What Is the Kingdom of God?
I want to begin by asking, “What is the kingdom of God?” This may seem like a rather obvious question. We all know what the Kingdom of God is, right? But see, this is precisely the problem. It’s why (I shall argue) the Kingdom of God is largely absent in our churches today. And it’s also why we don’t usually notice that its absent.
Because we assume the meaning of the Kingdom is obvious, we’re inclined to define the Kingdom by whatever ideals and agendas seem obviously true and right to us. Since we are all to a large extent products of our culture, what seems obviously true and right to us will be at least influenced , if not determined, by what seems obviously true and right to our culture or to whatever sub-culture we belong to. This, I suspect, is why the American church today Christianizes so much of American culture as well as the evangelical sub-culture. Every study done on the topic shows that the American Church largely mirrors American culture. It’s just that we give this culture divine authority by slapping the label “Kingdom of God” or “Christian” on it.
A classic case of this can be seen in some of the religious rhetoric used these days about the war in Iraq (note: this essay was written in 2003). Instead of simply claiming America should be at war because they think its “just” or “in the best interest of our nation,” many Christians , especially Christian leaders, invoke God’s name — just as the Muslim’s we’re fighting do. Some Christian leaders have recently claimed that fighting this war and voting for the candidate who will, to their way of thinking, best support the war is “the Christian thing to do” if not our “Christian duty.” After all, we fight not only for our country, but, as Americans often say, we fight “for God and country.” The long and bloody history of war has shown that its hard to motivate young people to risk getting killed and to kill others unless you can convince them that their tribal god wants them to do it and that he’s on their side. “We fight for god and country” has been the battle cry of pretty much every army thoughout history.
We should expect this sort of activity from the fallen kingdoms of the world. But when Christians fuse the Kingdom of God with nationalistic tribalism, the result is catastrophic. The crucified Messiah becomes just one more typical tribal warring deity.
In the name of the one who taught us to bless those who persecute us, we engage in preemptive strikes against those who might at any point in the future possibly threaten us. In the name of the one who commanded us to turn the other cheek when struck, we make sure that we strike their cheek first. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, we bomb them. In the name of the one who was crucified for wrong doers, we crucify those who wrong our national interests or who might someday potentially wrong our national interest.
We need to understand that this idolatrous fusion of the Kingdom of God with nationalistic self-interest is the most common form of idolatry practiced throughout church history. It’s the mindset that fueled the Crusades and the Inquisition. It’s why the history of the church is as bloody as that of any barbaric nation. The fusion of the Kingdom of God with nationalistic self-interest is diabolically tempting precisely because it seems so “obviously right” to those who are part of the nation.
Think what you will about the war in Iraq. Maybe you think it fits a “just war” criteria, maybe you don’t. I’m not here to discuss the relative merits of this or any other war. But for God’s sake – literally — don’t pollute the holy name of the crucified Messiah by associating him with violent nationalistic sentiments! The “holiness” – the separateness – of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he came to establish is desecrated when it’s in any remote way associated with this all-too-typical, bloody, kingdom-of-the-world activity.
My point is that if we’re not absolutely clear about what the Kingdom of God is, we end up infusing it with every strong personal, cultural or nationalistic sentiment we happen to feel and that seems “obviously” right to us. We then delude ourselves into thinking we’re advancing the Kingdom of God when, in fact, we’re only advancing our own personal or national self-interest. We “Christianize” our cultural conditioning and become guilty of grotesque idolatry. All of this results from assuming the Kingdom of God is obvious.
The Kingdom is Jesus
The truth is that there’s nothing obvious about the Kingdom of God. In fact, if we humbly allow Scripture to tell us something we don’t assume we already know, we’ll see that the meaning of the Kingdom of God contradicts the most “obvious” truths of our culture and every culture. As is typical, instead of giving us an abstract definition of the Kingdom of God, Scripture gives us a narrative. It is the narrative that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is depicted as the perfect embodiment – the incarnation — of “the Kingdom of God.” When Jesus was present, Scripture shows, the Kingdom of God was present. He was in his incarnate form the dome in which God was king – the Kingdom of God. According to the New Testament’s story, Jesus planted the mustard seed of the Kingdom with his ministry, death and resurrection. He then gave to the Church, the gathering of all who submit to Christ’s lordship, the task of embodying, living out and expanding this unique Kingdom.
The Church is called to be nothing less than “the body of Christ,” a sort of corporate extension of Jesus’ incarnate body. We are called to replicate who Jesus was by manifesting who Jesus is. And this is how we expand the dome in which God is king – the Kingdom of God.
By definition, therefore, the Kingdom looks like Jesus. This is its essence. And we participate in this Kingdom to the extent — and only to the extent — that we look like Jesus.
This is why the New Testament places so much emphasis on imitating Jesus. For example, Paul commands the Ephesians, “Be imitators of God.” He then explains exactly what he means when he adds, “Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph 5:1-2). Think seriously about this. We are called to do nothing less than imitate God. This is just what it means to be “godly,” or god-like. The Greek word for “imitate” means “to mimic” “mime” or “shadow” someone else. We are thus to be the shadow that Jesus’ casts. A shadow never does anything that the one casting it does not do. So too, we are to do exactly what we have seen God do in Jesus Christ. We are to love as Christ loved us on Calvary. Nothing more and nothing less.
Paul stresses that Calvary-quality love is something we’re called to live in. Love isn’t something we’re supposed to do occasionally, when its convenient, when we’re in the mood or when we already like the other person. Rather, Calvary-quality love is to be woven into the very fabric of our life – our breath, our brain waves and our heart beat The time your called to love is when your breathing, when your conscious, when your heart is beating.
The apostle John teaches essentially the same thing when he defines love as “Jesus Christ [laying] down his life for us.” He then adds that for this reason, “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I Jn 3:16). We are called to love, which means we are to replicate Calvary toward others.
This love we are called to live in isn’t something sentiment or abstract: it always takes the form of action – as God’s love did on Calvary. And this is why John immediately provides us with a concrete illustration of this love.
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (I Jn 3:17-18).
This is the Kingdom of God. In fact, this is the definition of “Christian,” for this looks like Jesus Christ. It’s not primarily about thinking and saying the right things – “the correct doctrine” as so many insist. It’s about doing Jesus-like things. Its about Calvary-quality ACTION. It’s about sacrificing to meet a need when you see it. It’s about mimicking Christ with every breath, brainwave and heart beat.
Because we are called to love like Christ loved us, we are to love without any regard for whether we think they deserve it or not. Common sense must never be allowed to trump the love we’re called to give. Thus Jesus teaches us:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. … love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back…. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36.)
This is what Calvary-quality love looks like and this, by definition, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. We are to be merciful, just as the Father has been merciful to us – unconditionally and indiscriminately.
The Centrality of Love
To say that living in Calvary-quality love is the most important thing in our life is to grossly understate its importance. Paul says the “the only thing that counts is faith working in love” (Gal 5:14). Both he and Peter stress the absolute centrality of love when they write, “Above all,” cloth yourselves with love” (Col 3:14; 1 Pet 4:8, emphasis added). Above all! We are to wear Calvary-quality love each waking moment like the clothes on our back. And our concern to be continually clothed like this must be placed above everything else – the rightness of our doctrine, our ethical stances, our political opinions, our nationalistic allegiances – above all.
Calvary quality love is to characterize everything we do. “Let all that you do be done in love,” Paul says” (I Cor 16:14, emphasis added). Never are we to do anything, to anyone, at any time, if we cannot do it in Christ-like love. (Remember that the next time your in an argument).
Even more radically, in I Corinthians 13 Paul goes so far as to say that if we do anything without love its altogether worthless. For all our professions about believing the inerrancy of the Bible, I seriously wonder how many of us really believe this?
* You can have the most beautiful gift of tongues in heaven and earth, but its simply irritating noise without love.
* You can have “all knowledge” and understand “all mysteries,” but they are altogether devoid of kingdom value unless motivated by Calvary-love and used for the purpose of expanding Calvary quality love.
* Your faith can move mountains, Paul says, and you can engage in every good work imaginable, but its all absolutely worthless unless Calvary-quality love is woven into your every breath, your brain waves, your heart beat – unless you’re living in love.
The only criteria that matters in assessing whether our abilities, accomplishes and opinions have any kingdom value is whether or not they flow out of and reflect Calvary-quality love. The fastest growing churches, the most impressive preachers, the most inspiring worship services, the most outstanding scholarship, the most spectacular revivals all are nothing but irritating, obnoxious religious noise in the ears of God except insofar as they look like Jesus, dying on a cross for those who crucified him.
Again, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:14, emphasis added) – and love is defined as Jesus dying on the cross (I Jn 3:16).
As Jesus taught us, only to the extent that we replicate the sacrificial love of Calvary for others — the homeless, the sick, the rejected, the oppressed, the marginalized, the imprisoned, our fellow students and Iraqi terrorized – only to this extent are we participants in the kingdom of God. Only to this extent are we the body of Christ, doing what the Incarnate Christ did. Only to this extent are we godly. Only to this extent are we Christian. If this sort of Jesus-looking sacrificial love isn’t being done, then, as Paul taught us, nothing of any value is being done, however good and religious and noble it might otherwise appear.
The Crisis in the Church
God has leveraged everything on the Church loving like this. “By this the world will know you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “by your love” (Jn 13:35). By God’s own design, Christ-like love is supposed to be the proof that Jesus is real. In John 17 Jesus prayed that the community of his disciples would embody the perfect love of the Trinity so that the world would know he’d been sent by the Father (Jn 17:23). Think of the implications of this phrase, “so that.” We are to be known above all for the way we manifest the perfect love of the Trinity. We are to be known for our scandalous willingness to love the unlovable, even our enemies – even Islamic terrorists. Our lives are to be so unique that they raise the question in the minds of unbelievers that only accepting the reality of Jesus Christ can answer: namely, why do you love me and sacrifice for me the way you do?
But let us be completely honest. Is this Jesus-looking, Calvary-quality love very much the Church? Which is to ask; Is the Kingdom of God very much present in the Church? To be quite honest, it seems to me that, all to often (thank God for the marvelous exceptions) it is not. Ask yourself: Are many non-believers walking around wondering why we Christians sacrifice so much in service to them?
Consider that Jesus’ love attracted the vilest of sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes – just as they were. They followed him wherever he went, apparently just to be around him. Love always attracts those who are hungry for it. Are the tax collectors and prostitutes of our day beating down our doors just to hang out with us? Have they discovered that they experience a love and non-judgmental acceptance by hanging out with us that they can’t experience anywhere else?
The answer is painfully obvious.
God leveraged everything on the body of Christ loving like Jesus loves and thus having the reputation that Jesus had. We don’t have anything close to this reputation. If anything, we have the opposite reputation. We are the most adamant about protecting ourselves and society from these types of sinners – just as the Pharisees of old did. Ask any random sampling of pagans what first comes to their mind when you mentioned “evangelical “ or “born again” Christians, does anyone here for a moment think that the first thing out of any of their mouths would be “scandalous, sacrificial love”?
Grasp the absolutely catastrophic implications of this: The one thing that matters, the deal breaker, the all-or-nothing of Kingdom life, the thing that God has leveraged every on, is desperately missing in the church. No heresy could possibly be worse! (Yet, oddly, never have the heresy hunters in the past or present gone after this heresy!).
The Existential Question is the Only Question
What can we do about this catastrophic heresy? How can we infuse Calvary-like love into the Church? How can we transform the Church from a meaningless religious Institution into the Kingdom of God.
I’ve come to believe that this is actually the wrong question to ask. The right question — and really the only question we you or I need to answer — is this one: Am I myself willing to live in love as Christ loved me and gave his life for me? Am I myself willing to have Calvary-quality love woven into my breath, my brain waves and my heart beat?
This question is much more difficult than the question about how to fix the church. I’d much rather worry about why the church at large isn’t more loving. I’d much rather immerse myself in complex theological issues about the Kingdom. I’d much rather talk about the Kingdom than be confronted with the personal task of actually doing it. I’m convinced this is why we tend to think and talk about Kingdom issues much more than we actually do the kingdom. Thinking and talking don’t require us to bleed: doing the Kingdom, by definition, always does.
Yet, the only thing that ultimately matters is the doing. “Faith without works is dead” as James says. The only question I need to answer, and the only answer you need to answer, is not one you or I can settle in our heads. It can only be answered with our hearts, and can only be answered on a moment by moment basis. It is this: Are we willing to love as Christ loved, right here and right now? Are we willing to die to ourselves and bleed for this person, and now for that person? We answer the question of whether we are Kingdom participants not once and for all, but with how we treat each and every person we meet, with every choice we make, with every breath, heartbeat and brain wave that is our life. The kingdom question is always concrete and existential, never abstract or theoretical.
To live in Calvary-quality love means we must strive to breath each breath and think each thought aware that that our only task in life is to love others with the same Calvary quality love we are loved with. It’s to persistently look at Jesus and as a result to continually strive to look like Jesus. It’s the simplest, most challenging and most freeing task imaginable.
I’ve discovered thatliving in this commitment has freed me from my life-long proclivity to be cynical about the church. I’ve found that so long as I remain fully devoted to the single task of receiving and replicating Christ’s love in the present moment — toward this person, and now toward that person — I simply don’t have mental or emotional space to worry about or even notice who else isn’t replicating Christ’s love. Fixing them, or fixing the church, or fixing the world, is not my job. The job that must consume my every breath is the job of simply loving like God loves, right here and right now. As I seek to live with this persistent kingdom consciousness, I have found I don’t have time or energy to ever become cynical. If I find myself becoming cynical, I know this is simply evidence that I’ve momentarily forgotten my one Kingdom task : to live in love, right now, as Christ loved me and gave his life for them.
As you go about your day, I encourage you to do it with a Kingdom consciousness. Know that you are perfectly loved as you are, and love others with this love as they are. “Live in love,” Paul says, “as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Eph. 5:1-2). Remain mindful of the fact that at this moment, and then in the next moment, your only job is to love others as Christ loved you and gave himself for you.