Christian theology has not always been attentive to Jesus’s teaching and the evidence in the Gospels describing the kingdom of God. There has been a deep-seated tendency to connect the coming of the kingdom to human activity in ways that tie the kingdom’s arrival and development to any number of social programs, political agendas, or the work of cultural engagement. For instance, a congregational hymn often included in the worship portion of my former college’s annual graduation ceremony includes these chorus lines: “Lord, to you our hands and hearts we offer; keep us faithful to your call, we pray. Guide in us the work that brings your kingdom, as we rest in you.”
While it sounds appropriately pious to ask that God help us do “the work that brings the kingdom,” as we have seen, there is no warrant in the Gospels for such prayers. Jesus does teach us to pray that God will cause his kingdom to come (matthew 6:10), so perhaps we may consider prayer to be a secondary “work” for the kingdom. Otherwise, the closest we can come to laboring for the kingdom is by doing the work of evangelism, following the model left to us by Jesus himself: proclaiming the gospel, calling for repentance, and having conversations with the inquisitive as regular acts of very generous seed-sowing.
Unfortunately, the human inability to grow the kingdom seems difficult for God’s people to accept. Whether it is due to our overly activist inclinations or from harboring too lofty an opinion of ourselves, the church regularly neglects Jesus’s unequivocal voice in the Gospels in order to give itself an active role in causing the kingdom to come or to otherwise misconstrue the significance of God’s redemptive reign on earth.
Different traditions have implemented this misunderstanding in different ways, though they all are born of similar mistakes. Going back at least as far as Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), the German theologian and guardian of Protestant liberalism, large swaths of the Protestant church have tended to identify the kingdom of God with moral and humanistic programs of social reformation, assuming that God’s kingdom on earth is established by social and political activism to rectify society’s ills and bring humanity under God’s universal rule of love. According to Ritschl, the church is “called to make the Kingdom of God its task … [seeking] the moral unification of the human race, through action prompted by universal love to our neighbor.” A similar perspective informed the influential theology of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the father of the Social Gospel movement in America.
Another version of such kingdom-activism appears in the increasingly influential theology of neo-Calvinism, as developed by Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the Dutch clergyman, philosopher, theologian, and politician (prime minister of the Netherlands). I suspect that Kuyper remained deeply influenced by his early education in theological liberalism, despite his preference for emphasizing the Creator’s “cultural mandate”-as opposed to universal love-for humanity and for charging disciples as redeemed humanity to work toward cultural transformation. While Kuyperian neo-Calvinism may not directly assert that God’s kingdom arrives or grows through the creation of a Christian culture, at times the rhetoric comes precariously close to saying just that.
In his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, the late Henry Van Til (1906–1961), who was a professor at Calvin College, the school where I formerly taught, warns his readers that “the kingdom of God is not established by man’s cultural striving,” although it is unclear whose cultural striving he is referring to, Christian or non-Christian. On the other hand, he counterbalances this single statement about God’s kingdom with multiple warnings about the necessity of a thoroughly Christian society as the prerequisite for the Christian community’s attempts to “lead wholly Christian lives.” The life of society and the life of the church are so interwoven with each other, according to Van Til, as to become thoroughly interdependent. Elsewhere, Van Til highlights the urgency for Christians to build “a Christian culture in order that the Christian faith survive.” In effect, Van Til interprets Jesus’s charge that the disciples “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (matthew 6:33) as a call to “seek first the creation of a Christian culture so that you may be able to live righteously.” One can only wonder how the earliest disciples ever managed to make a go of it, surrounded as they were by what could only be judged an utterly non-Christian culture.
I suspect that the trap into which some fall is the desire to create a Christian culture in order to lead comfortable Christian lives, free from inconvenience, disadvantage, and the threat of suffering. Jesus and the apostles, however, were convinced that the hostility aimed at them by the surrounding culture, no matter how harsh, had no bearing whatsoever on their prospects of remaining faithful citizens of God’s kingdom. As far as the New Testament is concerned, suffering accompanies obedient discipleship like ticks on a dog. We should not forget Jesus’s words of congratulations: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (matthew 5:10). Experiencing antagonism from those who stand outside the kingdom is an identifying characteristic of true kingdom citizenship.
Furthermore, living out those implications in the kingdom’s upside-down Jesus lifestyle may even prove attractive to many observers in the watching world. Undoubtedly, this is what Jesus had in mind when he told the disciples: “You are the salt of the earth …. You are the light of the world …. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (matthew 5:13–16). But imagining that living a faithful kingdom lifestyle is the equivalent of building the kingdom on earth is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Confusing cause with effect in this way is a real mistake.
Others have confused the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus with the Creator’s universal sovereignty over the universe. America was founded by adherents to this particular view of God’s kingdom-especially the Puritans. H. Richard Niebuhr describes their perspective:
This kingdom of God was not … something that came into the world from without; it was rather the rule which, having been established from eternity, needed to be obeyed despite the rebellion against it which flourished in the world. It may be likened to the rule of a universal Caesar against whom ignorant tribes had made vain rebellion.
uried within this brand of kingdom theology is the assumption that all of human history is unfolding exactly as the sovereign God has always intended. In my opinion, that is a debatable assumption. But if you hold this view of history, it is a short step from there to imagining that my own personal history, the history of my specific nation, my ethnic group, or my religious organization is the fulfillment of the Creator-King’s purposes for my particular stream of human events. In other words, the history of my country, church, or people group is the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. For some, the kingdom of God becomes a society dominated by the church (my church, of course, not anyone else’s church, unless your church happens to be affiliated with my church), since the church is the expression of God’s sovereign agency in history.
Many Puritan leaders came to the New World believing that they would establish the kingdom of God and build the new Zion in the new Promised Land through their establishment of a specific religious society. They had precedent for these convictions: their English forebears had long believed, as John Eliot, missionary to the Algonquins in colonial Massachusetts, had written, that “England [was] first in that blessed work of setting up the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus” in the New World.
Thus the early seeds were sown for the development of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and the misguided notion that the United States is God’s chosen agent for bringing righteousness and the blessings of God’s kingdom to the rest of the world.
We cannot forget, of course, that the Old Testament does insist that the Creator is always king over all the earth, so that there is a sense in which God is, in fact, the “universal Caesar against whom ignorant tribes had made vain rebellion.” However, we have also seen both Testaments affirm that God’s rule eventually will be accepted universally-remember that all the nations of the earth will come streaming to Mount Zion-as the nations respond to the light emanating from God’s chosen, covenant people (isaiah 2:2–5; 43:10; 49:6; 51:4–5; 55:1–5; 56:6–8; 60:1–22; micah 4:1–5).
Jesus picks up this theme and makes it more pointed. It is the kingdom of God as he proclaimed it, beginning as the tiniest mustard seed, that eventually “grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (mark 4:32). The church cannot establish this kingdom by prevailing as the dominant force in society, by writing a nation’s civil legislation, by creating competitive alternatives to secular labor unions or public schools, or even by eliminating poverty-as marvelous as that would be.
No particular stream of human history, activity, or ideology can egotistically claim the mantle of God’s authorized, providential kingdom-bringer. History’s one and only kingdom-bringer is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And the kingdom brought by that kingdom-bringer only grows as the heavenly Father opens the eyes of more and more lost sinners, who then surrender themselves to Jesus, their Savior, Lord, and King.
Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor the author of Hebrews sees the kingdom as a heavenly, otherworldly entity existing apart from this world, despite their use of heavenly language. References to the “heavenly kingdom” simply recall the disciples’ anticipation of the kingdom’s “not yet” aspect waiting to be implemented when the enthroned, glorified Jesus “comes on the clouds from heaven” (matthew 26:64; mark 14:62). Thus the early church prayed, “Maranatha! Come, 0 Lord” (1 corinthians 16:22, my translation), knowing full well that they were asking for the finalization of the kingdom coming from heaven to earth. As for the worldly here and now, the social and moral strangeness of the Christian community provides temporal and immediate evidence that the kingdom of God has come-already, but not yet.
Kingdom citizens are anticipating the future establishment of an earthly theocracy, that is, God’s direct, immediate rule over this earth when Christ returns. The church is called to wait, worship, pray, and obey while anticipating their coming king. Just as the ministry of evangelism is the closest any disciple can come to building the kingdom on earth, living out a kingdom lifestyle is the most the church can do for hastening Christ’s return and translating the “not yet” into the “right here, right now” kingdom of God.