Please, Let’s Stop ‘Building’ the Kingdom!
Whereas Jesus (and the apostles in Acts) spoke predominantly about the kingdom and very little about the church, modern evangelical church leaders tend to speak more about the church and somewhat less about the kingdom. On the Think website blog posts tagged with the word church outnumber those tagged with the word kingdom.
So why do I say we should stop talking about ‘building’ the kingdom?
I surveyed what verbs were used with the noun ‘kingdom’ in the New Testament. I theorised that the choices the Holy Spirit made about which verbs to use would reveal something about the kingdom. Now when I am analysing a passage of Scripture I like to underline the verbs in red. Red stands out and for me the most powerful words in a sentence are the verbs.
So what did this survey of verbs used with the noun ‘kingdom’ reveal?
The kingdom comes, it comes upon us, it is entered, it is received, and it is sought after. The kingdom is coming. Also, it is announced as good news, preached and it is instructed about. It has keys and those who receive it can be more or less great within it. The kingdom can be taken away from you and given to others. You can be near the kingdom or far from it; but it’s not over here or over there, it’s within or among us, its citizens. It’s not a matter of talk but of power. The kingdom is a gift the Father is pleased to give his children.
The Biblical choice of verbs seems to differ from ours. Evangelicals particularly like to talk and sing about ‘building’ the kingdom. In Scripture you can build the church – but it never speaks about building the kingdom of God. So why do we talk about ‘building’ the kingdom?
It’s possible that we use an unbiblical verb because we have an inaccurate understanding that flows from an unexamined assumption. There is a reason why Jesus would never have used the verb ‘build’ with the noun ‘kingdom’ and that’s because he knew what God’s kingdom was and was not.
I suggest that one reason we may use the verb ‘build’ is because we conceive of the kingdom of God as a geographic entity. I suspect this false idea goes along with the similarly false idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘Christian country.’ The same error may also be revealed in our penchant to use geographical language when speaking about our relation with the coming age, rather than chronological language which Scripture favours.
We all know this: the kingdom now is the living experience of God the Father’s dynamic rule and reign through his chosen King, Jesus Christ — a corrective set out by George Eldon Ladd and popularised by John Wimber. But has this corrective really stuck? How well do we ‘know’ it?
The more often we conceive of God’s kingdom as his rule, the less likely we will be to use inappropriate verbs like ‘build’ when referring to the kingdom. You cannot build a rule — you bring it, and you receive it. This suggests to me that English-speakers are not well served in this matter by the English language. The word ‘kingdom’ carries a freight of meaning different from the word ‘rule.’ It suggests to all native English speakers a bounded area of land subject to a single ruler. Ladd’s corrective has not entirely unseated this misapprehension.
Can we make any sense of this smorgasbord of verbs listed earlier? Do these verbs fall into any categories? My conclusion is that broadly speaking these verbs fall into three categories with respect to the kingdom of God experienced now in the overlap between the ages. The kingdom now is something we are to:
- Experience = receive or seek or enter (Matthew 12:28, 19:24, 21:31; Mark 10:15, 23-25; Luke 11:2, 20, 12:31, 17:20-21, 18:17, 24-25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; Romans 14:17)
- Demonstrate = offer as an experience to others (Matthew 9:35, 12:28, 13:52, 16:19, 18:4, 21:43; Luke 9:2, 10:9-11, 11:2-3, 20; 1 Corinthians 4:20)
- Announce as a reality with implications for everyone (Matthew 4:23, 24:14; Mark 1:15, 11:10; Luke 4:43, 8:1, 9:2, 11, 60, 10:9, 11, 12:32, 16:16; Acts 1:3, 8:12, 19:8, 28:23, 31)
This fits with Newbigin’s description of the church as a foretaste, an agent and a sign of God’s kingdom. As we (1) experience the kingdom we become a foretaste of it; (2) as we demonstrate the kingdom we become agents of it; and (3) as we announce the kingdom we become signs that explain its reality.
This rule does not arrive by means of human organisation. It does not require a professional class that excels at administration. It is received as the believing community experiences, demonstrates and announces the Father’s rule in Christ.
In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out the apostles to heal and expel demons. In his instructions the command to proclaim the kingdom comes after the command to heal and deliver. This order is not accidental. Jesus did miracles and those required explanation. Words are an explanation of the acts and deeds and miracles. Newbigin notes that just as healings without preaching are meaningless, so also
the preaching is meaningless without the healings… [The preaching] is the true explanation for what is happening, but if nothing is happening no explanation is called for and the words are empty words. They do not answer any real question.
…just as the ministry of Jesus was marked by mighty works which, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, were signs of the presence of the kingdom of God in power, so in the life of the church there will be mighty works which have the same function. They are… unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality, but a reality known only to those who have been converted.
And we don’t limit this ‘unveiling’ to the miraculous. Scripture anticipates that believers will live such counter-cultural lives in their workplaces and neighbourhoods that people will realise we are living under an alternate rule. Words must be spoken to explain the behaviour. Some who observe and listen are intrigued and attracted and drawn to Christ.
So we are not ‘building’ a kingdom out there somewhere, we are receiving his rule in here, within ourselves, in a way that transforms us and thus needs explication to those around us.
Thank God that whatever our choice of verbs no force of hell can stop the ever increasing growth of the Father’s government and peace in the earth. The question remains whether we will participate or not. Your kingdom come, Father.