closet racist from joining that church. However, that decision would also shape that church’s life so as to bear witness—not to the kingdom of God, where ethnicity and net worth do not segregate—but to the old era of the world where they do. The ‘to do” and the “to be” should not be separated. For a long time the world has noticed a strong break between what Christians preach and who Christians are. For this reason many have rejected the faith altogether. Emphasizing the church’s mission to embody the kingdom in its life together may therefore strengthen our witness.
In Matthew 24:14, Jesus said, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Most Christians agree that the end has not yet come. So we must continue to preach the good news Jesus preached, though perhaps with one significant difference. Following the example of the early evangelists in Acts, we must never proclaim the kingdom of God independent of the Jesus who died, rose, and now sits at the Father’s right hand. Emphasizing the kingdom does not mean downplaying Jesus’ death or ignoring the various benefits of the good news that are often mistaken for the full gospel message. Rather, it means preaching the entire gospel as best we understand it, fully aware that now we know only in part, but when Christ returns to bring the kingdom in its fullness, then we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

Watch out for the potholes.