Kingdom Come: A Sneak Preview

Added about 5 years ago by Sacristy Press

Kingdom Come makes essential theological topics relevant and readable without diluting the Gospel message, drawing on the work of numerous prominent thinkers. If you can't wait for your copy to arrive (or just want a taster before buying), read the first chapter right here...

The Kingdom of God spoken of in the New Testament has been variously interpreted in the course of the last 2,000 years:

  • as another way of speaking of the church, the community of Christian believers
  • as an invisible spiritual realm entered into at conversion
  • as a life of peace, happiness, and blessing for believers after death
  • as the pursuit of justice for the poor
  • even as coming to expression from time to time in a particular political or social institution such as the British National Health Service

The fuzziness and the range of interpretations available for understanding the Kingdom suggest either that the New Testament is very unclear about what the Kingdom is, or that we’re not listening properly to what it says. In fact, it shouldn’t be difficult to discover the meaning of this New Testament phrase. Jesus spoke more about it than anything else. He began his ministry by announcing the arrival of the Kingdom and, during his final week in Jerusalem, told the disciples that this same proclamation would continue until the consummation of God’s purposes:

This gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Matthew 24:14

A large proportion of his parables concern the Kingdom, the Beatitudes are focused on the Kingdom, his preaching tours focus on the Kingdom, he explains his exorcisms as signs of the Kingdom: Kingdom is his constant theme. And he dies with a notice proclaiming his kingship over his head.

Definition of the Kingdom

So what is the Kingdom? The simplest definition is found in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

The Kingdom is the will of God, done on earth as it is already done in heaven. This is what we see Jesus announcing as he preaches his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, taking words from Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Luke 4:18–19

This is what Jesus enacts in his ministry. Wherever he goes, sin, sickness, hunger, poverty, injustice, the spiritual forces of evil, and even death itself, are pushed back.

More than that, Jesus promises that there will come a day when the forces which spoil human life are not merely pushed back but defeated fully and finally, never to rear their heads again. He looks forward to a “new world”1 —literally, a “new birth” for creation, a renewal of the entire cosmos. He had told Nicodemus that he must have a new birth—be “born again”—to see the Kingdom of God. Now he tells the disciples that the universe itself must, in due time, be born again too.

This is the Kingdom of God—inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus, continued in the ministry of his followers, and consummated in the rebirth of creation. This is what disciples are told to seek, to pray for, to work for, and to hope for. It is the most glorious vision ever offered to human beings. This is what the human heart longs for: the righting of all wrongs, the overturning of all injustices, the triumph of love, joy, and peace over all that spoils human life. It is the best possible good news.

Background to Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom

Where does Jesus get this glorious vision? The terms in which he makes his initial announcement, and the ready response it generates, suggest that what he is talking about is in some way familiar to his audience:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent
and believe in the gospel.
Mark 1:15

“The time is fulfilled”: in other words, the thing you’ve all been waiting for is on its way here and now. The long period of longing for God to act on behalf of his people is over.

Jesus was tapping into a story deeply embedded in Israel’s scriptures. One of the key texts is the book of Daniel, which begins as the story of a small group of faithful Israelites exiled to Babylon in the sixth century
before Christ. There they learn to live out their allegiance to the one true God amidst pagan idolatry and power politics. The book includes dreams and visions of the future—dreams which Daniel (the central figure in the group of faithful Israelites) finds himself called on to interpret, and visions which he receives himself.

The first dream is given to King Nebuchadnezzar, who demands not only that somebody be found to interpret the dream but also to tell him what the dream was. This is beyond the capacities of the wise men of Babylon, but Daniel is able to deliver what the King demands. He begins by telling the King the content of his dream:

You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Daniel 2:31–34

Then Daniel gives the interpretation. The dream is about four successive kingdoms, represented by the different parts of the great image, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, which is the head of fine gold. After his kingdom there will be three other regimes, and then, “in the days of those kings”:

. . . the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold . . .Daniel 2:44–45

Later, in Chapter 7, Daniel receives a vision of four beasts, which appear to correspond to the four kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream but giving more detail about what they will be like. And then Daniel receives another vision:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13–14 (author's italics)

When Jesus went through Palestine proclaiming the Kingdom of God and referring to himself as “the Son of Man”, it would be these scriptural references which would immediately spring to mind for his hearers. They would naturally understand that he was announcing the much anticipated but long-delayed Kingdom of God prophesied by Daniel.

The good news of the Kingdom

Jesus says that the Kingdom is gospel: good news. In this he is drawing on another scriptural source—the book of Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Isaiah 52:7

The promised reign of God will launch a gospel of peace, happiness, and salvation.

The gospel is specifically good news for the poor, as Jesus’ choice of Isaiah 61 for his text at the synagogue in Nazareth makes clear. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus proclaims blessing particularly on the “poor” (as opposed to the “poor in spirit” in Matthew’s version). Jesus’ healing ministry meets the needs of the poor above all—anyone who has worked with the poor knows that ill health is more prevalent and death comes earlier in deprived areas. Of the three occasions when Jesus is recorded as raising the dead, at least one such is rooted in his concern for the poor: a widowed mother who will probably be left destitute without a son to look after her. When Jesus ministers to the rich it is often with a view to blessing the poor: the rich young ruler is told to sell his goods and give to the poor as the preliminary to becoming a disciple; after his conversation with Jesus, Zacchaeus precipitates a minor economic revolution in Jericho by publicly undertaking to give half his wealth to the poor and paying back fourfold anyone he has defrauded.

Jesus’ teaching has some sharp things to say about riches. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a stark warning to the rich not to neglect the poor, and significantly it is the poor man who gets a name while the rich man remains anonymous. The rich man who decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones is vividly portrayed as a fool—he does not know (or does not care) what God expects of those who have wealth. Those who “devour widows’ houses” are warned to expect severe condemnation. Jesus’ concern for the poor echoes through the rest of the New Testament; it seems to have had a particular impact on his brother James, whose letter is full of warnings to the rich and commendations of the poor. Justice for the poor is at the heart of the good news of the Kingdom.

The gospel according to Rome

The background to Jesus’ life was, of course, not only the nation of Israel with its scriptures, its hopes, and its struggles, but crucially the Roman Empire. And the Empire had its own kind of “gospel”. The Roman version of gospel is exemplified in a decree issued around 9 BC marking the birthday of Caesar Augustus (23 September) as the beginning of the civil year:

Whereas the Providence (pronoia) which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . . and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him . . . Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province . . . has devised a way of honouring Augustus hitherto unknown to the Greeks, which is, that the reckoning of time for the course of human life should begin with his birth.

This is Rome’s good news: a Saviour Emperor who has come to end war and create order, a benefactor who is filled with virtue, a god whose birthday is the beginning of the gospel and which should therefore be celebrated by making it the basis for recording the passage of time itself. This document (or at least the political and social culture which lie behind it) would have been part of the mental furniture of everybody in Palestine in the time of Jesus, and particularly so when the gospel spread out beyond their home country into the wider Empire.

Kingdoms in conflict

Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom is going to bring him and his followers into conflict with Rome’s gospel. They can’t both be true. Either Jesus is Lord and Saviour or Caesar is. In the long run, one or other “gospel” is going to be vindicated and the other is going to be defeated. And the conflict will not only be with Rome but with all other powers which set themselves up as the answer to the problems of human life. The conflict will not be resolved by violence. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. It works only through a different kind of power which comes from the Holy Spirit and is backed up by a willingness to suffer, as demonstrated in the example of Jesus himself. The Kingdom can only continue to go forward through the same power backed up by the same willingness to pay the price. John makes this clear when he writes to the churches of Asia:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 1:9

Suffering (“tribulation”) and Kingdom belong together. Jesus called his followers to take up their cross daily. Paul told the church in Rome that suffering has an indispensable role in the development of Christian character and is a requirement for final glorification with Christ:

. . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Romans 5:3–4

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:16–17

Responding to the gospel

Rome’s gospel was proclaimed—broadcast by heralds—across the Empire. It was news which people were expected to take notice of and adjust their lives accordingly. The same is true of the gospel of the Kingdom. The apostles saw themselves as heralds proclaiming good news: not from the Emperor, who was an impostor, but from the true God, the real Saviour, the actual benefactor of humanity.

The gospel is news—momentous news about the way things are. It announces the fact of God’s intervention in the world and his plans for us and for it. As such it requires a response. The response is described as “repentance”:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. Mark 1:15

Repentance is popularly supposed to be an emotional response to discovering one’s own sinfulness: a question of tears and anguish of heart. That may well be true at various stages in the experience of discipleship. But it is not the fundamental issue. The root of repentance is a change of mind—that is what the word means. It is the realization that, in the light of this good news of the Kingdom, I need to rethink my life. I discover that I have been going in the wrong direction and pursuing the wrong goals, and I need to stop and turn round.

Made in the image of God

There is one further dimension to Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation which it is essential to be aware of. The first mention in the Hebrew Bible of the call to exercise rule or dominion is in Genesis 1, and it refers not to the rule of God but to the rule of humans:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26–28 (NRSV)

God’s creation project was always intended to be shared with those made in his image. Much ink has been spilt down the Christian centuries over the meaning of “the image of God”, but the obvious interpretation of the phrase—which is evident from the way it is sandwiched between the two parts of the command to have dominion—is that the immediate context defines the meaning: it is the call and the capacity to exercise rule over the earth. It is this which sets humanity apart from all the other creatures on the planet.

In his 2017 Lent Book, Dethroning Mammon, Justin Welby describes his discovery that the throne of the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral was too big for him—large enough to accommodate two people. He wondered if previous incumbents had been particularly bulky characters. He asked about this and was told that in bygone ages kings gave honour to those they wanted to honour by inviting them to share the throne. God’s purpose is to honour those who are made in his image by sharing his rule with them.

Sadly, Genesis 1 is soon followed by Genesis 3, which explains that humanity’s ability to rule with justice and kindness was severely damaged through sin (so it should be no surprise that we make such a bad job of it). But God has not abandoned his plan: the project of salvation, of restoring his creation, is focused on getting the planned partnership with human beings back on track. That is the point of the whole story. Creation—as Paul will make clear in Romans 8—can only be put right when humans come into their own and are fully restored to what they were meant to be. When that great consummation arrives, the whole project can go forward unhindered by even the possibility of sin coming in to mess things up.

The Kingdom in the theology of Paul

When we come to Paul, we find that the Kingdom theme is an essential part of his theology—not as prominent as in the Gospels, but the assumed backdrop to his life and work.

At the end of the book of Acts, Luke pictures Paul under house arrest in Rome, “proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”. In Luke’s mind, the Kingdom theme played a key role in Paul’s proclamation of the gospel. And the Kingdom is still a significant theme in Paul’s own writings—the word crops up fourteen times in his letters. That’s not a huge number, particularly when you compare it with “gospel” which features some sixty-nine times. But the way he refers to Kingdom suggests that it was something he took for granted his readers would understand. They knew about Kingdom already from his (or other people’s) original proclamation of the gospel.

One passage is worth looking at in some detail. Here is Paul in the climactic Chapter 15 of his first letter to the church in Corinth:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 1 Corinthians 15:22–25

When “the End” comes (that is, the consummation of the New Creation when heaven and earth are renewed and brought back into full and unhindered communication with each other), Jesus will hand over the Kingdom to the Father. That means, of course, that in the meantime Paul understands him to be ruling over his Kingdom, which is exactly what he says in the last sentence of the passage quoted. Kingdom has not faded from Paul’s mind or been replaced by some other theme: ruling (exercising his Kingdom) is what Jesus is currently doing. To say “Jesus is Lord”—which according to Paul is the basic Christian confession7 —is another way of saying that he is the King.

The Kingdom is no less important to Paul’s conception of the achievement of Jesus than it was to Jesus himself. He doesn’t always use Kingdom language, but the central role played by that language in 1 Corinthians 15 is indicative of its importance in Paul’s mind.

We have seen that the Kingdom theme is not just about God but crucially about humans too. As those who are made in the image of God, it is our calling to be involved in his rule over creation. That understanding is equally important to Paul. In Romans 5 he explains how the Messiah has undone the consequences of Adam’s sin and brought the free gift of grace, righteousness, and life to humans:

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Romans 5:17 (author's italics)

The outcome of Jesus’ achievement—the thing to celebrate and look forward to—is reigning in life. (“Reign” and “Kingdom” are obviously closely related concepts in any language, but in Greek the connection is even more obvious because they share the same basic root.) Because of Jesus, humanity’s rule is going to be restored. In Romans 8 he goes on to develop the theme much more fully. The creation, he says, was subjected to futility and decay. But the time is coming when God’s children will enter into their glorious inheritance of ruling over creation once again, and then creation will be set free from frustration and futility forever:

. . . the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:21

Paul doesn’t use Kingdom language at this point, but the language of “glory” echoes the words of Psalm 8, where “glory” is closely related to “dominion”:

. . . you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet. Psalm 8:5–6

Both Jesus and Paul are telling a story—the same story. Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15), which is echoed in Paul’s words to the Galatians:

. . . when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. Galatians 4:4

The fullness of time to which both Jesus and Paul refer looks back to the whole story of the Old Testament. God has been preparing for this moment, in the call of Abraham and the story of Israel, for a long time. This is the last act of the divine drama, when all the themes and threads in the previous acts are brought together and finally resolved.

Reflections on the Kingdom

I want now to offer six reflections on the significance of putting the Kingdom at the heart of our theology.

1. The story

The gospel of the Kingdom is a story. Not, of course, a work of fiction, but a narrative—a history of God’s dealings with the world and his future plans for it. The Bible itself is a narrative—a “brief history of time”, to borrow the title of Stephen Hawking’s book. The difference is that, unlike most history, this one tells us not only where the narrative has come from but where it is going, how it will end, and how to conform one’s life accordingly.

This is of enormous importance, and is often sadly forgotten or neglected by preachers and teachers, and therefore features only marginally in the consciousness of many believers. Story matters among other things because stories are what grab people’s hearts and minds. Not many people are interested in theological schemes or theories, but all of us respond to stories. Stories invite us in, drawing us to identify with the characters and with their longing for the triumph of love, truth, and justice. This story of the Kingdom invites us in quite explicitly. That is what Jesus is doing when he comes on the scene in Galilee announcing, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” He is saying, “Forget your petty little self-focused stories which will come to nothing—get involved in the real thing.”

Most people are looking for a story to get involved in. That, surely, is the power of TV soap operas, which involve people so deeply that they confuse the actors with the characters they play, and berate the ones behaving badly if they meet them in the street. More than that, it is the power of story which is at the heart of the appeal of many of the world’s great religions and belief systems. Marxism is a story: a story about the onward march of history and of revolution as the route by which justice will finally be established. The Western belief in Progress, linked as it is with the theory of Evolution, is a story: it looks forward to ever-increasing levels of prosperity and well-being (though that story has become less believable and people are looking for other stories).

Stories create identity. Humans need a story to identify with and be part of, whether it’s the story of a religious tradition, a nation, a tribe, a political party, an institution, a profession, a football team, or a family. The story we choose to belong to will shape our lives. God holds out to us the privilege of being written into the script of his story and of allowing our sense of identity to be moulded by his story.

The church has by far the best story to tell, which outplays all the others because it is the only one which has a divine guarantee attached: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The other stories are all merely dreams, faint apprehensions of the true story, attempts to substitute human effort for what can only be achieved by the action of God himself.

2. The poor

The Protestant church too often suffers from a split personality: split between those who emphasize personal salvation and those who emphasize social justice. It should not—and need not—be so. Jesus emphasized both, and those of his followers who have achieved most have often been the ones who held fast to both justice and salvation. William Wilberforce cared deeply both about justice for the poor and the salvation of his friends. Among the heroes of faith listed by the writer to the Hebrews are those who “enforced justice”.

All this goes back ultimately to the pattern set by the Old Testament. The Torah legislation was designed to enable Israel to live under the rule of God and to exercise their ministry as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. They were to reflect back to God and outwards to the wider world the divine design for human flourishing; in particular, there was much legislation to restrain the rich from getting ever richer and the poor from getting poorer. The Jubilee provision of Leviticus 25 required that every fifty years all property should revert to its ancestral ownership (though it appears that the legislation was rarely if ever adhered to). When Ahab decides he wants his neighbour Naboth’s vineyard for a vegetable garden, Naboth responds indignantly: “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And when, as a result of Jezebel’s arranging for Naboth to be murdered, Ahab gains possession of the vineyard, the LORD sends Elijah to pronounce judgement on him: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”

Deuteronomy poignantly expresses the Old Testament dream that “there will be no poor among you . . . in the land that the LORD your God is giving you,” and then, three verses later, acknowledges the possibility that the dream will not be fully realized and directs the proper response when that happens: “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart . . . against your poor brother.”

The Old Testament legislation was intended to prefigure what the Kingdom of God looked like. When Jesus arrived in Galilee proclaiming that the Kingdom was at hand, the disciples could hardly doubt that justice for the poor would be high on the agenda. His teaching and actions would confirm that at every turn. If we put Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation at the heart of our theology, then justice for the poor is a non-negotiable commitment.

3. Jesus the theologian

Taking Jesus’ theme of the Kingdom of God as central gives us a fresh perspective on him: it puts him firmly in the frame as a theologian. It acknowledges that Jesus had thought deeply and meditated long on the scriptures of his people and arrived at an original, radical, and clearly articulated vision of his own vocation, the vocation of Israel and of the over-arching purpose of God for the world.

For a long time the world of scholarship never quite recovered from the nineteenth-century idea that Paul had corrupted the simple gospel preached by Jesus and made it into a complicated theological system. I want to suggest that the influence runs all the other way: Paul was captivated by Jesus, including Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, and gave his life for him and his gospel. On any view Paul is one of the great intellects of antiquity. The letter to the Romans is an astonishing intellectual achievement. That such a great intellect was induced to change the direction of his life in the radical way experienced by Paul says much for the power of Jesus as thinker and theologian.

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century latched on to justification by faith as the key to their theology, and in so doing put the Pauline letters at the centre of their thinking and pushed the Gospels to the edge of the picture. The Gospels were further marginalized by upwards of one hundred and fifty years of sceptical scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which left very little confidence that the New Testament offered any reliable information about Jesus. As long as that consensus dominated academic discussion it was rare for anybody even to suggest the possibility that Jesus might be a serious thinker in his own right.

But if he is not a serious thinker, how seriously should we take him? Why should we entrust our lives to one whose thinking is less distinguished than the great thinkers of human history and culture?

Fortunately, a fresh wave of writing in the closing decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, in which Tom Wright is a leading figure, has gone a long way to setting the record straight and re-establishing the integrity, reliability, and cogency of the New Testament witness to Jesus.

4. Human dominion [1]

We have seen that the Kingdom is not only about restoring the rule of God over his creation, but crucially about restoring the proper dominion of humanity over the created order as well. This is controversial, to say the least. I recently heard a speaker at a public meeting blame the Christian doctrine of creation for the environmental problems of the planet. It is a commonly expressed point of view. The Genesis commission to exercise dominion over the earth—so the argument goes—has given a licence to humans to exploit the planet, plunder its resources, upset ecosystems, and severely damage the heritage we leave to subsequent generations.

There is some truth in the charge. There are Christians who talk as if this is what God had in mind—as if we should get what we can out of the planet and hang the consequences. But there is no excuse for that kind of thinking. Genesis 1 is followed by Genesis 2 which speaks clearly of creation as a garden given to humans “to work it and take care of it” (author's italics). And Genesis 2 is followed by Genesis 3 which explains how humans forfeited their right relationship with creation through sin, which would suggest we need to be careful how we handle the divine commission. What was designed to flow naturally from us now needs to be monitored and frequently restrained and corrected. The Genesis account of the divine commission to rule over creation is altogether more subtle and nuanced than the critics allow or careless Christians realize.

But the charge against Genesis doesn’t really stand up to serious examination. It is not the divine commission which is responsible for human damage to the planet: it is sin—humans who are out of harmony with their Creator and doing their own thing. It is simply not true that if you take away from humans the consciousness of God-given dominion over creation, all will be well and nature will flourish again. State-sponsored atheism in the former Soviet Union far outstripped the post-Christian, capitalist West in wreaking destruction on the environment. Human dominion over creation is a fact: Homo sapiens has powers for both good and ill which exceed anything possessed by any other inhabitant of our planet. This is not “speciesism”, just common-sense realism (as well as good theology). The answer to the abuse of our powers is not to deny them but to use them properly. The gospel of the Kingdom promises us that one day that dream will be fully realized.

I am fortunate enough to live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as defined by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. What does “natural beauty” mean? In this case, it means fields wrested from the forest by our ancestors, hedges planted and carefully maintained, crops sown to provide food, animals domesticated over the course of millennia to serve human needs, woodland managed to enable a diversity of trees to flourish, human habitation planned and built to avoid ugliness . . . The beauty is not really natural at all: it is quite artificial, at least in the sense that without human intervention the landscape as we know it would disappear. Given time and opportunity, the forest would re-assert itself and take over entirely. Properly exercised, human dominion over creation is a blessing, not a curse: it enhances the natural beauty of creation, as the Lord of Creation always intended it should.

5. Human dominion [2]

Human dominion over creation has wider implications than the questions of ecology and the environment. The fact that we are made in the image of God is the presupposition and foundation of our imitation of Christ. Jesus demonstrated authority over sickness, scarcity, bad weather, demons, death, and even the Sea of Galilee. In Chapter 4 we will see how Jesus not only did all these things but encouraged his disciples to imitate him, and finally commissioned them to make more disciples who would continue in the same vein. This was not a novelty introduced by him merely to support the spread of the gospel—a temporary provision for some supernatural fireworks to induce people to believe. It was, and is, the restoration of the originally intended relationship between humans and creation.

When I first attempted to introduce this idea in a parish group dedicated to developing the ministry of healing, one of those present exclaimed indignantly, “But that’s playing God!” Well yes, being made in the image of God does imply that we are designed to do some of the things He does. That will be part of what it’s like to enjoy the new creation, of which more in Chapter 8. And since (according to Jesus) the Kingdom is at hand now, now is the appropriate time to begin the learning process. Not that I have ever walked on water or particularly expect to do so this side of the resurrection. But extraordinary things do happen at the hands of Christian believers, particularly when the need is great, the church is under pressure, or the gospel is making inroads into fresh territory.

My friend Mark Aldridge was invited to minister in Nizhnevartovsk, in a remote part of Siberia. He was met at the airport by the local pastor, Vasili. Russians can be very direct by the standards of the reticent British, so Vasili lost very little time in getting to what he wanted to talk about. The conversation went something like this:

Vasili: How many people have you raised from the dead?

Mark: None, I’m afraid. How about you? How many have you raised from the dead?

Vasili: Only five.

To us that sounds outrageous: outrageously boastful and outrageously unlikely. And by our standards it is outrageous. But our standards are not the only standards there are. Jesus told the apostles to raise the dead and at the end of his ministry instructed them to go on making disciples who would obey all that he had commanded them. It would be difficult to test the truth of this pastor’s claims, but the church in Siberia is at the frontiers of the Kingdom and is likely to face opposition and even persecution in today’s Russia, so why should they not experience the power of the Kingdom in raising the dead?

“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Acts 26:8

6. Christian hope

Finally, the Kingdom challenges nearly all of us with an almost forgotten and certainly much neglected dimension of Christian hope: namely, that one day God is going to renew the whole creation. The point of the whole thing—the journey’s destination—is not heaven, but heaven come to earth. Until the resurrection, Christian believers will find themselves in heaven after death, much as the penitent thief was reassured by Jesus: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” But that’s not the end of the story, which is resurrection: heaven come down to earth and the renewal of the entire cosmos.

Much of the church has lost its grip on the hope which flows from the resurrection of Jesus, so that we are left with the cartoonist’s view of our future destiny: sitting on a cloud playing a harp. But it’s only the cartoonist’s view because it isn’t far from what the church has preached for many centuries. It’s a huge mistake. God is not planning to abandon this world as a failed project. The separation from which the whole creation has been suffering since the serpent got into the Garden is going to be healed: heaven and earth are coming back together again. In the rest of this book this understanding of our hope will never be far below the surface of the argument.

This is an extract from Kingdom Come: Essential theology for the twenty-first century, making essential theological topics relevant and readable without diluting the Gospel message, and drawing on the work of thinkers such as Augustine, John Calvin, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, J. I. Packer and N. T. Wright.

This book is essential reading for anyone in, or training for, church leadership: clergy, pastors, students, ordinands, preachers, and teachers.

Get your copy right here.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

Never miss a beat.

Be the first to know when we publish new books! Join our mailing list for exclusive discounts, author interviews, and more...