Recently, my wife and I became engrossed in a television broadcast of the annual opening of Parliament in London. We watched in rapt attention as the TV cameras focused on Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip leaving Buckingham Palace to go to the Houses of Parliament in a beautifully ornate coach drawn by magnificent horses. They had all of the pageantry of England—the Beefeaters in their full regalia, liveried footmen, and so forth. Meanwhile, London’s Bobbies cleared the traffic and made the path ready for the appearance of the queen. Later there were panoramic shots from inside the Houses of Parliament, and we saw the lords dressed in their formal garb and wearing their ceremonial white wigs.
It was striking to witness this spectacle at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in our modern sophisticated society. Here were people by the hundreds dressed in clothing that looked like it belonged in the Middle Ages and going through rituals that seem thoroughly outdated. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched, what it is about human nature that likes to create ceremony of this sort. Why do we like to use aesthetic devices to draw attention to the importance of certain events? And more to the point, I also wondered why Americans such as my wife and I can become so preoccupied with the doings of the British royal family. Indeed, why do we take such delight in kings and queens, princes and princesses, whether in real life or in fairy tales such as we read to our children? After all, we’re citizens of a nation that rejected monarchy.
When my friend John Guest, who was a noted evangelist in England, first came to the United States in the late 1960s, his first exposure to American culture was in the city of Philadelphia. During his first couple of days there, his hosts escorted him around the city to attractions such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and they told him stories of the American Revolution to introduce him to the history of this new world he was embracing as his home. John was enjoying all of this until they went to Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, and visited an antiques store that specialized in Americana. Among the items in this shop were placards and signs that displayed some of the battle cries and slogans of the Revolutionary era, such as, “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” But the placard that drew his keenest attention was one that announced with bold letters, “We Serve No Sovereign Here.” John told me later: “That sign stopped me in my tracks. I had left my native land and come across the Atlantic Ocean in response to a call, a vocation to be a minister of the gospel, to proclaim the kingdom of God. But on seeing this sign, I was filled with fear and consternation. I thought, ‘How can I possibly preach the kingdom of God to people who have a profound aversion to sovereignty?’”
I would suggest that despite our bold assertions that we serve no sovereign, our delight in the pageantry of royalty reveals a certain nostalgia, perhaps a deep longing for the restoration of monarchy. After all, we impose a kind of royalty on our leaders. The days of the Kennedy administration are remembered as the “Camelot” era. We speak of certain jazz musicians as “the Count” or “the Duke,” and we remember Elvis Presley as “the King.” As I noted above, we like to watch the pageantry of royalty and to read stories about princes and princesses. Could it be we retain an interest in royalty because we recognize that in this freedom we enjoy, something is missing? Perhaps what is missing is that which we need most desperately—an awakening to authentic sovereignty.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we see the priorities of prayer that Jesus gave for His church. The first petition He gave is “Hallowed be Your name.” As we saw in the previous chapter, this petition teaches us that we are to regard God’s name as holy and to pray that our blasphemous culture would do the same. Praying this petition places us in a posture of veneration—we see God as the One who is altogether holy. That understanding, in turn, moves us into a posture of obeisance. Always in Scripture, when someone recognizes that awesome holiness of God, he falls on his face before Him. Likewise, we are to bow before God just as a subject kneels before his king. So we see that there is a continuity in these petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus says first of all, “Hallowed be Your Name.” Then the very next petition is “Your kingdom come.” He moves immediately from a petition about the veneration of the name of God to one about the manifestation of the kingdom of God.
If there is any motif that ties together the Old Testament and the New Testament, it is the theme of the kingdom of God. Even though the New Testament opens with the announcement that the kingdom of God is coming, that something new is about to take place in the unfolding history of redemption, there is still continuity with the past. In one sense, the kingdom of God has always been present, having been established in the Garden of Eden. God didn’t have to wait until the New Testament to be crowned as the Sovereign Ruler over the universe—He was King over Adam and Eve. Later, when God created the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, He delivered His law to them as the King of heaven and earth. He separated the Israelites to Himself and told them: “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before Me” ().
There came a point in Israel’s history when the people were not satisfied to have God as their King. In the book of 1 Samuel we read: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations’” (). The people wanted to have a human king so they would be like all the other people groups. God had declared that He was Israel’s King, but now the people wanted an earthly king.
The text of this narrative tells us that Samuel was displeased by this request, so he took his concerns to God. God said to him, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me; that I should not reign over them” (). Isn’t that interesting? God said: “Samuel, you’re bent out of shape because they’re coming to you and they’re saying, ‘You’re old and your sons don’t walk in the way you’ve walked, so we don’t want to have to follow them. Instead, we want a king.’” Samuel apparently felt that in making this demand for a king, the people were rejecting him and his ministry. But that wasn’t how God saw it; He declared that the people were rejecting Him and His kingship. In their arrogance, the people of Israel were saying of God, “He shall not reign over us.”
When God told Samuel to grant the people their request for a king, He also said, “Solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them” (). So Samuel said to the people:
“This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out on that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” ()
This is a litany of bad news. Samuel warned the people that the king would conscript the people’s sons and daughters for his army and his staff. He would tax them at a rate of ten percent. He would make the people themselves his servants. Samuel warned the people that they would not like this, but God would not hear their cries for relief. Nevertheless, the people said, “No, but we will have a king over us” ().
Did you catch the word that appears most frequently in this warning from Samuel? It is the word take. The king, Samuel says, will take, take, and take some more. Yet Scripture speaks of God as a King who gives and gives, blessing His people with every good and perfect gift. However, we don’t want a King who will give. The madness of human folly is that we want a king who will take just so we can be like everyone else. In our fallenness, it seems that anything is better than to live in the kingdom of God, where God is the King.
You remember how the story unfolded. Saul was selected as Israel’s first king, and in the early days of his monarchy, he reigned well. He pledged to be submissive to the law of God. Sadly, his power corrupted him and drove him to madness, so that God had to remove him from the throne and replace him with David. David, of course, was the greatest king of Israel, but even he did not always rule wisely and well. Much the same was true for David’s son, Solomon. Then, after Solomon died and his son Rehoboam came to the throne, in a very short period of time the kingdom was divided. And the history of the kings of the north and the south from that day forward reads like a rogue’s gallery of corruption, all of which God foretold through Samuel.
The feelings of antipathy against the reign of God run so deep in the human heart that Jesus was brought before the Roman authorities on the grounds that He was making Himself King. He didn’t make Himself King, the Father made Him King. But just as God had been rejected as King by the ancient Israelites, Jesus was rejected as King in the time of His incarnation. The Jewish leaders brought Him before Pilate, the Roman governor. That led to a fascinating exchange:
Pilate … said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” … Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” ()
What was the truth to which this King, whose kingdom is not of this world, was bearing witness? It was the kingdom of God. He was testifying to the reign of the true King. Thus, when Jesus told His followers to pray, “Your kingdom come,” He was making them participants in His own mission to spread the reign of God on this planet so that it might reflect the way God’s reign is established in heaven to this day.
I had been a Christian only a few months when I was invited to a Christmas party hosted by my pastor and his wife at their home. This minister was an unreconstructed, nineteenth-century liberal theologian who did not believe in the miracles of Jesus or in the resurrection of Christ, so he was somewhat annoyed at my newfound zeal for biblical Christianity. During this party, he called me aside and asked me this question: “R. C., what is the kingdom of God?” I had no earthly idea. I didn’t know what he was asking and I certainly had no idea why he was asking it.
Well, suppose someone asked you that question: What is the kingdom of God? How would you respond? The easy answer would be to note that a kingdom is that territory over which a king reigns. Since we understand that God is the Creator of all things, the extent of His realm must be the whole world. Manifestly, then, the kingdom of God is wherever God reigns, and since He reigns everywhere, the kingdom of God is everywhere.
But I think my pastor was getting at something else. Certainly the New Testament gets at something else. We see this when John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness with his urgent announcement, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We see it again when Jesus appears on the scene with the same pronouncement. If the kingdom of God consists of all of the universe over which God reigns, why would anyone announce that the kingdom of God was near or about to come to pass. Obviously, John the Baptist and Jesus meant something more about this concept of the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of the Messiah
At the heart of this theme is the idea of God’s messianic kingdom. It is a kingdom that will be ruled by God’s appointed Messiah, who will be not just the Redeemer of His people, but their King. So when John speaks of the radical nearness of this breakthrough, the intrusion of the kingdom of God, he’s speaking of this kingdom of the Messiah.
At the end of Jesus’ life, just as He was about to depart from this earth, His disciples had the opportunity to ask Him one last question. They asked, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (). I can easily imagine that Jesus might have been somewhat frustrated by this question. I would have expected Him to say, “How many times do I have to tell you, I’m not going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” But that’s not what He said; He gave a patient and gentle answer. He said: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority… . But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (). What did He mean? What was He getting at?
When Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” was He indicating that His kingdom was something spiritual that takes place in our hearts or was He speaking of something else? The whole Old Testament called attention not to a kingdom that would simply appear in people’s hearts, but to a kingdom that would break through into this world, a kingdom that would be ruled by God’s anointed Messiah. For this reason, during His earthly ministry, Jesus made comments such as, “If I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (). Similarly, when Jesus sent out seventy disciples on a preaching mission, He instructed them to tell impenitent cities that “The kingdom of God has come near you” (). How could the kingdom be upon the people or near them? The kingdom of God was near to them because the King of the kingdom was there. When He came, Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom. He didn’t consummate it, but He started it. And when He ascended into heaven, He went there for His coronation, for His investiture as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
So Jesus’ kingship is not something that remains in the future. Christ is King right this minute. He is in the seat of the highest cosmic authority. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to God’s anointed Son ().
In 1990, I was invited into Eastern Europe to do a series of lectures in three countries, first in Czechoslovakia, then in Hungary, and finally in Romania. As we were leaving Hungary, we were warned that the border guards in Romania were quite hostile to Americans and that we should be prepared to be hassled and possibly even arrested at the border.
Sure enough, when our rickety train reached the border of Romania, two guards got on. They couldn’t speak English, but they pointed for our passports, then pointed to our luggage. They wanted us to bring our bags down from the luggage rack and open them up, and they were very brusque and rude. Then, suddenly, their boss appeared, a burly officer who spoke some broken English. He noticed that one of the women in our group had a paper bag in her lap, and there was something peeking out of it. The officer said: “What this? What in bag?” Then he opened the bag and pulled out a Bible. I thought, “Uh-oh, now we’re in trouble.” The officer began leafing through the Bible, looking over the pages very rapidly. Then he stopped and looked at me. I was holding my American passport, and he said, “You no American.” And he looked at Vesta and said, “You no American.” He said the same thing to the others in our group. But then he smiled and said, “I am not Romanian.” By now we were quite confused, but he pointed at the text, gave it to me, and said, “Read what it says.” I looked at it and it said, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (). The guard was a Christian. He turned to his subordinates and said: “Let these people alone. They’re OK. They’re Christians.” As you can imagine, I said, “Thank you, Lord.” This man understood something about the kingdom of God—that our first place of citizenship is in the kingdom of God.
I had a crisis on this point in my last year of seminary, when I was a student pastor of a Hungarian refugee church in Western Pennsylvania. It was a little group of about one hundred people, many of whom didn’t speak English. Someone donated an American flag to the church, which I placed in the chancel, across from the Christian flag. My crisis came the next week, when one of the elders, who was a veteran, came to me and said, “Reverend, you’ve got it all wrong there on the chancel.” I asked, “What’s the matter?” He said: “Well, the law of our land requires that any time any flag is displayed with the American flag, it must be placed in a subordinate position to the American flag. The way you have it arranged here, the American flag is subordinate to the Christian flag. That has to change.” Anyone who has lived outside this country knows how wonderful this place is. I love it and I honor it, along with its symbols, including the flag. But as I listened to this elder speak, I asked myself, how can the Christian flag be subordinate to any national flag? The kingdom of God trumps every earthly kingdom. I’m a Christian first, an American second. I owe allegiance to the American flag, but I have a higher allegiance to Christ, because He is my King. So I had a dilemma. I didn’t want to violate the law of the United States and I didn’t want to communicate that the kingdom of God is subordinate to a human government. So I solved the dilemma easily enough—I took both flags out of the church.
We experience this conflict of kingdoms when Jesus tells us to pray, “Your kingdom come.” What does this mean? What are we praying for when we speak this petition? As we’ve noted in previous chapters, there is a logic that runs like a ribbon through the Lord’s Prayer. Each of the petitions is connected to the others. The first petition Jesus taught us was, “Hallowed be Your name,” which is a plea that the name of God would be regarded as holy. Manifestly, unless and until the name of God is regarded as holy, His kingdom will not and cannot come to this world. But we who do regard His name as holy then have the responsibility to make the kingdom of God manifest.
John Calvin said it is the task of the church to make the invisible kingdom visible. We do that by living in such a way that we bear witness to the reality of the kingship of Christ in our jobs, our families, our schools, and even our checkbooks, because God in Christ is King over every one of these spheres of life. The only way the kingdom of God is going to be manifest in this world before Christ comes is if we manifest it by the way we live as citizens of heaven and subjects of the King.