The Kingdom of God Is Manifested in This Present Age
There is an old hymn that begins,
I love thy kingdom Lord,
the house of thine abode,
the church our blessed Redeemer saved
with his own precious blood!
It’s pretty common seminary humor to make fun of that hymn, chuckling at the naïveté of the author to equate the kingdom of God and the church like that. And of course there’s some truth in that thought. Without getting into whether Timothy Dwight really did equate the church and the kingdom, it’s important to note that biblically speaking you can’t do that. The kingdom of God is indeed much more than—and different from—the church. Just try replacing “kingdom” in the New Testament with “church,” or “church” with “kingdom,” and you quickly realize that synonyms they are not.
However, it’s also true that like your rearview mirror says, these two things—the church and the kingdom—are actually “closer than they appear,” and closer than we often give them credit for.
The Church’s Role
Jesus’s words in Matthew 16 are hugely important here, for it is in that chapter that he institutes his church “upon this rock” of Peter’s confession of faith and then immediately says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). “You” refers not to Peter but to the church, as becomes clear in Matthew 18. But still it’s an astounding statement. The keys of the kingdom of God—the authority of that kingdom, the right to act in its name—are given in this age, by the King, to the church!
It’s not to the government, nor to any king or pope or any other ruler, but rather to the church—to this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling-for-holiness but gloriously forgiven sinners—that the keys of the kingdom of God are given. To put it another way, the church acts as a sort of embassy for the government of the King. It is an outpost of the kingdom of God surrounded by the kingdom of darkness. And just as the embassy of a nation is meant, at least in part, to showcase the life of that nation to the surrounding people, so the church is meant to manifest the life of the kingdom of God to the world around it.
The church is an outpost of the kingdom of God surrounded by the kingdom of darkness.
Paul writes about this in Ephesians. After saying that in the gospel of Jesus the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles is torn down (Eph. 2:14), he makes this extraordinary statement: God intends that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). In other words, the life of reconciliation and love that exists in the church will be a manifestation of God’s wisdom to the world.
The life of the kingdom of God—a life of poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace—will be manifested to the world in the church. It’s not that the church is perfect, or that it showcases the life of the kingdom without flaw. But believe it or not, the church is the primary arena God has chosen to make his redemptive reign over his people visible. It is, as some have said, the initial manifestation of the kingdom of God in this age. And as the world sees and responds to that kingdom life, the church will not only manifest the kingdom, but also bear witness to it.
So the kingdom of God then, we may say, is God’s redemptive reign, in the person of his Son, Jesus Messiah, which has broken into the present evil age and is now visible in the church.
This article is adapted from What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.