Sometime this Christmas season, you are sure to hear those rousing words of Handel's Messiah, taken from Revelation 11:15: "The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ" (ESV). Tradition has it that the music so moved King George II that he stood to his feet out of respect for an even greater King. The rest of the audience followed, as have audiences for generations since. The Hallelujah Chorus is the culmination of our Messiah's story, a story that Handel rightly showed was foretold by the Prophets, heralded in the Annunciation, and has at its heart a message about a king and a kingdom.
Sadly, that kingdom message is often missed in our saccharine retelling of the Christmas story. Somehow we glaze over the angel's words to Mary, that she will give birth to a son whose "kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:33). The myopia continues as we read the Gospels. We skim over pages of kingdom references. We miss Christ's inaugural address when he opens the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims that Scripture has been fulfilled in the people's hearing (Luke 4:21). We muddle through the parables that tell us repeatedly, "The kingdom of God is like …." And we glance over the very reason our Savior was crucified, a sign crudely scrawled beneath the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (John 19:19).
Along the way, the Good News is truncated. An earth-shaking, kingdom-sized announcement is reduced to a personal self-help story. Our gospel has grown too small.
So what was Jesus talking about when he came announcing a kingdom?
He was talking about the eschatological certainty that in the end, God's reign will be made manifest. His message is teleological; it is to the world. It is not just to us as individuals: "Come to the cross and you can be saved."As wonderfully significant as that is for every one of us, and as grateful as I will always be for the night that Christ came into my life, it's all part of a much larger purpose. I am being saved from my sin so that I may serve him in the building of his kingdom, the establishing of his rule. The really good news is that the gospel isn't just about you or me. God has saved us as part of a larger plan, the coming of his kingdom.
It merits mentioning that surveying the Gospels reveals a dual reality to this kingdom. In one sense, Jesus brings the kingdom with his coming. He heals the sick and drives out demons as a way of proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. And he underscores its present reality when he states, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing" (Matt. 11:12a). But elsewhere Jesus talks of the kingdom as a coming reality. When he takes the cup with his disciples, for instance, he states, "I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25).
Prominent New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos wrote in The Coming of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims a kingdom "both as a present and as a future reality." In my book God and Government, I discuss this very point. As Augustine taught, while we live in the kingdom of man, we are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. In some ways it recalls the Allies' triumph in World War II. Jesus' coming is D-day; his second coming will be V-day. The kingdom of God has been inaugurated with his first advent. But the kingdom of God will not be established in its fullness until his second advent. So we wait and pray for that day, hard as that may be.
In the interim, while we personally cannot usher in the kingdom (only God can do that), we can faithfully live as citizens of the kingdom to come. The Beatitudes, for example, give us a pattern of life for that coming kingdom that we can aim to live out now.
This Christmas, remind yourself and others of the significance of the Incarnation: that one day God will usher in the fullness of his kingdom. The kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever. God will bring about that cosmic culmination. And the chorus of hallelujahs will ring not just for a few stanzas at Christmastime but forevermore.
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More articles on Advent and Christmas are available in our special section.
Previous columns by Charles Colson are available on our website, including:
We Must Not Despair | It's not the time to withdraw from politics. (November 1, 2010)
The Lost Art of Commitment | Why we're afraid of it, and why we shouldn't be. (August 4, 2010)
Who Are Americans? | What Christians contribute to the search for a national identity. (June 21, 2010)
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