Earlier this week, we posted an interview with Gary Black Jr., co-author of The Divine Conspiracy Continued, about what the “kingdom of God” looks like. In that interview, Dr. Black points out a long-standing tension in the Christian church: is God’s Kingdom something to expect at the end of time, or is it already here in some sense? If it’s already here, why is the world still awash with sin and pain? And if the kingdom of God is here, or in the process of arriving, what are Christians called to do?
It’s a deep and fascinating topic, and since Dr. Black was only able to briefly touch on it in the interview, we thought it would be helpful to share a relevant excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy Continued, graciously provided to us by the publisher. Here, then, is an essay about how Christians have historically understood the “kingdom of God,” and what it means for us today. The topic arises in the context of a discussion on leadership in the church.
God’s Call to Leaders
Reprinted with permission from The Divine Conspiracy Continued by Dallas Willard and Gary Black Jr.
A significant part of our Western Christian heritage over the past few hundred years and much of the explicit practical teaching that we hear from our pulpits, which becomes routinely modeled in our Christian communities, argue that the kingdom of God is something that is not readily available or accessible in the here and now. Thankfully, this view has shown signs of changing, in fits and starts, and to very good effect. But overall there remains a sense, sometimes overt, sometimes more covert, that one fine day, far in the future, all the earthly kingdoms of our current world will eventually come under the reign, or rule, of Jesus Christ. But until then we are left to hold on by our fingernails, if we can, to our piety and faith, doing our utmost to ride out the many storms of life that threaten our sense of well-being.
This has remained a very familiar strain of thought and practice for many of our Christian preachers, teachers, and spokespersons today, as it has been over the past several centuries. Such ideas and images are difficult to reform and thus tend to leave Christians with only the fading hope that in the “great by and by” Jesus will return to finish his largely failed previous attempt to jump-start his reign as king over both heaven and earth.
What is less well known, let alone appreciated, is that such a perspective is not how the early church traditionally understood the rule or reign of Jesus. Nor is it what Jesus taught. Jesus’s kingdom has not been deferred until his return or until after he is able to “clean house” at the final judgment. He will return, and there will be a settling of accounts, we can be sure of this. But until then, he is not biding his time, having been limited to changing a few minds here and there, saving individual souls at various religious services, and making a few mystical appearances now and again, until some unknown period in the future when he can get his original intentions back on track. In contrast to such a passive theology, the teachings of the church through much of its history demonstrate a consistent testimony, even if ignored at times, that Jesus’s rule began when he said it began, at the proclamation of his “Great Commission,” which, as you recall, occurred just before his ascension—after his death and resurrection, but just before he went to be with his Father in heaven, where he now is actively positioned in the seat of authority “at the right hand of the Father.” As noted biblical scholars N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight, among many others, have clearly argued, Jesus was crowned king, is now ruling, and currently maintains all authority or dominion “in heaven and on earth.” Theologian Amos Yong has also helped us better understand how the Spirit of God, as the “chief empowerer,” is now “poured out upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17) and directs, leads, encourages, supports, and advocates for the reign of Jesus in and through the wills, minds, bodies, and even human institutions that serve his overarching purposes of holistic redemption.
What is important to understand here is that there is no “then” or “when” to the kingdom of God. This reign is a current, progressing, maturing reality, which means Jesus rules today. Jesus is the one who sits on the throne of the cosmos, and all authority, over all things, has been given to him (Matt. 25:31; 28:18). God is the God of all humanity (Jer. 32:27). God rules today through his Son, Jesus, the king, and he rules over everyone and everything—not just Christians or religious organizations. He is the King of Kings, the ruler of rulers (Rev. 1:5), and the dominion of his Spirit extends to every corner and crevice of the universe at this very moment—a fact even the demons appear to understand perfectly well (Mark 1:24; 5:7; James 2:19). The kingdom has come, and there is more to come. Thanks be to God.
Let’s take a moment and contemplate the implications of what all this means. A loving and omnipotent God is now ruling. Therefore, he has a holistic vision for human life that necessarily includes all the political, economic, and social realms—not just religious realms—along with the innumerable personal kingdoms that compose all human activity.
As previously stated, this is not a new vision, but one present throughout the Hebrew scriptures, revealed through the prophets, partially demonstrated in the people of Israel, made abundantly clear in the teachings of Jesus, carried forward in the first century by the apostles, and propelled through the ages until landing on the doorstep of the contemporary church. Through Christ all things, everything, everyone, is in the process of coming under the sovereign benevolence (Latin: bene, “good”; volens, “willing”) of God’s agape ethic and ethos (1 Cor. 15:28). Through Christ all things are being, and will be, made new (Rev. 21:5; 2 Cor. 5:17). Eventually, every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge this current reality (Phil. 2:10–11). Both believers and nonbelievers alike will be confessing an appropriate degree of both wonder and ignorance regarding the magnitude of Christ’s lordship and glorious representation of God, his Father.