A misunderstanding of the kingdom of God is a foundational error of all aspects of the emerging church. They believe that “the long-promised kingdom, spoken of by the Hebrew prophets, was established in provisional form with the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of His Spirit (Emerging Churches, p. 47).
Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids (senior pastor Rob Bell) has the following statement of purpose: “We take great joy in partnering with God to change the world, embracing the truth that all of life is sacred.”
Tony Campolo says, “Our call is to be God’s agents, to rescue not only the human race but the whole of creation” (“Why Care for Creation,” Tear Times, Summer 1992).
The emerging church is earth-minded and mocks a heavenly-minded orientation. Typically, it gets more excited about solving the “AIDS crisis” and saving polar bears than winning lost souls.
By surveying the Old and New Testaments, we can see the error of this doctrine.
1. In the Old Testament the kingdom of God was God’s rule over all creation (Psa. 103:19) and on earth it referred to His kingdom in Israel (1 Chron. 28:5; 2 Chron. 13:8).
That kingdom was destroyed because of Israel’s disobedience, but Old Testament prophecies predicted that the kingdom would be re-established on earth by Christ, David’s greater Son, and that He will reign in truth and righteousness (Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 2:44; 7:14).
2. Christ came to Israel and preached the kingdom.
The gospel of the kingdom is the gospel that Jesus preached when He presented Himself to Israel as the Messiah. Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 3:2; 4:17). This was the announcement of the kingdom promised to David’s Son (Isaiah 9:6-7). (The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are largely synonymous in the Gospels. One emphasizes the fact that it is God’s kingdom, while the other emphasizes that it is a kingdom that will come from Heaven.) Christ came to His own people, Israel, but they rejected Him (John 1:11; 19:15), and He warned them that the kingdom would be taken from them because of their rebellion and given to another nation (Mat. 21:42-26). Christ preached a literal glorious kingdom that would be established on earth. Peter, James, and John were given a foreview of it on the Mount of Transfiguration (Lk. 9:27-31). Christ taught His disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come to earth (Luke 11:2). He said Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be in the kingdom (Lk. 13:29). He corrected the view of those who thought the kingdom of God was going to be established at that time, saying that the kingdom would not be established until the “noble man” goes into a far country and then returns” (Lk. 19:11-27). Christ said the kingdom would be established after the Great Tribulation (Lk. 21:31). He said He would drink the fruit of the vine with His disciples in the kingdom (Lk. 22:18). When the disciples were arguing about who would be great in the kingdom of God, Christ corrected their thinking about the nature of greatness but He also confirmed that the kingdom of God is a literal kingdom that will be established at His return (Lk. 22:24-30). Jesus plainly stated that His kingdom is not of this world NOW (John 18:36). His kingdom will come when He comes in power and glory to establish it.
Jesus came unto His own people, Israel, and was rejected, and this had been prophesied in Scripture. He then turned his focus from Israel and said, “I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Mat. 16:18). Christ stopped announcing the kingdom and turned His attention to dying on the cross for man’s sin, and after He rose from the dead He sent His disciples forth to preach the gospel to every nation (Acts 1:8). In this present church age Christ is calling out a people for His name from among the Gentiles while Israel is largely blinded, but when this dispensation is finished He will turn His attention back to Israel and fulfill His covenants with them (Rom. 11:25-27).
3. The kingdom of God is in a mystery form during this present church age (Mat. 13:10-11).
A “mystery” is truth that was hidden in the Old Testament but revealed in the New (Rom. 16:25-26). The Old Testament did not see the church age in between Christ’s two comings.
During the church age, the kingdom takes a strange form not described in Old Testament prophecy. The king is in Heaven and the kingdom is not yet established on earth. Instead, the kingdom of God resides in the small, despised apostolic churches, while the devil’s false kingdom grows quickly and spreads throughout the world (Mat. 13:31-32).
4. Believers enter a spiritual kingdom of Christ when they are born again (Col. 1:13).
This is the kingdom comprised of all who submit to God’s authority.
5. The kingdom of God will come to earth in its prophetic fullness at the return of Christ. See Acts 14:22; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Timothy 4:1; James 2:5; 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 12:10.
Believers are not building the kingdom of God on earth today. They are snatching brands from the coming fire before the day of salvation is finished (1 Cor. 9:19; 10:33; 2 Cor. 5:11, 18-21; 6:2; Jude 23). Today the “whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), and the devil is its god (2 Cor. 4:4). The apostles and prophets in the early churches (as described in the book of Acts and the Epistles) did not band together to accomplish grandiose social-justice projects; they did not pursue artsy activities; they did not try to save the earth; they preached the gospel and shined as lights in this dark world by their holy lives. Christ’s Great Commission emphasizes gospel preaching (Mat. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:46-48; Acts 1:8). After Christ rose from the dead and as He was preparing them for His ascension, the disciples asked Him, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ reply is very instructive. He did not correct their understanding of the establishment of a literal kingdom of earth. He told that it was not time for that long-expected kingdom to be established and that our duty in this church age is to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. “And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8). After this, Christ ascended to Heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit upon the disciples to empower them for this great work. This commission of world evangelism will not be abrogated until church age saints are removed from this world and the Lord regenerates Israel and restores them to the front burner of His plan for the ages.
The rod of iron
The Bible says that in the kingdom of God the Law will be enforced with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:26-27; 12:5; 19:15; Psalm 2:7-9). Christ’s kingdom will not be a democracy but a divine dictatorship, a theocracy, and no one will be given a choice as to whether to obey Him or not. Christ’s law will be established as international law and every individual will be required to obey it, and disobedience will be dealt with quickly and rigorously. Justice and righteousness will reign because injustice and unrighteousness will be punished and punished quickly. If the emerging church is truly building the kingdom of God today, they should be wielding this rod. The very fact that believers are not wielding this rod today is evidence that we are not establishing the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God will be established by supernatural power, not by the feeble efforts of non-empowered saints in this present world in which the devil is god and believers are suffering pilgrims (2 Cor. 4:4).
What about Luke 17:20-21?
“And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
In interpreting this passage we must first note that there is a sense in which the kingdom of God WILL come with observation, as Jesus stated in verse 24 of this same passage. “For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.” Christ taught the same thing in Luke 19:11-27 and many other places, as we have seen in the previous study on the kingdom.
In what sense, then, is Christ saying that the kingdom of God “cometh NOT with observation” and “the kingdom of God is within you”? These statements are addressed to the Pharisees.
Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God would not come with observation in the sense of searching for it in various places. It would not come by searching. See verse 21 and Matthew 24:26-27. It would also not come with observation in the sense of demand. It would not come by demanding it in that present time. The Pharisees were demanding that Jesus show them the kingdom of God, and their demand would not be fulfilled. They had rejected Him as Messiah, so the kingdom of God was not going to come in that present time.
The kingdom of God was in them in the sense that it was already in their midst because Christ the King was present. The term “kingdom of God” is used repeatedly in this sense in the Gospels, as Christ was presenting Himself as the Messiah of Israel. “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you” (Lk. 10:9). Note the following passages carefully: Luke 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:28-29; 14:15; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51.
Jesus was not saying that the kingdom of God was in the midst of the Pharisees in the sense that it was inside of them in a spiritual sense, because they were not saved. He said elsewhere, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44).
As we have seen, the Bible is clear in its teaching of the kingdom of God, and Jesus made it plain that He was referring to a kingdom that was promised to Him as the Son of David and that would be established at His return. To take Luke 17:20-21, which is a relatively obscure passage, and build one’s doctrine of the kingdom primarily upon it and then use it to overthrow the teaching of many plain Scriptures is upside down hermeneutics. This is the way that false teachers (mis)use the Scripture.
What about Romans 8:16-25?
“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”
The emerging church uses this passage in support of its doctrine that the kingdom of God is being built on earth today, but in fact it teaches the exact opposite. I was amazed when I first saw this passage used by an emerging church writer, because it actually refutes their position. Paul is contrasting the believer’s condition in this present life with his condition in the future. In this present life we are subject to the pain and suffering caused by the fallen state of mankind. Presently we are subject to vanity, to the bondage of corruption, to groaning and travailing, and to waiting for redemption. It is in the future that we will experience the redemption of the body and the glorious salvation promised in the prophecies. This points to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints and the supernatural establishment of the kingdom on earth. The redemption described in this passage is something that will occur in the future and is certainly not occurring today! It is something that Christ will accomplish by His infinite power and not something that we can possibly bring about through grandiose socio-political endeavors.
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