The Most Misused Biblical Term

Scot McKnight weighs in on what a misunderstood term really means.

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.

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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.



noserious1 commented…

Rally the church in times of catastrophy and at all other times we the church should every day do what we can, with other's or alone, doing as to the Lord good wherever we can. So as a body, individually we need to register with a church so that when the day comes to be rallied, the office will know where we can be contacted :)


stan commented…

The issue has so many facets. There isn't just one or two reasons why these people want to call it kingdom work and not "serving at church".

1 ) I agree with Amos Lov that the way some Christians see "church" is part of the problem.

2 ) Sometimes serving at church you don't feel like you are making a difference out there....teaching pre-schoolers, ushering, manning the sound seems like the most diligence and effort we focus at church is just putting on a weekly event. To those whose eyes and heart God has revealed the hurt and needs in the world, some churches can seem stifling and inactive.

3 ) Sometimes serving in church seems like you are just doing what the board is telling you to do and if you feel the board isn't doing a good job or doesn't have vision, then it's just disheartening.

4) Sometime it is just restlessness and wrong thinking on part of that layperson....I mean cutting out evangelism out the agenda...the Great Commission isn't called "great" b/c it tastes good. It is important.

5) Some of us want to be super heroes and need to feel needed. "Freeing slaves is more important than "going to church again.


6) Lack of fellowship: If you want to talk about social justice, global missions and the others are just content about talking about the game, that they didn't like the worship song set, or that they need to get the kids home to do their homework, and other mundane things like that, you just feel bad. That is why I've found a fellowship for mission-minded people so encouraging and enjoyable.

And the list can go on and on....

Scott's solution will go a long way to fixing the issue, but that's only IF it can be executed and followed by the majority of the church. The hard part is never coming up with the plan.


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Crimxen commented…

If the church in America has lost it's way, then what it needs is for people to not abandon it, but vigorously engage it. Proverbs 27 tells us that open rebuke is better than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. We need
the sweetness of earnest counsel and to sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron. If your conviction about the missteps of the church in America are so strong, then be propelled to change it and make it sharp.


Anne commented…

I find it interesting that Scot doesn't talk about the coming Kingdom--the one that Jesus will establish a millennium after his return. I often use the term "Kingdom work" when referring to actions that either a) build rewards in that Kingdom for the doer or b) bring people into the Kingdom. Was looking forward to a discussion about this but it wasn't mentioned. :(
Otherwise a good article.

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