The Gap Between Our Expectations of the Kingdom of God and Our Experiences
In the Vineyard movement and other groups, the Kingdom of God has been a primary value and theological premise. The key idea is that God is supreme over creation and His power is available NOW through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to implement His will “on earth as in heaven,” as Jesus instructed us to pray.
As George Eldon Ladd suggested, a good way to describe the Kingdom of God is as the “already and the not yet.” In other words, what we see in the Bible and what we are experiencing today is the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom as we witness His manifest presence and the power of the Holy Spirit at work NOW. However, the fullness of the Kingdom is yet to be fully realized. That will come later in the NOT YET.
In the years since 1983 when I first met John Wimber and became a Vineyard church planter and pastor, the implementation of this “Kingdom Vision” has been a real challenge. The early flush of excitement was filled with anticipation for revival and renewal of the church and to see massive penetration of the Gospel into our communities, just like Jesus and the early church experienced.
To be honest, in the spirit of the “already and the not yet,” we did and do continue to see churches experiencing renewal and new believers added to churches in our communities. Sadly, the NOT YET is much larger than the ALREADY for many of us.
I’m not blaming God for abandoning us or of perpetrating some sort of “bait and switch” that left us holding a mostly empty bag. I’m also not blaming pastors and leaders for being inadequate for the Kingdom mission Jesus has given to us. I know for certain by experience that God’s loving presence, voice, and power are present. And I know (as well as I can) that we love Jesus and are doing everything we know to do to preach, teach, minister, worship, and welcome the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, at least in my own experience, I’ve come to believe that there is a problem. It has to do with the story that we think the Bible is telling.
In my mind, the story told by the Bible involves at least these three elements; context, background, and plot.
Context is the assumed big-picture in which the story is being told. It includes beliefs about what is real, what is important, and how things work. The
Background is about the plot and involves those things that need to be assumed and understood to make the plot make any sense. What is going on? Who are these people? Why are they doing and saying what they are doing?
The Plot is the flow of events and the actions of the main characters as they move out of the Background, consistent with Context, to achieve some goal or purpose in the story.
Now to where the problem regarding the Kingdom of God seems to come in.
I came into the Vineyard and the teaching of the Kingdom as an Evangelical, excited that God was available and working today just like I read he was with Jesus and the early church. But the story of the Bible that was in my head didn’t really have all that much room for this “Already Not Yet” stuff. Yes, as a Vineyard we were doing the stuff and teaching the Kingdom continuously, and yet it always was an awkward fit that didn’t quite mesh as well as you would hope, or produce the results I expected. I naturally blamed myself for poor leadership and too little faith, and evidence for both were not hard to find.
I’m now thinking that the problem, maybe the heart of it, was with the story I assumed the Bible was telling.
Here’s the story, as a theologically educated Evangelical, I assumed the Bible was telling.
The Context – God is the King who created everything and therefore had the power and right to rule over it. Fortunately, God is love so his rule is a good thing.
The Background – Being good, God set up creation with standards of righteousness that ordered everything he made. But Adam and Eve sinned and violated those standards. Now man is separated from God by sin and is unable, on his own, to resolve the problem, since the “wages of sin is death.”
The Plot – Jesus, as God’s own son, resolved the sin problem by taking the punishment required for violating the standards of righteousness God required. The story of the Bible is the unfolding plot of how God planned and prepared a chosen people, the Jews, from whom would emerge the Savior. The savior came as predicted, he did what was needed, and now those who believe he is God, that he died for our sins and was resurrected, and trust him to save them will go to Heaven, instead of Hell, when they die.
The problem isn’t that many of the points in this Context, Background, and Plot are patently wrong and should be abandoned. But I’m thinking that this is an inaccurate way to tell the story IF we want to understand how the Kingdom of God, with its “Already and Not Yet” experience, actually fits into the life and work of disciples and churches.
After all, how essential is the manifest presence of God in signs and wonders and works of power, typical of Jesus’ ministry and the early church, to the story I’ve just outlined?
The signs of the Kingdom do draw attention to our Evangelical message. They also do validate the Gospel claims that we are making that God in Jesus is King, that he did rise from the dead, and that he is the Lord over everything, including demons and sickness.
But where the Evangelical version of the story lags is that it doesn’t mobilize the church very well.
On the whole, the members of our churches are happy to be going to heaven, hopeful that more people will join us there eventually, and grateful for the reminder that God is with us in our NOW (as we experience his power and presence Sunday to Sunday), and encouraged to hope for a glorious future when God brings us into the fullness.
But, other than the few who seem especially “called” to go and do stuff, the story itself isn’t about what “we do.” The story is mainly about what God has done for us.
Thanks to the work of N.T Wright, John H. Walton, and other recent biblical scholars I think a better telling of the Biblical story is possible that makes more sense of the Kingdom of God in teaching and ministry of Jesus and his disciples who took the Gospel to their world, with astounding results.
The Context – No fundamental changes here. God, the Sovereign Creator, has authority and power over all he has made, both in the Spiritual Realm and in the Physical Realm of his creation.
The Background – Being the King, God chose to manage the administration of the realms of his creation by working with and through the agency of those he created in His Image. The biblical idea of image-bearing has less to do with sharing attributes and more to do with vocation and function. Humans were set in the Garden of Eden as Image Bearers to represent the Creator. They were endowed with responsibility, authority, and power to manifest and manage the King’s will “on earth as in heaven.” The sin of Adam and Eve, along with the rebellion of some of God’s spiritual servants, account for the mess the world is in now (Genesis 3, 6, and 11). Sin is a big problem, but for a different reason than my Evangelical storyline said. Sin not only separates me from God (forever) but it also prevents creation from becoming all God created it to be, a hope realized in the promise of the New Heaven and New Earth.
The Plot – The focal point in the story of the Bible is the restoration of God’s Kingdom rule and administration on the earth and the role that God’s Image Bearers play. This is important. This means that our role is not passive, mere recipients of God’s grace and Jesus’ forgiveness as in the Evangelical version of the story.
- The plot begins with humans assigned an important role in creation (Genesis 1,2) as image-bearers.
- The role of the image-bearers was challenged and derailed through the temptation in the garden, the massive perversion of humanity before the flood, and finally, the rebellion at Babel which resulted in humanity scattered and the nations put under the governance of the sons of God (Genesis 11, Deuteronomy 32:8).
- The recovery process of the image-bearer role was re-initiated in Genesis 12 when God called Abraham and raised up a new people who were uniquely under his oversight and rule (he alone was their King, Deuteronomy 32:9). The calling of Abraham included the promise to eventually bless all the rest of humanity. Isreal’s election was not to the exclusion of the other nations, rather it was the means for saving the whole world.
- The image-bearer role for humans was re-established in Jesus. Jesus came as a man, the Image of the Invisible God, and resolved the issue of the fall of the first image-bearers. He also defeated the usurping principalities and powers who oppose God’s good Kingdom purposes in the earth. Jesus came to secure forgiveness and reconciliation of image-bearer with their Creator, as well as to deliver them from the dominion of those spiritual forces that are less than God. He demonstrated his authority and power to do this in his ministry, and decisively achieved it through his death and resurrection.
- The restoration of the image-bearer role continues in the discipleship of Jesus’ followers, generation to generation, as we are filled with God’s Spirit and learn to live the life and fulfill the mission we have now been given in Jesus.
- The restoration will be completed when all is said and done and the New Heaven and the New Earth becomes our full reality.
This story makes more sense of what the Bible actually says about the Kingdom, especially regarding the day-to-day lives of the member of our churches.
If I knew then (1983) what I know now (2020), I would have been teaching the church more about who they were as disciples of Jesus and what they were made for.
I would have told them they were created in the image of God. As disciples of Jesus, they are being restored to their responsibility, authority, and power to manage and manifest the Sovereign Creator’s will on earth as in heaven.
I would assure them of God’s love for them as his children and their place in his presence after death, BUT I focus most of my time teaching, training, exhorting, modeling, encouraging, and illustrating what was needed for them to live their lives and pursue their mission as image-bearers.
I would show them how all the impulses for good that we see in humanity are actually echoes of our role in God’s creation. What is the urge to care for the planet, to raise and nurture animals, to develop agriculture, to design and build things and communities, to shape our environment, to seek justice and oppose oppression, and to make beauty in all its forms, if not our hardwired programming as image-bearers?*
And I would work to help them see their role as image-bearers in the earth NOW, and the New Heaven and New Earth to come is not powered by the limits of human resources. We were designed to co-labor with God, not just do work for God. They need to be lead into the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit so that in daily faith and obedience they are equipped to both pray for and then follow his leading to go and do God’s will “on earth as in heaven.”
I think that would make all the difference in the world.
* Some have expressed concern that this is a capitulation to some kind of liberal, social-gospel that is a far cry from what Evangelicals believe Jesus and the NT writers were calling us to follow. My point is that our calling as image-bearers is certainly more than these impulses, but not less than them. The human drive to order and care and create is derived from the creator. Further, the ability, as disciples of Jesus, to heal the sick, cast out demons, speak by the Holy Spirit, etc. is further empowerment for us to co-labor with the Sovereign Creator in the administration of his rule “on earth as in heaven.” I don’t see these as mutually exclusive, at all.
Maybe our postmodern world has rejected a biblical world view and substituted a view of the earth that has no need for a creator, and certainly no accountability to him. I don’t see why we should give this ground to them just because they claim it. Humans are responsible for the world because our creator made us responsible for it, and a lot more.