“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.””
– Jesus of Nazareth as quoted in the Gospel of Matthew
The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone ever imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.
— Eugene Peterson
The core message of Jesus was Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
One cannot understand the real Jesus and his mission without a correct understanding of his proclamation. At the same time, the corruption of its meaning has brought great dishonor to Jesus and his cause.
In the next few posts on The Real Jesus, I want to open up the meaning of “the kingdom of God” by repudiating errors and clarifying what he meant.
On first glance
Let’s take a first run at the meaning by looking at the words themselves.
Suppose I told you “the kingdom of God is at hand” — what might you conclude?
First, this is obviously about politics, about government and its powers. It is about a regime.
Second, this is obviously about religion. After all, this is the kingdom of God.
Third, a change is taking place. The kingdom of God is not yet. That means some other kingdom is currently present. And it is not from God.
Fourth, if there is another kingdom being displaced, and it is not of God, then there will be some sort of conquest or overthrow or at least an abdication.
Seems pretty obvious until . . .
If those are the categories, how do we define them?
If this is about politics, it is not clear in what way. Does this mean a different form of government, a different leader, or a different program and legislative agenda?
If this is about God, it does not tell us what he will do. Will God teach us better truths and morals so we can create the kingdom? Will religion take the helm? Will it’s leaders impose morality upon us all? Will God judge? Or will he give a cosmic word of acceptance as in “everyone is OK and each person has my permission to define reality as they wish”?
What is this other kingdom? Is it opposed to God or merely one that has failed God, despite its best efforts?
If this is a conquest, who are the enemies? How are they conquered?
Add one more ingredient
The announcement startles us with a command: Repent.
For many, that is kooky religious talk. No one talks about repentance these days. We believe in trying harder to be a better person.
But repent is simply a call to choose your loyalties. It insists we get off the fence and stand on one side or the other. In this case, it calls us to get on the side of God and his kingdom.
It seems to assume that some people or most or all need to hear that command. Yet I am still left without much more than generalities. What does it mean to get onto the side of God and his kingdom?
Is it any wonder?
Given the seemingly ambiguous meaning of Jesus announcement, it should not surprise us that from his own contemporaries to the present day, people have loaded their own ideas into these words, to supply the meaning they prefer.
Jesus is made into the primary advocate for their idea of the kingdom of God.
Idealism, utopian dreams, and the kingdom of God
- the kingdom is the overthrow of the pagan rulers of Rome and the liberation of God’s people to be supreme,
- the kingdom is a moral and religious revival in Israel,
- the kingdom is when the Christian Emperor brought biblical laws to bear on the Empire,
- the kingdom is when the holy land is freed from Muslim domination,
- the kingdom is when a new colony of Christians, having fled religious error, was formed and governed by the laws of Christ,
- the kingdom is when democracy is spread from sea to shining sea and around the world,
- the kingdom is when we mobilize to care for the poor and welcome the stranger to our shores,
- the kingdom is when conservatives gain the power of Congress, the Presidency, and the courts and turn back the progressive agenda,
- the kingdom is when diversity, equity, and inclusion are the law of the land.
I will stop there.
Each of these affirms a highest good, insists the establishment of that good is the kingdom. Each one also calls us to choose sides.
Suffice it to say that history is replete with idealistic visions of a perfect society, whether religious or secular. Such a society is how each generation or nation imagines the kingdom of God. And each of them calls for response. Is that what Jesus meant? Absolutely not.
Starting with repudiating
Before I color in the meaning of the kingdom of God as Jesus understood it, let me say the kingdom of God is none of the above items. None. Yet, by a strange logic, we repeatedly conclude that any good and moral and just cause must be the same as the kingdom of God.
- God is good
- He is establishing his kingdom
- This is a good cause (a moral or just one)
- Therefore this cause must be the kingdom of God
In reaching this conclusion we confuse morality and politics with redemption and a new creation. They have nothing in common.
American evangelicals have been especially agile at corrupting the true nature of the kingdom with every good and moral cause. Our nation, in a way unlike other nations, believes we are a most favored nation in the eyes of God. Even the secular left, while denying the relevance of God, holds out the promise of America and uses it to absolutize their favored agenda.
Jesus is the mascot of our moral and social causes
The best and highest of causes are not in any way the kingdom of God which Jesus announced. Until we accept this, we will be idolaters and blasphemers of God. 1 Until we make the distinction between redemption and the new creation and everything else, we will continue to pollute the purity of the Gospel, distract the church from its mission, and fail to nurture good citizens and public servants.
This is how much Christ’s kingdom has in common with these moral and political causes: ZERO
If we miss this distinction, all is lost
The culture war is not a war between two kingdoms
Our nation is currently in a war between two opposing claims to represent ultimate truth:
There are the social justice warriors who insist that diversity, equality and inclusion is the highest good, that all who oppose these must be vanquished, and that the full powers of the state should be deployed to ensure them. 2 Neither of these in any way represents the kingdom of God Jesus announced. They have nothing in common with him or it.
So what is the kingdom of God and what does it mean to repent?
What distinguishes Jesus kingdom from all of these good causes is not its moral code, but its diagnosis of the problem, its solution to bring healing, and the effect of the kingdom when it comes. To the next post . . .
- As much as abolition was a good cause for a secular republic, the mix of Jesus kingdom with the cause of the North was spiritual adultery. Consider the Battle Hymn of the Republic as an example. By small changes in the wording, we can make that hymn about any moral or social justice cause.[↩]
- John McWhorter has been writing an insightful series on the religious nature of the woke. You can find his posts here. The book version is coming out in a few months.
There are the Trumpsters (sadly, many of whom are professing Christians) who have taken over the conservative agenda with a “conquer at all costs” ethic. Trump is their warrior-god sent to restore national greatness and a “Christian” society.
Both of these are nothing less than vile idolatry. For the church, it is a corruption of the Gospel. ((John Dickson, Bullies and Saints, offers a great summary of how the lust for power has consistently corrupted the church for 2000 years.[↩]