Mission and the Kingdom of God
Is the Kingdom of God the Appropriate General Concept for an Evangelical Theology of Mission?
In different historical periods theology of mission had different emphasis and variety of Scriptures to support them. For instance, the Greek patristic paradigm for mission was based on John 3:16, but during the medieval times Roman Catholics were relying on another passage, namely Luke 14:23, "...and compel them to com in..." Among Reformers Romans 1:16 became the prevailing text, yet later beginning with Anabaptists it yielded ground to Great Commission texts of Mathew and Mark. At the turn of the 20th the works of Albrecht Ritschl, Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer brought to light the Kingdom of God theme, and it has been at the center of discussion since. Before suggesting my answer to the question whether the Kingdom of God is the appropriate general concept for an evangelical theology of Missions, I would like to reflect on how the subject is dealt with in the Bible and what are the main issues related to the subject.
Let us begin with defining the meaning of the term. Scholars suggest that the primary meaning of both the Hebrew word tWkl.m (malkuth) in the Old Testament and of the Greek word basilei,a (basileia) in the New Testament is "rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king." A sense of "realm" - a territorial kingdom is secondary, arising as the sphere for the exercise of sovereignty. The Kingdom of God is his kingship, his rule, his authority. For this reason some prefer the term the reign of God. David Bocsh, for instance, uses only the latter term, intentionally avoiding the kingdom of God. Sure enough, the concept of kingdom by and large speaks very little to us, living in the 21st century - we should learn it from history. Yet, in my view, as Christians we should not be afraid of using the words of the Bible despite the fact that the concepts behind them should be studied carefully. On the other hand, the notion of the reign of God helps to understand such passages as Mark 10:15, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Here we have both meanings, the first is reign, and the second is realm. Jesus explains that in order to enter the future realm of the Kingdom, one must submit himself fully to God's reign here and now.
It is worth of noticing that the phrase the kingdom of God (~yIm;v' tWkl.m) does not appear in the Old Testament, only in inter-testament Jewish literature. In contrast to this, the Gospels introduce the subject from the very beginning (combined, phrases kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are used 95 times in the NT.) Both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and for this reason urge people to repent. Evidently the concept of the kingdom of God was known to the people, because had it not been, Jesus and John would have taken pains to explain it. However, although the exact phrase is absent from the OT, the idea is present throughout it. The demand of the Lord Moses presented to Pharaoh was the kind of demand of the lawful king over against the usurper. Later Samuel admonished people that by asking a king for themselves they have rejected Yahweh as their king (1 Sam 12:12); Isaiah is afraid and laments because he has seen the King (Is 6:5); David on number of occasions addresses the Lord as the king, and portrays him sitting on a royal thrown (Ps 24:10; 9:4; 29:10; 45:6; 47:8). Yet the theme of the kingdom of God is most developed in the book of Daniel. There the sovereignty of God is set vis-à-vis human kingdoms: "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever" (Dan 2:44). The agent for this kingdom is a figure described as "one like a son of man" (Dan 7:13). By the time of Jesus' earthly ministry the people had strong expectations for the Messianic king of Davidic descent to bring deliverance from Jewish oppressors (Lk 2:25, 38; 23:51). Those addressing Jesus, as the son of David had identified him with the awaited Messiah.
Undoubtedly, the kingdom of God was essential to Jesus' entire ministry. He began it by proclaiming immediacy of the kingdom (Mk 1:15); he pointed out that the healing of the sick and casting of demons was the manifestation of the kingdom of God (Mat 12:28); and he did not deny before Pilate that he was a king, just explained that his kingdom is different from those of this world (Jn 18:33-37). His teaching discourses had a lot to say about the Kingdom. It forms the heart of the Sermon on the Mount: the first and the last Beatitudes have the promises of the kingdom of heaven (Mathew prefers the latter phrase and uses it 32 times in his gospel, while other Synoptics refrain from it altogether) so creating inclusio for the Beatitudes; then, Jesus makes the obedience to his teaching as the condition for entrance to and greatness in the Kingdom (Mt 5:19-20; 7:21). The kingdom of God must be sought insistently and must be preferred to everything (Mt 6:33; Lk 12:31); it may demand the sacrifice of marriage and family (Lk 9:62) as well as of possessions (Mk 10:21-27). The demand is radicalized still further when Jesus urges to overcome temptation by letting the tempting foot (other Synoptics - hand) be cut off or the tempting eye be plucked out in order to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 9:45-47). All this illustrates the seriousness with which people must act with regard to the kingdom o God. In the parables of the Kingdom, Jesus allegorizes different aspects, such as people's response the message of the kingdom of God in the parable of the Sower (Mt 13:19), about the unobtrusive character of the Kingdom (Mk 4:26-29; Mt 13:33), its immense growth from insignificant beginning (Mt 13:31-32; Mk 4:30-32), and the huge value of the kingdom of God, for which again one must be prepared to give up everything (Mt 13:44-45). Thus, we see that the concept of the kingdom of God was present both in the works and the teaching of Jesus.
As far as the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 13:11; Mk 4:11) are concerned I find George E. Ladd's view more plausible than Bosch's. The latter just briefly mentions that the parables deliberately veil the mystery of God's reign for some, while reveal it for others. Ladd, on the other hand, proposes that mystery in the biblical sense is not something mysterious, nor deep, dark, and difficult but it is something that has been kept secret in the past, and is disclosed in the present (Rom 16:25-26). According to him the mystery of the Kingdom, which the parables set forth, is that the kingdom of God has now come to work among men in utterly unexpected way. It is not now destroying human rule; it is not abolishing sin from the earth; it has come quietly, unobtrusively and secretly. It can work among men and never be recognized by them because the kingdom of God is an offer, a gift, which may be received or rejected. The Kingdom is now here with persuasion rather than with power.
The space of this paper does not allow reflecting on whether the kingdom of God, as presented by Jesus, was futuristically eschatological event or only a present spiritual reality. Historically the debate took many forms. For instance, Augustine's The City of God influenced the view that the church is the kingdom of God on the earth. On the other hand, Origen viewed the kingdom of God as the spiritual journey of the individual believer. At the turn of 20th century, the view of God's kingdom as futuristic event was perhaps best espoused by Albert Schwitzer. Yet a little later (1935), it found its opposite pole in Dodd's realized eschatology. Suffice it say that the New Testament speaks about the kingdom of God as both future and already present event. It has arrived, and yet is still to come. It is both bestowal and challenge, gift and promise, celebration and anticipation. The tension between the two dimensions of God's kingdom remains. Jesus introduced the new dimension of immediacy of the Kingdom, however did not repudiate the old Jewish eschatological view of the Messianic reign. The tension between the "already" and the "not yet" is creative, and, in my judgment, we should learn to live in it because the absence of the "already" element leads to rosy optimism and escapism, whereas the negation of the "not yet" to either pessimism or pure social opportunism.
Now, the verse that best links the Kingdom with the Mission is, of course, Mathew 24:14, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." Missionary activity is connected with the purposes of the Kingdom. The end of the world will not come until the world has been evangelized. The essence of Jesus discourse on the signs of his second advent in Mathew 24 and Luke 21 have evangelistic rather than prophetic connotations because as far as the time is concerned, it is veiled, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mat 24:36); but as far as the work is concerned, it is disclosed, "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations." In the words of Lesslie Newbigin mission is the open secret. If the church takes her responsibility seriously in the Kingdom business the corollary will always be intentional missionary activities. Is it not with a hint that Luke abruptly ends the book of Acts, by stating that Paul, "Boldly and without hindrance preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (Ac 28:31). Should we not do the same? We must. Commitment to missions stems from the glorious panorama of the Kingdom to which the saved people from all the nations of the world are brought in. So, in my view, it is appropriate to have the concept of the kingdom of God for an evangelical theology of missions. It will do no harm, on contrary, the concept of the kingdom of God can revitalize the sense of our calling and duty for missions. The fact that liberal theologians, such as A. Ritschl, J. Weiss, or A. Schweitzer in their expositions on the kingdom of God have eliminated some of the tenets of classical Christianity, should not frighten us to use the biblical concept, which has obvious implications for missions. In this paper I have tried to show that the concept of the Kingdom of God is entirely biblical and has relevance for theology of mission.
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Newbigin, Lesslie The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1995.
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