The coming kingdom
Our expected redemption.
During Advent and Christmas, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The ancient creeds and the Reformation confessions tell us that Jesus is God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity, whom the Father sent to live among us, to take upon himself our sins, to pay the price for them by his death, and to rise to new life. In so doing, he became “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor.15:20), as the Apostle Paul puts it.
While our churches look back to what Christ accomplished for our salvation in the past, we also look ahead during these first two seasons in the church calendar – ahead to the Messiah’s second advent. At his expected return, all human history will be wrapped up, with God’s kingdom finally triumphing over each of its rivals. These rivals include the various political ideologies, each of which tells a redemptive story promising salvation to its followers. But they also include the more subtle desires of our hearts – desires for good things created by a good God but made too much of: career success, sexual satisfaction, fame, fortune and so forth.
The second and third petitions of the Lord’s prayer are familiar to us: “thy kingdom come” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). Jesus himself taught us to pray for the coming of the kingdom and, as a corollary to this, that God’s will be done here in this world as it is in his heavenly abode. The well-known ending to the prayer, based on 1 Chronicles 29:11 and omitted in some traditions, may have been added later to the biblical text for liturgical purposes, yet it fits well with these two petitions: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever.”
Agents of grace
How do our activities in God’s world relate to that kingdom? Some Christians, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, reasoned that we are responsible for building God’s kingdom here on earth. The Social Gospellers of a hundred years ago were especially articulate in putting forth this interpretation. They were not reluctant to identify this kingdom with various programmes of social reform and often with socialism itself. From their perspective, God had sent Jesus as a model for social reform, and it is up to us to build the kingdom based on this model. This, of course, makes God dependent on us. Our own efforts amount to what Luther famously called works righteousness, which is the antithesis of the gospel.
But God does not need us. He didn’t create us because he was lonely. Nevertheless, in his grace God chooses those created in his image to advance his kingdom. God will bring his kingdom to fruition in his own time and in his own way. He may choose to work through nonbelievers and through broad historical forces shaping history. Or he may choose believers and work through them in large and small ways. And all throughout this lengthy process, God calls his own people out of the nations, summoning them to obedience to his will. As the kingdom advances, so also do his servants grow in numbers and in grace, as they live out this kingdom throughout the broad expanse of life, including society and politics. As such we ourselves are agents of God’s kingdom, working out our salvation in gratitude for what Christ has already done for us.
During this Advent and Christmas, we would do well to ponder the meaning of God’s kingdom and to pray for its final consummation at Christ’s return. We ought also to think more deeply about what it means to live in the light of Christ’s coming as we expectantly await our final redemption.