The conceptual merging of the kingdom of God with the church appears to be a prudent theological move. The scheme relieves us of our eschatological woes, offering a remedy for the urgent and awkward apocalyptic eschatology we find in the New Testament. Once we have conflated the kingdom and the church there appears a quite sensible solution to what C. S. Lewis called the most difficult verse in the New Testament: “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1). Lewis rightly recognized the embarrassing problem of timing: despite Jesus’ words, those in the first century who awaited a divine political kingdom were disappointed. No such kingdom emerged. What did emerge, however, was Christ’s church, his “spiritual kingdom.” If the church is the imminent kingdom Jesus spoke of, these eschatological woes are resolved.
Although this remains an attractive vision of Jesus’ kingdom, I would argue it is a theological shortcut not worth taking. The whole of the New Testament resists our urge to identify the kingdom with the church and if we are to understand early Christian practice and expectation, the church and kingdom must be incisively distinguished.
What is the kingdom of God?
For the first Christians, the coming kingdom of God was at the fundamental level a solution to a problem—not the problem of evil per se, but the problem posed by hostile pagan nations. These nations had for hundreds of years abused God’s saints, forcing them to live as exiles and fugitives (Psalm 2, Joel 3). Ever since the Babylonian exile, Jews longed for God’s rule to bring an end to such subjugation. Psalm of Solomon 17, one of the few Jewish texts that refers to God’s kingdom, makes this point clear. According to the author, God’s kingdom will be established through a son of David who will “destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth” and make “the peoples of the nations be subject to him under his yoke” (17:24, 30). God will “gird him with strength to shatter in pieces unrighteous rulers, to purify Jerusalem from nations that trample her down in destruction” (17:22). Christians inherited similar expectations having experienced the same treatment under a lawless Jerusalem and an idolatrous Roman empire. They awaited God’s kingdom to supplant these wicked governments. Their righteous suffering constituted the birthing pangs of God’s new order over the earth (Matthew 24:9-14, cf. Daniel 7:23-27).
In the peculiarly Christian vision of the kingdom though, the Davidic king was typified by Daniel’s Son of Man. This figure would usher in the kingdom at his coming on the clouds to judge the nations and the churches. Those who withstood the test would inherit the kingdom of God. Those who failed the test would perish. The coming of the son of man then, along with the coming of his kingdom, cannot be severed from the hope for a social and political judgement of the earth (Mark 8:38-9:1, Matthew 13:36-43, 25:31-32, Revelation 14:14-20). Whatever the kingdom is, it must tackle in concrete ways the historical-political problems faced by the churches as they existed among the nations.
What is the church?
The church, unlike the kingdom, had been long established when John of Patmos and Paul the Apostle were preparing believers for the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom. For these early Christians, the church was the community that stood ready to inherit the kingdom when it came. It was the body of believers equipped to endure the world’s transition from the present evil age to the future age of the kingdom. If it remained faithful, this community would not only outlive the pagan order, it would judge it (1 Corinthians 6:2, Matthew 19:28, Revelation 3:9) and rule over it with Christ (Luke 19:17, Revelation 2:26-27, 20:4-6). In this way 2 Timothy 2:12 sums up the early Christian agenda best: “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.”
This language is often mistakenly spiritualized and personalized in such a way that the church’s victory over its enemies becomes merely the believer’s victory over sin and death. Unfortunately, this spiritual and personal kingdom cannot address what had been the heart of the issue for hundreds of years—the hostility and insubordination of the nations. The persecuted “spiritual kingdom” must still await its salvation and vindication; it must still await God’s judgement of and rule over the nations. The founding of the church is therefore not the founding of the kingdom.
All roads lead to Rome
If then the kingdom and the church are distinct, serving entirely separate functions, where does this leave the New Testament’s insistently imminent eschatology? How did God’s rule over the nations manifest within the lifetime of those who heard Jesus speak?
A few scholars, NT Wright among others, have argued that all the strands come together in AD 70 when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. It was then that the Son of Man figuratively came in judgement. According to such a view, John’s vision of Babylon’s collapse points to this historical reality. While such a view harmonizes well with the schedule provided in the Olivet discourse—the coming of the Son of Man occurs “immediately after” with the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13)—it still does not confront the central issue. The fall of Jerusalem cannot constitute the defeat of the pagan nations and the establishment of God’s kingdom over them. The idolatrous empire must be dismantled and replaced.
Why then have the evangelists associated the coming of the Son of Man and his kingdom with both the fall of Jerusalem (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) and the judgement of the nations (Matthew 25:31-45, cf. Revelation 14:14-20, Acts 17:30-31)? Does the Son of Man come twice, once to judge Second Temple Judaism and once to judge the empire? Clearly the judgement on Israel (AD 70) and the judgement on the Greco-Roman world did not occur simultaneously. Christians would suffer a few more centuries before paganism in the Mediterranean collapsed and the church became the governor of the imperial nations.
The answer to this problem lies in Daniel’s prophetic vision which sits at the heart of New Testament eschatology. The coming of the Son of Man as portrayed in Daniel 7 is not a literal or singular event; it is an apocalyptic symbol representing the transfer of authority from the pagan empire to the people of God. As such, Israel’s war with Rome marks only the beginning of that transfer, not its culmination. In the destruction of Jerusalem God extinguished one of the church’s enemies but not its primary enemy. While Jerusalem’s downfall afforded the churches a degree of safety, Christ’s people did not yet inherit political power. The Son of Man was judging the nations but he had yet to establish his kingdom on earth.