By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The coming kingdom of God is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus, but its nature was never clearly described, perhaps because it wasn’t possible to do so. To describe the mystical kingdom of God Jesus used parables that likened it to something familiar, like a small mustard seed that could grow into a large bush (Mark 4:30-32). Parables were often used by religious teachers like Jesus to explain inexplicable mysteries of faith such as God’s kingdom.
Most Jews of Jesus’ day expected the coming kingdom of God to be a restoration of the power and glory of the ancient kingdoms of David and Solomon. Some believed it referred to a spiritual transformation similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, while others believed it referred to eternal life in heaven after death, similar to the Islamic concept of paradise. The nature of God’s kingdom and when it will come have remained great mysteries. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return in an apocalyptic parousia within their lifetimes, but history has proved them wrong. Even so, some believers are still awaiting the end times and the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom on earth, and Muslims share that same expectation.
Despite their different views on the nature of God’s kingdom and when it will come, all believers have similar questions about it: If we pray in The Lord’s Prayer that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, what are we praying for? If God’s kingdom is unlike the kingdoms of the world, what is its relevance to worldly kingdoms? If there is no sex, wealth or poverty in God’s kingdom, and if the first will be last and the last will be first in that kingdom, how do those radical concepts relate to how we live in the world today? And until Jesus returns to usher in God’s kingdom, what is the role of the Church?
The Church is made up of many diverse Christian institutions, from the mammoth Roman Catholic Church to the smallest independent Baptist church, and each considers itself to be the closest thing to God’s kingdom on earth. They all promote belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son who was crucified as God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers, and aside from universalists, the Church condemns all unbelievers to eternal damnation.
Until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the Church shared political power with authoritarian rulers who claimed the divine right to rule. The Enlightenment not only rejected the divine right to rule with democracy, but it also evicted the Church from government to guarantee the freedoms of religion and speech. While churches were required to separate their institutional structures from government, they remained free to influence politics. In fact, for any religion to be relevant, it must always seek to influence politics.
The separation of the Church from government power was an innovation in religion and politics. Constantine had made the Church a dominant partner in Roman politics in the 4th century, and until the Enlightenment the powers of the Church and worldly kingdoms had been inseparable, with popes, bishops, dukes and kings sharing and sometimes competing for political power and the divine right to rule. And worse, the Church sanctioned violence to gain and maintain its political power, as evidenced in the Crusades and Inquisitions.
The mix of religion with political power was not limited to Christianity. It was evident in the Islamic caliphates of the Middle Ages and with the creation of the modern Jewish state of Israel. While Moses and Muhammad sanctioned the often violent mix of religion and political power, Jesus did not. Today religions in pluralistic democratic cultures influence government but cannot be part of it to ensure the freedoms of religion and speech; but in Islamic cultures--even in democracies where Muslims are in a majority--governments unabashedly promote Islam with apostasy and blasphemy laws that effectively negate those fundamental freedoms.
The freedoms of religion and speech can exist only when religions advocate voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws as standards of legitimacy. That is the norm in the libertarian democracies of the West but not in Islamic cultures, where Islamists claim that such liberties allow unacceptable depravity and decadence. But religious laws that seek to prohibit moral depravity at the expense of the freedoms of religion and speech do more harm than good.
The test of any religion is what believers do voluntarily, not by government coercion; and the test of any enlightened government is to balance individual liberties with providing for the common good. Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all taught the obligation to provide for the common good, but none taught the virtues of political liberty since it had no relevance to their time and place. The challenge for believers today is to adapt those ancient teachings to the libertarian values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law--even to the principles of capitalism--while providing for the common good. To that end, the teachings of Jesus on love over law are more useful than the ancient laws of Moses and Muhammad.
A government that promotes any religion is incompatible with the freedoms of religion and speech. Before the Enlightenment the Church corrupted worldly kingdoms with an unholy mix of religion and politics and demonstrated that it was unsuited to represent God’s kingdom in the world. Today Jews, Christians and Muslims should embrace the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, and apply reason to their religion and freedom to their faith. In doing so they can help God’s kingdom come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Notes and References to Resources:
This topic is related to Lesson #13, The kingdom of God, at pages 51-53 of the J&M Book.
On the end times, see pages 183-189 of the J&M Book.