Say your niece is reading The Chronicles of Narnia. You ask, “What do you think the story is about?” and she says, “I think it’s about the wardrobe.”
“What about the lion? Was the story about him?”
“Well he’s in the story, but the wardrobe is important. Don’t you see? That’s how you get in. That’s why it’s the final word in the title.”
You might wonder how much of the story she’s read. But how do you go about identifying the core theme of an extended story like Narnia, Lord of the Rings, or the Bible.
What is the Bible’s message? Is personal salvation the main theme? Or is that just the bit about how you get in?
Most would agree that the Bible is the revelation of God.
That’s true, but we can be more specific. The Bible doesn’t reveal God by cataloguing his attributes like a theology book. It reveals God by telling the story of how he manages us. So the Bible is about the relationship between God and humans?
Yes, but not quite. We humans tend to see ourselves as the centre of the universe, but God’s interest is bigger. The Bible opens with two realms: the heavens and the earth. God rules the heavenly realm, and he commissions humans to rule his earthly realm on his behalf. Sure, we have a crucial role in the story, but it isn’t just about us. Other creatures on earth have an important place as well. A lower animal colluded with the humans in the Garden rebellion. When God saved Noah, his job was to save the animals. God’s laws for Israel included how they cared for animals. God rebuked Jonah because he didn’t share God’s heart for “120,000 people … and many animals” (Jonah 4:11).
So, the Bible isn’t just the relationship between God and humans. It’s about God as sovereign, and humans as his servants in his earthly realm. It’s a long and convoluted story, because his servants don’t do what their sovereign wants. The sovereign’s faithfulness becomes the wonderful part of the story.
The Bible reveals God as the heavenly sovereign, governing his earthly realm. God is king. Earth is his realm, under his kingship.
The Bible tells that story, so the Bible is the story of the kingdom of God.
That’s a huge and controversial claim. There are many competing claims about what the Bible is. The Bible addresses many themes, and you can read it from many different perspectives. But does the story itself provide us with a frame of reference from which it makes sense?
The most compelling evidence that the Bible is the story of the kingdom of God is this: that’s what Jesus believed. That’s not a controversial claim: most New Testament scholars would grant that the kingdom of God was centre of everything Jesus did and taught.
So, was Jesus right about this? The difficulty is in trying to prove an enormous claim like this. We have 2000 years of people presenting competing claims with a plurality of perspectives. How could we ever demonstrate that the kingdom of God is the Bible’s main picture?
Ever done a jigsaw puzzle? When you’re making the wrong picture, you’re forcing pieces together, and some pieces don’t fit at all. When you’re making the right picture, each piece fits beautifully, and every piece fits. To demonstrate that the kingdom is the central theme of the Bible, we would need to show that all the pieces fit together to build this picture, with none of the pieces left out.
That’s a daunting task! There’s no way I can complete it in my lifetime. Two years ago today, I launched this blog to make a start.
We began by showing how the first 37 chapters of the Bible fit together to tell the kingdom story. No longer does it appear as disconnected fragments about a garden and a murder and a flood and a tower and an Abrahamic pilgrimage. The pieces fit together to form the most intriguing plotline I have ever read! Even previously meaningless details (like the Babel-builders’ architectural statement in choosing man-made bricks) contribute to this picture.
Then Exodus explodes on the stage. God releases his people from oppressive rule, and forms them into the prototype kingdom of God — the first nation on earth ruled directly by God. We summarized the whole Old Testament as God’s kingdom story.
And then the story of God’s kingship comes into sharp focus in Jesus. After 137 posts on Matthew (100,000 words + quotes), we’re only half way through! If you’ve been following, you can see the big picture: heaven’s kingship, re-established over the earth, through the ruler God anointed (the Christ).
The story of the kingdom is the story of the king.
And that’s where the whole story is headed. Jesus confronted the rulers of this world, but he did so in the most unexpected way. Instead of forcing his enemies into subjection, he made himself vulnerable to them. Those who rejected his kingship executed him on a cross. But Jesus’ faith in the heaven sovereign was vindicated when God overruled those who had condemned his Son. God raised him from the dead, crowning him with all authority in heaven and on earth.
And that, my friends, is how God restored his kingship over the earth. Salvation comes to earth as people agree with God and declare Jesus as “Lord.” The resurrection is the good news because it marks the defeat of other powers.
We look forward to the day when every knee bows and every tongue declares allegiance to the only ruler worthy of the name, the lion who took the form of a lamb to become king.
This is the Bible’s story. The character of our heavenly sovereign is revealed in how he rules his earthy realm.
All the pieces fit together when you read the Bible as the story of the kingdom of God.
What others are saying
David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 1:
The embodied drama of the contested reign of God lies at the heart of the biblical record.
Larry Helyer. The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 125:
There is a consensus across the theological spectrum that Jesus’ message centered on the kingdom of God.
Scott W. Hahn, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 125, 135:
At the center of Jesus’ preaching and mission is the kingdom of God. Benedict has done a great deal of work in this area, which, along with debate over the historical Jesus, is among the most contentious domains of New Testament scholarship. …
Jesus was the kingdom he announced.
Bruce Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 10 (emphasis original):
What has not been sufficiently recognized is that the kingdom of God was deeply embedded in the language of early Judaism as a means of expressing God’s activity in the world.
Martin J. Selman, “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin 40:2 (1989): 161–162:
While there seems little doubt that the kingdom of God is the central tenet of Jesus’ teaching, in the Old Testament the role of the kingdom is much more problematic. For many scholars it remains a marginal element in Old Testament thought …
A more promising recent attempt … has concluded that references to Yahweh’s kingship ‘come from all segments of the canon and from all eras of Israel’s history’. The kingdom of God may therefore be regarded as a comprehensive Old Testament scheme, and the teaching of Jesus as a genuine and natural development of it.
For all its attractiveness, however, this approach has not proved widely convincing.
[previous: Parables help us get our bearings]
[next: Discovering what counts]