How would you define God’s kingdom? What does it look like? How does it operate? How might I know that God’s kingdom was advancing in the daily grind that is my life, or even in the church’s communal life and mission as it operates in its given community? Few would deny that God’s kingdom is a key theme in the Gospels, but the average person in the pew might have a hard time articulating just how God’s kingdom works itself out in ordinary life, whether that be a on personal level (at home or work), or more corporately (in church life and ministry).
I recently had the honour of preaching at my local church for the first time and was given free reign over the text I might preach from. I settled on a collection of vignettes in Mark 1 that, I think, demonstrate what God’s advancing kingdom looks like. What follows are a few points I made that seemed to hit home with members of our own congregation (you can listen to the sermon here ).
Defining the Kingdom
The first two points relate to the defining of the kingdom and how it manifests in our world today:
- The kingdom of God is simply the place where God rules/reigns. So, when Jesus says that the kingdom is near, what he means is that his rule or reign is at hand; that you are going to see what God’s kingdom looks like in the life and ministry of Jesus. Moreover, a response is expected when the king comes to reign; that is, one should turn away from their old way of life (repentance) to embrace the reign and rule of the king.
- I think it helps to think about the kingdom of God in the same we think about seasons (i.e., spring, summer, autumn, winter). Here’s what I mean: for eight or so years, I had the joy of living in South Korea where it gets proper cold in the winter (sometimes -20°C). But when 1st March comes around, although it is officially spring, it rarely feels like spring. Cold north-west winds continue to blow and the temperatures are still often sub-zero. Spring is here, it has been inaugurated, but it is yet to be fully consummated. One must still wait for the sunshine and warmer winds; for the birds to sing and the flowers to bloom. In short, spring has come, it has arrived, and yet it is still coming.
So it is with the kingdom of heaven/God: it has been inaugurated, but it has yet to be consummated; it has come, but it is still coming.
The kingdom of God is simply the place where God rules/reigns. It has been inaugurated, but it is yet to be fully consummated.
Now, because Christians await the consummation of God’s kingdom, what one needs to consider is, what does that kingdom look like in this ‘inaugurated phase’ in which the church has lived for the last 2,000 years, or so—the time during which Jesus is reigning, yet we still await the full consummation of his kingdom? Mark 1:14–39 gives us a window into what that kingdom looks like, and shows us five aspects of its presence in the ministry of Jesus.
1. Proclamation of the Gospel (Mark 1:14–15)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
The gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed in numerous ways in the gospels—the most powerful of which, I think, is found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-11). Granted it is only a nutshell version—and the gospel of the kingdom is illustrated differently elsewhere—but so much of the essence is here. Briefly, the parable shows us that the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims reveals a Father who desperately wills to be reconciled to his children (the two sons), both of whom are distant from him. Surprisingly, when this parable is understood properly, it stands against the religious and irreligious alike, for the obedient son is just as distant from the Father’s heart as the rebellious son.
2. The Calling of Disciples (Mark 1:16–20)
… Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him…
The kingdom advances not only with gospel proclamation, but with a challenge to make Jesus the centre, or the hub of your life. It’s a call to put every aspect of your life in his hands. Some unexpected features of Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mark 1 are as follows:
- The call to discipleship doesn’t always happen in church or synagogue (though it can and should!), but in the world. The call to discipleship goes beyond church walls and into the workplace, whether that be on fishing boats or an office cubicle.
- The call is to becoming: i.e., the call to discipleship is not so much an event, but a call into a life-long journey in which Jesus takes the lead. This is a step of faith into the unknown. Jesus says ‘Follow me!’ We might ask, ‘where?’, but we do not necessarily get an answer. In this there is a resemblance of God’s call to Abraham: ‘Follow me, and I will make you a blessing to many nations.’ Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.’ In each case, responding requires faith.
- Jesus makes himself the object of the call: “Follow me!” By contrast, the call in a book like Deuteronomy is to walk in the ways of God. Moses does not say ‘Follow me’; rather, he says ‘Follow God’s law’. Notice also that to this point, no miracles or teaching accompany the call. Only as we follow Jesus can we get to know him. The learning and the knowing is as much in the journey as in the event of determining to follow him.
- Where people join that journey of discipleship, the kingdom is advancing, though I would hasten to add that this is not a call to easy-believism. Jesus often makes it harder, not easier, for people to follow him.
3. Authoritative Teaching and Learning (Mark 1:21–28)
… And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! …
Mark’s peculiar wording lays the emphasis squarely on Jesus, rather than on the what he is teaching: He teaches with authority. In Jesus’ day, the scribes, Pharisees, etc. drew their authority from the Torah and the traditions of the elders. But Jesus teaches with what we might call primary authority.
So, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), he says ‘You know it was written, but I say to you…’
Or consider Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10), ‘I have authority to lay down my life and take it up again …’
Jesus teaches with authority. And it is not a derived authority.
Jesus teaches with authority. It is an authority that shapes and changes lives.
It is an authority that shapes and changes lives. In this instance that authority is confirmed with a miracle, the healing of a demonised man. Note how the people present attribute the healing in some measure to the authoritative teaching that has come prior (v. 27). When God’s kingdom advances, it does so through authoritative biblical teaching.
What this means is that eventually the Bible will contradict you. You can’t simply throw out stuff that you don’t like. To do so is to domesticate God and his word, and worse, to re-make him in your own image and likeness. In short, such an act would be the height of idolatry. I also suspect that this is why Christianity remains controversial today.
Some time ago, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (in)famously stated that ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life …’ Christianity pushes back against such a claim by stating that we don’t have such liberty, that categories such as existence, meaning, and human life are determined by God and not by humanity. Small wonder that Christians are feeling increasingly alien in the world. Perhaps that is something those who claim the name of Christ should get used to. Frederick Buechner may have summed up the present situation best:
If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully – the life you save may be your own – and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.
4. Spiritual and Physical Healing (Mark 1:21–34)
… the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons …
Controversially, for some perhaps, God’s kingdom advances through healing. Jesus heals people with unclean spirits among many others.
Now, some people see this and assume that the kingdom ought to be consummated right now in every arena of life. So, for example, when someone prays for healing, it must happen, otherwise they don’t have enough faith. This is a gross misunderstanding of Scripture and sets people up for devastation. On the other hand, some people act as if the kingdom is yet to be inaugurated and therefore have no faith that God might heal in the present. This would be an equally grievous mistake.
In our time between Jesus’ first and second coming, God may choose to heal now. But we have no guarantee that he will.
In our time between Jesus’ first and second coming, Christians must hold the tension that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, and as such God may choose to heal now. But we have no guarantee that he will. Hence, believers must hold the tension of Scripture where, in James 5 believers are called to pray with faith that God desires to heal, whilst at the same time, Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 12 that God’s grace is sufficient for those who love him, even if he doesn’t bring healing in this life. And interestingly enough, even if Jesus does bring healing on occasion, that is no guarantee he will heal on another occasion.
For example, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead—once. Poor Lazarus eventually died again, and Jesus didn’t bring him back the next time. Such is life in the already-not-yet kingdom: Yes, Jesus reigns, but we nevertheless await the full consummation of that reign where sin, evil, and death will be defeated once and for all. Consequently, faith simultaneously believes that God desires healing and can heal (James 5), and that even if he doesn’t, his grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12). The Christian must hold that tension because to veer to either side leads one to despair (I don’t have enough faith) or hopelessness (God is powerless to help me)—neither of which is true.
5. Opposition to the Movement (Mark 1:35–39)
… Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” …
Finally, God’s advancing kingdom faces opposition. Sometimes it is inadvertent; sometimes deliberate; sometimes it happens from within; and sometimes from without. In Mark, I think it is largely inadvertent. It is the crowd that want to keep Jesus to themselves, but he must teach, preach, and heal elsewhere.
Jesus, however, won’t be locked into our people groups or denominations. He has work today, and it isn’t just here in [insert your church’s name here]. To think that God only works among our faithful, is to oppose the kingdom. Jesus keeps moving forward; his followers keep moving forward from Jerusalem, through Judea, Samaria, Rome, to the ends of the earth (See the Book of Acts).
Jesus won’t be locked into our people groups or denominations. He keeps moving forward; his followers keep moving forward from Jerusalem, through Judea, Samaria, Rome, to the ends of the earth
Opposition to God’s advancing kingdom arises in many other spheres of life, but that would be another post for another day. Here, in this brief passage I simply want call to attention that opposition is not always from those outside the church, and nor is it always deliberate. Sometimes (and often within churches) opposition is more subtle and pernicious (e.g., speaking ill of other Christian denominations or organisations, or perhaps refusing to work alongside them for common causes). Let’s not be like that. Let’s rejoice when we see other churches involved in genuine gospel work!
My contention in this essay has been that the kingdom of God is not something entirely invisible ‘out there’, but that it is actually something we can see at work in the everydayness of our lives. It might not look spectacular; it is faithfulness in the ordinariness of life. And that is good news because most of life is, well, ordinary.
If you are a pastor or church leader, what can you do with this? Well one thing you might try is challenge non-believers to commit to attending your church for one year. Few people are going to see the impact of the gospel on someone in a single day, but if your guests hang around for a year (and especially if they commit to a smaller community group), then they will see the kingdom advancing in the lives of people at your church, in the lives of your wider faith community, and perhaps even within your city/town and beyond.
This is a challenge to church members too, of course. We need to be a people shaped by the gospel; we need to take opportunities to share in one another’s lives so that our neighbours might see the kingdom advancing personally within us, and also through us. Let’s let them see that (as Paul puts it) ‘it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’ (Phil 2:13).
Photo: Murray Campbell, unsplash
 Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life.