When Jesus cautioned his disciples not to be anxious over earthly provision but to seek first God’s kingdom, since the Father supplies their every need (Mt. 6:24–34), he was laying out God’s priority for his followers’ overarching life commitment. Loving God in the totality of our being is the first great commandment (Mk. 12:28–32). The cultural mandate is the first great commission (Gen. 1:27–30). But the kingdom of God is the first great commitment. The kingdom of God is the reign of God.
The Psalmist highlighted that universal reign (Ps. 2, 45, 72, 110, e.g.). Jesus came preaching it (Mt. 4:12–17). It begins in the heart of the Christian and works its way outward to all of life and society (Lk. 17:20–21; 1:33). The kingdom reveals God’s objective as his life-giving, joy-inspiring, world-flourishing rule in the cosmos. As the cosmos’ Creator, God knows what’s best for it, what delights and benefits man, what brings both him, and man himself, consummate glory. To willingly submit to Jesus Christ as Lord according to the Father’s command by the Spirit’s power is to live life to the fullest, life as God intended from Eden. The gospel is therefore truly the good news of the kingdom (Lk. 8:1). The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God is overcoming the bad news of sin, corruption, and condemnation. Just as the bad news is not limited to the individual heart and destiny, so the good news is not limited to the individual heart and destiny. The curse afflicts all creation. But the gospel goes “far as the curse is found.” That means everywhere.
Satan’s Rival Kingdom
It should come as no surprise that Satan, whose desire to unseat God incited his downfall, spearheads a rival kingdom (Mt. 12:26). “Fall down and worship me,” he implored our Lord in the wilderness temptation (Mt. 4:8–9). Lucifer fell because he attempted to overthrow God Almighty (Is. 14:12–15). He is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), that is, the god of the world system committed to contesting God’s kingdom. History since Genesis 3 constitutes the cosmic war between rival kingdoms — God’s and Satan’s. Satan is not simply trying to seduce sinners to eternal damnation; he is also angling to control and enslave the present world. He will not succeed, but he will fight with increasing fury, knowing his cause is doomed (Rev. 12:12).
It is because victory in this cosmic war is God’s plan for history that Jesus stated that his disciples are to seek his kingdom first. The kingdom is not a means to an end. It is the end, both as God’s objective, and in the historical sequence (1 Cor. 15:20–28). All else contributes to this end.
The Church Is Not the Kingdom
The church, for example, is a vital aspect of, but not identical to, the kingdom. The church is Christ’s body (Col. 1:18), for whom God’s very blood in his Son was shed (Ac. 20:28). To minimize the church is to minimize a sizable component of the kingdom. But the kingdom is wider than the church. I once heard a church leader say, “The church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B.” It is more correct to say, “The kingdom is God’s Plan A, and the family and church and state are Plans 1A, 2A, and 3A.” The kingdom is The Plan. Everything else contributes to that plan. Make no mistake: To dismiss or marginalize the church is to dismiss or marginalize Christ’s body and bride. Today Christians somehow think they can bypass the church and still please God. No Christian in biblical (or patristic, or later) times would (or could) have dreamed of such a thing. The church is vital to the kingdom of God.
I once heard a church leader say, “The church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B.” It is more correct to say, “The kingdom is God’s Plan A, and the family and church and state are Plans 1A, 2A, and 3A.” The kingdom is The Plan. Everything else contributes to that plan.
But the church is not the kingdom of God, and collapsing the kingdom into the church is dangerously limiting the rule of God. God is as interested in governing and ruling the culture outside the church as he is the church itself. Today in understandable reaction to the anti-church sentiment, many Christians seem to believe that our entire religious efforts should be expended on the church. Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth went so far as to say, “Theology is . . . a function in the liturgy of the church.” It is hard to imagine a more culturally irrelevant view of theology. Theology can no more be limited to the church or liturgy than the Bible can. Barth and evangelicals who follow his view today practice what Joseph Boot terms Churchianity. They ecclesiasticize the Faith and the kingdom. They care little for God’s authority in education, politics, music, science, technology, entertainment — in the culture outside the church. The church should not simply be training “full-time” church workers but also encouraging Christians to develop a distinctively Christian worldview and apply it in the field to which God has called them in their 9 to 5 vocation. The goal of the kingdom is to capture and reorient every area of culture presently under the reign of sin, that is, Satan’s kingdom. This task is obviously much larger than the church. It will perhaps come as a surprise that the Protestant reformer John Calvin saw the calling of the civil magistrate, what we today term a politician, as an even higher calling than a pastor (Calvin himself was a pastor.) He might have been wrong in this assessment (I believe he was), but at least he understood that the kingdom of God could never find its zenith in the church.
We followers of King Jesus are to seek first his kingdom. Aspects of the kingdom, like church, family, the state, vocation, business, our personal welfare and future, must contribute to that kingdom, to that rule in the earth. We are not to be self-centered, church-centered, family-centered, or politics-centered. We are to be kingdom-centered. This is identical to saying that we are to be God-centered. When we stand one day before the King, the urgent question confronting us will be: have we, as our life’s mission, pressed the King’s work, his kingdom, in our lives?