There's a cemetery plot, somewhere out there, waiting for your corpse. Regardless of who and where you are, you will one day be quite dead. And in 100 years, chances are no one will remember your name—including the people carrying your genes in their bloodstreams. We see our mortal future in everything from the natural forces that sap our hair color to the bacteria that eventually grind our bodies to a maggoty pulp. The universe rolls around us frenetically, and, in every single case, it eventually kills us.
That's not just a matter of our individual destinies. If we are honest, the world around us seems pretty good proof that the gospel isn't true. Doesn't the cosmos seem to be just as the nihilists describe it: a bloody, merciless machine in which power, not goodness or beauty, is ultimate? What, then, is the meaning of life? What's the purpose of history? If it's all heading nowhere, then what difference at all does my existence make?
The gospel of the kingdom doesn't shy away from such questions, but our preaching tends to swerve around the answers it gives. Often we Christians start our gospel proclamation with triumph over sin. Fair enough: The gospel of Christ is indeed the reversal of sin, and of death and hell. But without a broader context, such teaching can treat Christ as a means to an end, a step from the alpha of Eden to the omega of heaven. In a truly Christian vision of the kingdom of God, though, Jesus of Nazareth isn't a hoop we jump through to extend our lives into eternity. Jesus is the kingdom of God in person. As such, he is the meaning of life, the goal of history, and the pattern of the future. The gospel of the kingdom starts and ends with the announcement that God has made Jesus the emperor—and that he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus' agenda, not the other way around.
Jesus and his apostles announced, with the onset of the kingdom of God, an unveiled "mystery," one that explained the "whys" of everything in the universe. The Hebrew Scriptures revealed that the world was called together by God's Word. But the mystery of the kingdom shows us that this Word is personal, taking on flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:1-18). Every culture has experienced the wildness of sexual desire, and sought to safeguard that desire in some form of marriage. Genesis tells us this was "from the beginning," but the mystery of the kingdom shows us why the drive toward "one-flesh" union is so wild and dynamic. It's an icon, a picture ahead of time, of the unity between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:21-33).
Announcing the Kingdom
Despite our mind-boggling explorations into the telescopic and the microscopic, much of the cosmos remains a mystery. Yet there seems to be some rhythm to it. The Christian gospel says the universe we inhabit is designed according to the blueprint of God's purpose in Jesus Christ. Paul tells the Colossian church, speaking of Jesus, that "all things have been created through him and for him" and that "in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17).
With Jesus at the foundation of God's purposes, we see why the Scriptures are so often a depressing story of collapsing kingdoms. Adam and Eve are designed to be king and queen of the universe, but they surrender their servant-dominion to a reptilian invader. The Israelites are to be a "light to the nations," but they repeatedly fall toward the way of death. Israel's kings step forward with power and anointing, but even the best of them succumb to the grave. By the time the story arrives in Bethlehem, the throne of David is occupied by a puppet of a pagan empire. No wonder that star in the sky so troubled the powers-that-were.
Every civilization has imagined that life has meaning, that history is heading somewhere. Utopian and apocalyptic futures alike are imagined in cultures everywhere, regardless of religion or level of development. In the covenants to Israel, unfolded over thousands of years of prophetic visions, God promised a kingdom of restored human rule on the throne of David. Wrongs would be made right, the curse would be reversed, and the sons and daughters of God would replace the alien invaders of God's good creation.
When Jesus of Nazareth stood in his hometown synagogue and read of the kingdom of God, the concept was hardly new. What was new, enough to provoke a violent riot, was Jesus' declaration that the kingdom of God had shown up, and that the Day of the Lord was here (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus' hearers understood how insane and megalomaniacal it sounded for Jesus to identify himself with the coming of God's new order. They wanted the glory, power, and security of the kingdom, but with Jesus merely a means to that end.
But Jesus didn't back down. Everywhere he went he announced the kingdom, and demonstrated its arrival by turning back the curse in all its forms. He is unperturbed by evil spirits, natural forces, and biological decay—they retreat at the sound of his voice. Why?Because, as he put it, "if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12:28). As the King, Jesus reestablished human rule over the angelic and natural orders by living out the destiny his fallen ancestors had forfeited. He established himself as a wise ruler with dominion over his own appetites, with a will, affections, and conscience directed by his Father instead of the "god of this age." Free from the one power evil spirits have over the image-bearers of God—the accusation of sin (John 14:30)—he walked through human suffering, temptation, and the curse of death itself to wrest humanity from the Accuser's fingers.
Jesus fulfilled both the hopes embedded in human psyches everywhere and, more specifically, the kingdom promises God made to the people of Israel. He applied that nation's imagery—of temple, vine, shepherd, light of the nations, and so forth—to himself first, and then to those who are found in him. God's purposes for creation and for his people are found in Jesus: cursed and condemned and handed over to Satan, but raised from the dead and marked out with the Spirit (Ezek. 37:1-14; Rom. 1:4). His teaching prepared his people, through stories and pictures and signs, for life in his new kingdom. And then he ushered it in as "the firstborn from the dead," the "first-fruits" of God's new creation project.
'Already' and 'Not Yet'
Evangelical Christianity—like all branches of the historic church—maintains a tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of this kingdom. That tension seeks to avoid bringing the kingdom too near (in utopianism or political gospels) or keeping it too far (in prophecy-chart fixations or withdrawal from society). From the apostolic age to the digital era, the "already-not yet" tension has proven difficult to understand. But it's really no more complicated than reconciling Jesus' declaration that the "kingdom of God is in your midst" with the fact that two millennia have passed with swords still used for everything but plowshares. The difference between what's "already" and what's "not yet" is summed up in the question, "Where is Jesus ruling now, and how?" The kingdom comes in two stages, because King Jesus himself does.
The structure of the universe, the covenants to Israel, and the kings, prophets, and institutions of God's people all picture ahead of time, in some way, the life of Christ Jesus. The life of the church pictures the same life, after the fact. Jesus reprises the story of the universe, taking on Adam's race, his mission, and his curse. He reprises the story of Israel, from anointing to temptation to exile. He also tells us that we will follow him—from the Bethlehem of our new birth to the Jerusalem of our new reign. But in between, we will follow him to the Place of the Skull. We will carry our crosses. In order to be glorified with him later, we must suffer with him first (Rom. 8:17).
God exalts Jesus and grants him kingship through his resurrection, but Jesus doesn't rule over the whole universe yet. For example, on virtually every ocean on the planet, storms still imperil boats—and at times entire villages or nations—with no stilling voice from the Galilean. Jesus will one day have "all things under his feet," and will turn over his completed kingdom mission to his Father. But we can't see that with our eyes. Only by faith do we see that an executed man is ruling now from heaven, crowned with the power and glory we crave (Heb. 2:9). By sight, we can perceive only a bedeviled cosmos, chaotic to the core (1 John 5:19; Eph. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4).
Those of us in Christ are anointed as kings and queens, but at present we judge only those within the church, where Jesus rules right now through Word and Spirit (1 Cor. 5). Putting our swords away, we proclaim to the world what the kingdom will look like, while modeling it through our mission of reconciliation and love.
Our preaching isn't just information sharing; it's the voice of Jesus through his kingdom assembly, clearing the way for the new regime (2 Cor. 5:20). If you want to know how the kingdom works, look at how we care for and honor the poor (James 2:5). If you want to see our "platform" for how we'll run the universe with Jesus, watch our congregational decision-making meetings (1 Cor. 6:1-8). Even our "spiritual gifts"—so misunderstood in contemporary times as means for "plugging people in" to programs—are kingdom resources. Your gift—whether mercy, hospitality, teaching, or encouragement—is a "spoil of war" (Eph. 4). Jesus is "staffing up" his kingdom now, like a presidential transition team establishing a shadow government between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
An Internship for the Eschaton
As the church anticipates the coming kingdom, I am able to make sense of the meaning of the universe, and the purpose of my life. The "already" of my life in the kingdom makes sense because, if God's purpose is to conform me to the image of Christ, then, like him, I don't arrive fully formed. Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). If God is working all things together for my good, then nothing in my life is a "waste of time." Every aspect of my life—my relationships, my job, my family, my suffering—is an internship for the eschaton, preparing me in some way to rule with Christ. How can I value the corporate CEO or the celebrity pastor over the hotel maid, since she, if in Christ, is a future queen over the universe?
If the kingdom is what Jesus says it is, then what matters isn't just what we neatly classify as "spiritual" things. The natural world around us isn't just a temporary "environment," but part of our future inheritance in Christ. Our jobs—preaching the gospel, loading docks, picking avocados, writing legislation, or herding goats—aren't accidental. The things we do in church—passing offering plates, cuddling crack-addicted babies, or fixing the "pop" in the sound system—aren't random. God is teaching us, as he taught our Lord, to learn in little things how to be in charge of great things (Matt. 25:14-23).
Jesus shows us the goal of the future—of our lives individually and congregationally, and of the galaxies and solar systems around us. We tend either to ignore the future, because we are so consumed in the drama of the here and now, or to see it as simply a continuation of our present lives, with our loved ones there and sickness and death gone. But in Jesus we see a future that has continuity and discontinuity. In his resurrected life, Jesus has gone before us as a pioneer of the new creation.
Perhaps we dread death less from fear than from boredom, thinking the life to come will be an endless postlude to where the action really happens. This is betrayed in how we speak about the "afterlife": it happens after we've lived our lives. The kingdom, then, is like a high-school reunion in which middle-aged people stand around and remember the "good old days." But Jesus doesn't promise an "afterlife." He promises us life—and that everlasting. Your eternity is no more about looking back to this span of time than your life now is about reflecting on kindergarten. The moment you burst through the mud above your grave, you will begin an exciting new mission—one you couldn't comprehend if someone told you. And those things that seem so important now—whether you're attractive or wealthy or famous or cancer-free—will be utterly irrelevant.
Into the Life of Jesus
The kingdom of God, both now and in the age to come, is ultimately about what Paul calls being "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3-4)—finding your life and mission in Jesus' own, not in fitting him into the kingdom you design for yourself. For too long, we've called unbelievers to "invite Jesus into your life." Jesus doesn't want to be in your life. Your life's a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life. And his life isn't boring or purposeless or static. It's wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.
Seeing our lives now, and the universe around us, as precursors to the life to come, we're freed from the ingratitude that turns away from God's good gifts. We pour ourselves into loving, serving, and working because these things are seeds of the tasks God has for us in the next phase. At the same time, we don't invest any of those things with infinite meaning. My life's meaning isn't found in the brief interval from birth to grave—in a happy marriage, a satisfying job, or the kind of "success" my in-laws would recognize at the Thanksgiving table.
Instead, I can give thanks to God for a life, a universe, and a flow of history that are, in the long run, Christ-shaped. I long for the arrival of the kingdom that has long bubbled around us, invisible as yeast. And I yearn for the moment when, an heir to the throne of the cosmos, I join with my brothers and sisters—and our Galilean pioneer—to sing out, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for yesterday we were dead."
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of the forthcoming Kingdom First: How the Reign of Christ Transforms Our Churches, Our Families, Our Culture (Crossway).
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous articles in our Global Gospel series include:
The Human Prototype | With Jesus, we see what we were created to be. (January 27, 2012)
Learning to Read the Gospel Again | How to address our anxiety about losing the next generation. (December 7, 2011)
Why We Need Jesus | Reason and morality cannot show us a good and gracious God. For that, we need the Incarnation. (December 2, 2011)
Making Disciples Today: Christianity Today's New Global Gospel Project | Introducing the magazine's new five-year teaching venture. (December 2, 2011)
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