Christ’s Kingdom, Come!

Jesus's favorite topic was the Kingdom of God. So why don't we ever talk about it?

By Jules Gomes Published on April 29, 2024

Imagine inviting Jesus to preach at a retreat or a conference. What do you think He would talk about? What would you like Him to talk about?

I suspect the current crop of internet Catholic apostolates would expect Jesus to storm His audience with robust discourses on the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Church, or Mariology, or the saints, or heaven, hell, limbo, and purgatory, or even caustic diatribes against liberals, Protestants, Pope Francis, and secular Jews!

Protestant ministries, on the other hand, depending on whether they are evangelical or Pentecostal, would love to hear Jesus thump the pulpit as He preaches on the five Solas of the Reformation, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or even a series of “woe unto you” sermons against liberal mainline denominations who have approved of same-sex “marriage.”

Christ Barely Ever Talked About “the Church”

Funnily enough, Jesus didn’t seem to pay much attention to any of the above topics during His earthly ministry. For example, He mentions the church just twice, and only in Matthew’s gospel: “On this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18); and if a brother sins and doesn’t repent, go “tell it to the Church” after you’ve talked to him in private and with a couple of other brothers (Matthew 18:15-17).

So, what’s the number one thing that Jesus talked about? Something we almost never talk about. Jesus is super-obsessed, monomaniacal, and feverishly fanatical about this topic, while we are completely oblivious to it. We shun it as a Pharisee would shun a leper. We avoid it like anthrax.

Jesus talked obsessively about the Kingdom of God. The term appears 52 times in the four gospels; the corresponding term “‘kingdom of heaven” occurs 33 times in Matthew’s gospel. The gospels also use terms like “the kingdom,” “your kingdom,” and “my kingdom” 24 times. In all, the gospels use the word “kingdom” about 109 times. In addition, the gospels also talk about “kingdom” in the secular sense 20 times. Totally, the New Testament makes 142 references to the idea of the Kingdom of God. It is the overarching theme of the New Testament.

What Is the Kingdom of God, Anyway?

I’d like to offer a few biblical reflections on the Kingdom of God. I could teach an entire course on the Kingdom; heavyweight biblical theologians already have written entire books on the Kingdom and its relationship to Israel, the Old Testament, the cross, the atonement, the resurrection, and so on. But my reflection is going to be limited and, perhaps, provocative, as I would like to goad you to explore this central concept in greater depth.

How do we define the Kingdom of God? It is the realm where God is sovereign and Jesus the Messiah rules as King of kings and Lord of lords. Jeremy Treat, who has written an excellent book on the subject, defines it in eight words: “The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.” George Elton Ladd defines it as “the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced.”

It’s Not Just Heaven

Let me underline two qualifications. First, the Kingdom of God is not to be confused with heaven. No doubt, the Gospel of Matthew uses a Jewish circumlocution and calls it the “kingdom of heaven.” But when Jesus talks about the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel, He means God is “establishing His sovereign rule not just in Heaven, but on Earth as well.”

The New Testament scholar Tom Wright remarks: “The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth.” That is why Jesus asks us to pray that God’s Kingdom will be actualized on Earth as it exists in Heaven. Jesus talks about the Kingdom coming down to Earth from Heaven. We talk about getting people from Earth up into Heaven.

Second, the Church is not the Kingdom. The Church is the people who swear allegiance to the King. The Church comprises the citizens of the Kingdom, but the Church is distinct from the Kingdom. It is a sign of the Kingdom and the engine that advances the Kingdom, but it is not the Kingdom.

The Apostles Preached the Kingdom, Not the Church

In fact, not once did the first missionaries in the book of Acts preach the church; they preached the Kingdom of God. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Philip preaches “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” and those who believed “were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).
  • Paul enters the synagogue in Ephesus and “for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
  • In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, Paul says: “I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again” (Acts 20:25).
  • In Rome, Paul addresses the Jews “from morning till evening … testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23).
  • The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome. “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-1).

Notice how Jesus and the Kingdom are used almost interchangeably in apostolic preaching. Jesus talks endlessly about the Kingdom. We talk endlessly about the Church. The first missionaries preached the Kingdom, not the Church. Even though the Gospel is read at the Eucharist every day and every Sunday, I have never, ever heard a substantive sermon on the Kingdom.

The Church Is an Embassy, Not a Throne Room

We preach a Christianity without the Kingdom. We promote a church that points to itself and exists for itself rather than existing for and being a signpost to the Kingdom. Of course, I am not talking about good biblical scholars or preachers who do emphasize the Kingdom; I’m talking about the new “internet magisterium.” And believe me, there is a yawning chasm between faithful scholarship and the “internet magisterium.”

So how do we best explain the relationship between the Kingdom and the Church? The Church is the eschatological embassy of the Kingdom of God, a metaphor Jonathan Leeman introduced me to in his tour de force book Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule.

I have always been particularly excited by the idea of an embassy — an officially sanctioned outpost of one nation inside the borders of another nation. An embassy does not exist for itself; it does not act on its own. It represents, acts, and speaks for its home nation while living within its host nation. It even has its own sovereign territory within the territory of that host nation.

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Embassies and ambassadors present the official policies and decisions of a foreign nation. When Jesus established the Church, He gave Peter and the other apostles the keys of the Kingdom — the power to declare the policies and judgements of the Kingdom as the chief ambassadors of the Kingdom. The Church announces the policies and decisions of the Kingdom by preaching and administering the sacraments. Baptism, for example, is the passport the Church gives to declare a person a citizen of the Kingdom.

Hence, the Kingdom creates the Church just as a country creates its embassy. But the Church as the embassy of the Kingdom witnesses to the Kingdom and proclaims the Kingdom. As an embassy, the Church functions as the instrument and the custodian of the Kingdom.

How Do We Build Up the Kingdom?

Since the time of Augustine, who conflated the Kingdom with the Church, the Church ceased to function as an embassy of the Kingdom; it began to identify itself as the Kingdom. Thomas Aquinas also mistakenly identified the Church with the Kingdom of God. Vatican II has now corrected this erroneous conflation.

However, this confusion continues in much popular doctrine and practice. Have you noticed how we often talk about Matthew’s parable of the wheat and the weeds (13:24ff.) to refer to bad clergy and laity in the Church? But Jesus Himself begins the parable by saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.” In v.38 Jesus explains: “The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom.”

Again, Catholic Liberation Theology and the Protestant social gospel movement mistakenly conflated the Kingdom with a socialist utopia which is brought about by our efforts through fighting for social justice and against capitalist oppression.

Neither Utopia Nor Heaven

The confusion on the part of both liberals and traditionalists has resulted in a futurist eschatology. Liberals preach utopia; conservatives preach Heaven. We have lost the biblical concept of an inaugurated eschatology — which lies at the heart of Jesus’s preaching.

Jesus began His ministry by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. With Daniel 7 and other Old Testament texts in mind, Jesus, the Davidic king, brought to fulfilment Israel’s Kingdom expectations. He brought about the Kingdom of God, but did so in the most surprising way through His death on the cross in the manner of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The Kingdom is now being advanced by the Holy Spirit through the Church and will be consummated with Christ’s return.

A Message from the Depths of Nazi Germany

One of the most memorable ways of explaining this tension was proposed by the New Testament theologian Oscar Cullmann in his book Christus und die Zeit. During World War II, the Allies were only able to declare victory and the total defeat of the Nazis on May 8, 1945. We call this VE-Day. However, VE-Day was only made possible by D-Day when on June 6, 1944, more than 1,000 ships — the largest armada ever to set sail — carried some 200,000 soldiers across the English Channel to France, where they stormed the coasts of Normandy. After D-Day, the Allied victory was not a matter of if, but when. D-Day struck the decisive blow; it was the defining battle of the Second World War. Everyone, even the Germans, knew that Victory in Europe was inevitable, and the war would end with Germany’s defeat.

Yet between D-Day and V-E Day came the Battle of the Bulge, a desperate counterattack by the German army, fought during one of the worst winters in European history. For six weeks the battle raged back and forth. It was the deadliest battle for American forces during the war; more than 19,000 Americans were killed.

If you told the French Resistance they were fools to continue fighting, they would have said, “Look, across the Channel, there is a huge force, and soon it will come to help us.” They would be hopeful knowing that victory was certain; humble knowing it was not their ragtag band of resistance fighters that won the war; and helpful knowing that the Allies were expecting them not to sit idle but assist the war effort in vital ways. 

We are in living in the period between God’s decisive victory on D-Day (the cross and the resurrection) and God’s consummation of his purposes on VE-Day (when Christ will return in all glory). 

“The decisive battle in a war may already have occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues,” Cullman wrote in his book Christ and Time. My prayer is that you and I will be faithful soldiers of the Kingdom, fighting till our last breath and our last drop of blood.

This article was first published on the God and Country website and has been adapted with the author’s permission.

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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