The Most Misused Biblical Term
April 28, 2011
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger. He is currently teaching at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The most misused biblical term today is “Kingdom.”
One of my college students told me her sister was not working in the Church but was doing “Kingdom” work and “justice” work at a social service. Another student explained to me she was joining hands with a local inter-faith group to further peace. She called it “Kingdom” work and added, “It has nothing to do with the Church.” There’s a common theme here: the “Kingdom” is bigger and better than the “Church.”
We are using this word, “Kingdom,” both to cut out things we don’t like—evangelism and church—and to cast a vision for what we do like—justice and compassion. But it’s time to give this word “Kingdom” a fresh look, because we’re misusing it.
The word “kingdom” comes from Jesus, and so to Him and His Jewish world we must go. It was impossible in Jesus’ world to say “kingdom” and not think “king.” Either the word “king” referred to Caesar, the empire-building, worship-me-or-die emperor of Rome, or it referred to Israel’s hoped-for King, the Messiah. When Jesus said Kingdom, He meant the Messiah is the one true King and Caesar is not.
Furthermore, a first-century Jew couldn’t say “Kingdom” or “King” without also thinking of “Kingdom people” (or citizen-followers of the Messiah). The most unusual of people were Jesus’ Kingdom people—sinners, tax collectors, fishermen, hookers, demonized women and ordinary, poor Galileans. Jesus invited people to the place of Kingdom living and said anyone who was willing to turn from sins and injustice and economic exploitation and accumulation would find forgiveness and fellowship and freedom. So every evening, when Jesus decided to eat with His followers, He attracted a crowd, He told stories (parables) of what the Kingdom was like and He asked His listeners to join the movement. That table of fellowship embodied both who was following Jesus (or at least hearing Him out), and how they were to love one another in concrete deeds.
That was the Kingdom’s launch in Jesus’ day: King Jesus and His people sitting at a table telling stories.
But Jesus’ vision of Kingdom was even bigger than that. A scribe once asked Jesus a restrictive question: “Who is my neighbor?” But he meant, “What are the boundaries between God’s people (my neighbor) and all the rest?” Jesus turned that man inside out and told him the right question was, “To whom will you be neighborly?” Jesus’ answer was: “Anyone you meet. Especially the needy.” Jesus converted the restrictive question into an inclusive habit. Those who live out that inclusive habit are Kingdom people. King Jesus came to create a Kingdom people, and His Kingdom people are those who listen to Him and live out His Kingdom vision. They know His words and they abide in His words.
There’s a third element about what Kingdom means for Jesus. Kingdoms only work well when they have a constitution. The Jews of Jesus’ day called it “Torah.” Jesus swallowed up Israel’s Torah into His Kingdom vision—and it broke loose one day when He was teaching His disciples. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. This is the Torah for followers of King Jesus.
The biggest problem with the Church for many is that the people they know who go there don’t follow Jesus. Which is the exact reason why so many today want to disconnect Kingdom from Church: Too often a church looks like anything but the Kingdom because too many so-called Kingdom people don’t follow Jesus!
Christians need to sit down with the gospels, read them and compare the themes of Jesus’ Kingdom vision with the themes of many local churches.
I wish we would all dig in all over again and construct new foundations for a Kingdom vision of the Church. A church embodies themes like love, justice, peace and wisdom. The Kingdom church will not only talk about such themes, but will be a society marked by a Gospel justice, a Gospel peace and a Gospel wisdom. It will be a people who eat together, love one another and who see the needs in the world around them and do something about those needs. According to Jesus, a local church is designed to be a local fellowship of Kingdom people who love and follow King Jesus.
Instead of choosing either the Church or the Kingdom, Christians are called to see church as a living manifestation of the Kingdom.
I see a freshness about this in churches all around the world, churches devoted to being a community that serves the community, a fellowship that loves the neighbor, a church that cares for the poor and a society that is the fertile ground for a completely new society—the Kingdom society of Jesus.
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