In our last post, we defined kingdom work as “implementing communal life under the king.” In this post, we’ll consider other views on what kingdom work could be.
Since we have limited time and resources, the king’s tasks are our priority. We don’t want to be tangled in tasks that are tangents.
So, let’s evaluate some common proposals. (Skip to Proposal 5 if you wish.)
Proposal 1: Only the church can do kingdom work.
There’s a stream of thought that identifies the church with the kingdom. It’s not only Catholics who do this. Scot McKnight believes that only those who recognize Jesus as king can do kingdom work:
There is no kingdom now outside the church.
— Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014), 87.
That’s not how Jesus sees it. In his role as king, Jesus acknowledges people who haven’t recognized him, and yet do what he wants:
Matthew 25 40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The classic example would be the Persian king Cyrus who ordered the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. He didn’t know the Lord, but he did kingdom work:
Isaiah 44 28 [The Lord] says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” ’
Human rulers are generally under the control of evil, but they can do work for God’s kingdom (like the Pharaoh who listened to Joseph and saved many lives). When we find people who want to do what the king wants, commend and encourage them. It might even help them discover their king.
Proposal 2: Kingdom work means protesting systemic injustice
If the kingdom isn’t just the church, if it’s the wider community, do servants of King Jesus have the responsibility to expose the evil that’s endemic to the power systems of the world?
Walter Wink says yes. He calls us to activism, to name evil for what it is, to unmask its insidious nature, to engage it through non-violent confrontation. A choir of other of voices also call us to non-violent resistance: John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Shane Claiborne, Jarrod McKenna, and so on.
Should we raise our voices against injustice in our community like the Old Testament prophets did? Does kingdom work mean speaking truth to power?
Israel’s kings were leaders who were supposed to be representing the reign of YHWH on earth. The prophets confronted them for misrepresenting God (e.g. Ezekiel 34). That is not an appropriate model for the world we live in.
This is not how Jesus understood kingdom work. He never confronted their political leaders (Herod or Pilate). He did confront the religious leaders for failing to represent God. It may be appropriate to confront church leaders for misrepresenting God, but we’re wasting our time and resources trying to fix the current political system.
We are not called to protest the current system. We’re called to replace it — to be the alternative, the community that lives out what King Jesus wants for his world.
Proposal 3: Kingdom work is individual conversion
This line of thinking says you can only enter the kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), so kingdom work means confronting individuals with their need for salvation and getting them to make a decision. In this view, the kingdom means putting Christ on the throne of my heart.
But this individual approach is foreign to Jesus’ kingdom vision. If there is one thing that cannot be a kingdom, it’s an individual. A kingdom is a community, under a king.
In fact, the language of personal decision is dangerous, because it puts the power with me. It’s not my decision; God has already made the decision that Jesus is king. Instead of asking someone to put Jesus on the throne of her heart, we’re called to announce that God has given him the throne over us all.
Jesus called people to publicly acknowledge him as the king appointed to implement heaven’s kingship on earth:
Matthew 10 32 Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
This is no private decision: in publicly identifying him as king, we are committed to life as the community under his kingship (his kingdom).
Proposal 4: The kingdom of God is the future reign of Christ
Dispensationalists view the kingdom of God as a future 1,000-year reign (the millennium of Revelation 20:1-7). They understand Jesus’ parables and kingdom teaching as all about this future era. It’s something God will do in his time, so there’s nothing we can do towards it. The term kingdom work is therefore a misnomer, an oxymoron.
We can agree that the kingdom of God is fully implemented only with Jesus’ return, when every knee bows to him, and every tongue gives him allegiance. But even many dispensationalists now recognize that the kingdom is already present, even though it is not fully here yet — already, but not yet.
And if Jesus is already reigning, there are things we can do as the implementation of his reign. We can (and must) be engaged in kingdom work.
A kingdom is a community under a king. The kingdom of God is the community that lives under God’s anointed ruler (Christ, our Lord). So, kingdom work means doing what the king wants done.
We don’t exist to condemn the current rulers (proposal 2) or individual sinners (proposal 3). We’re not sitting around with nothing to do till the millennium (proposal 4). And we’re not the only ones doing it (proposal 1).
The kingdom is not about individual piety. It’s about being the community that cares for each other and all the creatures under his governance — what Michael Gorman calls missional theosis.
We are our message. The kingdom is the community that embodies the justice and hospitality of our king. How else will they trust his leadership?
Kingdom work is implementing communal life under the king.