The Kingdom, Theology, and the Gospel: What is Their Relationship? Michael Bird Explains
At the turn of the century there has been something of a resurgence of "kingdom of God" language within evangelicalism, much like there was for Protestantism generally at the start of the 19th century. Books like Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel rightly remind evangelicals that the Kingdom of God lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission.
Growing up and while at Bible college I heard nary a word about the kingdom; I'd need far less than my ten fingers to count how many sermons or teachings I heard on the subject. Yet it is arguably the central, guiding motif of Jesus' teaching. Whenever I did hear a sermon on the kingdom, it was never about right now but later, about life down the road after Christ's second coming. Yet, again, it seems like Jesus' teachings have a decidedly "already" bent, as much as a "not yet" one.
Given this resurgence and my background I was particularly interested in how Michael Bird would approach the subject of the kingdom in his new book Evangelical Theology. He does not disappoint. Bird's articulation of the kingdom and eschatology in relationship to the gospel and theology is exemplary; I hope it becomes a new standard for how we consider and conceive of the kingdom, especially in relation to the gospel.
Bird's guiding conviction regarding the kingdom, the gospel, and theology is this: "eschatology provides the framework for Christian theology but also comprises the essential nucleus of the Christian gospel." (236)
What Bird says about the kingdom and eschatology in relationship to Christian theology and the gospel are two reasons why you should read, use, and teach this book.
Eschatology and Christian Theology
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Bird's section "The Gospel of the Kingdom: The Now and the Not Yet" is its placement. Rather than positioning it at the end as most evangelical systematic theology books do, he places it near the front. This is deliberate.
Bird is "strongly convinced that a study of eschatology, with its emphasis on the final kingdom of God, needs to be pushed up much earlier in the theological curriculum..." He gives two reasons:
- The "kingdom of God" stands as an extremely important motif in biblical theology.
- The kingdom of God figured prominently in Jesus' gospel.
Bird rightly notes that the Scripture does not present the kingdom as an afterthought, something that merely closes the curtain on history: "the biblical story is told in such a way that we are constantly confronted, from Genesis to Revelation, with the theme of God's reign over God's people in God's place." (235)
The same goes for Jesus, not an afterthought but a prominent part of his life and teaching ministry. "The shot clock has wound down to zero," Bird argues, "and God is acting with kingly power through the liberating work of Jesus' healing and exorcisms, and especially in his passion and resurrection." (235) Such a right-now movement in and through Christ is why Bird argues that the kingdom of God can "stand as shorthand" for what we teach and say about God, Jesus, salvation, and the future. (236)
Eschatology and the kingdom matters not only because of what the Bible says about the future, but because of what other worldviews say about the future, as well.
The kingdom stands in contrast to the imperial eschatology of Rome, which claimed the Emperor was commissioned by the gods to bring peace and prosperity to the world through mighty armies. It stands in contrast to modernity, which says we can create a human-centered utopia through advancements in knowledge, science, and learning. It stands in contrast to postmodernity, which vaults the individual rational man of modernity to new heights and looks toward the secular state as savior from political, economic, and ecological oblivion.
"In contrast to all this," Bird contends, "Christian theology claims that history is about the mission of God working out his purposes...[Christian eschatology] is a story that dares to challenge the dehumanizing ideologies of secularism and nihilism, for it tells us of a world without end, a benevolent Lord, a never-ending peace, and time without tears. What is more, it is a world that has already begun in the context of this world, for that is the eschatological horizon of the gospel." (238)
Bird believes we need to adjust how we orient our eschatology within our theology precisely because of its relationship to the gospel.
Eschatology and the Gospel
The gospel and the kingdom are not separate entities moving along distinct rails. The kingdom is intimately bound up with the gospel, because both are intimately bound up with Jesus.
"The gospel is a kingdom story, a story where God's saving reign is revealed in the lordship of Jesus Christ." Bird goes on to make clear that "God has launched his rescue mission through his Son, and the Son will put the world to right, beginning with his people." (256)
I appreciate the clarity Bird brings here to both the gospel and the kingdom. A few years ago I complete my Th.M. thesis project on the resurgence of kingdom language in evangelicalism and noted how it often borrows from liberal assumptions regarding the kingdom. From Schleiermacher to Ritschl, Rauschenbusch to Tillich, and now to prominent progressive evangelicals, the guiding theological assumption is that the kingdom saves, rather than Jesus through his sin-atoning work on the cross and death-defeating resurrection from the grave.
Whereas liberalism equates the gospel with the kingdom, envisioning it as the vehicle through which humanity finds salvation because of what we accomplish, Bird rightly argues that the gospel's kingdom story saves humanity because of what Christ accomplishes: "The gospel is the announcement that God's kingdom is advancing, not in the sphere of human progress, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the mission of the church." (239)
Bird contends the gospel itself is the "keyhole" throughout which we view and understand God's movement to rescue and re-create humanity and all of creation. "[It] imparts to us a vision of the future by warning us of the final judgment, giving us hope of eternal life, and previewing the new creation and resurrection of the dead, and heralding the triumph of God over sin and suffering." And the kingdom anticipates such good news of divine dominon as much as it reflects it here and now.
"The gospel of the kingdom announces the dramatic and apocalyptic invasion of God's saving power into our world through Christ and operating in the sphere of the Holy Spirit." (234) Thus, Bird continues, "an evangelical theology should be one that is colored, flavored, saturated, and pervaded by eschatology: God is king and becoming king in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ." (236)
Eschatology and the kingdom is not an afterthought, but central to the gospel and a vital building block for theology. Which is why I stand with Bird: It should headline our theology, rather than close it.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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