The Church, Society and Race: Part 1 (The Kingdom of God)
Every generation of Christians faces difficult often complex questions of how they should relate to the surrounding culture. As culture constantly changes and asks new questions, or issues new challenges to the unchanging gospel, Christians must do the hard work of thinking hard about how to respond faithfully.
And this is no mere academic exercise. Each of us lives one life, in a particular historical moment, in a particular location, called to live faithfully under the one God who transcends it all. We are given a charge, and if we would be faithful, we must wrestle through the difficult questions of how the culture-transcending gospel shines in the midst of our particular cultures.
It is important to consider cultural matters, as each culture contains unique expressions of human identity – both righteous and sinful; constructive or destructive. Truth is objective and transcends any one culture, but truth is always understood within a particular culture, using a particular language, influenced by a particular history.
Over the next several weeks, I will be publishing a series of posts on this theme. Specifically, I will be asking how the church should think about, engage with and even confront the society we are a part of. We will be asking questions like, “How do we as Christians relate to the surrounding world? What is our God-given responsibility to the world?” The first part of this series will offer a biblical-theological framework for answering these questions.
Having laid this groundwork, I will then seek to apply it to the way the church in general, and the church I pastor (Village Baptist) in particular, should think about and interact with the racialization of American society. In this latter section, I will seek to unpack a survey of the racial landscape of our culture to help get a sense for the issues. Following this, we will explore what the Bible has to say about the issues which surface, and will then seek to apply the framework outlined in the first section so that we can move forward faithfully as a church.
1. A Brief History of the Kingdom of God
How should we relate to the society around us? Does the Bible actually compel us to engage our society in any sense? Should we get our hands dirty with matters of injustice, politics, class, public morality and, yes, race? If so, what kind of engagement does this look like?
We begin this discussion with a concept which may feel an unlikely candidate for such a discussion: the kingdom of God. And yet, as will hopefully become evident, a proper understanding of the kingdom of God is a necessary starting point if we are to think well about how to engage social issues.
The kingdom of God is one of those themes we see time and time again, and yet can easily miss its significance if we don’t pay close enough attention. Therefore, I want to take us on a far too brief biblical-theological overview of the kingdom of God to get us framed and ready for the next leg of our conversation.1 Our approach recognizes that the Bible is a unified whole, telling the story of God’s redemptive work throughout history. So let’s buckle in and take a brief seven-point overview of the kingdom of God as it appears throughout the Bible.
The Scripture opens at the beginning, with God creating the heavens and the earth. Creation is foundational to our understanding of God’s kingdom, as it reveals the King (God) and His kingdom (the world). He exhibits absolute authority over all of it, since He is its Maker.
But we shortly discover that He creates not just a domain, but also subjects: man and woman, in His image (Gen. 1:26ff). These subjects were given a particular mandate, namely the charge to rule over the earth, under His authority. So from the beginning, a clear order of things is presented: God above all, ruling over His creation in sovereign power, and delegating authority to His created regents (humanity).
Quickly, however, things go south, as these under-rulers rebel. In choosing sin over obedience, they introduce a corruption into the world which is utterly devastating. For you see, humanity was never designed to reign over the world in autonomy; we were always meant to live under God.
Once this dependence was broken and we determined to choose our own path, humanity collapsed in on itself, and God locked creation under a curse until it could be redeemed. His kingdom (the domain of the world) is now infiltrated by sin and turned against Him. And yet, as we read Scripture, we discover that, He does not destroy creation, but rather faithfully preserves it.
As time progresses, things get so bad in God’s world that He determines to wipe all living things off the face of the earth. Not, however, before preserving one family and a seedbed of animal life. Following the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah, in effect starting afresh as he had with Adam (Gen. 9:1ff). The LORD promises not to destroy the world by water again.
This covenant is simple, and it is mainly a preserving covenant. It is indicative of God’s plan to keep humanity around – with the implicit understanding that He has redemptive purposes for His creation.
The story continues, and we reach the man Abraham, who is singled out by God in a way that reveals that the King of all is intent on continuing His purposes through humanity. Here, we hear of the remarkable promise that God will “make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3 ESV)
We learn that God’s covenant means that God will do something profound and significant through Abraham: he will make his descendants into a nation; one that is blessed; they will receive land; and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him.
This can easily be read as kingdom language. In doing this, the LORD signals that He is working to restore His kingdom on the earth. But it will be a kingdom in the midst of kingdoms – a locus of blessing in the midst of darkness. And God’s blessing will be mediated through that people to the world.
1.3. Nation and Land
And of course, this is precisely what happens. Abraham miraculously fathers Isaac, who begets Jacob, and on. The now large family relocates to Egypt, where they live and grow for hundreds of years – until they are eventually threatened by the oppressive regime of a particular pharaoh. And yet here God makes His plans for this covenant people clear by powerfully delivering them from the clutches of Egypt and bringing them to Mt. Sinai.
Here, the family of Israel is formally called a nation; the multitude of slaves are redeemed to be a kingdom. They are brought to the King and given His law, and promised His presence. Furthermore, they are brought to the land of Canaan promised to Abraham and given a land in which to live.
This is the beginning of Israel’s national existence – and the beginning of the kingdom of God manifest in physical form. And yet it is not ideal. There is something about it that is still waiting for a deeper work. For once the covenant is established, Israel begins the long and painful process of learning what it means to be God’s kingdom with hearts still corrupted by sin.
As Israel settles into the land, they are ruled by Judges. Their sin leads them to regular rebellion, but God in His faithfulness raises up these judges to deliver, instruct and lead His people. Over time, however, the inhabitants of the kingdom long for something else; they long for an earthly king. Sin continues to taint their motives, but the LORD gives them a king. First, one after their own hearts – the man Saul. But once he implodes, the LORD provides them with David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14).
In David, the LORD establishes a dynasty which will last forever. In the key text, the LORD appears to David and explains that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7:16, ESV) David and his line therefore become the line of kings who will reign underneath the King of kings over God’s kingdom in Israel forever.
1.5. Exile and Renewal
And yet, the corrupting power of sin still afflicts even this magnificent promise. For as you read through the history of David’s descendants, you find few who are like him in his faithfulness to God. The history of Israel is one in which the kingdom is divided politically, and the kings are often divided in heart. Though Israel remains God’s covenant people, and though God’s promises to establish David’s throne are sure, the sin introduced at Eden continues to corrupt and afflict the people of God’s kingdom.
Eventually, their sin so permeates their life and their rebellion repeats with such constancy, that God is forced to discipline His people with the harshest of terms: exile. The northern kingdom is overrun by the Assyrians, who deport its inhabitants into their empire. A century and a half later, the southern kingdom is overrun by the Babylonians who do the same. The kingdom of God is stripped bare of its people, its kings and its blessing – God’s presence.
But this devastating discipline is preceded by two important promises: 1) the promise to restore the God’s people to the land, and 2) the promise to bring about a work which would meet the deepest needs of their hearts. In Jeremiah 31, for example, we read the remarkable promise that
“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34, ESV)
In short, God was promising to deal with the sin which so plagued His people, and to create a kind of kingdom that was happily and fully submitted to His righteousness – a kingdom where His people lived under His good rule.
Now, the language of expectation of return is glorious and exalted – and even though they do return, there is something unfinished about it. The exalted descriptions of return in Isaiah and Ezekiel are never quite realized. And this promise of a new covenant was not something which could be brought about by Israel. And so God’s people strain forward in the hope that One would come who would bring a fulfillment to these promises.
We know, of course, that the One who fulfills these hopes is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. He comes as the great Fulfiller of promises: He is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6, ESV); the Suffering Servant of Isa. 53 who dies for His people. But He also comes very specifically as the Davidic king long-awaited. Matthew makes this much clear when he locates Jesus as the direct heir of David in his genealogy.
But most important for our discussion is the way Jesus identifies Himself as the bringer of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 4:17, 23). Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount is saturated with language about the kingdom, and is, in reality, a sermon about how to live as members of the kingdom of God.
Throughout Jesus’ teaching, we discover that the kingdom is not a default reality, but something which must be entered (Matt. 7:21) – and which those who assume they are in it, but do not belong to it will be cast out (Matt. 8:11f); that it is near, or at hand (Matt. 10:7); it is a kingdom that begins small and grows into a strong and visible thing, a kingdom of inestimable value – and one which will require sorting between those who belong and those who do not in a final judgment (Matt. 13:24-34); it is a kingdom which has an earthly and visible nature, corresponding to a heavenly reality (Matt. 16:19ff); one whose inhabitants exist in a topsy-turvy order of importance, where the humble are great, and the powerful are the least (Matt. 18:1ff); and one which entry is given graciously and generously to all who will receive it – even if they are sinners of the worst kind (Matt. 20:1ff).
Now, despite this instruction, Jesus’ disciples – and apparently many from Jerusalem – believed that Jesus-as-Kingdom-Bringer would establish a theocratic kingdom with a cataclysmic display of force to drive out the Romans and fulfill all the promises expressed through the prophets.
And yet, He dies on a cross, dashing the hopes of those who had followed Him. Indeed, on the third day since His crucifixion, two of His disciples lamented, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21, ESV)
What these, and all of Jesus’ followers failed to understand, of course, was that He was precisely the One who was to redeem Israel – and that He had redeemed Israel. But not in the way they expected. He redeemed Israel, fulfilled the promises and brought about the kingdom by doing what a sacrificial lamb could never do: He fully and finally atoned for their sins, redeeming whoever placed their faith in Him from the power and punishment of sin.
And so He stands as the self-giving King. Just before Jesus ascends into heaven, He makes His position of authority crystal clear: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mat. 28:18, ESV)
But His coming as King brings not merely a restoration of Israel-as-theocratic-and-political-kingdom; it was something bigger and more encompassing. Indeed, after Jesus’ resurrection, we discover that the kingdom is not only borderless, it is no longer limited to the ethnic boundaries of Abraham’s line of descent. Indeed, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that “in you will all the nations be blessed” comes true as men and women from all tongues, tribes and nations begin to put their faith in Jesus, and thereby be named among His people. And not only this, but even the exceptional blessing of God’s presence is decentralized, as the Spirit is given to His people.
This becomes explicit in the throne room scene in Revelation 5, where the heavenly beings proclaim the worthiness of the Lamb, for “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10, ESV)
The kingdom of God therefore exists in a bigger and more glorious way than Israel could have ever imagined. And yet, this is not the entire story. For, while Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, we do not yet see Him reigning on the earth. To the contrary, we see a world yet consumed with sinful rebellion. We see darkness. In fact, the world around often forces the groaning cry from our souls, “Come Lord Jesus!”
The kingdom is here, but it is not yet what it will be. For we know that our Savior-King is yet returning. And when He does, He will put all things to right. Revelation 20 makes it clear that all evil will finally be done away with in final judgment, leaving only God reigning with His people.
And Revelation 21-22 paints a picture of a new heavens and new earth. It is the enveloping embrace of the redemptive purposes of God, matching and surpassing the glory of Eden. In that day, the kingdom of God will no longer be a seed sprouting among a world of weeds, but rather “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab. 2:14 ESV) The King will reign with none opposing Him; His people will be those He redeemed for Himself; and His domain will stretch across the universe, with no pocket of darkness.
2. Three Concluding Observations on the Kingdom of God
Now, what can we learn from this very brief overview of the kingdom of God? Let me offer three concluding observations which will frame our thinking next week.
2.1. The kingdom is composed of God’s people.
First, the kingdom is composed of God’s people. What this means is that the kingdom of God is not a geopolitical entity that people can be born into. The true citizens of God’s kingdom are those who have, in faith, experienced the gracious work of God through the cross work of Christ. They are those who have been born again and who are identified with the King of kings through baptism.
But this also means that we cannot mistake the kingdom for anything less than the composite whole of those who have experienced, through faith, this same grace. That is, the kingdom is not a denomination, it is not a particular kind of work, it is not an organization. It is the reign of God in and through His church.
2.2. The kingdom is both already, and not yet.
This should be clear: the kingdom has come, and it is coming. When Jesus stood on that mountain and declared that all authority in the universe had been given to Him, He meant it. He is reigning over all things. And yet, His enemies abound. We live in-between. We are truly citizens of heaven, who wait for heaven to break open and overtake earth.
The import of this will become clearer when we consider our expectations for the present world. Both it’s already-ness and it’s not-yet-ness shape how we think and engage with the world around us.
2.3. Inhabitants of the kingdom live as exiles.
Building on this, we can also say something definitive about we who live as citizens of the kingdom, and our relationship to this world: we are like sojourners or exiles. Regardless of our national or cultural identity, all of us pledged loyalty to “the world” – the realm opposed to God. But “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14, ESV) Therefore, our absolute and final allegiance is not to a country or person, but to the King of all kings: Jesus Christ.
Yet we still live in the world. And since we do not pledge ultimate allegiance to this world, this means we are necessarily outsiders, visitors – or as Peter puts it, sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 1:1, 17; 2:11) in this world.
Next week, we will return to build on this idea of the kingdom of God to begin formulating a model for how we should therefore engage with the world around us.
For a useful book-length treatment, see Goldsworthy, Graeme. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Additionally, particularly as it relates to the church and culture, see Moore, Russell. The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2004. ↩