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How is the kingdom coming?

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From the Editor: As we have been learning, Jesus’ parables are set in the context of the inauguration of his Kingdom. In the current issue of Modern Reformation magazine Mike Horton answers a series of questions about the flow of redemptive history. What did the disciples expect the coming of the kingdom to be about? How does the kingdom that is present on earth with Jesus’ ministry relate to the Old Testament theocratic kingdom? What should we understand about our role in the uprooting of the kingdom of Satan?
The manner in which the demons respond to Jesus shows his authority over them, but it is not just a raw power: it is his coming in his kingdom of grace and forgiveness that they fear most. Satan and his emissaries are busiest not with plotting wars and oppression--these are symptoms of the sinful condition that human beings are capable of generating on their own. However, Satan knows that if the Messiah fulfills his mission, the curse is lifted, his head is crushed, and his kingdom is toppled.

All of Satan's forces are deployed in this last battle for "all authority in heaven and on earth." All of Jesus' miracles are pointers to this saving announcement; they are not ends in themselves. The kingdom comes with words and deeds. In the miracles, it is said that Satan has bound these people (viz., Luke 13:11, 16). Christ is breaking into Satan's territory, setting history toward a different goal, bound to his own rather than to demonic powers. This is why Paul's call to spiritual battle in Ephesians 6 identifies the gospel, faith, the Word, and Christ's righteousness as the armor and weapons. Satan's energies are now directed against the church and its witness to Christ. The devil knows his house is being looted and his prisons are being emptied as the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth.

Whatever the salutary effects of this kingdom on the wider society, with Christians living as salt and light, this age cannot be saved. It is dying. Through his apostles, Christ declares to the churches, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever" (Gal. 1:3-5). To be sure, the Spirit is also at work in common grace, restraining the spiritual entropy of this present evil age. However, the Spirit's saving mission is not to improve our lives in Adam, under the reign of sin and death, but to crucify us and raise us with Christ. Paul reminds us that "the appointed time has grown very short." We marry, live, and work in the world, but without anxious attachment to this present age: "For the present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Like God's counsel to the captives in Babylon, Peter exhorts believers to "conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:17-19, emphasis added). Fully involved with the common life of our neighbors, we are nevertheless pilgrims who, with Abraham, are "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10).

Instead of calling down God's judgment and driving out the Gentile nations, Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' [Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21]. But I say to you, 'Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him your left'" (Matt. 5:38-39). God no longer sends plagues among the godless but "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous," and he expects us to imitate his kindness (Matt. 5:43-48). This is not the time to judge our neighbors, but to take the log out of our own eye (7:1-5), to diligently seek God's good gifts (vv. 7-11), to enter through the narrow gate (vv. 13-14), and to bear good fruit (vv. 15-27).

In fact, when Jesus went to a Samaritan village preaching the good news and was rejected, James and John wanted to call for fire to fall from heaven in judgment upon them. "But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went to another village" (Luke 9:51-56). Nicknamed "sons of thunder," James and John were clearly looking for a kingdom of glory all the way to the very end (Mark 10:35-45). They even asked Jesus if they could be seated at his right and left hand at the presidential inauguration, but Jesus told them that they had no idea what they were asking: namely, crucifixion with Jesus (vv. 35-40). As such, there is no holy land over which to fight. There aren't even holy places, shrines, or sanctuaries, since Christ and his people together form the end-time sanctuary. Jesus was announcing the arrival of the new covenant, which he would inaugurate in his own blood (Matt. 26:28).

Confusing Christ's kingdom of grace with the Sinai theocracy was precisely the error that Paul addressed especially in Galatians. The kingdom of God in its present phase simply is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins and, on this basis, entrance into the new creation. The signs that Jesus performed were evidence that the age to come had indeed broken in on this present evil age. That is why he told John's disciples to return with the news of healings, but especially that "the poor have the gospel preached to them," adding, "and blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (Matt. 11:5). In other words, this is his mission in his earthly ministry and blessed are those who are not put off by it, expecting something other than this salvation of sinners. God's kingdom is all encompassing, yet it arrives in two stages with Christ's two advents.

When Christ returns in power and glory, there will be no need for the proclamation of the gospel, no need for faith or hope. There will be only love, since the reality will be evident and fully realized for everyone to see (1 Cor. 13:8-13; Rom. 8:19-25). "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb. 2:8-9).

It's not that the horizon of Jesus' contemporaries was too broad but that it was too narrow. While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geopolitical theocracy, Jesus Christ was bringing a universal dominion--not just overthrowing Gentile oppressors but casting out the serpent from heaven and earth forever: "For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:21). In the present era, his kingdom of grace is a reprieve for repentance and faith in Israel and throughout all nations before Christ's return. It is a new creation at work in the world--a new covenant yielding new relationships with God and with each other based on forgiveness and fellowship rather than on judgment and exclusion.

Continue reading here.

Other questions answered in the article include:

  • Should we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament?

  • Does the Bible emphasize continuity or discontinuity in God’s plans?

  • Does the New Testament treat the new covenant church as the expansion of Israel (the old covenant church) or as two separate entities with different programs?

  • Are we to expect catastrophe and then Christ’s Kingdom, or is Christ’s kingdom present now in suffering and progress of the gospel to be consummated in glory at Christ’s return?

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  • Guest - Rana

    The link only gets one so far if not a subscriber :)

    "It’s not that the horizon of Jesus’ contemporaries was too broad but that it was too narrow. While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geopolitical theocracy ... Confusing Christ’s kingdom of grace with the Sinai theocracy"

    I don't know where one might get copies but Bill Baldwin drove these points home on a weekly basis in his sermons at RGOPC back in the late 90's -the last time we had a Democrat for a President (maybe it's just me but I doubt that is just a coincidence that the church needs to hear these things when a "Democrat" is in office, having said that I do think that this is mostly an American Christian phenomenon).

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