Following E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth Copeland and others proclaimed that God has given the kingdom to his little flock (Luke 12:32). We are seated with Christ on the throne, with everything under our feet (Ephesians 1:20-23). If we maintain this positive confession, nothing can touch us. Sickness is gone: it was part of the curse from which we’re redeemed (Galatians 3:13). Wealth is guaranteed: it all belongs to our Father who is pleased to give it to his children. Because Jesus conquered, we’re more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).
Is this what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God?
If you’ve been following this blog, hopefully your response is an incredulous, “How could anyone pull those verses together to build that picture?” It’s nothing like the kingdom story of the Bible: the sufferings of the earth, of Israel, of the Messiah, of his apostles, of first century churches. It’s nothing like the reality of church history. Even today, more than 200 million Christians suffer high, very high, or extreme persecution, and this “gospel” of selfish entitlement has little traction among them. It won’t do to say that these Christians — all the way back to the apostles — only suffered because they lacked faith.
Corinth faced a similar temptation in the first century. After lying in ruins for 100 years, Corinth was re-established as a colony of Rome by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Common people made fortunes from the trade passing north-south (between Greece and the Peloponnese) and east-west (across the Mediterranean). Vitality and wealth were the order of the day, so Christians at Corinth saw themselves as citizens of a superior kingdom, ruling and reigning with Christ.
Paul’s first letter to Corinth confronts their preoccupation with status and power. Christ has been raised, but we don’t have the perfect health of resurrection bodies yet (1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:12). The world is not fully in subjection to him. It will be, but we’re not there yet (15:25-28).
If the Corinthians would look beyond themselves they’d see the apostles still suffering for proclaiming Jesus’ kingship. So if they’re really kings running the world, could they arrange Paul’s release next time he’s in jail?
Listen to the irony Paul uses to cut them down to size:
1 Corinthians 4:7-13 (my translation)
7 Who put you on a pedestal? What do you have that wasn’t gifted to you in the first place? So, if it’s a gift — not self-made — why brag?
8 Already you’re full as a boot! Already you’ve got it all! Already you’re running the world — without us! It would be nice if you had some real clout, so we could share the experience. 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display alright — doomed to die in the arena of the world, in front of angels and people.
10 We are fools for the King, while you have all the King’s wisdom. We are feeble, while you are powerful. You are valued, while we are devalued. 11 Even now, we are unfed, parched, ragged, defeated, vagrants. 12 We are manual labourers — blood, sweat and tears. Insulted, we bless. Harassed, we endure. 13 Defamed, we encourage. We are the scrubbings from washing the world, the dirt before the broom—even yet!
If you’re suffering, Paul’s humour is wonderfully encouraging. If you’re not, hopefully his humour prevents you from accusing struggling people of suffering from a lack of faith.
Christ is King. He’s in the process of restoring the earth under heaven’s kingship. Nothing can stop him, for he has already conquered the final foe (death). Along with the rest of creation, we groan under the weight of sufferings at this present time as we await the consummation of his kingship (Romans 8:18ff). The “more than conquerors” text lists the sufferings believers can expect: “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” (8:35). These struggles are real, but there’s another truth just as real: nothing can separate us from the faithful love of our heavenly sovereign revealed in King Jesus our ruler (Romans 8:18-39).
Christ’s kingdom is not a personal ticket to Easy Street, but it is God’s guarantee of a restored world.
What others are saying
Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 466:
It was imperative that the disciples understand Jesus’ destiny as Messiah, that he was called to suffer and die. Indeed, Jesus’ destiny functions as the pattern for disciples. If they want to follow Jesus as disciples, they must deny themselves and take up their own crosses and follow Jesus (8:34). In other words, they must give their lives entirely to Jesus. They must be willing to die for his sake, for unless they lose their life for Jesus’ sake, they will suffer eternal loss (8:35–37). Only those who are willing to face shame for belonging to Jesus and for heeding his teaching will enter the kingdom. The suffering of disciples is a corollary to Jesus’ suffering.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 180:
The reason Paul wishes it was true that Christians had begun to reign is his own experience of suffering … As 4:9–13 show, the only way to maintain the Corinthian triumphalist, prosperity theology of ease is to ignore the paradigmatic experience of the apostles. … As Alister McGrath puts it, “The ‘theologian of glory’ expects God to be revealed in strength, glory and majesty, and is simply unable to accept the scene of dereliction on the cross as the self-revelation of God.”
Robert W. Yarbrough, “The Kingdom of God in the New Testament: Mark through the Epistles,” in The Kingdom of God, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 148:
Paul interprets the afflictions they are enduring in kingdom categories; their persecution is “evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thess. 1:5). In life and in death, if it comes to that, the Thessalonians as followers of Jesus are at the same time in Paul’s understanding subjects of God’s kingdom.
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