Theology is the practice of speaking and thinking and acting as excellently about God as possible.
Because Christians are Jesus people, we always do our theology with reference to Jesus Christ. The Bible witnesses to Jesus Christ as the perfect representation of the Father. He is the Word, the Son and the image of the invisible God. Jesus is what God looks like. If you speak and think about God but do not know Jesus, you are not speaking and thinking as excellently as possible.
This means that we need to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities. The Bible contains the only information we have about what Jesus said and did. In the New Testament, we discover that there is one theme above all that Jesus talked about more than any other. This is the key term that shaped the earliest imagination of Jesus-followers: Kingdom.
Often in the New Testament, Jesus simply talks about ‘the Kingdom’. Some Gospel writers have Jesus using the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’, others say ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. We modern Christians can sometimes get into a muddle with the word ‘heaven’. It has become a popular assumption that the basic Christian hope is that we will go to Heaven when we die.
But this is not the original Christian hope. In fact, you can search the entire New Testament, and you will not really find anything about ‘going to Heaven when you die’. What you will find is a lot of hope for God’s reign to be established on earth, for a new creation, for resurrected bodies, for the end of sin and sickness, and for His word to be in our hearts so we no longer need instructing.
In short, the earliest Christian hope was summed up in the lines of the prayer that we learned from Jesus: “Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be done, on Earth as in Heaven.” Heaven is not a place souls go to when they die. It is the way of describing what happens when God reigns unopposed. When his people say “Yes” to His will of their own free will. When their lives are shaped in Jesus Christ-shaped ways. That is why we can say that Kingdom Theology is an attempt to think and act along heavenly lines.
There are a few features of Kingdom theology worth noting. The first thing is that ‘gospel’ was originally the word you would use to announce the good news of the return of the rightful ruler to his people. The New Testament treats Jesus like a King and the movement that formed around him as his Kingdom. Jesus always spoke of his Kingdom as something small that has a big impact: it is a like a tiny seed of an edible weed that grows low and fast upon the ground, it is like a small lamp that gives off a bright light, and so on. All Kingdoms have citizens: Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being made up of people from all nations, ethnicities, social classes and religions. He said that in this Kingdom leaders acted like servants and servants were honoured like leaders. All Kingdoms have laws: Jesus made pronouncements about his Kingdom that turned the normal way of doing things on their heads. His Kingdom is not protected by violence. It is not run on the love of money or the anxious protection of rights. It does not require patriotism. The Kingdom that Jesus formed was one where demons were cast out, sick people healed, lonely people loved, and despicable people redeemed.
This last point brings us to the most important feature of Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus was clear: his Kingdom was not just something that was going to come one day. It was here. It is still here. Wherever you find the rule of Jesus being proclaimed and King Jesus worshipped, wherever you see sickness healed or demons defeated, wherever you see people forgiving and being forgiven, you are experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven.
But, of course, we do not always see these things happening. God’s reign is not acknowledged by everyone, and we do not always use our will to say Yes to His Will. That is why Kingdom Theologians often use the phrase “now and not yet” to describe this particular feature of life as a Jesus person. Jesus spoke of his Kingdom as something that happens with him, but also something that is to reach full completion. Like a tree that is bearing small fruits but we know will produce more, or a decisive goal in a long football match that is still being played out, the Kingdom is a reality that we can witness and experience now, but that we can also look forward to having full completion.
Kingdom Theology tries to hold all these things together: it thinks along heavenly lines set by Jesus, it practices the habits and actions that Jesus commanded, and it holds together the tension of two true experiences of our lives, the “now and not yet” of the Kingdom of Heaven. I have intentionally not put lots of Bible references in this piece (that would simply lead to a forest of footnotes!), but we will be looking at all these features of Kingdom Theology in the months to come. In the meantime, why not read Mark’s Gospel? Mark is the oldest, the shortest, and the punchiest of the accounts of Jesus. Mark is a perfect introduction to the features of the Kingdom and the good news of Jesus, its rightful King.
Dr Stephen Backhouse is an author and a theologian who specialises in political theology: tracing the ways that Christianity works itself out in the world. Stephen & his wife Clare will be living in the Chanctobury area for a month, and speaking at our ‘Teaching & Equipping’ month. Click here to find out more.