A Bigger Kingdom Vision
At The Gospel Coalition, Jeremy Treat has written an article called, “The Kingdom of God in 8 Words.” It begins like this:
The number-one thing Jesus talked about is the kingdom of God. It’s everywhere in the Gospels and impossible to miss. But if the theme of the kingdom is so significant, then we need to make sure we know what it means. A good starting place is to have a solid working definition.
Here’s one: The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.
I think that’s not bad. Let’s see how Treat develops it.
First, he emphasizes that the kingdom is about God’s reign. He critiques much “kingdom” talk these days as imagining utopian human dreams of “making the world a better place.” This is a kingdom “with a vacant throne,” Treat says, and cannot be identified with the kingdom scripture envisages.
God is king, and he reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of his kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as redemptive. He’s the king who is reclaiming his creation. His kingdom is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of his royal grace into a sinful and broken world.
Second, this kingdom is about God’s reign through his people. Treat begins with a statement I heartily endorse, one which I think captures the creational vocation of humanity as portrayed in Genesis 1 quite well: “Adam and Eve were commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth.”
One thing that Treat misses, however, which has led a lot of Christian theology astray, is that the human vocation included the call to overcome the chaos and evil that was already present in the world.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen. 1:28)
Treat, however, in good Reformed form, blames the “fall” of creation completely on human rebellion in the persons of Adam and Eve, “which shattered the goodness of his creation.” As a result, he takes the next logical leap, and posits complete discontinuity between the original creation design and the story that follows.
Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into his renewing work.
This theology neglects the vast majority of the Bible, particularly the story of Israel. If this is the way the early chapters of Genesis work, then we might as well just jump to the New Testament, the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. If this is the story of the Bible, if the message of the Kingdom is as Treat says it is — Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation — then we could just as well skip over the rest of the Hebrew Bible, understanding it all as mere preparation and prophecy for something to happen in a couple thousand years. Can that possibly be?
But perhaps the early chapters of Genesis are not just the beginning of the common Christian metanarrative. If instead they primarily introduce the story of Israel, then the “creation-fall” theme comes out looking quite different. Adam and Eve’s failure becomes not a singular event that changed everything, but the first account in a long chronicle of blessing-failure-redemption stories that characterize the history of the people whom God called to represent God in the world.
God, throughout the entire story, expects people (all people!) to fulfill his original creation mandate of living in his blessing, flourishing throughout the earth, overcoming evil, and exercising stewardship over creation. And time and time again, God intervenes with redemptive activity when humans fail in their calling. However, Jeremy Treat’s emphasis on a divine “kingdom project” that is solely focused on “redeeming sinners” through Christ basically throws out all human vocation, responsibility, ability, achievement, and progress over the course of history except for that which a few “redeemed” souls are able to accomplish.
Jeremy Treat gets some elements of “Kingdom” theology right, and in the third part of his post, he correctly identifies the location of God’s reign as the new creation, not some “heaven” that we leave this world for. But I think he seriously misunderstands and downplays the part humans — all humans and not only the ones he calls the “redeemed” — play in preparing for this new creation.
The whole purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and passion was to create a redeemed, Spirit-filled people — in continuity with the people of Israel but then extending throughout the whole world — who will actively participate in planting seeds that will bring about a great harvest in the new creation. Fulfilling the original creation mandate. Those who trust and follow Jesus are to lead the way, but also to work alongside all humanity (God’s representatives too!) in moving this world in that direction.
This is no mere utopian dream, dependent on human effort and leaving out God. This is taking seriously what God called us to do in partnership with him. It also takes seriously the responsibility and contributions of all humanity in fulfilling the creation calling of God.