Brian McLaren on the Kingdom of God

Kingdom of God

This post is part of an ongoing guest blogger series on the kingdom of God.

Brian McLaren

Today, we will hear from Brian McLaren:

The good news of the Kingdom of God is, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel. John would agree – although he translates the phrase “kingdom of God” to “life of the ages” or “life to the full.” (The common English translation of “zoien aionian” as “eternal life” is misleading.) A surprisingly large number of committed Christians still assume “kingdom of God” and “life of the ages” mean “life in heaven after you die.” This misbelief is one of the most tragic turns in the history of Christian theology, in my opinion. Many others think it means “having a personal relationship with God,” which may be a small improvement, but still misses so much.

The metaphor is so rich and revolutionary that it resists reduction into a simple definition. Instead it invites us to multiply metaphors and create parables as Jesus did. As a result, instead of merely trying to nail down what it “is” (a condition where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven), we will want to imaginatively explore what it “is like” (a woman making bread, a man planting seeds, a ruler entrusting stewards with resources, a net catching fish, and so on).

Now “the kingdom of God” isn’t the gospel. It’s “the good news” of the kingdom of God that is the gospel. And what is that good news? On Jesus’ lips, it was that the kingdom of God was “at hand” – which was a way of saying it is near, or here, or available, or a live option – something you can reach out and touch. In other words, the kingdom of God isn’t something you simply hope for someday. It is something you come to terms with today. That “coming to terms with” means, for starters, that we repent – we rethink everything in light of this message. And it also means we trust Jesus as the king – so we decide to “take on his yoke,” learn his way, and follow him, so we can be like him.

The kingdom of God, Jesus said, was “good news for the poor.” There is a personal dimension to the kingdom of God, to be sure, in which we have a personal relationship with the King. But there is also a social dimension to the kingdom of God, a dimension that challenges normal human (and religiious) assumptions about peace, war, prosperity, poverty, privilege, responsibility, religion, and God.

For Jesus, the kingdom wasn’t something we build or advance or expand. It was something we see and enter and receive. To see it, we need to repent and acknowledge how blind we have been, becoming teachable and “young” again, like children. To enter it, we need to become a part of it, and to receive it, we let it become a part of us.

The rest of the New Testament also celebrates the good news of the kingdom of God, although it is less obvious to many readers. The term “Lord,” for example, when applied to Jesus, is a kingdom term: Lord (kurios) is the political term applied to the emperor Caesar, head of the kingdom of Rome. So to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say “Caesar isn’t the ultimate authority; Jesus is.” It’s to assert that it’s the Pax Christi, not the Pax Romana, that holds hope for the world. Similarly, the term “Christ” means “anointed one,” which means “the one God has anointed as king” – which means Jesus is the king God has chosen and on whom God’s favor rests, not Caesar. I think we would be wise to re-translate “Christ” as “God’s liberating king” to keep this meaning in mind.

Even the term “church” is a kingdom term. “Ekklesia” was a political term that referred to the assemblies of Roman citizens spread across the empire, the population of which consisted of a large majority of non-citizens. In this way, an ecclesia is a gathering of people who identify themselves as citizens of the kingdom of God, living by a higher calling – the way of Jesus and his message of the kingdom.

Even the Apocalypse is a kingdom-oriented document. It parodies the Roman imperial system as a beast, and it parodies the religions that support it as a whore and false prophet. It ends with a massive battle in which Jesus defeats the kingdom – not with a literal sword (although depressing numbers of Christians assume this to be the case), but with the sword of his word, meaning his peaceful message of the kingdom of God. In the end, a holy city – a new Rome – comes down from heaven, bringing healing to all the nations of the world. This isn’t a story of us evacuating to heaven; it’s a story of heaven invading earth and transforming it, saving it, healing it.

What does this mean for us today? How would affect followers of Christ today – in the US and around the world – if we really “got” the message of the kingdom of God? I believe that it would be revolutionary. Everything would change.

Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) served as a church-planter/pastor for 24 years. He now works as a writer, speaker, networker, and activist, serving on the boards of emergentvillage.com and sojo.net. He will be in eleven cities this spring speaking about the kingdom of God in a Friday-night/Saturday format – for more information, see deepshift.org.

Comments

  1. Josh Keaney says

    Brian,

    I enjoyed your post. I have questions regarding your statement, “For Jesus, the kingdom wasn’t something we build or advance or expand. It was something we see and enter and receive. To see it, we need to repent and acknowledge how blind we have been, becoming teachable and “young” again, like children. To enter it, we need to become a part of it, and to receive it, we let it become a part of us.”

    In my post a few days before yours on the same topic of the Kingdom I gave a practical and radical example of people I see building the Kingdom. I wrote about a Palestinian Christian named Sami Awad who is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust. Holy Land Trust is the only Interfaith organization of its kind in the Middle East. Half of its staff are Muslim and half are Christian and together they are building a future that is in line with the Kingdom of God. Sami regularly helps lead nonviolent direct actions and other work resisting the Israeli Military Occupation of the Palestinians. In these protests Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Athiests come together to oppose injustice nonviolently. I also sighted the example of Holy Land Trust and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding a Palestinian home this past summer in the village of Wallajah near Bethlehem because the Israeli military demolished the home several times because it was too close to an illegal Israeli settlement. In this example again Jews, Muslims, Christians, and internationals all worked together to enable a Muslim family to stay on their land. In my post I wrote “the Kingdom is bigger than the Church and therefore anyone and everyone can build that Kingdom including non-Christians who often understand and live like Jesus better than I do. Are Palestinian Muslims & Christians, Jews, & Internationals using their faith and non-violent resistance to oppose injustice building God’s Kingdom?”

    I again refer to John Fuellenbach’s, “Church: Community for the Kingdom” as the best book I have read on the topic of the Kingdom and it radically impacted my perspectives. Fuellenbach sights Jacques Dupuis and both scholars use the “building” and “constructing” as their metaphor in reference to the Kingdom.

    Fuellenbach writes:

    “The kingdom of God, God’s all-embracing will of salvation inaugurated through Jesus Christ, is present in the other religious traditions as well. Through sharing in the mystery of the universal plan of salvation, the members of other religious traditions are thus members of the kingdom of God already present as a historic reality. By following their religion, they not only achieve their own salvation but contribute also to the construction of the kingdom in the world. By accepting the positive elements of the kingdom in their traditions, and responding to these elements of grace, Jacques Dupuis concludes… ‘that they find salvation and become members of the Reign of God in history. It follows that the religious traditions contribute, in a mysterious way, to the building up of the Reign of God among their followers and in the world. They exercise, with regard to their own members, a certain mediation of the Kingdom – doubtless different from that which is operating in the Church – even if it is difficult to give a precise theological definition of this mediation’.”

    As you can see others as well as myself use the language “building” and yet you say the Kingdom is something we can NOT “build” or “advance”. Do you say this because God’s Kingdom is not a physical entity like a building or political entity like a literal Kingdom with physical borders? What metaphor do you find more useful? Perhaps its semantics but I chose the language build because I see people that are beyond the “boundaries” of the Church serving the Kingdom. What language would you use to describe the support people (including non-Christians) give to actualizing God’s vision for God’s creation? Would not peace in Palestine be an “advancement” of God’s Kingdom? Is not the occupation of Iraq undermining or hindering the advancement of God’s vision for the Middle East? I know I am using examples related to the Middle East but they are the most relevant to me and can provide some very tangible and relevant examples. How about an example closer to home. I am a minority in my community which is primarily Latin American. Would the deportation of some of my neighbors not undermine God’s Kingdom of compassion and justice?

    I agree with you that we need to “enter it by becoming a part of it” but what happens after that? Are not the actions of people or even institutions that are a part of God’s Kingdom building and advancing God’s vision for God’s creation?

    Peace,

    – Josh

  2. Bob says

    I agree with Josh K about doing things to advance peace in the world ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ Howver Jesus made it clear that there is only one way into heavan John 14:6.

    I cannot accept liberal theology which says all faiths are valid when Jesus and his apostles Acts 4:123 made it clear there is only one way into God’s kingdom that is through jesus Christ.

    Howver that does not stop us frowm working with non christians where our purposes are the same and through that work we may even lead the non Christians into His kingdom

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