This is an out of print booklet by Joel Green written at a popular level to encourage believers to consider what the meaning and mandate of the Kingdom of God is. You can purchase it at Amazon starting at only 0.46 cents. I’ve been a fan of Joel Green’s writings since I first encountered his “Theology of the Gospel of Luke” book during an in-depth bible study on Luke I was leading. He is sensitive to the social-scientific issues of the setting of Scripture but also has a prophetic interest in the churches role in culture today.
This book is only 75 pages long, broken into four chapters with a preface and a note section at the end of the book. The chapter titles are: 1) Last things first; 2) ‘As it is in Heaven’; 3) Thy Kingdom come; and 4) Seeking the Kingdom. Each chapter closes with a few discussion questions. It is a non-technical book, including typical Sunday school charts throughout it to encourage a visual learning experience for the reader.
Summary & Review:
CHAPTER 1 LAST THINGS FIRST – Jesus was concerned with the end, not just how things in redemptive history would end, but how that end shapes the present. The early Christians, says Green, were likewise concerned and framed how they answered those concerns in light of Jesus death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. These concerns can be summed up in the central theme of the Gospels, the Kingdom of God. Green says in order to understand what Jesus understood by the phrase “Kingdom of God” there are three questions that need to be answered: 1) what is the kingdom?; 2) where is the Kingdom?; and 3) when is the Kingdom?
The phrase the Kingdom of God while not present as a phrase in the Hebrew Old Testament was present in its thematic parts, especially among the prophets writings. Relying on George Beasley-Murray Green notes three parts to the prophetic vision of God’s Kingdom in the Old Testament: 1) it was a universal Kingdom; 2) it was a Kingdom of righteousness; and 3) its presence established an age of Shalom (wholeness and abundance; peace). So what is the Kingdom? According to Green, “It is the coming of God! It is the coming of God to reign in peace and justice.” (pgs. 19-20) So where and when is this Kingdom?
“Where is the Kingdom? When is the Kingdom? whether we know it or not, all of us who think about and are involved in the mission of the church already have answers to these questions. Whether or not we have thought about the end times in a deliberate way, such end-time-related questions as these already influence the ways in which we live out our lives as Christians.” (pg. 20)
The what, the where, and the when of the Kingdom and how they illuminate the churches mission and the Christian life will occupy Green for the rest of this short book. The next chapter will focus more upon the where of the Kingdom, its prophetic nature. The chapter following that will focus more upon the when of the Kingdom, its apocalyptic nature.
CHAPTER 2 ‘AS IT IS IN HEAVEN’ – What is the prophetic vision of the Kingdom of God? Green looks to Amos to answer that question. Amos was a classic prophet who not only spoke of God’s coming judgment against the nations but also against Israel for the social atrocities that were being committed as Israel moved from an agrigarian people to an urban people and the rich began to get richer and the poor poorer. Israel was moving away from her covenant with God which in turn meant that she was practicing more and more dehumanizing acts of sin. As Green puts it;
“Amos recognized, as did the other prophets, that how one relates to God is inseparably related with how one relates to the needs of others. To neglect the covenant of God, then, was not a spiritual matter only but had remarkable repercussions for the life of the people. Indeed for Amos the sphere of morality and spirituality includes what we today might refer to as international politics, social justice and civil rights. To follow God, in his reckoning, was to commit oneself to an ideal of a society willed by God to be just and righteous…God’s rule, he insists, extends beyond Israel to embrace the whole created order (see 4.13; 9.5-6). Nevertheless God’s reign was very much this worldly in its concerns.” (pgs. 28-30)
Amos and the other classical prophets were looking for the Kingdom of God to come in this world, here was their answer to the ‘where’ of the Kingdom. Green says that Jesus also believed that the ‘where’ of the Kingdom was here. See Matt. 11.2-5 for example: Jesus answer to the Kingdom question of John was to quote Isaiah 61.1 which expressed life after the Kingdom had come and relate it to his ministry. A number of people in the church today, says Green, have a prophetic understanding of the Kingdom and are looking to establish peace and justice here and now. Is this a right conclusion to make? Green says yes and no, the Kingdom has come in Jesus life and ministry and in the life and witness of his people BUT it is still coming. There is an apocalyptic side to the Kingdom that we must also have. Something many people are missing in dangerous ways like the “health-and-wealth gospel” crowd. The Kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.
CHAPTER 3 THY KINGDOM COME! – There was a significant situational shift that occurred for Israel between the classic prophets and the latter prophets and New Testament writers, that shift came in two forms: the exile and Hellenization. Tying to Kingdom of God only to the Land and the Temple in the exile period seemed pointless because both were lost. After Israel returned in part from the exile the Hellenization agendas of Alexander the Great were carried out and a new sense of the cosmic scope of creation and empire fell upon all people at the time. Therefore the Kingdom of God in apocalyptic vision took on a cosmic scope, acknowledging that the Kingdom was coming in present history but eclipsing prophetic concerns of land and temple with a grander vision of the peace and justice of God for all things finally through a promised Davidic king. For the early church this King was Jesus.
The contemporaries of Jesus looked for the Kingdom of God in largely two ways, a return to how it was or a cataclysmic shift to the eternal cosmic kingdom. In this apocalyptic vision of the Kingdom of God people began to reconsider what time and space where. Green says concerning the apocalyptic views new understanding of time and space that;
“…they opened their eyes to a new way of viewing time. These people did not attempt to mask over the evils of their present experience. They refused to pretend suffering was not a major component of their experience in the present world. However they broadened their vision so that it placed the present in a larger temporal context. They came to appreciate that what God was doing could be viewed on a macro-scale, that their present circumstances could be seen in the context of God’s overarching redemptive activity. In this way they developed an appreciation for a greater sweep of history, embracing creation and new creation…
…these people began to look differently at space. They developed a more cosmic view of reality, a view that focused on the existence of a cosmic battle, such as that portrayed for us in the Book of Revelation.” (pg. 45-46)
The apocalptic view saw the where and the when of the Kingdom in wider terms. God would bring his shalom (peace and justice; wholeness and abundance) but He would bring it largely in the future, not the present order. Jesus, says Green, also had an apocalpytic understanding of the where and when of the Kingdom that he held in tension with his prophetic understanding (see Mark 13, 14; or the prayers of the disciples Matt. 6.9-13). Modern adaptations of this view can treat the present time as a lost age and make the work of the church be one largely of discipleship and evangelism and not social and political action. Green says this misses the already/not-yet tension Jesus encouraged his followers to live within, a Kingdom tension he encouraged them to seek.
CHAPTER 4 SEEKING THE KINGDOM – Does Jesus hold to a prophetic or apocalyptic understanding of the Kingdom? The answer, says Joel Green, is yes and he finds it in Jesus understanding of Mark 1.15;
“Jesus’ announcement focuses on the fulfillment of past expectations in the present and leaves for the future the completion of the Kingdom of God. Does Jesus, then, adopt the prophetic view of the Kingdom? Yes. Does he adopt the apocalyptic vision of the Kingdom? Yes. Jesus holds these two previously competing notions together, rooting the apocalyptic vision in the prophetic. In this way he is able to announce that the Kingdom of God is already breaking into the present world, even if the definitive rule of God is still to come.” (pg. 58)
Joel Green spends the rest of this final chapter helping us understand the practical significance of this tension held together by Jesus for the Churches mission. He starts off by going to the Parables of Growth in Mark 4.26-32. In these picture we get a glimpse of how the already/not-yet growth of the Kingdom works in the life and ministry of the church. We see that God’s Kingdom while small in form as it grows finally reaches a grand cosmic maturity latter. We also see in these parables that for the church the presence of the Kingdom of God is not something that she merely gives assent to, rather “The presence of the Kingdom calls for action, for response.” (pg. 64)
This call for action helps us define what discipleship is all about;
“The coming of the Kingdom of God brings a new time, a fresh way of life, a new kind of existence. Because the Kingdom of God is breaking into present history, life can no longer be the same. People are called to a new life, a life of repentance and belief, a life that revolves around the good news of the coming of God.” (pg. 64)
What are the implications for the churches mission in light of what we’ve said about the Kingdom of God?
“According to this way of perceiving the Kingdom of God, our answer to this question can never be either evangelism or social witness. Rather, the answer can only be both involvement in the ministry of reconciling persons to God and in mission of all kinds that incarnates God’s peace and justice in the world…God’s grace is present in this world, in this time and place, so we continue the ministry Jesus himself began…
…This means that no aspect of life exists outside the ambit of God’s Kingdom. And it means that we are challenged individually and collectively to serve the kingdom in every aspect of our lives. In doing so, we understand that such activity does not bring the Kingdom, of course. God brings the Kingdom. On the basis of the entry of God’s reign into the world in the person and work of Jesus, however, we are called to live and serve according to a new time. Meanwhile we continue to pray for the fullness of God’s reign: “Thy Kingdom come!” (pgs. 65-66)
This is what it means to seek the Kingdom of God corporately as the church and singly as an individual. God’s Kingly agendas in world are not something we prioritize in a list, they shape the act of list-making itself. “…the mission of the church must embrace all of life…for the church is called to serve the Kingdom, and God’s Kingdom knows no boundaries. The rule of God extends to all of life...” (pg. 69) The collective call for all believers is everyday discipleship: Seek ye first the Kingdom!
Afterthoughts & Interaction:
I think Green’s book is one of the best brief accounts of what the meaning and mandate of the Kingdom of God is. The way he connected his topic to the mission of the church and to discipleship was invaluable and should be something that every pastor should likewise be able to do. Jesus understanding of the Kingdom of God should be what shapes our ministry philosophies, and what empowers our pastoral care. I highly recommend this book!