One of my flat-bellied friends phoned me the other day and said that he had finally figured out why I don’t talk much about the kingdom of God. I was intrigued as I think of myself as speaking about the kingdom frequently. In the course of the conversation, I realized that I don’t actually use the words ‘the kingdom of God’ that often. That doesn’t mean, however, that the kingdom is not important to me, or that I am not addressing it in my books and lectures.
Any reader of Matthew, Mark and Luke knows that the kingdom of God is a central subject. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of the heavens, is mentioned 55 times in Matthew, 20 in Mark, 44 in Luke. But in John it is addressed only 5 times. Does this mean that John is not interested in the kingdom? No, of course not. In the place of the kingdom language John prefers the language of ‘life,’ which he uses 43 times. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the good news is that the kingdom of God has come. In John, the gospel is that real life has come. Either the kingdom and real life are two different things or they are speaking of the same reality. As an interesting side note, Jesus speaks of salvation only twice, once when speaking with Zaccheus, and once with the woman at the well.
Much has been made of the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and their kingdom emphasis, and John and his emphasis on eternal life, but the obvious point of connection between them all is the person of Jesus. For me, all of the great New Testament ideas—new covenant, kingdom, eternal life, salvation, atonement, adoption, justification, regeneration, baptism of the Spirit, redemption, heaven, etc.—have their true content and meaning in Jesus himself.
The new covenant is the new relationship established in Jesus’ own experience between the blessed Trinity and broken, sinful humanity. In Jesus the Father, Son and Spirit have reached us in our traumatic darkness, and established a real relationship with us at our very worst. Our contribution was to crucify the Father’s Son. Dying in the arms of our bitter and cruel rejection, Jesus embraced us in our treachery—and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him. This is the new covenant, the new relationship established in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the incarnate Son. Jesus is the new relationship. He is the one in whom the blessed Trinity and broken humanity meet and are together.
To my mind, to speak of the kingdom of God is to speak of the same reality from another angle, or with a different emphasis. The kingdom of God is not about some kind of abstract rule of God, whereby he imposes his authority upon his creation from a distance by law, or even by grace. The kingdom is about the sheer life and joy, the peace and goodness, the shocking love and abounding fellowship and creativity of the Father, Son and Spirit setting up shop on earth in Jesus, and through the Spirit’s witness and work, the kingdom is about this very life in Jesus coming to full and abiding and personal expression in us, and in our lives, and in our relationships with one another, and in our relationship with the whole creation, until the earth and the cosmos become a vast burning bush alive with the trinitarian life of God. (T. F. Torrance would be proud of that sentence!)
Real problems arise when we separate the great New Testament themes from Jesus himself. They then become abstract, non-relational and impersonal concepts, devoid of the life and relationship of the blessed Trinity. They become commodities or things that we can possess or manipulate or control apart from Jesus himself. Salvation becomes a legal exchange rather than an ongoing relationship of shared life in our darkness. The further these ideas are removed from Jesus himself, the more they are separated from each other as well. We end up with a vision of the kingdom of God, of salvation, of eternal life, and of adoption, which have little in common. But when we think of these great themes from a center in Jesus himself and his own life and relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit, they become unique expressions of Jesus and of his relationship with the human race and creation.
Jesus teaches us that eternal life is not possession of an infinite battery pack, but knowing his Father through him. “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life (1John 5:20). Eternal life speaks first and foremost to the quality of our existence, not to its duration. It is abounding or super-abounding life, as Jesus said (John 10:10), which is so ‘alive’ it cannot be extinguished, but endures forever. And this life is not something altogether different from that of the Triune God. It is the trinitarian life itself, shared with us relationally in and through Jesus. Eternal life is the thriving, flourishing, rich and unencumbered life that comes to expression in us as we know the Father himself with his Son in the Spirit, not in isolation, but together with others. This life is not self-centered, but other-centered. Fueled by freedom to love and to be loved in fellowship, which comes from knowing Jesus’ Father, this life overflows in goodness and joy, and in freedom to give ourselves for the benefit of others. Such life could not possibly be contained, but overflows into our relationship with all creation.
Salvation involves both a retrospective and prospective dimension, as John McLeod Campbell said. Retrospectively, salvation focusses on the removal or overcoming of sin and its consequences. Prospectively, it focusses on renewal and the giving of life. Dying a humiliating death in the embrace of a thousand disgusted faces, Jesus submitted himself to our sin and iniquity thereby becoming “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He takes away our sin by bearing and suffering it personally, by enduring our scorn and bitter rejection, by dying in our hatred. And he was not alone. In submitting himself to suffer such injustice and brutal murder at our hands, Jesus not only made himself the scapegoat for our ills, but he was making our alien humanity the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. He was ushering into our great darkness his own relationship with his Father (life) and his own anointing with Holy Spirit (baptism). He is both the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and “the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33). In him we are both justified and adopted, our sin is overcome and we are included in the eternal life of the blessed Trinity.
In this way the trinitarian life set up shop, so to speak, on earth, in our death and hell, the new relationship was established with broken sinners, real ‘knowing’ of the Father was opened in our darkness, and the Holy Spirit “accustomed Himself” to dwell in our flesh, to borrow a great phrase from Irenaeus, . Such is the kingdom of God—and eternal life, salvation, justification, adoption, the new covenant, heaven. They are all about Jesus himself and what became of the blessed Trinity, and to us, and to creation in him.
Thank you, Holy Spirit. We will have more light, please.