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.