This, then, is how Jesus puts his kingdom-achievement into operation: through the humans he has rescued. That is why, right at the start of his public career, he called associates to share his work and then to carry it on after he had laid the foundations, particularly in his saving death. It has been all too easy for us to suppose that, if Jesus really was king of the world, he would, as it were, do the whole thing all by himself. But that was never his way — because it was never God’s way. It wasn’t how creation itself was supposed to work. And Jesus’ kingdom-project is nothing if not the rescue and renewal of God’s creation-project.
— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus
One of the themes that has really begun to come clear for me through Tom Wright’s work is the number of parallels between what God has done in and through Jesus, what He was already doing in creation and what He did through earlier covenants with Abraham and Moses. One such parallel is drawn out for us in the above excerpt.
Implicit in God’s creation was the command for man to order and tend the whole world and to multiply and fill it. The fact that God declared His creation “good” did not mean it was a static, finished work that required no further input. God set creation in motion – you could say He inaugurated it – and tasked man, as His agent, with subduing and taking care of it. One has to assume that God’s design right from the outset was for man to rule over an orderly, peaceable kingdom on earth. It didn’t go well: sin entered the picture, and instead of a peaceable kingdom we ended up with warring empires ruled by violence, oppression and fear.
Enter Jesus’ “kingdom project”. If this sounds like a strange way to refer to the work of Jesus, it’s probably because, like me, you’ve never been encouraged to think of it this way before. Here’s how Jesus’ work and kingdom have typically been thought of in Pentecostal and charismatic circles:
- Jesus died on the cross to forgive my sins and offer me a ticket to heaven.
- The point of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection was to prove his divinity.
- The “kingdom of God” exists in a kind of parallel universe, which occasionally erupts into our universe in the form of miracles and other supernatural phenomena.
- Jesus will one day establish his eternal kingdom, after the final judgement, and we will reign with him in that kingdom.
- In the meantime, we should sit tight, go to church and try our best to be good, upstanding citizens.
The trouble with this approach is that it encourages a very passive Christian faith because it tells us we are living in an in-between time when nothing much is meant to be happening: the real action happened two thousand years ago in Palestine, and the next big event will be when God pulls back the final curtain and Jesus does his judging thing. During this in-between period, we go to church and try to be nice – and, of course, we try to evangelise, which basically means grabbing others and dragging them into our lifeboat so they can wait with us until Jesus eventually wraps things up. Any notion of citizenship in the kingdom of God is conceived of as a purely spiritual thing, almost like being a member of a virtual online community that exists as an adjunct to the real world.
We expect the kingdom to be inaugurated after the end of the present age. It’s almost as though at this stage, all we’re interested in is having our citizenship in the kingdom “pre-approved” so that, when that day eventually comes, we’ll be able to take up our citizenship in practice.
What I’ve just described may not be explicitly taught in many churches, but it’s often what things boil down to. And it’s way off base.
There is no way to honestly read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching and conclude that the time between his birth and his death was nothing more than an interlude, with a few miracles thrown in to prove his divinity. (In any case, Jesus was neither the first nor the last person to perform miracles.) He made it absolutely clear that the reason he had come was to inaugurate the kingdom there and then. Why do you think he so often said “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”? Why did he spend so much time time talking about what the kingdom is like? And why, as Tom Wright says, did he sign up a band of associates to do as he did? Here’s why: Jesus was showing his followers, and we who would come after them, how to live as an agent of God in a way that establishes and spreads the reign (another word for kingdom) of God in the world.
Just as God had inaugurated creation and handed it over to man to order and curate, so Jesus inaugurated God’s eternal, peaceable kingdom and invited man to take it out into the world.
Of course, it’s true that we are living in an in-between time. There is both a now and a not yet aspect to the kingdom. But this in-between time is not meant to be a time of thumb-twiddling while we wait for the real action. The real action is what we are called to do right now. Jesus sends us into the world like yeast into the dough, to season and permeate it with the kingdom message of God’s redeeming love and grace and to both announce and model freedom from the oppressive forces of the world’s kingdom. This is not something we do while waiting for God’s kingdom to arrive; this is precisely how God’s kingdom arrives.
Do you get it? And are you up for the challenge?
[ Image: Sharon © Some rights reserved ]