The progress of the Kingdom (2)
“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6.9, 10
Based on the clear teaching of Scripture, we expect the Kingdom of God to make real, significant, and noticeable progress on earth, throughout the course of human history, in every aspect of life, culture, and society. All of Scriptures which are concerned with the Kingdom direct us to think this way. The Kingdom of God was brought near with the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus, and it came with power in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Since then the Lord Jesus Christ has pursued the irresistible advance of His Kingdom among the men, nations, cultures, and times of the world.
We expect the Kingdom to make progress. But what kind of progress do we seek?
The answer to this is bound up in two things: the reality of the unseen world and the character of the Kingdom of God. The better we understand each of these, the clearer will be our vision of what to expect – and what to seek – of the coming of God’s Kingdom in our lives and times.
The evidence of things not seen
Faith, the writer of Hebrews reminds us, is the “assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11.1, my translation). The Lord Jesus taught us to pray that the Kingdom of His Father and ours might come on earth “as it is in heaven”, that is, as it exists within this realm of unseen things. The rule of God, by our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of His Spirit, goes forth in the unseen realm in an absolute, perfect, and glorious manner. God rules the unseen world; everything there is exactly as He wants it. And what obtains there provides a template for what we should be seeking here.
The unseen realm is real. The Scriptures describe the unseen, or spiritual, world as being populated by myriads of angelic beings which have remained loyal to God. These serve a variety of purposes in relation to the carrying out of God’s will within the temporal world. The faithful angels obey the Lord immediately, explicitly, and gladly, and they continue to inhabit His glory and enjoy the delights of His presence and pleasure.
With them the departed saints are assembled in their renewed spirits (Rev. 4, 5; Heb. 12.1; etc.), while their bodies await glorification at the return of Christ and the creation of the new heavens and new earth. The saints serve the Lord with singing and praise, which they offer freely and without tiring in response to the privilege of beholding His beauty and sharing in His glory in the heavenly realm. The departed saints also seem in some way to join with the angels in working for the wellbeing of God’s saints on earth, since they carry bowls of incense which are symbolic of the prayers of the saints.
The unseen realm is described as a glorious throne room of infinite beauty and expanse. This may not be what that great hall is really like – since, after all, it is within the realm of things not seen, the spiritual world – but this is how the Lord directs us to think about it, so as to create in us wonder and longing to be found there, and to provide us with familiar foci on which to meditate and by which to strengthen our hope.
Also in this unseen realm are spiritual forces of wickedness in high places, rebellious angels which have revolted against the Lord but remain under His power and able to do only what suits His good and perfect purposes and will (Rev. 12; Job 1, 2).
The unseen realm is thus a place of great beauty, where the glory of the Lord is known and the inhabitants participate in that glory such that they never tire of singing the praises of Him Who has created them and Who keeps them within His realm of light and truth. In the realm of unseen things, the powers of wickedness are held in check, the glory of God fills all things in all things, and the beneficiaries of that glory enjoy the presence and favor of the Lord, Whom they extol without ceasing in prayer and praise.
The progress of the Kingdom of God on earth should therefore reflect this reality, so that wickedness and evil are subdued and overcome, the glory of God comes to be known on earth, and the ways of those who know that glory reflect their participation in it and in the God Who is its Source. The progress of God’s Kingdom is first of all spiritual in nature. It occurs within and throughout the unseen realm all around us, and within and throughout all the spiritual aspects of our being.
A Kingdom not of this world
But what is the character of that unseen realm? I have discussed this previously in this series and so will only briefly summarize here.
The Kingdom of God is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, or ever will be able to see in this life. It is not of this world. We must not model our vision of the Kingdom after seen realities – conditions and circumstances we have experienced in this temporal realm. Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world; it has a different character, a different agenda, a different hope, and thus different requirements for those who enter into it.
We must allow the Word of God to nurture our vision of the Kingdom and what to expect. We run the risk of limiting the potential for seeing the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven if what we seek in the Kingdom is defined merely by what we have previously known and experienced, or the limits of our puny imaginations. God is able to do exceeding abundantly more than we could ever ask or think (Eph. 3:20). Thus, in all our seeking of the Kingdom, we must be led by His Word; we must learn to trust in His strength and power; and we must pray for and seek the coming of the Kingdom in terms agreeable to His revelation and promises.
We may, of course, learn from the example of our forebears with respect to their own progress in the Kingdom; and we may discern evidence of the Spirit working in our own times to help us in nurturing Kingdom expectations beyond what we are presently realizing. But these are mere guides and templates, not final definitions. We must always look to God and cry out for more of His presence and power to advance His Kingdom in new and wondrous ways, and we must cultivate the ability to seek the Kingdom not of this world in ways that ever stretch and transcend our experience in this world.
A realm of righteousness, peace, and joy
The defining qualities of the Kingdom of God are righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14.17, 18). Thus, we expect that, as the unseen Kingdom grows and expands, the glory and power that attend it will bring such fruit to lives in those who seek the Kingdom.
The progress of the Kingdom goes forth first of all, therefore, in the souls of God’s faithful people. As they seek the Kingdom of God beyond anything they’ve ever known before, they learn to think new thoughts and in new ways; their affections are enlarged as the heart of Christ grows within them; their values and priorities are turned upside-down to reflect the priorities of God and heaven rather than those of finite men and frail nations.
We cannot expect to see any manifestations of the Kingdom of God – whether in churches, communities, or cultures – without its first making consistent and marked advance in our own souls. The followers of Jesus Christ are the citizens and ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. They are called to stamp its presence on every aspect of their lives, until the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth as the waters cover the seas (1 Cor. 10.31; Hab. 2.14) and the Lord Jesus Christ fills all things in all things (Eph. 1.15-23).
But they can only bring the Kingdom in this way as the Kingdom becomes a reality within their own souls. Seeking the Kingdom of God, and its progress on earth as in heaven, is thus first, foremost, and at all times, a matter of personal growth in the Lord, sanctification and maturity in the Word, and transformation from glory to glory into the image of Jesus Christ.
No government would entrust the representation of its interests to an ambassador who did not himself reflect loyalty, devotion, and love of country at all times. The same is true with our calling to be ambassadors in the Kingdom of God. Unless we first show in our own souls and lives the evidence of the character and growth of that unseen realm, we may not expect to see the reality of the Kingdom coming to light in the temporal, social, and cultural arenas we inhabit.
Seeking the Kingdom
Seeking the Kingdom begins in prayer, in the Word of God, under the searching eye and by the teaching power of the Holy Spirit. Seeking the Kingdom takes shape in the practice of spiritual disciplines and comes to expression in all our individual words and deeds. Seeking the Kingdom comes in the way of individual transformation, from glory to glory, as we engage the risen Christ, beholding His face, and go forth into the world refracting the Light of the world through our own lives, in all our words and deeds.
The Kingdom progress we seek, therefore, is the daily calling, focus, and occupation of each believer, beginning in his or her soul. If we will not seek the Kingdom in this way, we have no grounds for expecting any evidence of the “there” of God’s reign to be present in the “here” of our daily experience.
The Kingdom comes first in our souls. When the deep well of spiritual disciplines is dug deep into the indwelling Spirit of Christ, the living water of the Kingdom will fill and overflow us, day by day, in ways exceeding abundantly beyond what we have ever dared to ask or think.