Writing in 1963, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great reformed preacher, makes this concise statement about the present church's approach to the faith in his book The Kingdom of God:
“How does it come to pass that, with open Bibles before them, men and women should be wrong not so much about certain details with respect to the gospel, but about the whole thing? …wrong about its foundation, wrong about its central message, wrong about its objective, and wrong about how one comes into relationship with it.”
Lloyd Jones is commenting on Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God which Lloyd-Jones understands to be the essence of the Christian message, “The Kingdom of God is at hand repent and believe!!!”. Lloyd-Jones is exactly correct in his articulation. The most foundational problem with the present church is that the church has gotten the gospel wrong. If we understanding the concept of the Kingdom of God, this formulation of the gospel is the most effective path to clarity the message, the promises, and the objective of the Gospel.
The Hebrew Mind in the First Century
We know that in Jesus’ time the Jewish expectation of the messianic kingdom was primarily political. The Messiah, the greater David, would bless all mankind by placing the Jewish nation in power above all nations. The Spirit of God would rest on the Messiah, the anointed one, and He would rule, through the state, in righteousness. Abraham’s vision of a city in whose architect and builder was God was seen as a vision in which the law would be fully instituted and established through the Messiah's reign.
The Kingdom of God is the establishment of God’s rule on earth. The Jewish people and the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day understood this rule of God as requiring primarily, or at least fundamentally, a political and legal reigning. The expatiation was that the Messiah would take over political and military power and establish the Law, the Torah.
The Jewish people, understandably given their status at the time, saw their problem as political. Therefore, it is understandable that they saw the solution as political. But Jesus, the true Christ, came to the Jewish people and revealed an entirely different problem and therefore an entirely different solution. Jesus did announce the immediacy of the Kingdom, but not a political kingdom. It is the path into the kingdom quality of life that set Jesus Christ and the First Century Christians apart from the Jewish expectation.
The key to understanding the Gospel is that Jesus’ proclamation was and still is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our response is still to be repentance and faith. Our faith still is that Jesus is the Christ who will bring the kingdom quality of life to earth. The kingdom is both God's reign on the earth and a truly heavenly quality of life. The promise of the kingdom is that these aspects of the kingdom are immediately available. BUT the realm of this kingdom is presently limited to a non-political realm.
The meaning of this at-handedness of the kingdom is that a truly heavenly quality of life is within reach. Something is ‘at hand'. It, the promised rule of God, is within arms length, within reach. The kingdom is at hand. The kingdom of God is within our immediate reach.
Believing in this "at handedness" of the kingdom is the exact problem with the modern proclamation of the gospel. The kingdom so often is seen as something we enter after we die. The kingdom, in this view, is not at hand at all. We come to saving faith, in this common evangelical paradigm, so that when we die we go to heaven. The kingdom of heaven is made available through the gospel only after we die. The kingdom, in this view, is actually not at hand at all.
Another less than complete view sees the kingdom as "at hand" but this immediate access to the kingdom is merely positional. This new status is in the heavens, but the heavens are not on earth. The great problem with this view is that our real problems, our marital happiness, how to maintain relationships, practical problems of well-being, are not solved by the gospel until heaven comes to earth in the future. Answers to real life problems, in the now, must be answered outside the gospel. This false view of the kingdom as purely heavenly, out there, supports a low view of the practical power of the Gospel to provide blessedness on earth.
The Reformed View
The reformed view sees the kingdom as both already and not yet. The already aspect of the kingdom is that the best part of heaven, the presence of God and the necessary spiritual power to live in progressive victory over sin, is currently available. The reality is that the kingdom of God is a truly happy and heavenly quality of life. This quality of life is progressively available to the believer through faith in Jesus Christ. This new quality of life progresses from the inside out and is the exact answer to the practical problems of human kind. A truly happy and heavenly quality of life is available immediately to the believer. This quality of life is not a new social or economic status, and it is not something that is so heavenly that it does not invade the conscious experience of the believer. Instead, the kingdom of God is the experience of heaven on earth through a Spirit to spirit walk with God. The kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. The true gospel, the gospel of the kingdom, delivers a practical righteousness, a practical peace, and a practical joy to the follower of Jesus Christ.
The gospel brings to the believer the one thing needful to experience the good life. The one key characteristic of heaven is here now. This key characteristic of heaven is not, first and foremost, that there is no political oppression. Jesus, the Christ, did not deliver His people from political oppression. The key characteristic of heaven is not that there is no poverty and no suffering. Jesus, the Messiah, did not deliver His people from poverty and suffering. NO! The key characteristic of heaven is that God is present to the believer in their earthly experience. Jesus brought this one aspect of life to His followers at His coming. While He was here, He was the presence of God, as he prepared to leave this earth, He proclaimed that it was better that He leave. The purpose of His leaving was in order to bring the presence of God to His followers through the Holy Spirit. It is better that Jesus left because the best part of heaven, the power and presence of God, is now available to a greater degree to a greater number of His followers.
This truly happy and heavenly quality of life is indeed immediately present through the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives. Repent and believe the great news.