In Luke 17:20 we find Jesus saying: The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst, in response to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom would come. Many around him, his closest disciples included, were anticipating the establishment of a kingly and earthly rule, along with an overthrow of the tyranny of Roman occupation.
Elsewhere we find Jesus likening the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a tree so large that birds come and nest in it, and to yeast mixed into a large quantity of flour until all of the flour is affected (Matt 13:32,33; Luke 13:18-21). The seed needs to be planted in the ground so that it will grow. The yeast needs to be worked into the flour so that the resulting dough will rise. In both cases something which is already in the midst, is activated to accomplish its purpose.
Some time ago a short animation was a popular evangelistic tool. It depicted a cartoon character going about his every day life, doing whatever he wanted and thinking that all was well with him and his world. Almost unnoticeable in the background, but visible in every frame, was an ill-defined blob. As the story progressed and its subject encounters several of life’s challenges, the blob becomes more and more an unwanted and embarrassing presence. Toward the end the cartoon character begins to realize he cannot live life without help. At that point the blob resolves into a form of the cross.
In the same way this is what the Kingdom of God is like in the world. It is the presence and power of God waiting patiently to be activated by His redeemed creation. It is also the presence and power of God intended by the power of His Spirit to convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgment. It is the presence and power of God lived out through one such as the early twentieth century Pentecostal pioneer Smith Wigglesworth who once took a seat in a railcar when a man seated across from him blurted out: Your presence convicts me of sin.[i] Wigglesworth then led him to the Lord.
Some would tell us that the Kingdom comes about because God’s people take power, redeem the institutions of state and then use them to bring the Kingdom into reality. This approach has been seen in the activity of some Christian political movements from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Outside Christendom a present example would be the Islamic State, which through the establishment of an Islamic hegemony, exerts absolute authority over the people in an endeavor to establish Theocratic rule. But surely a top-down approach to Kingdom building like this does no more than repeat the mistake of the early church in its alliance with the State following Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Others working at grass-roots level would liken the Kingdom to a type of fifth-column.[ii] They want to found a movement, which grows to encompass and overtake diverse aspects of a society transforming them into the Kingdom of God.
Whether by imposition or by insinuation both of these approaches endeavor to change something already existing into the Kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that human institutions can be changed; indeed throughout history some have been changed. However the idea that the Kingdom of God results merely from the transformation of humanity’s corrupted history, flowing into the present shape of the nations, seems to me somewhat limiting of the power of God. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to a radically different lifestyle, not to be equated to the lifestyles of rabbinic followers of contemporary Jewish leaders, so the coming of the Kingdom of God extends a possibility radically different from the redemption of human institutions. The mustard seed grows to become a huge tree, not dependent upon the support of surrounding structures. It becomes so large, lush and fruitful that birds come and nest within its security. The tree offers a radically attractive alternative to all the other trees the forest has to offer. In the same way the yeast works through inert flour to grow fresh dough that can be used to bake bread. If the flour is corrupt to begin with the yeast will not restore it. Bad dough will result, and with it, bad bread.[iii]
Wherever we find ourselves in ministry – whether church-planting in a modern city, or sharing Jesus’ love among nomads on the edge of desert; whether growing a business that expresses the values of God’s Kingdom, or engaging a community through the power of the creative, let us remind ourselves that the Kingdom is within our midst. Let us live our lives so that through us, and through the community of believers to which we belong, the light shines strongly, people see our good Kingdom works, and they are thus drawn to praise our Father in heaven.
The Kingdom of God is present in our midst, because God is present with His people, desiring for them to offer the world the kind of alternative that is embarrassing in its simplicity, convicting through its presence, and radically secure in its demands. May His Kingdom come!
[i] Quoted in Chapter 14 of Derek Prince – Transformed for Life: How to Know God Better and Love Him More – Chosen Books 2002
[ii] The fifth column is a term originating in the Spanish Civil War and applied to those inside the siege of a city, allied to the besiegers who could bring about its downfall from within.
[iii] Research into a cause for the strange behaviors that led to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony explored the possibility of members of the community being poisoned by bread produced from a crop of rye contaminated with ergot. See Linnda Caporael – Ergotism, the Satan loosed in Salem – http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333sp08/Ulcers/ergotism.html – accessed September 5, 2016