The Kingdom – in your face

Posted: January 13, 2014 by J in Bible, Book review, Church history, Theology
Tags: , ,

We are continuing to critique the ‘invisible faith’ tradition which has dominated Reformed Protestantism all along (see posts 1 and 2 below).

Another major concern is whether this ‘hearing not seeing’ approach to the Word allows for the New Testament teaching regarding the kingdom of God. ‘The Kingdom’ is a theme that has been largely ignored in the Protestant tradition, but it is front and centre throughout the NT. The reasons for its neglect may become clear.

In the NT the kingdom of God is something that is now coming near, something people will have to reckon with. The thing to get about the Kingdom, is that it’s in your face.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon youLuke 11:20

The kingdom was not coming invisibly: the whole point of its coming was that it would appear. God’s kingdom was considered to have always existed, but would now be revealed on earth, in power.

“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1)

The visibility of the kingdom is captured in the important NT theme of signs. The signs are visible evidence of the kingdom’s arrival. For though the arrival of the kingdom is not obvious to all, yet neither is it totally hidden: glimpses of its glory and enormity are there to be seen.

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:31)

John the Baptist was doubting whether Jesus was truly the one to bring the kingdom. Jesus’ reply made it clear how to become certain about this:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22).

It is important to notice that these signs do not function like signposts, pointing away to some other reality. Rather they function like symptoms, hints of the condition which is now present. They are not signs of what is going on in heaven, but ‘the signs of the times’ (Matt. 16:3) – i.e. of what is coming upon earth. They are ‘the sign[s] that all these things are about to be accomplished’  (Mark 13:4). The apostles’ healing miracles were one example of this sort of sign:

…cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

The signs then are glimpses of the kingdom’s arrival, which can be seen by anyone who cares to notice them.

To sum this up, the arrival of the kingdom comes not just as an announcement, but as a concrete reality which may be experienced by the senses.

For the kingdom of God is not in words [only], but in power. (1 Corinthians 4:20)

because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power(1Thessalonians 1:5)

Compare this with the approach to God’s kingdom in, for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the most influential Protestant book ever written (and a favourite of mine!):

PART 1

Pliable: ..tell me now farther, what the things are, and how to be enjoyed, whither we are going.

Christian: …since you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my book.

Pliable: And do you think that the words of your book are certainly true?

Christian: Yes, verily; for it was made by Him that cannot lie.

Pliable: Well said; what things are they?

Christian: There is an endless kingdom to be inhabited, and everlasting life to be given us, that we may inhabit that kingdom for ever.

Pliable: Well said; and what else?

Christian: There are crowns of glory to be given us; and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of heaven. 

Pliable: This is very pleasant; and what else?

Christian: There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow; for he that is owner of the place will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Pliable: And what company shall we have there?

Christian: There we shall be with seraphims and cherubims…

PART 10

(After death they will enter God’s kingdom): “There you shall not see again such things as you saw when you were in the lower region, upon earth.”

_____

In other words, the pilgrim’s faith is of the classic Protestant hearing-not-seeing type. He seeks a kingdom which is entirely elsewhere, and for now entirely unseen. He only knows about it from a book. By putting his trust in the words he has heard from the book, Christian is able to persevere through trials and finally enter God’s kingdom. Hearing is the only possible way to faith, for down here there is literally nothing to see. Sight is postponed until the moment of death, at which point Christian leaves this lower world behind.

The contrast could hardly be greater with the NT kingdom-in-your-face teaching we have seen in our study. Pilgrim’s Progress, for all that I love it, I have to admit it offers a narrative of the kingdom which is fundamentally different to that of the NT.

It is notable that Bunyan, though he writes about God’s country, doesn’t much use the language of the kingdom of God. This is also in keeping with mainstream Protestant tradition. Perhaps our exploration has given us some insights into why this prominent NT theme has received such short shrift in the Protestant tradition. For if you have a prior commitment to hearing-and-not-seeing a gospel message about an invisible other world (as we do), then kingdom as described above is not a theme that you’d easily connect with.

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