Dear Church Family,
There are some words and concepts that are distinct to the Christian faith. Words and concepts that are important and even essential to the proper understanding of what we believe at followers of Christ. Words like justification, propitiation, gospel, covenant, kingdom, etc. Unfortunately, though there may actually be a distinct and proper definition of such words and concepts, quite often the Biblical definition is lost over time. This usually happens in one of two very different ways: neglect or over-use.
In less deliberate, more liberal theological circles, words and concepts (proper theology) are often confused through neglect. In more deliberate, more conservative theological circles, words and concepts (proper theology) are often confused through over-use. Both dangers must be guarded against.
Take for instance, the use of the word ‘covenant.’ PCA pastor and author, Richard Phillips writes:
“There is a fine line between the use and the overuse of a word. The same is true with public figures. When someone is getting exposure, we are excited for them. But when they are over-exposed we are embarrassed for them. In my view, the word covenant has crossed that line in Christian circles. As such, one often hears it applied in dubious ways. We have gone from covenant people and covenant children to covenant schools and covenant businesses. I recently was given a bag of covenant coffee beans, which, by the way, I received as an effectual means of grace. Today, if you want to express a zeal to be distinctively Christian, and especially if you are Reformed-leaning, you are very likely to apply the word covenant to your activity or group or product. In the process, the word has begun to lose definition and take on little more than a vague nimbus.”
Obviously, Phillips is being sarcastic when he says that he received a bag of covenant coffee beans as an effectual means of grace. But, his sarcasm is not unfounded. Many are confused by the misuse and over-application of the term covenant.
However, I want to use Phillips’ observation concerning the dubious use of the word ‘covenant’ as a stepping off point to consider the often dubious use of the word ‘kingdom’ in Christian circles. We have gone from ‘the kingdom of God/Heaven’ and ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ to ‘kingdom values’ and ‘a kingdom work-ethic.’ I once heard a religious leader speaking at a YMCA event rip Jesus’ words from Luke 10:9 out of context and declare that the “kingdom of God is in the heart of all people.” Christians rightfully pray for God’s kingdom and the work of God’s kingdom. After all, in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” But what do we really mean?
I suspect that many of us have a very nebulous understanding of kingdom. Personally, I tend to think that this is an historically recent confusion. Centuries ago, if you were to ask someone living under the rule of king what was meant by the term ‘kingdom,’ they would have simply responded, “It’s the realm where our king rules.” And by that, they would have meant a real group of people (subjects of the king) and a real parcel of land (owned by the king).
Of course, to confuse an earthly kingdom with the kingdom of God would be wrong. Jesus made this clear when He declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).
But if the kingdom of God is not to be equated with any military power or political kingdom of this world, how are we to understand this term?
The Visible Church
The simple answer is this: the visible church is the present manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (WCF 25:2, emphasis added)
The Church is that institution to which Christ has given the keys of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19). The Church is that institution to which Christ has given the offices for the work of service and building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:8-16). The Church is that institution to which Christ has entrusted the preaching of His Word (Romans 10:14-17) where His sheep hear His voice (John 10:16). The Church is that institution where the Good Shepherd cares for His flock through the shepherding of the elders (1 Peter 5:1-5). The Church is that institution where God pours out His grace upon His people through the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer (Acts 2:42). And, the Church is that institution where God works powerfully to get glory for Himself and for His Son, Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:20-21).
As we look to the final verse in our series this coming Sunday, we will be examining the glorious kingdom of God – the Church: “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7). Isaiah prophesies that the kingdom of God – the Church – will be marked by a never-ending increase, a David reign, the pillars of justice and righteousness, and divine jealousy. We who were once strangers to the covenants of promise have been brought near by the blood of Christ! (Ephesians 2:11-13).
Jesus began His earthly ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Those who heed the words of Christ, repent of their sins and trust in Him alone as Savior and King, have Him as their covenant head – the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18). At Christmas, we rejoice – not simply because Jesus was born, but because He was born a king: the King of kings, and Lord of lords. We rejoice at Christmas because Jesus’ birth is the sign that “the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come”! (Revelation 12:10).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch