John the Baptist announced that the kingdom of God and of heaven was near, it was at hand. Jesus witnessed to the same reality as soon as He began His ministry. He commissioned His disciples to go forth proclaiming the kingdom had come, it was central to their message. As soon as we enter the New Testament we are confronted, not with church and churches, but with kingdom. It is near, present, come, and yet, to come also.
It is “all ready’ and yet, “not yet” as the saying goes. In the message John Baptist and Jesus preached the word of the kingdom was inextricably linked with the command ‘repent.’ Apparently the people to whom the message came had to repent of their mistaken notions of what the kingdom of God and of heaven were to be. Remember, they were Jews, people of with a rich heritage. We could say that the idea of empire, kingdom and authority was in their blood. They rejoiced in the memory of their kings, David and his son Solomon, in their day the kingdom had been great in the earth! They kept alive the many promises given to them through the prophets, the kingdom would come again, and the Messiah king would bring it in! Yet now, with the advent of Jesus, they had to repent of their misconceptions of what that kingdom meant.
The majorities were looking for a muscular Messiah; he would break the yoke and dominion of Rome and make them, as a nation, the head and not the tail. Their conception was a distortion and perhaps twenty years later, Paul captured the contrast between their ideas and the truth when he wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Remember the narrative of the glory days of the kingdom recorded in the days of David and Solomon and the tremendous feasts and generous riches enjoyed by the people in general. And consider the pressure that came upon Jesus when He miraculously fed the immense crowds on the Galilean hillside and they tried to make Him king as a result (John 6:15). His reaction to their adulation was not what they had expected. He disappeared from view and secreted Himself elsewhere for His kingdom did not have its origins in this world and was not like unto the ways of this world either. He was crystal clear to Pilate about that, a few hours before He fought His greatest battle in order to bring His kingdom fully in (John 18:36). No, the kingdom of God is not first a material one where the bodily appetites of all the subjects are satisfied, it is an ‘inside-to the outside’ kingdom, spiritual in nature, and is summed up as “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” But, where can we see this kingdom in these days? On every hand we witness the ‘food and drink’ kingdoms vainly attempting to bring peace and joy to the earth.
Whether it is the communist variety, the democratic type, the beneficent (or not so beneficent) dictator type, or the twentieth century racist Nazi attempt coupled with Japanese Emperor god worship type, and the fascist Mussolini style, all have failed miserably. Miserable comforters all, their promises failing to deliver the promises made save only for the controlling elite, and to them, only for a little while before the inevitable collapse destroys thousands and millions of lives. And what of God’s church? Have we been God’s counter society, His contrast kingdom in the earth? Perhaps we did not realize, as we should have done, just how utterly ‘other’ the kingdom of God really is. Rarely have the churches been those microcosms of God’s kingdom where the on-looking world have been able to see what it really means to be truly human. Something Jesus prayed sums it all up, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (John 17:20-21). In the kingdom of God there is an astounding unity, between the male and female, the rich and poor, distinctions that divide the world are not to exist there and the issue of racial differences has disappeared.
We could go on and on rejoicing in the wonder of what it means to enter the kingdom of God and to dwell there, even while we live here on earth. The fact is that the churches should be those places where individuals have entered and continue to more fully enter this realm of God and become the community of God in their locality. That place where His peculiar and wondrous dominion is enjoyed and worked out among His people. As this takes place they truly become His witnesses in the earth. Witness is not so much a matter of words as life lived. The society life of the church should be of great contrast to society in general. So much so, that the differences are notable and noticed by the surrounding people who care to look. The phrase “See how the Christians love one another” comes to mind. Just contrast the important matter of power and authority in the kingdoms of this world and God’s kingdom. We all know just how much domination plays a part in leadership and dominion in the kingdoms of this world. Not far away from domination we often find corruption not to mention manipulation and witchcraft too. Abuse of power is frequently experienced by all of us in some form or other, major or minor. But it certainly did not ought to be in the churches, it just does not belong there. Jesus did not embrace any form of domination in His kingdom and when it was assumed by even His apostles He used the occasion as an opportunity to teach them the ways of His dominion. It is good that James and John the sons of Zededee provoked the conversation. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37). This is a really amazing story. Jesus had yet again announced that He was going to die (Mark 10:32-34) but ignorance still had its place in the hearts of these precious disciples.
They did not understand, indeed Jesus, in His reply, tells them, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:38). They sense that shortly, by some means or other, the promised Kingdom IS going to come, Jesus, the King is going to bring it in, how, they do not know but they want a position when that happens. They wanted real power in a real kingdom; the Kingdom of God and they wanted to get the highest places before the other disciples got their requests in. Jesus teaches, in no uncertain terms, His view of human domination in the words He chooses when He replies to their (to us) outlandish request. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). These words were not reserved for James and John, Jesus made sure every member of the apostolic band was present and in this utterance is sounded by the King of the Kingdom the death knell of human domination and abuse in His churches. Notice how Jesus presupposes the fact that leadership, authority and power do exist among His people. He does not eradicate it and replace it by some kind of vague egalitarianism where no one leads and bears rule but He binds it to His own Person, His own service as a deacon and a slave to all.
Among His people dominion is not of the sort exercised in the world where those who wield authority do so frequently for their own aggrandizement. Self interest defiles so often, even the most noble of rulers in the kingdoms of this world and many are far from noble and are entirely self serving in their exercise of rule. But, the church is a contrasting place indeed! There, authority derives only from service. The person who leads does so because they live entirely for others. It is true that in the rest of society there are occasionally those who serve their people and nations with great self-sacrifice but even they have to resort to the use of force and domination in order to pursue the well being of their flock. But, not so the Lord Jesus and the sheep of His pasture for in His flock there is no compulsion, even to what is good and right. The glory of God is that He is bringing forth a people who are serving Him from the heart, with great delight doing His will and dwelling together in His love, caring for one another prepared to lay down their lives one for the other as He Himself has done.
Jesus did not organize a movement but bore witness to His Father’s kingdom and its ways. Jesus chose to go the way of the cross, to be slain as the Lamb of God rather than answer the violence of the enemy kingdoms with violence in return. God’s kingdom is one that turns everything upside down as regards the ways of the kingdoms of this world. And in the matter of authority and dominion this is graphically seen. Jesus is the vulnerable one, the Lamb Who suffered, the servant (the word is deacon) and the slave of all and is thus manifesting the nature of the Father and the ways of His kingdom. He became great and the pathway of leadership and the bearing of authority are irrevocably set in God’s church and community for evermore. We must not attempt to evade this fact, embedded in the matter of rule in God’s church is an absence of violence, abuse and domination. The problem of misuse of authority in God’s church seems perennial. That it was around in the days of the early church is obvious from reading the epistles. No man or woman enters the kingdom of God once and for all in the sense that they pass into all its riches overnight in their experience. We must continually become as little children and enter in more completely. Everything we have learned in the kingdoms of this world has to be reconsidered, jettisoned and the ways of the kingdom of God learned deeply. We will find, as we learn and obey His ways, everything ‘fits’ most perfectly to the way we have been made.
The ‘kingdom ways’ are in the very creation! Authority is real, there cannot be ‘church’ and ‘kingdom’ without it, but Paul and the other apostles embraced the fact that their authority was tied to their servant-hood. They were not a power elite at all, a special group, a decision making body, an upper echelon that held the balance of power. They were servants and the authority they exercised they exercised from lamb-like shepherd hearts laid down for the flock. There is much for us all to learn about the kingdom of God in our churches today. We can recall the story of that short period when the kingdom was manifest in Israel in the days of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba made her pilgrimage to see for herself the glory of which she had heard tell. She was not disappointed, “happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in your and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, He has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 8-9). Now, a greater than Solomon has come and He has brought His kingdom in.
It is here and should be visible in its main outlines in the churches He is building. Those of the peoples round about should be able to bear testimony as they look upon what God has wrought as His community live His kingdom ways and it spills over to the surrounding neighborhoods. Is this a vain ideal, some reading this may think so, but I am persuaded that unto this we are called. We are people of the great King; He is among us (Numbers 23:21). Ultimately His kingdom shall come but we must not be content, simply putting it all into the future but live the kingdom ways in our churches here and now and so become the salt and light of which Jesus spoke; windows and doors of entrance where the nations shall flock to the King and sit down under His shadow with great delight.