The Nature of God’s Kingdom: insights from George Eldon Ladd

Christus Rex

As I mentioned yesterday, I am in the midst of preparing for an upcoming sermon series on the kingdom of God. One of the greatest American scholars on this topic is George Eldon Ladd, who gave significant attention to this theme in his teaching and writing career. In his brief book, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, Ladd summarizes his larger Jesus and the Kingdom. Although both of these books are now out of print, Ladd’s thoughts on the kingdom of God are still available in his A Theology of the New Testament, revised edition.

What follows is my halting attempt to summarize his summary through excerpted quotations from chapter four of The Pattern of New Testament Truth, “The Synoptic Pattern: The Kingdom of God.”

The truth of the Kingdom of God is rooted in the prophetic view of God who comes to his people in history, who reveals his redemptive and judicial purpose in historical events The Old Testament sees God acting in the sequence of events in Israel’s history, and it continually looks forward to a final, decisive act in history to establish his Kingdom. The new redeemed order is described in different ways, but there are four constraints: it results from a visitation of God, a divine inbreaking; this occurs in history, not in personal individual experience; the new order stands in continuity with the old order, in that it is always viewed as earthly existence; yet there is also discontinuity in that the new order involves a transformation of the old and the emergence of something that has never existed before. (51)

Since it is Go who acts—God who is the eternal one—his present acts in history and his final act in consummating redemption can be viewed as though they were one single act; for it is one God who is acting in the present and who will act in the indeterminate future for the one redemptive purpose that fills the prophetic consciousness. The dynamic tension between history and eschatology stands at the heart of the prophetic perspective. (52)

The key to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God is found in  the dynamic understanding of that term. God’s Kingdom is first of all his kingly rule, his sovereign redeeming activity, and secondarily the realm of blessing inaugurated by the divine act. The proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God is the announcement, as in Judaism, of the inbreaking of God into human history to establish his will. At this point, Jesus’ message is apocalyptic. (53)

There is in Jesus’ proclamation, however, a distinctive, novel, unique element that finds no parallel in Judaism, namely, that before the apocalyptic consummation at the end of history, a fulfillment of the prophetic hope has occurred within history; that before the coming of God’s Kingdom as a cosmic event, his Kingdom has come as an event in history; that before God acts as King to inaugurate the redeemed order, he has acted in Jesus of Nazareth to bring to men in advance of the eschatological consummation of the blessings of actual fulfillment. The Old Testament promise of the coming of the Kingdom, fulfillment of the promise of the Kingdom in history in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus, consummation of the promise at the end of history–this is the basic structure of the theology of the Synoptic Gospels. (54)

When Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom has come (Matt. 12:28) in his own person and mission, he proclaimed something new and unheard of in Judaism. This is the ‘mystery’ of the Kingdom (Mark 4:11): the revelation of a new redemptive act—that before the eschatological theophany, God has invaded history to bring men the blessings of his redemptive reign. This coming of the Kingdom is a real event in history. Jesus spoke, and his words embodied the power of the Kingdom. He acted, and his deeds were the working of the Kingdom. They are objective historical events: words, deeds, and relationships created by the coming of the Kingdom in Jesus. (55)

The proclamation of the Kingdom means a twofold event, or two acts in a single divine redemption: a visitation in history hidden in the person of Jesus, and a visitation at the end of history in an unveiled cosmic event. How these two are related temporarily is one of the most difficult questions to decide, because of their nature. (56)

Although there is no difference in meaning between the terms ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Kingdom of the heavens,’ the latter reminds us that God does not dwell o earth but in heaven. In effect, the coming of the Kingdom means the coming of heaven to earth, so that finally in the consummation earth and its redeemed society share the blessings of heaven—righteousness, peace, immortality. (57)

The theology of the Kingdom of God is a theology of the invasion of history by the God of heaven in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to bring history to its consummation in the age to come beyond history. And the age to come may be spoken of as ‘beyond history’ because heaven has invaded history and raised it to a higher level in a new redeemed order. (57)

[All excerpts from George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968).

Total and Radical Obedience: a word about Jesus’ call into God’s Kingdom from John Bright

Christus Rex

While studying for an upcoming sermon series on the kingdom of God, I came across this gripping description of Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom from Old Testament scholar John Bright:

Christ, then, has come to call men to his Kingdom. His mission was not to instruct men in a better and more spiritual ethic, to impart to men a clearer understanding of the character of God, to attack those abuses which had made the Jewish law the stultification of the religious spirit and to suggest certain emendations to that law—in short, to point men the way to be better men. All this he did, indeed, and with a vengeance. But he did it in the dazzling light of the coming Kingdom. His was a call of tremendous urgency, a call to radical decision for that Kingdom. The Kingdom is right there, ‘at hand.’ It stands at the door and knocks (Luke 12:36; cf. Rev. 3:20). Who will open and let it in? Who will say Yes to its coming? Over and over again in the Gospels comes the radical urgency of its call. It is a pearl of great price; you sell everything you have to get it (Matt. 13:45-46). You leave father and mother, wife and family, as if you hated them, at its beck (Luke 14;26). It transcends all earthly concerns (Matt. 6:33). If it were a question of gouging out your eye and entering it blind or having two eyes to be excluded from it, you would without hesitation mutilate yourself in order to get in (Mark 9:47). No call to be trifled with, this—like the man who puts his hand to the plow and then turns back (Luke 9:62)! No call to be answered with a modicum of moral improvement, a burst of zeal, a few New Year’s resolutions to live a better life! It is  call to total and radical obedience, to an utterly impossibly righteousness, to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48): in short, a call to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God to which no man can attain, yet to which he may give the answer of faith. For to say Yes to the Kingdom and to submit to its rule is faith (Mark 1:15; cf. Rom. 3:22). And it is of faith’s nature to cry, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9:24 KJV).

[From John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953), 219-220.

Turning the World Upside Down

upside down city.jpg

When I was a fairly new Christian, someone described the early church as a group that turned the world upside down. I don’t remember who that was or when I heard it, but the speaker’s point was that the early church really made things happen for God in the world. The idea enamored me, but it was only later that I discovered this phrase was drawn from Scripture. Specifically, it is found in Acts 17:6, where Paul and Silas are described by locals in Thessalonica in this way: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (NRSV).

As time went on, and I read the book of Acts more closely, I realized it wasn’t that the disciples were so good that they were described as turning the world upside down, but rather that they were causing so much difficulty to be described in this way. The phrase was, in fact, applied to the church in a derogatory manner. The NIV translates the Greek along these lines when it says: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.”

The other day I read this passage again in my morning time in prayer, and something new caught my attention. It is something that ties in quite clearly with something I preached on this past weekend at Eastbrook Church in my message “The Multi-Everything Church: a Multi-Ethnic, Kingdom-Oriented Community.” Let’s look at that passage once more, this time in the ESV:

These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus. (Acts 17:6-7)

Notice the specific thing that bothers the locals in Thessalonica. While certainly they are upset that one of their own, Jason, has extended hospitality to these trouble-makers, Paul and Silas, the primary concern is that “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar.” How are they doing that? By “saying that there is another king, Jesus.” This is a good reminder that the fundamental declaration of faith for the early Christians was “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3). This declaration of faith was counter-cultural in the face of the fundamental declaration of allegiance to Rome, which was “Caesar is Lord.”

For the early church, the primary allegiance to Jesus as king superseded all other calls of allegiance, including that to Rome and its emperor. Such an approach to life could be nothing but trouble for the empire and would, certainly in the ears of the hearers, eventually turn the world upside down. This echoes Paul’s resounding claims in Philippians when he writes “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, TNIV) and “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20).

Disciples who turn the world upside down are so troublesome to the world order because the speak and live as if there is a new king in town, whose name is Jesus. His kingdom reigns over all kingdoms, and He graciously calls for the allegiance of all to Him and His new kingdom. The kingdoms of the earth feel the shaking of their foundations now before such a king, but one day “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11).