Kingdom-Building Prayer

Thursday, 01 Nov 2018

Prayer is not some battering ram by which we gain entrance to God’s treasury,” wrote Herschel Hobbs in his commentary on Matthew. “It is a receptacle by which we receive that which He already longs to give us.” So far, our Lord, in such simple profundity, has given us a systematic theology of prayer. We have access to the one true God, Creator of heaven and earth, because through the saving sacrifice and mediation of Christ we have been made children of God and coheirs with Christ. Paul put it this way:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in him,” heading the list with election, adoption, redemption, faith, and sealing, with the Holy Spirit given as “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:3–14). Therefore, we can call God “Father.” “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15).

He is our Father in heaven, and this spans the gulf between God and us, the Creator and the creature. Beyond the matter of our sinfulness, our mere creatureliness puts a distance between God and us, just as even the greatest masterpiece of Rembrandt is still not Rembrandt. As we raise our eyes toward heaven—where the anchor of our hope still holds, where Christ the Advocate intercedes for us, and where we ourselves are seated with him—all earthly hopes, relationships, and inheritances obtain their proper, sane appraisal and perspective.

Like the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer begins with petitions concerning things heavenly, and directly concerned with our relationship to God: petitions that his name would be held in honor and sacred esteem; that his kingdom would grow, like the mustard seed, until it became a tree providing shade to the nations; and that his will would be realized in earthly, concrete terms. Then the prayer turns to petitions for oneself: for daily providence in material needs, for forgiveness of sins, and for deliverance from temptation and evil.

Thus in this one prayer, our Lord has given us a theology of prayer, anchored in adoption, the holiness of God and his name, eschatology (the unfolding purposes of God and his kingdom), providence, redemption, and sanctification. While there is a category in the prayer for petitions concerning earthly needs (“Give us this day our daily bread”), notice how rich and broad prayer really is, as it concerns first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then descends from heaven to earth, from God to us, from spiritual blessings in heavenly places to earthly concerns. How easy it is to even fail to raise our eyes toward heaven—to be earthbound—even in our prayers! This is why we must be taught how to pray. Like a wild vine needing a trellis, our hearts and minds must be guided from viewing things according to our own imaginations and orientations. Prayer is not merely useful as a means of getting things from God, but it is a means of worship and training as our hearts and minds learn to become concerned with those matters that most concern our heavenly Father.

The doxology—“For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen”—appears in later manuscripts and may not have been a part of the original prayer. Regardless, it summarizes the prayer, and we have no reason to judge it contrary to Scripture, even if there is a chance that it is not, in fact, such.

Although God withheld from King David the privilege of building the temple, David was able to get the ball rolling for his son Solomon to whom this privileged task was given. After the officers and leaders of the families volunteered their labor and consecrated themselves to the task, David offered the following doxology (1 Chron. 29:10–13), which closely parallels the Lord’s Prayer:

Praise be to you, O Lord,
   God of our father Israel,
   from everlasting to everlasting.

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and
   the power and the glory and the majesty
   and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.

Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom;
   you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
   you are the ruler of all things.

In your hands are strength and
   power to exalt and give strength to all.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,
   and praise your glorious name.

Even by petitioning God for “our daily bread,” we are acknowledging that “everything in heaven and earth” is the Lord’s. By confessing our sins to God, we acknowledge what God judges as wrong. By petitioning him for forgiveness, we acknowledge that he alone is the judge and the justifier of the ungodly; and by asking him to keep us from evil, we acknowledge that he alone is our Sanctifier and Defense against the creature who has made it his sole objective to undermine the glory of God and the faith of the elect. In short, prayer should always be a “declaration of dependence,” as much in things earthly as in things heavenly.

When we come to the doxology (from doxa, “to glorify or praise”), we are, so to speak, wrapping up our box of petitions in suitable paper, recognizing that the source of every good gift is God, the ground of every good gift is the righteousness of Christ, the instrument or means of obtaining every good gift is faith in the gospel, and the goal of every good gift is the glory of God and advancement of his kingdom in this world. The doxology alone should measure our prayers, to determine whether they are fit for a heavenly audience.

Thine Is the Kingdom

David learned the hard way that the kingdom of God is just that—God’s kingdom. When it came time to give Solomon the charge to build the temple, David confessed,

“My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the Lord my God. But this word of the Lord came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. . . . He will be my son, and I will be his father. And I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.’” (1 Chron. 22:6–10)

Israel was, like Eden, the union of church and state, a “theocracy” through which God himself directly spoke, judged, and acted out the unfolding purposes of redemptive history on the stage of Israel. The kingdom of God was Israel, not merely as a spiritual people (that is, believers in the promise) but as a nation. Nevertheless, in the new covenant, the kingdom is not associated with Israel or any other earthly nation; it takes on an entirely spiritual character in which the Jews and Gentiles are brought together through the peace of Christ’s sacrifice.

Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal. 3:7–9)

“In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Rom. 9:8). The designation of Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6) is now applied to the New Testament church, comprising all Abraham’s children, Jew and Gentile (1 Pet. 2:9). In fact, Paul tells the Galatian church, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, that they are “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

Therefore, the kingdom of God is specifically defined as the reign of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and it is advanced through the preaching of the word, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and by the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is not a kingdom that derives its source from human authority, nor does it depend on any worldly factor for its success. It is the kingdom of God that creates the people of God, not vice versa. The kingdom comes upon us as a fog or as the wind (John 3:8) and sweeps us into it. Or to use the analogy Jesus gives in John 3:3, it is to be born a second time, to die to one’s identity (“in Adam”), only to be raised to a new one (“in Christ”). Thus as the Spirit blows, with his word going before him through his Spirit-filled messengers (all believers), a new community is created, heaven comes to earth, and the kingdom of God spreads its shade across the nations.

While the kingdom of God is not identified with any nation in the new covenant, God’s sovereign rule through providence is implied here. For instance, not only did David learn that God owned Israel, but the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar also learned that God owned Persia! While he was boasting about the kingdom he had built as a testimony to his glory and splendor, God made Nebuchadnezzar insane. The king shared meals with the animals, was drenched with dew each morning, and his nails grew like claws and his hair like feathers. This picture Daniel gives is close to the biography of Howard Hughes, and it is not at all far-fetched to see how self-intoxication can so upset one’s balance and perspective that insanity is inevitable. As Paul said of those who exchange the glory of God for the “glory” of created things, “Seeking to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22).

Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar learned that his kingdom really belonged to someone else:

“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

“His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’

“…Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan. 4:34–37)

One wonders if the church today needs to learn this lesson again: That the kingdom is created by, sustained by, and exists for God and his glory. To the extent that we shift the focus of the kingdom from God to man, it will simply become a social institution. To the extent that we believe that the source of the kingdom is power (economic or political crusades), or marketing (principles of business success), our message and methods will be concerned not with “our Father in heaven” but with “our Audience on earth.” And for those who think that the nature of the kingdom is temporal and earthly, their activity will be more concerned with imposing their own will on society in pursuit of the “Christian Nation” idea of the kingdom. The new apostles will be the founding fathers, regardless of the fact that many of them were open critics of orthodox Christianity. They think the new gospel will be the salvation of the chosen nation by moral clean-up and social legislation.

Or, for those who agree with the temporal nature of the kingdom but think more in the vein of the church-growth movement, the Spirit-empowered preaching of the transcendent word will be replaced with practical pep talks, and the administration of the sacraments will be replaced with any number of new practices and designed to entertain and inspire. Evangelism will be edged out by self-oriented programs designed to make us a bit more comfortable with this world. To reinforce this, the congregation at worship will become the audience at play. The music will be happy and as “down-to-earth” as shampoo jingles, and they will focus on me and my personal experience rather than on God and his work in Christ.

Whose kingdom are we building? Have we become so “down-to-earth” that we have snapped the cord that connects us to the heavenly realities? And is the goal of this kingdom we are building God’s glory? Whatever goals we might consider worthwhile (providing a sense of community and fellowship; assisting families in building good, solid homes; improving the moral and spiritual climate of the country; meeting felt needs; or even building big churches) are, as a distraction, in competition with God himself. And, like David and Nebuchadnezzar, anyone can be humbled. Yes, even Americans. We are in desperate need of recovering our eternal perspective—raising our eyes toward heaven, so that our sanity may be restored and God’s kingdom, power, and glory might once again occupy the attention of the church and the culture.

God’s kingdom, power, and glory are advanced chiefly through the gospel in which the brilliant rays of his wisdom, mercy, justice, holiness, and power are captured all at once. Through this gospel, the holy God is able to establish a just relationship with unholy creatures. It establishes his kingdom on righteousness, as he is the just and the justifier of all who believe. It shows his power, “for [the gospel] is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), and it exalts his glory because salvation “does not depend on man’s decision or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Nowhere is the sinner justified in taking any glory to himself.

He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:27–30)

There is not one shred of holiness, no sparkle of righteousness, no ray of glory in the believer or in the church that comes from us; it is all the kingdom, power, and glory of God in his word and sacraments.

All of this might run counter to a church that is so worldly its believers have become “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1–5). We even have high priests of the new gospel who—like the medieval champions of the kingdom, power, and glory of man—resist any notion that robs man of his pretended glory. For instance, in Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word Books, 1983), Robert Schuller declared that “the Reformation erred in its insistence that theology be God-centered rather than man-centered” and said that its notion of sin is “insulting to the human being” (65). The glory has left the church because the gospel has left the church—or, rather, has been dismissed. It is not because God has been “ejected” from the public schools, but because his name, his kingdom, his power, and his glory have been replaced with our own agendas, priorities, goals, and self-glorifying interests.

My greatest prayer for the church today—indeed, for myself—is that we would raise our eyes to heaven and look to the hills from which our salvation comes, and to spend ourselves in good works (in our calling, in our relationships, in our families) to the glory of God. Only then—when we are heavenly minded—will we be any earthly good. Only then will the kingdom advance in the power and glory of God. Remember, it was J. S. Bach who signed his compositions Soli Deo Gloria (the Reformation slogan “To God alone be glory”), and it was this slogan that even still graces the old buildings in the great cities of northern Europe. One might say that at the Reformation, the kingdom, power, and glory of Rome met the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and we can only expect a similar confrontation within the church in our own time. May God give us the grace to make the correct alliance.

 

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

This article originally appeared as “Thine Is the Kingdom” in the July/August 1993 issue of Modern Reformation.

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