Kingdom and Church: Reading Scripture as a Unified Narrative

Alfred Loisy expressed the dilemma many feel about the relation of church and kingdom in the biblical narrative: Jesus preached the kingdom, but it was the church that came! The underlying assumption of the dilemma is that kingdom and church are different realities. Those who heard Jesus preach the kingdom would naturally have understood it in terms of the future kingdom predicted and prophesied in the Old Testament. That kingdom was to be a political reality on earth. The church, on the other hand, is a spiritual reality. These are antithetical realities. Or are they?

It should be obvious that one’s understanding of the relationship of church and kingdom directly affects how one reads the storyline of the Bible. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are three basic ways one might explain this relationship:

1. The first is what we might call the redirected narrative. The Old Testament predicted a future kingdom. Jesus preached the kingdom, but He proceeded to change its meaning to something different from what the Old Testament expected. He redefined the kingdom as the church. So, of course, the church came.

The most common versions of this view argue that it was never God’s intent to bring about a future kingdom on earth in the literal manner in which it was presented by the prophets. The Lord accommodated ancient peoples’ inability to comprehend a spiritual kingdom by presenting it in type form as a political reality. Jesus, however, revealed the church as the spiritual reality that had always been the true meaning of the kingdom. Obviously, this view would also say that there is no future for Israel nationally or territorially in the plan of God. The Old Testament promises regarding Israel are all part of the typology that is “fulfilled” in the church. This view is typical of many books by covenant theologians presenting a redemptive-history reading of canonical Scripture.

The problem with this view is that it contradicts the promises of God in the Old Testament. Such a serious charge might be considered if the New Testament specifically required it. However, nowhere in the New Testament is the kingdom clearly redefined. Jesus speaks of the kingdom in such a way as to expect His hearers to be familiar with it—a familiarity that they would presumably have received from the Old Testament. Furthermore, Jesus refers to political, material realities as expected features of the coming kingdom. In Matthew 19:28-30, He speaks of thrones, houses, and lands to be inherited in the kingdom. In Matthew 25:31-46, He speaks of the Son of Man assuming His throne over the nations when He comes in all His glory, a feature fully consistent with Old Testament expectation. In addition, Jesus speaks of a future restoration of Jerusalem (Luke 21:24). Both Peter and Paul speak of the restoration of Israel at the coming of Christ (Acts 3:19-21; Romans 11:25-32). All of this is fully consistent with the expectation of the coming Kingdom of God presented in the Old Testament.

2. Another approach might be called the interrupted story. Jesus preached the kingdom just as the Old Testament predicted it, but He also spoke on occasion of the church, not as the replacement of the kingdom or as its spiritual fulfillment, but as a different and distinct program separate from the kingdom. The New Testament then presents more revelation on this distinct program of the church.

This would be the view of traditional dispensationalism. The story of the Bible is actually two stories—one of a future political kingdom for Israel and Gentile nations and one of the church, a spiritual reality that interrupts the kingdom story. So, it was a surprise to many that the church came after Jesus preached the kingdom, but it is a surprise that will run its course, after which, the kingdom preached by Jesus will come exactly as He and the Old Testament expected.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the many ways in which the church in the New Testament is connected to the kingdom theme preached by Jesus and expected by the Old Testament. For example, some of Jesus’ parables on the kingdom in Matthew 13 speak of an inter-advent age that corresponds to the time of the church. Paul, in Colossians 1:13, speaks of believers in the church of Colossae as having been transferred into the kingdom of God’s Son. John says in Revelation 1:6 that God has made us to be a kingdom of priests. The teaching of Ephesians 1:22-23, that Christ has been given as head of the church, His body, which He fills with His fullness, is framed in a description of kingdom authority. To this may be added the many connections made in the New Testament between the church and Old Testament covenant promises.

3. The third approach might be called the crucial clue. It is the approach of progressive dispensationalism, or what might be called a holistic kingdom theology.

A closer examination of Old Testament predictions of the kingdom reveals that although it was certainly to be a political order, it was not merely that. The Old Testament reveals the problem of sin that threatens all aspects of human existence and destabilizes all forms of human organization. The future kingdom was predicted in concert with covenanted promises to forgive and cleanse away sin (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25, 33), based in an atonement offered by a coming Servant of the Lord who would subsequently be exalted (Isaiah 53:10-12). Israel’s position in the kingdom was said to be secured by the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit transforming their hearts (Ezekiel 36:26-27; this leads to the kingdom order pictured in Ezekiel 37).

These are the same salvation realities referenced in the New Testament description of the church. However, the New Testament is clear that only a down payment has been given in the present time. The full blessings of complete sanctification and the immortality of resurrection life await the return of Christ. Also, the New Testament teaches that the full realization of kingdom promises likewise awaits His return (Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-21). Although all authority has presently been given to Him, His direct political administration of nations awaits His return (Matthew 25:31-46).

A unique feature of the church in biblical history is the equality of blessing of Jew and Gentile in Christ. No distinction is made between Jewish and Gentile believers in the gift of the Holy Spirit and in their personal union with Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:6; Galatians 3:26-29). It is this feature that is often cited in the claim that the church is the spiritual reinterpretation of the kingdom. However, the explanation given at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) for the phenomenon of the baptism of Gentile believers by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10-11) draws upon a literal descriptive feature of the coming kingdom in Old Testament prophecy. It is not offered as a spiritualization of kingdom description. James, drawing upon Amos 9:11-12, notes that in the future kingdom, Gentiles as Gentiles will be called by the name of the Lord. The future kingdom in Amos is still the same worldwide political order that it is in other future kingdom prophecies. However, the church saw that Gentiles would bear the name of the Lord as Gentiles in that kingdom. Some work of God on Gentiles was necessary for that to happen. That work was now seen to be an equal sharing in the regenerating, sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit that had previously been revealed for Israel. And with that, the key to the everlasting stability of the prophesied multi-national kingdom—of Israel and all nations—was revealed.

The church in the New Testament is sometimes referred to as an inaugural form of the kingdom. However, in New Testament explanation, it is best seen as an inaugurated form of a key aspect of the future kingdom—a Spirit-wrought unity of holiness and sanctity achieved by an equal indwelling of God in the hearts and lives of all kingdom participants regardless of ethnicity or nationality. The presence of the church does not indicate that other kingdom features specifically covenanted by God—namely national, ethnic, and territorial features—have been spiritualized. There remains, for example, a national and territorial future for Israel in the kingdom plan, as well as blessings for Gentile nations.

Nor should the phenomenon of the church be taken to indicate a completely new and other work of God in addition to or alongside the kingdom. Rather, what has been revealed is a crucial clue to the fulfillment of the kingdom plan and program revealed in the Old Testament and proclaimed by Jesus.

Yes, Jesus preached the kingdom and the church came. But it did not come as an alternate reality interrupting or redirecting the plan for the kingdom. It came as an inaugural revelation of the glory that is still yet to come.